With four games left, getting priorities straight

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

With a playoff spot finally clinched, all that’s left for the Yankees in the regular season is to run out the clock and prepare themselves for the playoffs. During last night’s postgame celebration, to a man every player and coach interviewed said making the playoffs was just their first goal, and winning the AL East is still on their minds. The Rays effectively have a game-and-a-half lead in the division because they hold the tiebreaker, so if the Yanks go 3-1 in their last four games they’ll need Tampa to go 2-3 in their five remaining games (against the Orioles and Royals, no less).

There’s nothing wrong with saying you still want to win the division, just for fan and PR purposes, but I hope Joe Girardi & Co. understand how much of a long shot that is right now. The 6-13 stretch earlier this month effectively killed any chance they had at the division, and that’s fine. The important thing is to take advantage of these remaining regular season games by doing a few things to improve the team’s outlook in the big picture.

Getting Healthy

This is far and away the most important thing. Nick Swisher‘s knee is worlds better than it was a few weeks ago, but it’s still limiting him a bit in the outfield. Some time off his legs won’t hurt. Mark Teixeira‘s bat is coming around, but he’s still playing on a broken toe and giving him a little bit of a blow wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. No one wants David Robertson‘s back spasms to flare up again, so there’s no reason to warm him up multiple times over these next few games. Jorge Posada is perpetually banged up. Getting the regulars some rest this weekend is strongly advised, particularly the older guys like Posada, Alex Rodriguez, and Derek Jeter. If it costs A-Rod a chance at 30 homers, so be it.

Avoiding Rust

As important as rest will be, there’s such a thing as too much. You don’t want to blindly sit players day after day only to have them rust out before the ALDS starts. Remember, there are four games and three off days (tomorrow, Monday, and Tuesday) left before the division series starts, so the regulars are guaranteed some rest as it is. They still need to get at-bats to stay sharp, which is why I expect Girardi to take a similar approach to last season when he started the regulars before lifting everyone Spring Training style in the fifth inning. Give them two or three trips to the plate before telling them to hit the showers.

Line Up The Rotation

(AP Photo/Gail Burton)

This one is obvious. We don’t know who exactly will start Games Two and Three of the ALDS behind CC Sabathia in Game One, but it’s a safe bet that it’ll be Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes in some order. In a perfect world, the Game Two starter would pitch this Saturday and the Game Three starter on Sunday to optimize the amount of rest each receives. Pettitte has already been pushed back to an unknown date this weekend, and after starting last Sunday Hughes’ next start should be Friday. I fully expect Andy to start Saturday and Hughes Sunday to give them some extra rest and get things straight for the postseason. I wouldn’t mind seeing Phil in Game Two, though.

Javy Vazquez gets the ball tonight, and presumably Dustin Moseley Ivan Nova would then go on Friday just to soak up those spare innings. Don’t be surprised if A.J. Burnett gets some work in on Sunday out of the bullpen just to keep him from getting stale (as if he could get any worse).

Lay Off The Bullpen

Kerry Wood, Joba Chamberlain, and Robertson have been worked pretty hard this month, so giving them a chance to catch their breath these last four games will be nice. Boone Logan falls into that category as well, but as a one or two batter lefty specialist, his workload isn’t a major concern. With Mariano Rivera‘s recent struggles, expect him to get no more than two token pitching appearance this weekend just to stay sharp. Friday and Sunday seem logical, regardless of score and whether or not it’s a save situation. The other core relievers should expect similar treatment. Get ready for lots of Royce Ring, Jon Albaladejo, Romulo Sanchez, and perhaps maybe even an Andrew Brackman sighting.

* * *

Winning the division and securing home field advantage would be pretty sweet, but that has to take a backseat to everything I mentioned above, plus other non-obvious stuff that we aren’t even aware of. Now that the Yanks are in the playoffs and there are so few games remaining in the season, it’s best just to look at the overall picture and get everyone ready for October. I’ll happily trade another division title for the best chance at a World Title.

Why the Rangers’ TV deal matters

Earlier this week, rumors out of Arlington set the Internet abuzzing. The Rangers, reported USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, were on the verge of signing a 20-year, $3-billion TV deal that would guarantee them $150 million in annual payments for the rights to their games. With a new ownership group in place and a playoff berth secured, everything has been coming up roses for the former Washington Senators, and that TV deal, towering over the Dodgers’ $45 million intake, would be the highest for any team that doesn’t own its TV station.

When the final details emerged, the dollar figureds were tempered slightly. The deal will be worth closer to $1.5 to $1.6 billion with the Ranger’s annual take set between $75 and $80 million. Fox Sports will throw in an $80-million signing bonus that the Rangers will receive before the 2011 season. Obviously, this influx of cash concerns Yankee fans because of Cliff Lee and Cliff Lee alone.

For the Yankees, Lee is the one who got away this year, and not everyone was too upset by the machinations of the Mariners at the trade deadline. Because the Mariners wanted to wrestle Justin Smoak away from the Rangers and saw him as a better fit for Safeco Field than Jesus Montero will be and because of concerns over the additional prospects included in the deal, Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik sent Lee not to the Yankees in early June but to the Rangers. The Yankees and their fans wanted to have Lee this year to wrap up the AL East and their 28th World Series championship, but they instead were willing to settle for a postseason acquisition.

With this money though, the Rangers could potentially be on footing nearly even with the Yanks when it comes to the dollars. If the Rangers see Lee as a potential cornerstore to a developing rotation and if he propels them through October to the franchise’s first ALCS or even World Series appearance, the Greenberg/Ryan ownership might be willing to part with a few years of TV profits to keep their ace. This TV deal guarantees at the very least that the Rangers will have an additional $60 million in revenue over their previous deal. The club has money to spend, and if two very rich teams want Lee, he will have money showered upon him.

Even with the Rangers’ new-found wealth, money isn’t an obstacle for the Yankees. They’ll have Javier Vazquez‘s contract off the books and owe A-Rod less in 2011 and subsequent seasons than they paid him in 2010. Derek Jeter won’t be making $22.6 million either. Plus, the team has a revenue stream that allows them to up their payroll if need be, and Lee is clearly the club’s off-season priority.

That said, the winter’s decision will likely be a personal one for Lee. Even as the Rangers cakewalked their way to an AL West title, Lee went just 4-6 with a 4.25 ERA in 14 starts. He’s allowed 99 hits in 101.2 innings, and his home run rate more than doubled from 0.4 with the Mariners to 1.0 per 9 innings with the Rangers. His Texas FIP though is still a cool 3.13, but when rumors emerged in August that Lee wasn’t a big fan of Texas, you could almost hear the Yanks’ executives rubbing their hands with glee.

So Yankee fans should beware. With the Rangers’ revenue and success, they are bound to be active players in the free agent market this year, and that market begins with Cliff Lee. Three months ago, I was ready to count my chickens before they hatched, but today, I’ll hold my breath for two months and hope that Lee wants to come to New York as badly as New York wants him.

A quick look at the playoff roster

The composition of the roster is about to change, and not just from 40 men down to 25. For most of the season the Yankees carried 12 pitchers and 13 position players. With all eight position players entrenched in the lineup, there was no need for a guy to come in and play a few days a week. Teixeira, Cano, Jeter, Rodriguez, Granderson, Swisher, and, when he’s healthy, Gardner, play pretty much every day, while Posada and Cervelli split time behind the plate. The Yanks can then deepen their bullpen, since they don’t require that extra position player — and don’t need to pinch hit for their pitcher.

In the postseason there is absolutely no need for that 12th pitcher. With rest days built in, teams can afford to go shorter with the bullpen and carry only their best arms. Additionally, the rotation pares down to four, maybe even three, pitchers, which opens up a spot right there. Realistically the Yanks could go with 10 pitchers, but chances are they’ll go with 11. That gives them 14 position players. So who gets the extra spot?

The easiest way to do this is to list who’s on the roster for sure.

IF: Posada, Cervelli, Teixeira, Cano, Jeter, Rodriguez

OF: Granderson, Gardner, Swisher

DH: Thames, Berkman

Starters: Sabathia, Pettitte, Hughes, Burnett

Relievers: Rivera, Robertson, Wood, Chamberlain, Logan

That leaves open five spots for the Yankees’ choosing. They’ll want a utility infielder in case of emergency, so that’s Pena or Nuñez. It seems like the Yanks have been favoring Nuñez, but Pena’s been around all season. I’d lean Pena now, but as we’ll see in a moment it will probably be both.

The bullpen will get at least one more arm, and probably two. Ivan Nova has a case for the playoff bullpen, probably a better one than Javier Vazquez. Right now I’m guessing they take both and carry 11 pitchers. Royce Ring has an outside shot because he’s a lefty, but I can’t really envision a scenario in which they bring along a guy who spent the entire season in AAA.

Chad Gaudin could also sneak into Vazquez’s spot, though that doesn’t sound like a great idea. Girardi has given Gaudin every chance this month, which could signal his desire to take him in October. The decision could rest on Vazquez’s start tonight. Unless he gets absolutely bombed I’d absolutely advocate Vazquez over Gaudin.

The final two spots, then, will go to position players. As we saw last year with Freddy Guzman, the Yankees like having that extra runner on the bench. On Sunday night against Boston Joe Girardi twice neglected using Greg Golson to pinch run. I thought he’d make the playoff roster for his speed, but now I’m not so sure. It could be him, it could be Pena or Nuñez. Either way, two of those three will make it. The final spot, despite the strikeout wave, almost certainly goes to Kearns.

This year the Yankees don’t have any tough decisions to make regarding the postseason roster. The only real decisions are the final bullpen spot and the pinch-running spot, and in all cases it’s picking among sub-optimal players. Thankfully, they probably won’t come into play much. Freddy Guzman, after all, made just two appearances in the 2009 postseason, while Gaudin made just one. The important players are already in place.

Sabathia stellar as Yanks clinch postseason berth

Our long national nightmare is finally over. After weeks of relatively few ups and plenty of downs, the Yankees have clinched a playoff spot and did so because of their ace CC Sabathia. He carried team on his broad shoulders and almost singlehandedly got them into October, but he had some help from an offense that scored runs in ways we’re not used to seeing. By no means is it a stretch to say that Tuesday’s game was the best the Yankees have played in three weeks.

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

Small Ball

The Bronx Bombers have been a left-on-base factory over the last several weeks, but they had no such trouble in this game. Not only did six of the seven men that reached third base come around to score, they all came around to score in ways that don’t do justice to the Bronx Bomber moniker.

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

The pressure was applied in the very first inning, when Derek Jeter led the game off with a bouncer back up the middle for a single. He moved to second on a wild pitch then over to third on a Mark Teixeira single, and Alex Rodriguez drove him home with a sacrifice fly. The second run scored in similar fashion: a Jeter walk, a wild pitch, a bunt to third, and another sac fly. The Yanks didn’t need any more than that, but they happily tacked on a few more on anyway.

Jeter, in the middle of it again, drove in their third run on a fielder’s choice in the fifth, and two more runs came around to score on an A-Rod bases loaded walk and a Robbie Cano sac fly in the seventh. The last run came on a Greg Golson ground out in the ninth, the final nail in the coffin. Six runs, all on what are generally considered small ball tactics and not a single base hit. It was their first game with three sac flies in almost exactly two years. Considering that 21 of their previous 24 runs had been scored on homeruns, it was a nice change of pace. The RISP FAIL was nowhere to be found, and hopefully that’s a trend that continues deep into October.

Why They Started Him

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

Regardless of where you stood on the debate about whether starting CC Sabathia was a good move, there’s no denying that the big man showed why giving him the ball is always the right move. It was evident right from the start, when he retired the first two Blue Jays on two pitches, and cruised right into the third inning before his lone hiccup: a first pitch solo homerun to semi-rookie Travis Snider. CC then retired the next eleven men he faced, and took the ball into the ninth inning on less than 100 pitches. Exactly half of the 30 men he faced were retired on three pitches or less. That’s efficiency, yo.

It was a big time game from a big time pitcher, the staff ace of the defending World Champs. There was definitely enough gas left in the tank for the complete game, but there’s no shame in handing the ball off to the greatest reliever of all-time with a postseason berth on the line. Sabathia gave the Yankees everything they could have asked for tonight, and now he gets to enjoy some extra rest as he prepares for Game One of the ALCS, no matter where that ends up being. Bravo CC, bravo.


(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

Aside from the obvious, the big victory in the game is that the Yankees actually beat a young pitcher they’d never faced before. Kyle Drabek definitely had the stuff, but the Yanks pushed enough runs across to saddle him with his third loss in as many big league starts. Thankfully we’re done with that nonsense for the season.

Brett Gardner had a big hand in tonight’s game. He tripled and singled, scoring on Jeter’s ground out and slid in just under John Buck’s tag. He and Derek combined for four hits, a walk, and four runs scored. A-Rod and Tex combined for two hits and three walks, driving in three. Very nice job by the table setters and the meat of the order.

Huge night for the defense as well. A-Rod made some brilliants stabs and third and made the throws with the help of the artificial turf, Cano barehanded a slow roller, and Curtis Granderson ran down everything from gap-to-gap while Tex was scooping balls in the dirt like it was going out of style. Great effort by everyone.

Tampa beat the Orioles, so they remain half-a-game up in the AL East. Remember, it’s effectively a one-and-a-half game lead because they hold the tiebreaker. With four games left, the priority is resting players, getting healthy, and lining up the rotation. The division should be an afterthought at this point. This will be the Yanks’ 49th trip to the postseason, by far the most of all-time. Second? The Dodgers with 26. Mighty big gap there.

WPA Graph & Box Score

Nice and easy. Thanks CC. ESPN has the box, FanGraphs the nerd.

Up Next

These two clubs will wrap up their season series tomorrow night, when someone not named Andy Pettitte Javy Vazquez takes on Brett Cecil. Chances are he’ll be facing some guys that logged lots of at-bats at Triple-A Scranton this summer, and I’m perfectly fine with that.

Pettitte: ‘I’m not pitching tomorrow’

You read the title, that’s what Andy Pettitte said during the postgame celebration. His regular start will be pushed back to some point this weekend, and presumably Javy Vazquez will take his place on a temporary basis. Part of this is extra rest for Andy, but the majority of it has to do with lining up the playoff rotation. It’s nice to have that luxury now.

Update: Yep, Javy’s pitching.

Yankees clinch postseason berth

Well that took a little longer than most of us would have liked, but the Yankees have officially clinched a playoff spot with tonight’s victory. The celebration is on YES, and we’ll have more in a bit.