A State of Worry for the Yankees

On Wednesday, July 18, the Yankees finished a sweep of the Blue Jays with a 6-0 win at the Stadium and they finished the day with a 10-game lead in the division. Today their lead is 3 1/2 games.

The Yankees have gone 22-21 since the All-Star break and 18-20 since they held that 10-game lead on July 18. The injuries are mounting and now the team will enter September without Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira in the lineup. I haven’t pulled the alarm yet on the 2012 Yankees and avoiding the one-game playoff, but I have shattered the glass and my hand is on the lever.

With constant worrying and scoreboard watching each day, I thought it would be a good idea to talk to someone who I know is going through the same thing. And that’s how this email exchange with Jake Strasser of Barstool Sports started.

Keefe: On Tuesday night, Steve Pearce hit fourth for the Yankees. Russell Martin hit fifth. If you didn’t watch the game, I could probably sell you on the idea that I hit sixth and the doorman in my apartment building hit seventh. That’s how bad things are right now for the Yankees due to injuries.

With A-Rod already out, Mark Teixeira went down on Monday night and Joe Girardi said he could be out “seven, eight or 15 days.” (The man who counted like that actually went to Northwestern University.) So yeah, if our starting pitching right now doesn’t do what Phil Hughes did on Tuesday night then it’s going to be really hard to win games. And if Rafael Soriano does what he did on Monday night it’s going to be even harder.

The reason the Yankees lost in five games to the Tigers last year was because of their hitting. Their pitching could have been better, but it was their hitting with runners in scoring position and the heart of the order that did them in. This year I’m scared that the same thing might happen. Actually I’m not scared … I’m petrified. And it’s not even the ALDS I’m scared of. It’s the one-game playoff. I have already been stocking up on bottled water, canned foods, flashlights and batteries in the event that the Yankees have to play in that one-game playoff.

It wasn’t too long ago that the Yankees had a comfortable 10-game lead in the division and I was laughing and watching games with a spring training mentality. Now with a month to go I feel like every game is Game 7 and I’m scoreboard watching Tampa Bay and Baltimore. Things have unraveled quickly. I don’t think I will truly be nervous until the lead gets to two games (if it ever gets there), but the current state of the Yankees is enough to cause for a test of the emergency broadcast system.

With a month to go, what is your take on the state of the Yankees and how worried are you of the possibility of a one-game playoff, if you’re worried at all?

Strasser: The Yankees are an enigma. I have never seen a club traverse the spectrum of success quite like this year’s team. There are points throughout the course of the season when they coast through series after series with what seems to be zero resistance. And then you have the stretches of poor play when the Yankee offense channels its inner Astros and the lineup looks anemic at the plate. The Yankees are a team built to crush mediocrity. Aside from the game’s top-shelf arms, along with any double-A pitcher lucky enough to make his debut in the Bronx, the Yankees are a near-sure bet to put up at least five or six runs on any given night. But what happens when they run into the buzz saw arms of the Verlanders and Weavers of the league? Well, we’ve all seen it a million times. How many 4-1 or 6-2 losses can we take?

As demonstrated the other night in Cleveland, the Yankees live and die with the home run. In a game where they let myriad scoring opportunities slip through their fingers against Indians pitcher, Corey Kluber, they ended up pulling out the win with a late two-run home run by Swisher. I’ve never been mad about a Yankee win, but I’d be lying if I said that one didn’t infuriate me. The ball that Swisher hit not only cleared the right-field wall, but the team from getting questioned about their inability to manufacture runs as well. The big blast consistently overshadows the offensive woes. This is great for the regular season, but aces on playoff teams don’t generally give up the long ball. The Yankees don’t move the runners, they don’t play small ball, and they don’t hit in the clutch. So where does that leave them? A couple games behind the best record in the AL. It’s both perplexing and frustrating how a team can look so good on paper, but instill a much lower level of confidence on the field.

So you ask me how nervous I am for a potential one-game playoff? Let’s put it this way- I’m letting my fingernails grow out until that day so I have plenty to pick for all nine innings. My cuticles will look like a teen slasher horror movie by the sixth. It all depends on the pitching match up, but anything can happen. And that’s what scares me. Given the roster (and the payroll), the Yankees should have the edge over any team, but as was stated in Moneyball, statistics go out the window when it comes to one game. For the Yankees to have any sort of success in this year’s playoff run, it will come from one or two guys getting hot at the right time circa 2009 with A Rod and Matsui. And if that doesn’t happen, well, let’s hope for a relevant Jets team, because it will be yet another early round exit for the pinstripes.

Keefe: You said it all depends on the pitching matchup, but we shouldn’t worry because a wise man once told me in a podcast that “Ivan Nova will become a big-game pitcher.” Actually that wasn’t a wise man … it was you.

OK, maybe that’s a low-blow, but I don’t think it is since you did disregard Hiroki Kuroda, who I talked up on that same podcast and now he’s become the Yankees’ best pitcher. Before we go any further, I think you owe No. 18 an apology.

(This is ne waiting for your apology…)

Let’s continue and let’s say the Yankees don’t completely fall apart between now and Game 162 and reach the ALDS and that Andy Pettitte returns and is healthy enough to pitch in the postseason. Who’s pitching Games 1, 2 and 3? Hopefully they don’t need a Game 4 starter, but eff it, let’s put a Game 4 starter in there too. And I know we have talked about it before, but I think it’s important for an update since it changes all the time.

I’m going with CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda and then … umm … hmm … uhh … I guess … Phil Hughes? I would love to say David Phelps there, but we both know that’s not going to happen, and I don’t want Freddy Garcia anywhere near a playoff game again let alone on the postseason roster.

Strasser: Yeah, so I put myself out there with a bold prediction. Strasser took a shot, and you know what, Strasser missed. But at least I’m in the game. You’re sitting over there on the sidelines observing and reporting while I’m risking my reputation on a daily basis. You’re the douche bag with the combover in Good Will Hunting and I’m Matt Damon. I may be serving your fries on the way to your ski trip, but at least I’m original. So enjoy your bland perspective of watching and relaying, while I take a leap of faith and throw my heart into something I believe. I’d rather falsely predict something with 100% conviction than sit in the shadows and play it safe any day. I dare to dream, Neil. I dare to dream.

The postseason rotation depends entirely on the situation. It’s CC first, and then either Kuroda or Pettitte. If CC loses game 1 for instance, assuming a healthy Pettitte, I want Andy on the mound. He’s a big-game pitcher and going down 0-2 is a death sentence. I do owe Kuroda an apology, and I have gained a lot of faith in him, but the playoffs are a different world.

It also depends on the breakdown of home and away. It’s no secret that Kuroda is a better pitcher at the Stadium. That plays into rotation decisions, as well. Ask me this question when the ALDS schedule is set, and I’ll have a more definitive answer for you. Until then, Nova4Life.

Keefe: Being called the scumbag in the Harvard bar in Good Will Hunting is as bad as it gets, so move over “me wanting Ubaldo Jimenez last year” there’s a new low point in my life. And I don’t think it was a bold prediction or anything that out there since Nova did win Game 1 of the ALDS last year before getting pulled early in Game 5. So let’s hold patting yourself on the back for a second there. It’s not like you told me that CC Sabathia would go on the DL twice and Andy Pettitte and Alex Rodriguez would also hit the DL and Mariano Rivera and Brett Gardner would be out for the year and the Yankees would still be in first in the division. That would be something to be proud of.

The Yankees are in a weird spot with the looming luxury tax penalties. It seemed like a foregone conclusion that they would sign Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson to long-term deals and let Nick Swisher walk away. But a funny thing happened on a way to that plan. Actually, it’s not funny. What happened is Granderson has become Adam Dunn-like and Swisher has carried the team offensively through August. (Granderson is still a great defender while I don’t trust Swisher on routine plays.) Now there is talk that Swisher wants Jayson Werth’s $126 million, which is unlikely, but he will at least get a solid deal given his performance this year and the weak free agent market.

It’s no secret that I’m not that big of a Nick Swisher fan, if I’m one at all, which I don’t think I am. I know it will all come down to what he does in October, which is likely nothing, but it seems more and more likely that Swisher and his phony personality and his disgusting arguments on called third strikes might not only be back in the Bronx for 2013, but maybe a few years after. And it doesn’t help that the Red Sox’ impending interest in him will likely drive his price up and force the Yankees to make a play for him.

If Nicky Swish (sorry to go John Sterling on you) finally hits in the postseason and the Yankees make a long run, that’s one thing. But if he fails to hit elite pitching for the fourth straight postseason I don’t want to see No. 33 in right field in 2013 unless the new right fielder also wants to wear No. 33.

Strasser: I like the idea of Swisher. What does that mean? Well, this. Fake or not, he helps the clubhouse – one that up until his arrival in 2009, had been publicly documented as stiff and stale. His boisterous personality is good for the team and even better for the fans. That being said, he doesn’t really do it for me on the field. Outside of this year, which so coincidentally happens to be a contract year, he hasn’t been anything special in my opinion. He targets the short porch far too frequently, often times resulting in a pop out to short when a ground ball to second would have moved the runner over.

If the Yankees commit the amount of money Swisher will want, and the basic fundamentals of supply and demand will allow, it will result in an overpaid outfielder clogging a spot that could be used for future acquisitions. I love his on-base percentage, I love his occasional power, but I don’t love his price tag. Let him walk.

Keefe: There’s going to come a time in October when Joe Girardi decides, “Hey, these people paid to come see me manage and insert myself into this game and not to see the players on the field” and he will likely turn to Clay Rapada or Cody Eppley to get a big out. Let’s just hope they get that big out.

The bullpen pecking order is all out of whack right now aside from Rafael Soriano and David Robertson. I think Boone Logan is probably viewed as the third-best reliever (that feels weird even thinking about let alone typing) and then it’s a mess between Cody Eppley, Clay Rapada and whoever that guy wearing No. 62 and pretending to be Joba Chamberlain is. I really only trust David Robertson out there even though Soriano has been great, and I don’t want the other three putting their hands on the game. Actually there might be one guy I don’t mind.

For some reason and I can’t explain this, I still have this thing about Joba in that I trust him. Or I want to trust him. When I see him out there I have flashbacks of the summer of 2007 and unhittable fastballs and devastating sliders. I see fist pumps and scoreless innings. In reality, he is basically Chad Qualls right now (actually he’s statistically worse). This pains me and I don’t want it to be like this, but the guy is also coming back from elbow surgery, having his appendix removed and a brutal ankle injury. I think he will find it, I just don’t know when.

Strasser: I’m pretty much in agreement with you on the bullpen issue. Robertson I trust, and Soriano I’m warming up to. Joba will hopefully come around because like you said, I want to trust him. I want to remember being at the first game he ever pitched in at the stadium (Section 434B … I splurged) and seeing the Bronx sky erupt with amazement at the spectacle we had all just witnessed. But is that guy still there, or are we just reaching for something that doesn’t exist like an image popping off the screen in a 3D movie? You know those a-holes swiping at the air in front of them … are we those a-holes, Neil?

You’re leaving out one incredibly important detail as far as playoff bullpen pitching goes. One man, three syllables: David Phelps. I loved this guy in the bullpen earlier in the season, and I like what I’m seeing from him as a starter. Throwing him back in the bullpen for a late September push and on into October could be that bridge the Yankees need to get to Robertson and Soriano.

Keefe: I forgot about your man crush on David Phelps and I hate to break it to you, but I think it’s a love triangle. That’s right, I’m joining this party, so I hope there’s room for three. I have loved everything Phelps has done for this team, and if he isn’t given a postseason start (which he very well could if he continues to impress and dominate) then he will be a huge addition to the bullpen.

You have told me that Raul Ibanez is your sleeper pick to be huge for the Yankees in the postseason, and I’m onboard with that decision. Ibanez has that “thing” about him that exudes confidence especially when the at-bats are the biggest the setting is most important. Granted, we could both be way off and he could have a Swisher-like 2-for-15 ALDS and the Yankees could be home in five games, but let’s just hope that’s not the case.

The other guy I think is going to be huge in October is Ichiro because of who he is and what he wanted out of going to New York to win and getting out of Seattle, the only place he ever knew in the majors. Ichiro hasn’t played in the postseason since Game 5 of the 2001 ALCS on the other side of the River Ave. Now he has a chance to chase that elusive championship, pick up the one thing missing in a Hall of Fame career that boasts a Rookie of the Year, MVP, batting titles, single-season hits records, Gold Gloves and All-Star Games, and a chance to earn a multiyear deal at the end of the season.

Why do you think Ibanez will be big in the postseason and what are you thoughts on Ichiro returning to October?

Strasser: There’s something about Raul Ibanez. He’s got that look. It’s a combination of focus, clutch, and ugly. The first two are going to be huge in October. Well, huge in my mind at least. In my mind, he has already hit two of those majestic moonshots to right in the first game of the ALDS. Okay, that may be a bit hopeful, but I really do get that vibe from him. That oddly unexplainable Jeterian vibe. But hey, I could be wrong. It’s happened before … cough … Nova … cough.

As far as Ichiro goes, I see him doing a lot of the little things for us in the playoffs. I’m not gonna sit here as a delusional Yankee homer and tell you that he’s going to rediscover his MVP form and hit .450 in the ALDS, but I do think he can provide some important benefits for the team. His baseball instincts are great, and sometimes a playoff win and the subsequent advancement to the next series can come down to one play. Whether it’s an astounding defensive play, some 2009 WS Damon-esque base running, or some other sort of contribution, I could see Ichiro having one or two “Yankee moments” in October.

My final prediction for the playoffs revolves around one of the most inconsistent cold weather bats in the league. No. 24 in your program and probably right around that number in our hearts, Robinson Cano has the potential to carry the Yankees to a ring. He’s just nonchalant enough to sleepwalk through a postseason line of .390 with eight home runs and 21 RBIs.

Keefe: Everyone keeps asking me if the Yankees can win the World Series, and I keep telling these people that I think they can. Right now there’s isn’t one team that really stands out in the AL, but if Pettitte returns healthy then a rotation of CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda is as good as any 1-2-3 punch this postseason.

But to win the World Series it’s going to take winning the ALDS first (and hopefully not the one-game playoff first). I think the Yankees’ best chance of advancing would be if the Orioles make the one-game playoff and win it. The Yankees have loved playing in Camden Yards since it opened and no matter the year or roster turnover, the Yankees continue to win there, and with the first games of the division series on the road, that’s a big deal. I don’t want to see the Rays since the Yankees can’t win at the Trop anymore, or the Tigers since they seem to have our number or the White Sox since the Yankees had enough trouble winning a game there last week, forget October. Even the A’s scare me with their starting pitching and the idea of going 3,000 miles for the first two games of the ALDS isn’t exactly enticing. Give me Baltimore!

Strasser: The best option for the Yankees to play in the ALDS is the not-Angels. I think the Yankees can really expose some of the weaknesses of the not-Angels and capitalize on their shortcomings. Seriously though, the one team I’m terrified of is the Angels. I have no idea why they aren’t running away with the West, but if they get into the playoffs, look out. Mike Trout is just young and naive enough to not even realize that he’s having this historic season that could easily carry into October. They are the one team in the AL I most certainly don’t want to face.

To be honest, there isn’t one team that I would sign up to play right now. If anything, it would be the Rangers and their mediocre pitching staff, but we all know what can happen when Josh Hamilton or Nelson Cruz gets hot. Still, if I had to choose, I’ll take a matchup with the Rangers and their antler nonsense.

As much as I bash the Yankees’ deficiencies, I think they will hang on to win the division. Pettitte and A-Rod are coming back, CC looks sharp after his 12th DL stint of the year and Kuroda continues to mock me. I don’t think Tampa has the offense and I’m still not sold on Baltimore, despite their success this season. I also hate Buck Showalter and refuse to give him any credit, but the O’s are a good team. Another scary group of inexperienced guys playing above their heads. Is “above their heads” an expression? If not, it is now.

Keefe: You want to play the Rangers? In real life? I don’t think I can even given you a chance to respond to this after that.