Yankees and Rangers Share Identical Situations

The Yankees and Rangers haven’t met since April 25 in Texas when the Rangers took the rubber game of a three-game set early on in the season. This week the Rangers make their first and only trip to the Bronx for a four-game series, which will be the last four games this two teams play against each other in 2012 … unless they meet in the postseason.

Right now the Yankees and Rangers are the top two teams in the American League and are jockeying for position to stay out of the dreaded and nonsensical one-game playoff and trying to clinch home-field advantage. The Yankees still lead the AL East by five games, but some inconsistent play combined with a Tampa Bay winning streak has started to make things a little uncomfortable for the Yankees and Yankees fans in August.

Adam J. Morris of Lone Star Ball joined me for an email exchange to talk about the current state of the Yankees and Rangers, how they are very similar with their rosters and problems and the possibility of another postseason meeting between the two teams.

Keefe: I’ll never forget what Michael Kay said after the Yankees’ comeback in Game 1 of 2010 ALCS on YES’ postgame show. “I said it after Game 1 against the Twins and I’m saying it again … this series is over.” Sure, the Yankees had just completed an epic postseason game comeback against C.J. Wilson and the Rangers bullpen, in very similar fashion to what they had done against Francisco Liriano and Twins in Game 1 of the ALDS, and they had Phil Hughes (who shut down the Twins in Game 3 of the ALDS and who always pitched well in Texas) going in Game 2 against Colby Lewis the next day, along with all of the momentum on their side. It seemed like the Yankees were in a great position to head to the Bronx up 2-0 in the series. That’s when everything changed.

Hughes got lit up in Game 2, and would get lit up again in Game 6, turning in disastrous performances that mirrored Chien-Ming Wang’s awful 2007 ALDS against the Indians. The Yankees were shut down by Lewis in Game 3 and again in Game 6, and between those games, Cliff Lee quieted Yankee Stadium (again) in Game 3, and a combination of Joe Girardi, A.J. Burnett and Yankee killer Bengie Molina cost the Yankees Game 4. Even though the Yankees were able to get to Wilson again and win Game 5, as I was sitting in the Stadium for Game 5, it felt like a tease to extend the series. Even if the Yankees could take Game 6, Cliff Lee was waiting for a potential Game 7, and all he had done is embarrass the Yankees in the last two postseasons.

I said that everything changed for the ALCS after the Yankees’ Game 2 loss, but really it changed when they didn’t get Cliff Lee that July. Had the Yankees successfully traded for Lee, he would have pitched Game 2 of the series and not Hughes, and he wouldn’t have been available for the Rangers to shut the Yankees down with a two-hit, complete-game shutout in Game 3.

When the Yankees lost to the Tigers in last year’s ALDS, it sucked the way that the end of any Yankees season sucks. But knowing that the Rangers were waiting in the ALCS to likely walk through the Yankees again lessened the blow of losing to a Tigers team that the Yankees had a chance to beat every game if they could just get one hit with runners in scoring position.

Right now I look at the Yankees’ potential playoff matchups and the one that scares me the most is still your Texas Rangers for now the third straight year. I know Cliff Lee isn’t there and the vaunted (at least to Yankees fans) Colby Lewis is out for the season, but that lineup is as good as its been and the bullpen still boasts names you don’t want to see in the late innings.

As a Rangers fan, how do you feel about my fear of the Rangers? Are you as confident about your team as I am about not wanting anything to do with them this October?

Morris: I feel good about the Rangers’ chances in 2012. After the last couple of seasons, it’s hard not to have confidence that the Rangers are going to do well in the postseason. This is, for the most part, the same team that has reached the World Series the past two years. With Texas now up 6 1/2 games on the A’s and eight games on the Angels, we should be looking at having home-field advantage for the ALDS, and if they can hold off the Yankees, it would mean home-field advantage in the ALCS as well.

The biggest concern right now for Rangers fans is the state of the starting rotation. Yu Darvish was brought in to be the staff ace, and he essentially replaced C.J. Wilson. Darvish has been up and down all season, looking at times like a guy who is worth the $110 million the Rangers have spent and committed in the future to land him, while looking at other times like a guy who has no idea where the ball is going. Colby Lewis, who was slated to be the team’s Game 1 starter in the playoffs, is down for the year with a torn flexor tendon, and the team is going to miss his steadying influence. Roy Oswalt, given $5 million to pitch for a half-season, was bumped to the bullpen in favor of Scott Feldman, the guy whose job he was supposed to take. Derek Holland has been erratic, and there are still questions about whether Ryan Dempster can adjust to the AL. The team’s best starter has been Matt Harrison, a guy who was left off the 2010 postseason roster entirely. So the rotation is in flux, and while Texas will probably roll out four starters who won’t embarrass them in the postseason, they don’t have that legitimate No. 1 guy to head up the playoff rotation.

That being said, the bullpen is strong and deep, and the lineup is solid. There are concerns that the offense has gone into funks from time to time this year, but all in all, I think Rangers fans should be feeling pretty good about this team heading into the postseason.

Keefe: Well, when you put it that way, maybe I shouldn’t be so concerned with the Rangers. Then again, I have seen the Yankees struggle against even mediocre starting pitching in the playoffs to get too excited about the Rangers’ rotation issues.

I wanted to talk more with you about Cliff Lee because to me he has always been The One That Got Away, and the one that I believe was the missing piece to what would have been back-to-back championships in 2010.

After the Rangers went “all-in” for a chance to return to the postseason in 2010, and you swooped in to get Lee for Justin Smoak from the Mariners, I was devastated. I had woken up that July to a flurry of texts and emails about a report that the Yankees were close to getting Lee for Jesus Montero and the deal seemed to be at the one-yard line and just needed some t’s crossed and some i’s dotted. Obviously the t’s never got crossed and the i’s remained dotless, and Lee did what he did in Game 3, and put a dagger into the Yankees’ season. But I was reassured that he would be part of the rotation in 2011 before Ruben Amaro and the Phillies had to join the party as Jon Heyman’s “mystery team” and make a play for him. This move basically ruined the Christmas hype for me and led to me writing this.

This season, with the Phillies tanking, and rumors of Lee being available and placed on waivers, I thought this was the Yankees’ third chance to get Lee and fate along the lines of Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in The Adjustment Bureau. But with the Steinbrenner’s being serious about staying under the luxury tax, and the Dodgers’ new money trying to make a statement to the league, the Yankees lost out on the chance to trade for him or claim him.

I still haven’t gotten the chance to have Lee take the ball for the Yankees every fifth day, and at this point, maybe I never will unless something miraculous happens in the offseason. I want him now just as much as I did two summers ago when he joined your team. But I need to know what it was like to have maybe my favorite non-Yankee (before he torched them) pitch for your team.

Morris: Having Lee in Texas, even for a short period of time, was something special. He is an artist on the mound. I think watching him on a regular basis was probably like being a Braves fan in the mid-90s and watching Greg Maddux every fifth day. The weird thing is that the Rangers didn’t actually win all that much with Lee on the mound during the regular season, as he had some outings where he had bad luck with the defense or balls in play, or the offense wouldn’t score for him. But despite all that, when it came to be playoff time, I had no doubts that the Rangers would win with Lee on the mound.

I’m sad he’s gone. He’s a special pitcher. But at the same time, the amount of money that the Phillies committed to him is onerous, and I don’t know that it would be a good business decision to match that, given his age and the fact that he’s had a hard time staying healthy. His impeccable command is based on him being in terrific physical condition, and I’m worried that the nagging injuries that keep slowing him down will take their toll on him sooner rather than later.

Keefe: The Rangers’ rotation isn’t necessarily what it has been the last two years. But as a Yankees fan, with Andy Pettitte still rehabbing his ankle, CC Sabathia hitting the DL with an elbow problem that appears to be much more serious than Joe Girardi led on to believe and Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova being hit or miss right now, that leaves us with Hiroki Kuroda as a reliable starter. (Sorry, Freddy Garcia.) So it looks like if we meet in the ALCS for the second time in three years, it could be an offensive gongshow in two stadiums built for high-scoring games.

And that’s what scares me about the Rangers team. The lineup from top to bottom can go toe-to-toe with the Yankees’, and that’s always been the Yankees’ one advantage. Their mentality since 2004 has always been, you might outpitch us, but we’ll outhit you. And that idea has only turned into one title. Hopefully, CC will be fine, Andy will come back, and I won’t need to pray for A-Rod, Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher to get timely hits in big spots with runners in scoring position.

As I look up and down the Rangers’ lineup, there’s Ian Kinsler and Andrus and Hamilton and Beltre and Cruz, and Yankee killers Michael Young, and the most-feared power-hitting catcher in the league in Mike Napoli. Over the last decade I had grown used to worrying about the Red Sox and their lineup and when David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez would be due up. There were other guys in their lineup that bothered me, but not to that extent. In the Rangers’ lineup, every guy makes me uneasy and this week at the Stadium (and possibly in the playoffs) that level of discomfort and fear will only rise.

As a Yankees fan, when Teixeira is up, I envision a pop-up. When Swisher is up, I see a called third strike in a full count. When A-Rod’s up, I see a long drive that would have been out in year’s past before his decline. Am I just thinking like this because I know these hitters so well, or are fans like Rangers fans petrified of the Yankees’ lineup? My friends that are Red Sox fans used to tell me they were scared of A-Rod and Gary Sheffield and petrified of Hideki Matsui, and I really only understood the Matsui thinking. Are you scared of the Yankees’ lineup, and which opposing players scare you the most?

Morris: I think the Yankees have an impressive lineup. Other than Robinson Cano, there isn’t one guy who’s having a dominant offensive season, but the Yankees’ lineup is solid from top to bottom, with no real weaknesses (other than maybe third base now that A-Rod is out).

Between the Rangers and Yankees, I think it’s just about a coin flip as to which team is stronger offensively. Like the Yankees, the Rangers are pretty solid top to bottom (with the exception of DH, where Michael Young has been drowning all season), and they have dangerous hitters throughout who can give you the opportunity for a big inning. If I had to pick someone on the Yankees who scares me, it would probably be Cano or Curtis Granderson. Both are quality hitters who (based on just my memory) seem to hit the Rangers well.

Keefe: If the Yankees do what I want them to do then Nick Swisher won’t be playing right field for the Yankees starting in 2013. As an impending free agent and with the Yankees set on staying under the luxury-tax threshold that is ruining my life, it looks like they will save money to make offers to both Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson. Maybe they will try to bring Ichiro back if he continues to hit and doesn’t show signs of decline in the outfield or on the basepaths. But the one name that is the most intriguing is Josh Hamilton.

I really don’t think the Yankees will make a play for Hamilton, though I have said that about a lot of other big-name free agents that they decided to join and win the bidding on. But I think in Hamilton’s case, with his checkered past and problems with substance abuse, New York City doesn’t seem like the best place for someone who can’t have more than $20 in their wallet (even though that won’t even get you a sandwich and a subway fare in the city, let alone a beer) and for someone who needs another adult to shadow them. I can easily see Hamilton enjoying the short porch in right field if he were to call Yankee Stadium his home starting in 2012, but I don’t think it’s realistic.

How badly do you want Hamilton to remain a Ranger? And if he’s not back in Texas, where else could you see him ending up?

Morris: I’d like Hamilton to stay in Texas, but I’m expecting him to leave after the season. The biggest concern that I have with Hamilton is that I don’t think he’s going to age well. He has an extensive injury history which is worrisome, but his approach is also a big red flag. His tendency to swing at almost anything, whether it’s a ball or a strike, has generally served him well thus far, but it’s not the sort of approach which appears to be sustainable for a player as he gets older and he starts to slow down.

As great as Hamilton is now, I fear that his decline phase will be steep, and I don’t think that he’s someone you want to commit big money to for his mid- and late-30s. Eight years, $200 million is the number that gets bandied about, and he’s not going to get that in Texas.

I thought before the season that the Dodgers made sense, given that they are committed to spending money and want big names. I’m less certain that the Dodgers will be players on Hamilton, given that they’ve locked up Andre Ethier, and I don’t know that they want to have $60 million per year committed long term to a Matt Kemp-Josh Hamilton-Andre Ethier outfield, but I still think they’ll at least kick the tires. The Mariners, who have lost Ichiro, would also seem to be a good fit.

Keefe: I didn’t want Ryan Dempster on the Yankees and with less than an hour to go in the trade deadline it looked like the Yankees might be the favorite to land him and some places were reporting that in fact the Yankees were close to getting a deal done with the Cubs. But like Cliff Lee, your Rangers stepped in and traded for Dempster. But unlike Cliff Lee, I wasn’t disappointed that the Rangers stepped in.

So far out of Dempster you have seen why I didn’t want the Yankees to trade for an aging NL pitcher in his start against the Angels, but you have also seen why the Rangers made the move for him in his start against the Red Sox. I’m not really sure which Dempster you will see over the final six weeks or so of the season and the postseason, but I can only hope on Monday night at the Stadium, we get to see the Ryan Dempster that showed up to the AL and got rocked by the Angels.

What was your initial reaction to the Rangers getting Dempster? Were you happy with the move?

Morris: My initial reaction to learning we had traded for Dempster was mixed. The Rangers were in a position where they could have used a solid starter, but I didn’t see it as a need, and was concerned that the cost in terms of prospects would be too high.

But when I learned that the Rangers had given up just Christian Villanueva and Kyle Hendricks, and that Neftali Feliz was going to undergo Tommy John surgery and thus wouldn’t re-join the rotation, I was happy with the move. I would have liked a No. 1, but the price for would have been prohibitive.