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Memo To Yankees Fans: Three Things To Keep An Eye On

July 1, 2010 - John Whittaker

Is it a bad sign when you're worried about your team when it's got the best record in baseball? 

To be honest, though, I kind of worry that the Yankees might be punching themselves out trying to stay ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox. As the season nears its halfway point, the Yankees are winning 63 percent of their games — and only lead Boston and Tampa Bay by 2.5 games. To keep up that kind of pace, you either have to be really good or kind of lucky, and you run the risk of burning out your bullpen and starters by having to keep the hammer down all the time. 
Look at the last game of the Arizona series. 
Javier Vazquez gave up four runs in five innings to put the Yankees behind early before the offense came storming back in the late innings, tying the game in the ninth on a sacrifice fly by Alex Rodriguez. Curtis Granderson then put the Yankees ahead with a solo home run in the 10th inning, with Mariano Rivera throwing two innings to earn the win. 
It was Rivera's first two-inning outing this season, but it tells you something that Joe Girardi felt the need to use Mo for two innings during an interleague game in June. He knows two good teams are breathing down the Yankees' collective neck and didn't want to lose two of three from a team the Yankees probably should have swept. 
People laugh at Yankees fans when we have these sort of thoughts, but this game struck me as a Bobby Cox special. Cox is one of the best managers in baseball history, but he has a history of pushing his teams so hard in the regular season that, by the time the postseason hits, his guys are out of gas. Let's face it — the Yankees bench is hardly good enough to be considered mediocre, which means Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are playing WAY too much early in the season. Jeter looks exhausted offensively and defensively, but he won't take himself out of the lineup for a day because of the type of race the Yankees are in. We all remember how well Rodriguez hit last year when he got a few days off at the end of the first half. 
First-half injuries to Nick Johnson and Curtis Granderson haven't helped the situation at all, but if I were Joe Girardi, I'd be a little worried about running out of steam in August and September. 
Three other potential issues for the Yankees as the season rolls on. 
1. Joba Chamberlain.
When he came up, Joba was unhittable. Nobody could touch his fastball and his slider had amazing late break that made him all automatic in a one-inning role. I thought that, at worst, the Yankees had found a replacement for Mariano Rivera when the great Mo finally retires and, at worst, they probably had the third starter position set for the next 10 years. Now, I'm not so optimistic. 
Joba was so-so last year — but I chalked that up to mismanagement by the Yankees by swinging him between starting and relieving and then by having ludicrous lengths of time between outings. He had a few good starts, but started nibbling — which I chalked up to being a young starter taking the ball every fifth day for the first time. Phil Hughes went through it, too, and look where he is now. 
Here's the problem, though. Joba wasn't automatic when he came back to the bullpen. Even worse, he got shelled this spring when he had the chance to win a spot in the starting rotation. And, in the bullpen since the start of the season, he hasn't been that automatic Joba my wife and I watched in amazement in Cleveland two Aprils ago. He hasn't even been Kyle Farnsworth.
 I don't know if it's the strippers, hanging out in swanky parties in the offseason or the possibility that he's hurt, but something is definitely not right with Chamberlain. His fastball is way too straight, his slider isn't close enough to the strike zone to induce swinging strikes and his velocity is down. Maybe he needs more Red Bull before he comes into the game. It's possible he needs to find a stash of HGH. I don't know. I'm not a doctor. 
Since giving up three runs to Philadelphia on June 17, Chamberlain is unscored on, but there is a trend developing. Against good teams, he struggles. On June 17, the Phillies touched him up for three runs in an inning. He gave up a run in two-thirds of an inning June 6 against Toronto before Joe Girardi got him out of the game. He gave up four runs, three of them earned, May 18 against Boston and three runs in an inning two days before against the Twins. Boston scored on him in his first outing this year, while Anaheim and Tampa Bay have also touched Joba up. 
These are all teams the Yankees could be battling for posteason spots later this year, and I know that the Yankees need Chamberlain to be the eighth-inning reliever that Hughes was last season. They needed him to be able to take the ball in the occasional ninth inning if Mariano needed a day off. Right now, he's not that pitcher. He's not even close. And I'm officially panicking. 
2. Mark Texeira is the king of slow starters. The Yankees might as well have started Moose Skowron at first base in April the last two years, and the Moose is about 85 years old. I've seen signs of life, though. With teams playing the Giambi/Ortiz shift, Texeira is hitting some balls hard up the middle, right into the shift. If the team is worried about his batting average, then just make him go to left field a few billion times until teams come out of the shift. 
As of late, however, Texeira seems to be snapping out of it. He had the two homer game against the Mets, a grand slam off of Johan Santana and has the batting average up to .229. And, at least his run production is decent, with 13 home runs and 48 RBI through June 30. And, Tex has walked 45 times, leading to an on-base percentage of .343. 
I'm not terribly concerned, because the trends are at least coming back toward normal. The occasional day off might help Texeira, but with Nick Johnson deceased again, it doesn't look terribly likely. 
3. A.J. Burnett. 
I've gotten to the point I can't even watch an A.J. Burnett start. Seriously. 
I avoid Burnett's starts like a colonoscopy. I'd rather have Landon Donovan kick me repeatedly in the genitals than have to watch Burnett when he's pitching like he has for the last month. The numbers are ugly: a 6-7 record, a 5.25 ERA, 41 walks in 94 innings, 9 hit batters and a 1.537 WHIP. Here's the depressing part. In April, Burnett was 3-0 with a 2.43 ERA and 1 home run allowed. In May, A.J. went 3-2 with a 4.03 ERA, 3 home runs allowed and a 33 strikeouts against 15 walks. The train derailed in June — 0-5 record, only 23 innings pitched, 29 runs (all earned), 19 strikeouts and 17 walks. 
When you watch him pitch — which leads a response resembling watching the Nazis take off the top of the Ark of the Covenant — you can see why the numbers are so bad. He's not just missing spots by an inch or two. He's missing the catcher's glove by a foot at times. Francisco Cervelli or Jorge Posada will aim for a corner low in the strike zone, and A.J.'s throwing the ball belt high down the middle. When he throws a slider, you don't know if it's going to just spin with no movement or travel all of 48 feet before bounding past the catcher like he's playing cricket. 
If he was a rookie, I'd just feel bad for him — kind of like a few years ago when Chase Wright gave up four home runs in a row against the Red Sox. Not only did he get lit up, but it was on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, for all the world to see. 
The problem is A.J. isn't a rookie. He's in one of those ruts that are all too typical for Burnett. He's got all the stuff in the world, and no clue from day to day if he will remember how to throw it for strikes. Some guys have mechanical keys that they can use to keep themselves in sync — Roger Clemens was known for such an ability. A.J. is not. Dave Eiland, the Yankees pitching coach who just returned from a monthlong sabbatical, said he watched two games on television during his time off and said he saw Burnett "flying open" in his delivery. 
"It's not something he hasn't heard before," Eiland said of Burnett in the New York Daily Post on July 1. "Your front side dictates the rest of your delivery. That's always been a big thing with A.J. He has to channel all his energy toward the plate and come over the top, rather than from the side. I think he's in a good place right now."
Here's the problem. 
A.J. Burnett has been in the major leagues for 12 years. His manager is a catcher whose forte was working with pitchers, managing ballgames and getting the most out of guys who struggled with their craft. The Yankees infield coach is another defensive-minded catcher, Tony Pena, who kept a job 10 years after his prime by being able to coax good outings from his pitchers. And, the Yankees bullpen coach, Mike Harkey, is a longtime major league pitcher. 
Nobody could diagnose what was going on with Burnett? It took Eiland, through the finely trained lens of the YESNetwork, to figure this out? Something does not make sense, my friends. Dave Eiland is a good pitching coach, but there has to be more going on here than Burnett's shoulder flying open. I noticed his shoulder flying open — ask the News Wife, because we talked about this during one of Burnett's many June shellackings. 
I'll be shocked if A.J. figures this out — which means the Yankees pitching eggs are in Javier Vazquez' basket. 
Now that is an idea that worries me. 


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