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Preparing For The Playoffs
September 23, 2010 - John Whittaker
It's my favorite time of year.
Football all weekend. Nice, comfortable weather. A new apartment devoid of boa constrictors on my front lawn.
And, did I mention, postseason baseball?
Ah yes, it's a good time to be alive.
In the midst of packing, moving, unpacking and working, I may have found time to watch a few Yankees games. OK, you caught me — I caught a LOT of Yankees games. And, as the regular season winds down, here are my thoughts on the Yankees push to win the American League East and what I'll be looking for as the playoffs roll around.
1. It's interesting how much better the Yankees are when the lineup is healthy. Since the Yankees eight-game winning streak ended on Sept. 4, the Yanks are 6-9 — and didn't end up losing significant ground to Tampa Bay. While most Yankees fans were worrying over the fate of the AL East title as the Yankees struggled this month, I thought they were playing pretty well given the lineup they were trotting out every day. Nick Swisher fouled a ball off his knee in Torono and was limited to pinch-hitting for more than a week. Alex Rodriguez was held out of a couple of games. Mark Teixeira is beat up with a sore finger and a broken toe. Brett Gardner has had a recurring thumb problem that has obviously limited him at the plate. And, I think Derek Jeter is more knicked up than he'll ever let on — when else have you seen El Capitan rolling over ground balls and hitting lazy fly balls for this long? And, with the offense beaten up, Joe Girardi was trying to rest his bullpen and limit his starters' innings (see Gaudin and Mitre blowing a game against Tampa Bay last week with no one warming in the bullpen). Yes, the Yankees could have wrapped up the division if they were a bit more aggressive the last couple of weeks, but, really, they're still 1.5 games ahead of the Rays. That's not bad when Ramiro Pena, Greg Golson, Colin Curtis, Juan Miranda, Sergio Mitre, Chad Gaudin and Dustin Moseley playing stretch-run innings.
What To Look For: Count the two-hit games from Jeter down the stretch. If he starts being a force at the top of the lineup again, watch out for the Yankees offense. Also, I want to see Brett Gardner get back to the form he showed earlier this season. By that, I mean patient at-bats, slapping the ball the other way and occasionally being able to bunt or at least beat out an infield hit. Lastly, keep an eye on Jorge Posada. You know what you'll get from A-Rod, Teixeira, Swisher and Cano. But, if Posada is hitting the ball with authority, it makes the Yankees lineup deeper than anyone elses. Home runs don't matter — I want to see line drives and gap doubles from Posada. And, look past the wins and losses. The last two weeks are almost like pre-season football. It's great to win, but the big thing is not to get anyone hurt. The Yankees are going to the postseason. They're a battle-hardened group for whom playing on the road shouldn't be too traumatizing an experience. They want to win the division, but nobody counts division championship flags, do they? If the Yankees starting 9 is beating the other team's starting 9, I'm OK. If the Yankees lose games because Dustin Moseley and Chad Gaudin are getting lit up, I'll deal with it.
2. I'm feeling comfortable with the Yankees pitching even if Javier Vazquez is the baseball equivalent of Jennifer Aniston — looks good on paper, but up close you realize how old he's gotten. Taking the highly questionable Vazquez trade off the table, I feel comfortable with C.C. Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes against almost any top three starters in baseball. Sabathia has been anything a Yankees fan could have asked for in the last two seasons — durable, pitching well after Yankees losses, preventing long losing streaks and giving the Yankees seven innings or more in almost every outing. Pettitte is crafty enough to win even though his fastball hardly touches 90 miles an hour anymore. Other than the injury, this has been one of his better seasons statistically — to the point I was thinking of him as a Cy Young candidate before he pulled his groin. As for Hughes, he hasn't been as dominant in the second half as he was in the first half, but he threw two solid games this month against Tampa Bay, and that has to count for something. If the Yankees go with A.J. Burnett as the fourth starter (which I think they will) then having Ivan Nova for bullpen work can only be considered a plus.
What To Look For: With roughly two turns left through the rotation, obviously you have to keep your eye on Burnett. Since Aug. 15, only two of his seven appearances have been what I would consider horrendous (6 runs in 7 innings against Seattle and 8 runs in 3.1 innings against Chicago). Granted, he hasn't pitched against great offenses in that stretch, but, let's face it, a good offense wasn't really necessary to knock Burnett around most of this season. He was like a slow-pitch softball pitcher for two months. Baltimore has played everyone tough since Buck Showalter was hired, and Burnett has faced them twice, going 1-1 but, more importantly, allowing 7 earned runs in 14 innings. Why would that excite me? Because he won't get left in for seventh innings to inflate his earned run totals in the playoffs. If Burnett gives Joe Girardi 6 innings of 3-run baseball in October, the skipper will laugh all the way to another World Championship. Updating this for Wednesday's start, I was encouraged with last night's game. Burnett didn't have the best control (but we're not expecting Greg Maddux here, are we?) but he was keeping the Yankees in the game before the rains came. So far, so good.
3. What's up with Mariano? Overall, his stats look fine — 32 saves, a 1.58 ERA, .0842 WHIP and he's only given up 2 home runs after allowing 7 last year. Something just seems off though. His control doesn't seem as good (as evidenced by 5 hit batters) and the outs definitely aren't as automatic. He had to face six batters in a one-inning save Monday against the Rays (and the last out was a hard-hit ball right at Mark Teixeira), blew a save chance Sunday against the Orioles (Luke Scott belted a home run) and blew another save chance against Texas on Sept. 11. Now, the blown save against Texas came after Girardi used Mo for two innings the day before, so maybe you write that one off to overuse. And, everybody has a bad day. The problem is, with Chamberlain still iffy and Robertson's velocity down this year (how well kept a secret is that, by the way) the Yankees are likely counting on Mariano for a lot of two-inning saves like they did in last year's postseason — but they won't get as many days off this postseason. I'm not saying it's time to worry, but maybe some rest down the stretch is good for Mo.
What To Look For: Don't look for any more two inning appearances this season from Mariano. More importantly, with the Red Sox, Tampa Bay and Toronto left on the schedule, keep an eye on the number of batters Mo's facing. If he's pitching an inning, but having to face 6 or 7 hitters, it's not an easy outing. If you see a lot of 3 and 4 batter innings, Mo's rounding into form.
4. Thank God for Kerry Wood. Like a Kardashian sister, he'll make things interesting, but Wood has been pretty good since the Yankees picked him up. In 23 innings, he's struck out 26, walked 13 and has an ERA of 0.39 — meaning every nine innings, he gives up a third of a run. I think it's safe to say he's got the eighth innings in the postseason — and it's good, too, because Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson haven't been what I consider automatic this season. Joba got off to a bad start and he's been better lately. That being said, he still has the same problems he will always have as a reliever — his fastball is too straight, he rarely throws his slider for strikes and he gives up a lot of hits per nine innings (8.42 this year compared to 5.8 for Mariano and 5.1 for Wood). He's useful, and he can get outs, but would you trust him with a one-run lead in the seventh game of the World Series? As for Robertson, watching games tells me his fastball isn't quite as explosive as it was last year, when he was touching the high 90s once in a while to go with a knee-buckling curveball. He's still getting his strikeouts (10.5 per nine innings compared to 13 per nine innings last year) but he's giving up hits, too (8.8 per nine innings, up from 7.4 last year). With that said, Robertson and Chamberlain are useful pieces — but the Yankees really needed someone like Wood to take the pressure off.
What To Look For: Hits allowed for Chamberlain and Robertson. If they're allowing a lot of hits, it means you can't bring them into tight games with runners on base in the postseason. Chamberlain is only allowing 15 percent of inherited runners this year to score (11th in the American League among regular late-inning relievers) but there have been a few too many times this year when he starts an inning, puts runners on and then someone else has to come in and clean up his mess. Robertson, meanwhile, is allowing 32 percent of inherited runners to score — way too many to be the bridge to Mariano. Against Philadelphia's starting pitching, those numbers will get the Yankees beaten. Compare that to Kerry Wood, who is allowing 10 percent of inherited runners to score. Now, take a look at some of the following set-up men on the Yankees' possible playoff opponents — Neftali Feliz (Texas) 8 percent; Joaquin Benoit (Tampa Bay) 9 percent; Frank Francisco (Texas) 15 percent; Glen Perkins (Minnesota) 17 percent. The game's a lot easier if your relievers can come into a jam and not allow runners to score. If Robertson is back striking hitters out, the Yankees bullpen looks much more formidable than it does if it's Mo and Kerry Wood and a bag of flaming dog poo.
5. Can Boone Logan keep it up? With Damaso Marte out for the season (not that he does anything in the regular season anyway) it will be up to Boone Logan to get out lefties this year in the postseason. He's been solid so far this year (2.89 ERA) but you have to worry about his control (4.6 walks per nine innings) and the fact he's never had this kind of success in the major leagues (5.13 career ERA). He throws harder than Phil Coke or Marte (last year's lefties out of the bullpen) and, since he's only 25, could be figuring it out. And, when you're fifth point in a "State of the Yankees" column is the lefty out of the bullpen, is your life really that bad?
What To Look For: Logan to keep it up. If he gets bombed two or three times between now and the end of the season, the lack of a proven lefty out of the pen will be all you hear about from the sixth inning on when the Yankees play in the postseason.
6. Let's give Brian Cashman some credit for the non-Javier Vazquez moves this year. Anyone but me would have made the Vazquez deal, so I'll let it slide even though I reserve the right to belt out the occasional I TOLD YOU SO! But, Cashman did hit on most of his moves. Logan has nailed down a spot in the bullpen. Marcus Thames has been well worth a minor league invitation to spring training (.296, 11 HR, 31 RBI, and one nail in the coffin for the Red Sox with his walk-off HR earlier this season). I'm not the biggest Curtis Granderson fan, but he's hitting better lately and he is a great defensive player. Lance Berkman has started to pick it up once he came off the disabled list, and Kerry Wood was a great addition. All in all, this is one of Cash's better jobs. Getting CC, Teixeira and Burnett was a no-brainer. Teams weren't exactly beating down Thames' door last winter.
Coming up next: Postseason Prospectus, Tuesday, October 5.
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