The Latest Yankees Injury: First The Jokes, Then The Reality

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Mark Teixeira has a strained right wrist and will be out for 8-10 weeks.

Considering the age permeating the Yankees’ roster, Joe Pepitone would fit right in.

When Brian Cashman broke his right fibula and dislocated his ankle skydiving and doing his Flyin’ Brian act that turned out to be Flyin’ Brian Landin’ and Breakin’ His Bones, I compared him to George Costanza, a fictional former Yankees’ employee on Seinfeld. As an organization, the Yankees are playing out the Seinfeld episode in which Elaine starts acting like (and gets identical results) as George. “I’ve become George,” she exclaimed. Well, the Yankees have become the Mets. “We’ve become the Mets!!!” Expect to hear that soon. Only it’s worse. The Mets, in recent years, have grown so accustomed to bad things happening that it’s just sort of there like a goiter. With the Yankees, though, they’re expected to be in the World Series every year. The fans have deluded themselves into thinking that they should be treated as if they won the World Series the year before even if they got bounced in the first or second round of the playoffs or, perish the thought, didn’t make the playoffs at all. History must be altered; facts must be twisted; truth must be ignored—all options are on the table to maintain the alternate reality.

A panic-stricken Mike Francesa wants them to trade for Justin Morneau. This is based on the Twins rebuilding and that Morneau will be available. What he’s missing in his desperation is that while it’s logical that the Yankees, because of fan demands and ticket prices, can’t put a team with the likes of Dan Johnson at first base and Juan Rivera/Matt Diaz or some amalgam of rookies in left field joining a lineup with a catcher who might as well not even bring a bat to the park, the Twins are in a position of having to fill a new ballpark of their own and to put up a pretense of trying to be respectable, at least in the beginning of the season. There was a similar dynamic with Francisco Liriano a couple of years ago that the Twins were going to trade him to the Yankees before the season started. Why? Because the Yankees needed an arm? And this was while the Twins were expecting to actually compete for a playoff spot.

Yankees fans and apologists in the media still don’t get it. They don’t understand that the Yankees don’t get whatever they want. You’d think it would’ve sunk in by now, especially after Cliff Lee told them to take a hike, but it’s still not getting through. Also, immediately after this story broke, a fan called into Francesa’s show and said he wouldn’t be surprised if this Yankees team doesn’t make the playoffs.

Doesn’t make the playoffs? Here’s a clip for you:

Not only is this current configuration not making the playoffs, but without Curtis Granderson and Teixeira for extended periods; with Alex Rodriguez gone ‘til who knows when; with Derek Jeter returning from a serious injury; with the age on the pitching staff, they’re lucky to be a .500 team.

There’s not going to be a Morneau trade to the Yankees. It had better sink in that this is the future that they mortgaged for so long, kicking the need to rebuild down the road with Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera maintaining performance and staying healthy at an almost supernatural rate. Last year, all three got hurt. Now Teixeira, A-Rod and Granderson are out. Now, with the age on this team and the inability for older players to take special potions, pills and manufactured concoctions to get on the field, this is what happens to players of a certain age. They get hurt and they’re out for extended periods. They can’t play as well as they once did, nor can they recover as rapidly from the wear-and-tear of the games. It would be fine if the Yankees still had an offense that could possibly account for the age and decline of their core players, but they don’t. They made a conscious and stupid decision to let Eric Chavez and Raul Ibanez leave. Could they use those players as backups now?

All of a sudden, the absurd and uncharacteristic cheapness is spinning around on them and immediately blowing up in their faces. Fans are going to demand something drastic that’s not going to happen. They’d better get accustomed to the way things are and how they’ll be for the next two seasons. The type of player that will be available to them to play first base for the next couple of months is identical to the faceless cast of retread characters they have manning the outfield in Granderson’s absence—I’m talking about the Daric Barton-type from the Athletics. Barton has put up good on-base numbers when healthy, but he’s always hurt and makes Jason Giambi look like a Rhodes Scholar.

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2013 Yankees.

Get used to it and brace yourself. It gets worse from here.

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That Rays Magic

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Closer attention is being paid to the Tampa Bay Rays and their “way”.

A large part of this is because of Jonah Keri’s book, The Extra 2%.

The hunger for a template in how to build a team using different methods was what created the myth of Moneyball and resulted in the disastrous attempts inside and outside of baseball to follow and validate that fantasy written by Michael Lewis.

Keri’s book is not twisted in the manner of Moneyball; it simply tells how the Rays have accomplished what they have within a tight budget in a hellish division. There’s no pompous, unsaid but clear statement, “this is the way you should do it or you’re a moron” inherent in the telling of the Rays tale.

And it’s why they’re built to last regardless of free agent defections; necessary trades; lack of financial resources and whatever other obstacles pop into their collective paths.

In 2011, they’re again defying conventional wisdom as they’ve rebounded from a rotten start to climb into first place in a division that still houses the Yankees and Red Sox along with the improving Blue Jays and Orioles.

So how have they done it this time?

Like in Keri’s book, it’s been a combination of luck, intelligence and putting their team into a position to succeed by executing the fundamentals correctly.

Let’s take a look how they Rays are at it again.

A blessing in disguise.

Manny Ramirez‘s retirement saved the Rays nearly $2 million. Presumably, had he held out in his contention that he didn’t use any PEDs that led to the failed drug test and precipitated his sudden retirement, they wouldn’t have had to pay him, but the money for Manny’s contract might’ve been tied up throughout the process of his investigation. To the Rays, that money isn’t an incidental cost—they need every penny they can get. With Manny off the books, that gives them nearly $2 million to add at mid-season in a deal.

I’m not convinced that Manny was completely finished despite his 1 for 17 start with no walks; he still had to be pitched to carefully and that would’ve held true into June—by then, other teams might’ve said, “let’s just pitch to Manny, he looks done”. Eventually, the Rays would’ve had no choice but to release him and pay the full freight.

Once Manny was gone, the Rays were free to move Johnny Damon to DH and insert Sam Fuld into the lineup. I’m not a believer in Fuld—midnight’s about to strike on his Cinderella story—but the Rays have gotten far more from Fuld than anyone could reasonably have expected; he can run and play great defense, two things that are constant whether he hits or not.

Desmond Jennings is murdering the ball in Triple A and it won’t be long before he’s up in the big leagues and playing left field in place of Fuld—that might not have happened this season had Manny hung around.

Pitching, speed and defense lead the way.

How is it possible that the Rays, with a gutted bullpen, injuries to Damon and Evan Longoria and a bunch of journeymen like Felipe Lopez, Kyle Farnsworth, Fuld and Casey Kotchman leading the way are still near the top of the tough AL East?

They have the speed to get to balls other clubs don’t and they catch it when they get there; they’re leading the American League in fielding percentage.

Bolstered by the confidence that balls that are kept in the ballpark are going to be caught, their pitchers throw strikes.

It’s easy to reference pitchers from the Rays past who’ve come into games and racked up massive strikeout numbers like Grant Balfour and Joaquin Benoit; but this year’s bullpen is an entirely new cast from the crew that was dispatched after last year and this staff is 12th in the American League in strikeouts.

More important than the strikeouts, they don’t walk anyone and allow few homers.

Could it be that the key to the Rays unlocking the aggravating abilities in Farnsworth and Juan Cruz—disparaged and dumped veterans both—are that simple? That they no longer has to worry about striking everyone out and can concentrate on keeping the ball down and in the ballpark confident in the knowledge that if there’s a defender anywhere close, he’ll catch it?

Maybe.

Hot starts and the beneficial schedule.

After he’d been knocked all over the place in the past two seasons, no one could’ve expected the hot start from James Shields.

Casey Kotchman is hitting .346.

You read that right.

Casey Kotchman is hitting .346.

Matt Joyce is hitting .369.

Ben Zobrist is back to being Zorilla.

Damon, Dan Johnson and Fuld have all gotten big hits or made game-saving defensive plays.

Had any of these occurrences not come to pass, the Rays would probably be hovering around .500 or worse.

The schedule has been an advantage for them as well.

The Rays 0-6 start was accumulated against a hot and enthusiastic Buck Showalter-led Orioles club and the Angels in games pitched by Jered Weaver and Dan Haren. This was seen as a portent of a long season in Tampa.

But they righted the ship against the Red Sox as they too staggered out of the gate; they then fattened their record against the Twins, White Sox and falling-to-earth Orioles.

They’ve yet to play the Yankees and have the rough part of their schedule upcoming. They have to play the Marlins, Reds and Cardinals in inter-league play in addition to the regular matchups against the AL East.

Presumably, they’ll run into inevitable lulls because of playing better teams; but the Rays way isn’t a negligible bit of fundamental correctness. They have the players to execute their plan because they can run and catch the ball.

It’s a cohesiveness that permeates the club from top-to-bottom and it all starts with that small aspect of range and glovework. It’s extended to the pitching staff and overcomes an offense that was without their MVP candidate Longoria until last week and has relied on the aged; the journeyman; the young players who are trying to establish themselves.

It seems easy to say, “throw strikes and we’ll catch the ball”, but if it’s so easy, why don’t other teams do it?

Could it be that other teams don’t have the athletes to execute the plan? That the pitchers don’t trust their fielders to handle so many balls as flawlessly as the Rays do? That the Rays speed in the field extends to running the bases and they score enough to support the pitching staff that has garnered confidence from that defense?

It’s a cycle.

A cycle to win.

Given their upcoming schedule, I’m not prepared to jump on the Rays bandwagon as so many have (some of whom jumped off after the terrible start); but they’ll be competitive for the reasons elucidated above; and if they’re competitive late in the season, they’re dangerous.

Because they do the little things right.

And that ain’t Moneyball.

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Please purchase my book, Paul Lebowitz’s 2011 Baseball Guide. It’s good for fantasy players. For real and not fantasy.

I published a full excerpt of my book here; it’s creepily accurate.

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