Collapses and Comebacks

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Would the Phillies and Brewers have staged these remarkable leaps back into contention had they not made the mid-season housecleaning trades in what was a tacit concession that it wasn’t going to happen for them this season? And where would the Phillies be had they not signed Cole Hamels and been forced to trade him?

The players both clubs acquired in dealing away Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence, Joe Blanton, and Zack Greinke haven’t done anything to help their new teams in the short term, so there are other reasons that they’ve gotten to within striking distance of the second Wild Card in the National League.

The Phillies have taken great advantage of finally being fully healthy in their starting rotation and are beating on dead teams like the Marlins and Rockies. More fuel will be added to the idea of a “miracle” if they take care of business against the Astros this weekend. Because they have that pitching, they’ll be competitive the rest of season, but it’s more likely that reality will strike when they play the Braves and Nationals in 9 of the final 19 games.

In addition to the Phillies and Brewers, the Dodgers, Pirates and even the Padres have a legitimate claim on saying, “Hey, we’re in this thing!” Perception is the key here. The Phillies, Brewers and Padres have nothing to lose and were left for dead, so it’s not going to be seen as a “collapse” if they fall short. The Pirates will be judged as having collapsed; the Dodgers flurry of trades will be viewed as a “failure”. The Cardinals, on the other hand, will be judged in the prism of disintegration. The Cardinals aren’t that good to begin with and certainly not markedly better than the teams chasing them.

In the American League, the Yankees are crawling to the finish line and, before running into the A’s, the Angels were making a run similar to that of the Phillies.

What does all this mean?

In the future, we’re going to see teams reluctant to make drastic mid-season trades to dump salary if they’re within 10 games of one of the Wild Card spots. Unless an offering team bowls them over by overpaying, it makes no sense to simply trade away pieces that could be used to make a run no matter how much of a fantasy, how many things have to go right for that run to happen. On an annual basis, these “miraculous” comebacks are becoming so frequent that they’re not miraculous anymore. There’s a reason they’re happening. Teams can’t coast into the playoffs and the pursuing teams can’t give up. That means players are playing all-out until the end whereas in the past, they might’ve put up a pretense of trying hard and shrugged when it became too much work.

Naturally, there are extenuating circumstances. The Red Sox and Dodgers are two such cases. The Red Sox blew it up knowing that even if they make another managerial change at the conclusion of this season, leaving Josh Beckett in that clubhouse, in that town was not going to work. They cleared money with Carl Crawford, and moved a player who was ill-suited to Boston, the Red Sox, and the East Coast in Adrian Gonzalez. The Dodgers are flush with cash, banking on a new TV deal, and weren’t good enough as constructed at the time of the trades.

The Yankees, seemingly content with their lead in the AL East and knowing they had the two Wild Cards as a fallback if the unthinkable happened, didn’t do much at the trading deadline. Still clinging to concept of getting under the luxury tax threshold by 2014, they didn’t make a move on the big names available such as Cliff Lee. (That the Phillies were entertaining thoughts of trading Lee should tell you how surprised Ruben Amaro Jr. is that they’ve jumped back in the race.) Instead, the disappearing GM Brian Cashman (where is he?) chose to make small and insignificant moves such as Casey McGehee, Steve Pearce, and Derek Lowe. Now they’re staring in the face of being bounced from the playoffs entirely as a casualty in the stunning rise and comebacks of the Orioles, Rays, Athletics, and Angels.

As July 31st approaches, the line between contender and also-ran is increasingly blurry. Teams that win two straight games and “climb” to within 5 games of a playoff spot or lose three straight and fall to 8 back are alternatingly seen as buyers and sellers. It’s permeated front offices and the amount of coverage that the deadline and contracts and “plans” receive are infiltrating logical thinking.

Apart from the lower echelon teams like the Astros, Cubs, and Twins who are so far behind at the deadline that not even a streak of 20 wins in 25 games is going to do much good, we’re not going to have big time players available for the contenders. Teams without a preseason acceptance that they’re not contending are going to stick with their roster from the preseason and see who collapses in front of them. It’s happening to the Yankees, so it can happen to anyone.

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American League Contenders Remaining Schedules—Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles

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The Rays were expected to be here and the Orioles weren’t. Yesterday I looked at the Yankees schedule, now here are their two competitors in the AL East.

Tampa Bay Rays

Rays vs Orioles, Sept. 11-13 at Tampa; Oct. 1-3 at Baltimore

This is being seen as a benefit for the Yankees because the two teams in hot pursuit are playing one another six times while the Yankees supposedly have the “weakest” schedule of all the contenders. On paper, that may be so, but this Yankees team isn’t very good. They’re playing Steve Pearce at first base for the next two weeks (and I suspect that the “good” news on Mark Teixeira was a best case scenario; I doubt we’ll see Teixeira again as anything other than a pinch hitter this season). They’ve made a big show of recalling prospect Melky Mesa. Mesa is 25 and batted .230 in 33 games in Triple A. This is your savior. They’re anticipating the return of Andy Pettitte with the memories of 15 years ago swimming in their panicky heads. If the Yankees were at full strength, the weakness of schedule would be relevant, but they’re not, so it’s mitigated to a large degree.

As for the Rays and Orioles, one of the teams is going to win at least 2 of the 3 games this week. If it’s the Rays, they’ll come into Yankee Stadium this weekend looking to overtake the Yankees; if it’s the Orioles, they’ll still be right on the Yankees’ heels or will have caught them.

The Rays and Orioles have split their 12 games against one another so far. The Rays have a decided pitching advantage and the Orioles are trying to piece their offense together after losing Nick Markakis to a broken thumb. Their starting pitching is short. The Rays are going to pass the Orioles by the time the season is over.

Rays vs Yankees, Sept. 14-16 at Yankee Stadium

The Rays have their pitching set up for this weekend. David Price will pitch against CC Sabathia (whose diminished fastball was the impetus for the dustup between Yankees manager Joe Girardi and Joel Sherman of the NY Post). I would expect Pettitte to pitch Saturday against James Shields, and Alex Cobb will go against Hiroki Kuroda on Sunday.

By Sunday night, the Rays could be in first place in the AL East with the Yankees tied with the Orioles and Angels for the second Wild Card spot and behind the Athletics.

Rays vs Red Sox, Sept. 17-20 in Tampa; Sept. 25-26 at Boston

I’m not accusing the Red Sox of laying down for the Rays and Orioles and playing hard against the Yankees, but the players who remain from the Yankees-Red Sox wars from so long ago know that if they’re able to significantly damage the Yankees’ playoff hopes—and everyone had better understand that if the Yankees don’t win the division, they’re not making the playoffs—they’re going to do everything possible to make it happen. The compromised Red Sox are an awful team, but they haven’t forgotten that the Yankees didn’t play their regulars in their final series with the Rays in 2011 and that contributed to the Red Sox being bounced from the post-season and sent them into this downward spiral.

Put it this way: the Red Sox would prefer to see anyone other than the Yankees in the playoffs this season and their play will reflect it. The front office would prefer it as well.

Rays vs Blue Jays, Sept. 21-23 in Tampa

The Blue Jays are playing hard down the stretch and the two clubs split a four-game series in Toronto a week-and-a-half ago.

The Blue Jays record is bad, but they can hit the ball out of the park and have two talented starters in Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero, plus Carlos Villanueva who should’ve been in the starting rotation from the beginning of the season. This isn’t a gimme series.

Rays vs White Sox, Sept. 27-30 at Chicago

Either the White Sox or the Tigers are going to win the AL Central and neither team—barring a catastrophe on the East or West Coasts—is making it to the Wild Card play-in game. The Tigers have shown zero consistency in 2012, but they have a weak schedule through the end of the season. It may not matter though. If they don’t run off a winning streak, the AL Central race could be over by the time the Rays come to Chicago to play the White Sox. Then the Yankees are going to be really desperate. No one in baseball wants to help them and they’re increasingly incapable of helping themselves.

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Baltimore Orioles

The two series against the Rays are discussed above.

Orioles vs Athletics, Sept. 14-16 at Oakland

The A’s are continuing their run toward the playoffs. It’s at least as surprising as that of the Orioles, if not more. They have a deeper starting rotation, a good bullpen, and can score with the Orioles. The A’s are now ahead of the Yankees, Orioles, and Rays. They’re currently playing the Angels, who’ve launched themselves back into contention as well.

There’s an opportunity for the Orioles to make up ground on the Yankees and/or Rays and the Athletics this weekend.

Orioles vs Mariners, Sept. 17-19 at Seattle

The Mariners can’t hit, but they have a lot of starting pitching and would like to finish the season at .500. That said, I would expect the Orioles to go into Seattle and take at least two games.

Orioles vs Red Sox, Sept. 21-23 at Boston; Sept. 28-30 in Baltimore

The Red Sox don’t like the Orioles, but they hate the Yankees. We might see a lot of young players getting a “look” vs the Orioles that won’t get a “look” vs the Yankees.

All’s fair.

Orioles vs Blue Jays, Sept. 24 (doubleheader)-26 in Baltimore

That’s four games. The Orioles are 9-5 against the Blue Jays this season and the Blue Jays also wouldn’t mind whacking the Yankees out of the playoffs. They might choose to “look” at some youngsters just like the Red Sox.

The team in the driver’s seat here is the Rays. If they have a record of say, 16-6, they’re going to win the AL East. For the Orioles, they’ll have to win 13 games and I don’t know if they’re going to. 11-11 is more likely and if that’s the case, that would mean that they didn’t help the Yankees against the Rays or the A’s.

Either way, the schedule that’s being portrayed as the Yankees’ lifeline, is anything but.

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Anatomy Of A Yankees Swoon

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The Yankees, their fans, and the media that covers them on a daily basis are all wallowing in denial, excuses, self-pity, delusion, and desperation. The team itself still has time to save its season, but they’re well on the way to joining the Red Sox and Mets in the lore of historic and embarrassing collapses that, for the Yankees with their payroll and superiority complex, will surpass those of teams past.

Let’s take a look at what’s going on with the Yankees and the likelihood of steering out of this spiral.

Injuries and lack of depth

This is the batting order they presented last night against the Rays:

1. Derek Jeter-SS

2. Curtis Granderson-CF

3. Nick Swisher-1B

4. Robinson Cano-DH

5. Alex Rodriguez-3B

6. Raul Ibanez-LF

7. Jayson Nix-2B

8. Chris Dickerson-RF

9. Chris Stewart-C

And pitching, Freddy Garcia.

This is the starting lineup for one of the latter days of spring training, not for a pennant race in September against a younger, faster, healthier Rays team in direct pursuit. On the heels of journeyman Steve Pearce batting cleanup, Eric Chavez having to play almost every day after A-Rod got hurt, Ibanez playing too much, Swisher having to play first base in place of Mark Teixeira, and using Garcia and David Phelps in the starting rotation, is it any wonder the 10 game lead has been extinguished?

No one wants to hear about injuries. No one wants to hear whining about the umpires or a “woe is me” lament. No one cares about the Yankees problems. They’re scouring the bargain bin for the likes of Pearce and Casey McGehee and expecting to move along smoothly without a hitch. A 4-A player doesn’t stop being a 4-A player just because he puts on a Yankee uniform.

Non-issues become problems when the team’s losing

Cano’s repeated incidents of nonchalance weren’t an issue when the team was winning, so it can’t be referenced as one when they’re losing. The Yankees let Cano’s jogging around go because there wasn’t much they could do about it and it was okay with a 10 game lead. Now that the lead is gone, it’s not okay? It doesn’t work that way. Jeter runs out every ground ball, why can’t Cano?

In a similar vein, manager Joe Girardi wasn’t scrutinized heavily for his occasionally strange strategic decisions when the team was star-studded and rolling unstoppably toward another division title with an eye on the World Series. Once the decisions actually make a difference not just in a game, but in the standings and the team is in danger of falling out of the playoffs completely, there’s ludicrous speculation about his job security if they complete this collapse.

Girardi, like most of the other 2012 Yankees, has never been in this pressurized situation during the season. In 2008, it was known by September 1st that, barring a miraculous comeback, they weren’t making the playoffs. In 2009, they won 103 games. In 2010, the biggest decision they had was whether or not to try and win the division or accept the Wild Card. In 2011, they coasted late in the season and played a lineup similar to the one they’re currently playing and allowed the Rays to sweep them and overtake the Red Sox (something I don’t hold against them).

Now they have to play and they have to win. When Girardi was in a pressurized situation of the post-season in 2009 and his maneuvers were important, he was found wanting. He made odd and panicky pitching changes and ill-thought-out lineup and in-game moves. That Yankees team happened to be talented enough to overcome Girardi’s overmanaging and win the title.

I don’t blame Girardi for this stumble, but it’s now that he has to maintain control of the ship and not grip the handles too tightly, but his volcanic eruption last night that resulted in an ejection and his snippy replies to questions in post-game press conferences indicate a growing tightness that will permeate the team.

Personnel gaffes

The Yankees and GM Brian Cashman have made it clear that they no longer intend to purchase every star on the market to have at least 2 players who could be or have been All-Stars at each position. They want to get under the luxury tax when the draconian measures to restrain salaries come into effect and it shows on the field. They didn’t pursue Cliff Lee when the Phillies were listening to offers on him; they didn’t make a substantial package available at mid-season to get Justin Upton; they weren’t avidly chasing any of the available players who might’ve been able to help them drastically. Instead, they traded for Ichiro Suzuki and got him for nothing. Ichiro can still catch the ball in the outfield and steal a base, but he’s hitting identically with the Yankees as he did with the Mariners: lots of singles and no on-base skills with an average hovering around .270.

These in-season acquisitions come after consecutive winters in which they wasted money (Pedro Feliciano); signed fill-in veterans and scrapheap denizens (Russell Martin, Ibanez, Andruw Jones, Chavez); and gave away assets (Jesus Montero) for literally nothing (Michael Pineda and the “key” Jose Campos).

This is not to suggest Montero would be a significant contributor to the Yankees in a Yankees uniform—he’s been okay learning on the job behind and at the plate with the Mariners—but he was something other teams coveted; they could’ve traded him for a known commodity rather than going the cheap and “controllable” route with Pineda.

Hiroki Kuroda was a great signing.

The Yankees vaunted young pitching that they developed with it in mind that they wouldn’t spend tons of cash on other teams’ abused arms? That’s not working either. Phil Hughes is an okay big league pitcher, but he’s a 3rd or 4th starter that you can find on the market. Joba Chamberlain is a bottom-line disappointment. Ian Kennedy wasn’t good for the Yankees; they received Granderson for him making it a win. Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos, Campos, Pineda—where’s the next Andy Pettitte? A Yankees’ pitcher they brought through their system and turned into a top-flight starter?

Seeking solace

Teams, fanbases and media members who’ve experienced a collapse have all done the same things. They look at the schedule; they lean on one another looking for positive reassurance; they repeat the mantra of “Everything’s gonna be alright” with the unsaid, “Isn’t it?” as an addendum.

Mike Francesa had Yankees beat reporters Sweeny Murti and Mark Feinsand on as guests and it was something of a sycophantic think-tank in which the schedule was seen as the Yankees friend and the three discussed not what the consequences would be if the Yankees missed the playoffs or that increasingly real possibility, but how many games they would recover and win the division by.

Michael Kay sounds so disconsolate that he can barely stomach a third piece of chicken parmesan.

Fans are clutching each other as if they’re in a prayer circle looking towards the heavens wondering why the Baseball Gods that have smiled so consistently on the Yankees hath forsaken them.

It’s not a conspiracy. They’re just not very good.

Meteorology

It wasn’t a stand-alone instance that the Mets and Red Sox collapsed in 2007 and 2011. There was a perfect storm that assisted greatly in the fall from the playoffs. The Mets kept losing to the Phillies and blew their lead, but would’ve made the playoffs if not for the Rockies ridiculous hot streak in September that launched them from also-ran to the World Series.

The Red Sox had a blazing hot Rays team chasing them and the Yankees who didn’t play their regulars in the last series against the Rays.

Now the Yankees, even with the extra Wild Card available, are in an American League with 8 teams for 5 playoff spots. If they fall from first place, there’s a good chance that falling from playoff position will come immediately after.

Studying the schedule is meant to be a calming device, but it’s not. Referencing games against the Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Twins is a stretch as well. Mets and Red Sox fans can tell Yankees fans all about the futility of studying the schedules during a swoon such as this. The 2007 Mets consistently lost to the horrific Nationals; the 2011 Red Sox were undone by the then-terrible Orioles; the Yankees lost 2 of 3 to the Blue Jays just last week and the Red Sox would see vengeance and a salvaging of their dismal season by taking part in the Yankees downfall.

The Yankees can’t count on other teams helping them to get them into the playoffs. They have to win a few games themselves—something they’re not doing and with this lineup, may not be capable of doing.

Clinging to the past; reaching back for the stars

This Yankees team finds itself chained to a past that’s not going to return. Still reliant on Jeter to be the star; waiting for Pettitte to return and save the day; blaming their stumble, ridiculously, on the loss of Mariano Rivera—they haven’t replaced them and are finding out how truly hard it is to do so with hardened veterans who’ve been through the battles and come out on top.

Rafael Soriano has been at least as good as Rivera would’ve been during the season, so the absence of Rivera is not a viable reason for the way they’ve played. The idea that Soriano’s shift to the closer’s role hindered the set-up area is ignoring how thoroughly unreliable Soriano was as a set-up man.

While Jeter has had a renaissance in 2012, that can’t last forever. What are they going to do then?

What are they going to do when Pettitte is retired and stays retired? If Rivera can’t be as effective as he was prior to his knee injury or can’t come back at all?

They don’t have ready replacements as was the intent when they “developed” their young players and the players they have now are feeling the heat they never expected to feel to make the playoffs when they joined the Yankees.

Sign free agents? They’ve openly said the vault isn’t as open as it once was and they’re on the hook for a ton of money for A-Rod, Teixeira and CC Sabathia for the foreseeable future. Make trades? Does anyone want those prospects who’ve leaped backwards and been hurt this season?

There is no endless dynasty. The Yankees of the 1960s came undone because they failed to adapt to the draft and their stars got old all at once. The same things that happened to other teams that collapsed like the Mets and Red Sox are present with this Yankees team and they’re not so easy to gloss over when the team doesn’t win. In fact, they become more stark; they become the foundation for a slide that takes years to recover from.

I happens to everyone. And whether the Yankees recover from this in time to make it to the playoffs and even win while there, that’s not going to stop the inevitable reality. This is a sign of the beginning of the end and it will be pointed to as such when things really come apart, sooner or later.

Right now it looks like sooner.

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What To Watch For Over The Final Month—American League

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First something that affects everyone

All the talk about the “extra” Wild Card has obscured the fact that it’s not exactly a playoff spot as much as it’s an invitation to play in a play-in game. Gone are the days when teams could coast toward the waning days even if they were close enough to the top of the division to make an all-out run for it. Teams that have won the Wild Card and went on to win the World Series have been numerous since the advent of the third tier of post-season series, but it’s no longer as easy as it once was and, like the team that loses the Super Bowl, few are going to remember the second Wild Card team once they’re bounced after 162+1.

The Yankees fade

The Yankees are staggering into September with their lead in the AL East down to 3 ½ games over the Orioles and 4 over the Rays. They’re playing both of those teams 10 straight times starting tomorrow night; they’re functioning a compromised starting rotation and a closer, Rafael Soriano, who is going to be needed heavily and has already been used extensively—he’s probably getting tired.

Mark Teixeira is out for an indefinite period with a calf strain and the imminent returns of Alex Rodriguez and Andy Pettitte are suddenly being counted on to help right the ship. A-Rod is 37 and Pettitte 40. I don’t think the Yankees had it in mind that they’d be so reliant on these aging stars and Derek Jeter at this point in 2012, but they are.

Manager Joe Girardi is getting testy and GM Brian Cashman is scouring the bargain bins for the likes of Steve Pearce and Casey McGehee—4-A players from whom nothing is guaranteed.

The last, last, last, last thing the Yankees want is to have to push their veterans to make the playoffs late in September and possibly have to play a 1-game playoff after winning one of the Wild Card spots, but if they keep playing like this, that may be what they’re facing. Or they might get bounced entirely.

The Red Sox madhouse

They cleared out Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Carl Crawford in the massive trade to the Dodgers, but they’re going to lose close to 90 games. If the front office would like to keep Bobby Valentine, the way the club behaves—not plays, behaves—over the final month might be the determinative factor in that decision. Players with free agent options might choose to avoid the Red Sox because of the disarray.

One thing might save Valentine if it’s straddling the line between him keeping his job or being fired is how the club performs against the Yankees. They have six games remaining against one another including the last three games of the season in Yankee Stadium. If the Red Sox end the dismal 2012 campaign by severely harming or ending the Yankees post-season hopes, that would dull the pain of nearly everything that happened from September of 2011 onward.

The Blue Jays and John Farrell

I’m not understanding this love affair the Red Sox have with Farrell to the point that there’s talk that they might be willing to trade players to the Blue Jays to acquire their manager and install him in Boston. He hasn’t done a particularly good job in Toronto with injuries being presented as an excuse as to why the Blue Jays didn’t fulfill their expectations to be contenders.

It’s the same thing every year with the Blue Jays regardless of the manager, general manager, and players. Going back a decade, they’re “on the verge” of turning the corner and it’s one step forward, three steps back. Farrell is to blame for part of what’s gone wrong this season and the Blue Jays haven’t definitively stated that Farrell is off-limits to the Red Sox. They’re willing to consider letting their manager go to a team in their division? That tells me they might not be all that upset if he left. And the talk of the Red Sox trading Daniel Bard for him? Good grief!!!

The Tigers playoff run

Historically under Jim Leyland the Tigers haven’t done well when playing from ahead in the playoff race. In 2006, the came apart and blew the AL Central, but made the playoffs as the Wild Card and advanced all the way to the World Series. In 2009, they led their division by 7 games on September 6th, but were caught by the Twins and lost in a 1-game playoff. Maybe now that they’re chasing the White Sox in the division and the other Wild Card contenders, they’ll write a different story. Their schedule over the last month includes 20 games against the Indians, Royals, and Twins. If they don’t make the playoffs, it will be their own fault.

How far the Indians fall

The Indians have gone 5-25 since they were at .500 on July 27th. It’s not his fault, but manager Manny Acta could be in trouble. Sandy Alomar Jr. is on the coaching staff and will be in line for other managerial jobs after the season. Popular in Cleveland, the front office won’t want to let him leave and his hiring would gloss over the lack of money to do anything significant this winter to improve the roster for the short-term. If they’re seriously considering trading Shin-Soo Choo, it signals another rebuild; it doesn’t make sense to bring Acta back if that’s what they’re doing.

The Angels present and future

They’re 9 games behind the Rangers in the AL West, so they can pretty much forget about the division. They’re 3 games behind in the Wild Card race. With the chaos surrounding the Red Sox, it’s receded into the background how much of a disappointment the Angels have been. Manager Mike Scioscia is clearly not on the same page with GM Jerry Dipoto and owner Arte Moreno’s unwavering support and trust in his manager is dwindling. With 9 games against the Mariners and 3 against the Royals, plus head-to-head games with the Athletics, Tigers, and White Sox, there’s still time to get back into contention.

Barring a shocking run deep into the playoffs, I believe Scioscia and the Angels are going to part ways following the season, but they have the month of September to change that plot.

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