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April 30, 2008

A Bronx Beginning

The 2008 Yankees

by John Perrotto

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The New York Yankees are 14-14 with one day left in the season's first month. In some regards, that is not so bad, considering they have had their share of key injuries and have been away from home for most of the season. However, these are the Yankees, and .500 baseball isn't acceptable in the land of Steinbrenner, especially with Hank making more and more like a young George with each passing month on the job as the club's co-chairperson.

So while Joe Girardi might be in his first season as the Yankees manager, he fully understands the expectations that come with wearing the pinstripes after having been a catcher, coach, and broadcaster with the team for seven years. "I'm an optimist, but an optimist with high expectations," Girardi said. "I'm happy with the effort our guys have given on a consistent basis. I'm certainly not disappointed with the way we've played by any means, but I'm not satisfied. I don't think you can ever really be satisfied in this game. I'd like to see us do everything better than we have been so far, and I think we will start doing everything better. I don't think we've played our best baseball yet by any stretch of the imagination."

The Yankees are only sixth in runs scored in the American League, with an average of 4.4 a game. That is a surprise for a team that scored almost six runs a game last year (5.98, first in the major leagues), and that is projected to score a major league-leading 5.44 runs a game this season by PECOTA. They'll be hard-pressed to match that projection when the only regular over .300 as far as his Equivalent Average is designated hitter Hideki Matusi (.327).

"We really haven't had anybody get that hot, and we've never got on one of those rolls where we have six or seven guys in the lineup hitting well at the same time," notes first baseman Jason Giambi. "We've obviously got the talent here, a bunch of guys who have proven themselves for quite a long time in the big leagues. I don't think it's a question of if we're going to hit but when we're going to hit."

The Yankees, though, have had a big hole to fill behind the plate for most of the season, as catcher Jorge Posada has been bothered by shoulder problems after putting up a .337 EqA last season along with a 73.4 VORP, which ranked eighth in the majors. Posada accumulated only 66 plate appearances while playing nearly as much at designated hitter as at catcher before going onto the 15-day DL Monday. While noted orthopedist James Andrews found no major structural damage in Posada's shoulder, there is a sense around the Yankees that the injury could become a chronic problem, since he is now 36.

"We obviously miss Jorge and it goes beyond just the fact that he's an outstanding player," Girardi said. "He has been there since 1996. He's a constant with this team. You know what you're going to get from him every day. You know what to expect because he knows how everything works here and has been a part of it forever."

The bulk of the catching duties have fallen to journeyman Jose Molina. While the Yankees realize they cannot count on much offensive production from Molina (his .232 EqA isn't out of character), they also have another void to fill, for at least a couple of weeks, as third baseman Alex Rodriguez was placed on the DL yesterday with a strained right quadriceps muscle, but at least the Yankees are certain Rodriguez will be back as soon as his 15 days on the DL are up. The MVP third baseman was off to only a lukewarm start, but his 96.6 VORP led the majors last season, when he also had a .354 EqA. Morgan Ensberg, signed as a minor league free agent in the offseason three years removed from posting a .309 EqA and 53.7 VORP for Houston, will likely be the starter at third in Rodriguez's absence.

"If he absolutely had to, A-Rod could play, and he sucked it up and played four games when you could see it was bothering him," Girardi said. "As much as we'll miss him, we'd prefer he let this injury heal so that it doesn't become an issue for the whole season. We'll need to have some guys step up in his place. We have some guys who haven't heated up yet and they're due. I never get too concerned about slow starts because I was a slow starter myself as a hitter. It takes time to get into the flow of the season sometimes and our guys will be fine."

The Yankees need to start scoring more, because they are nearly at the bottom of the AL in runs allowed, standing in 11th place with a 4.5 average. The veteran starting pitchers are performing well--Chien-Ming Wang has a 1.3 SNLVAR while left-hander Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina are both at 0.5. However, the Yankees' two young starters are struggling, as Philip Hughes (-0.1) and Ian Kennedy (-0.3) both carry negative marks. While the always-impatient New York fans are clamoring for general manager Brian Cashman to either trade for a veteran starter or move rookie reliever Joba Chamberlain into the rotation, the Yankees plan to stay the course with the 21-year-old Hughes and the 23-year-old Kennedy. "We've committed to going with them," Girardi said. "They're young pitchers and they are going to have their ups and downs but they also have talent and I believe they can compete at this level. They did [last season] and they will only get better."

While the the middle relief has been as inconsistent as the starting pitching, the Yankees have a dynamic one-two punch at the end of games with the much-ballyhooed Chamberlain (0.890 WXRL)--still expected to be moved into the rotation at midseason--setting up ageless closer Mariano Rivera (1.371). The Yankees raised a few eyebrows when they re-signed the 38-year-old Rivera to a three-year, $45 million contract as a free agent in the offseason. However, Girardi says he would still take Rivera, who is second in the AL in WXRL behind Boston's Jonathan Papelbon, over any other closer in the game. "He doesn't throw as hard as he did when he was 26, but who does? He still has the same movement on his cutter, though, he still has the great desire to get the job done every time he's out there, and he still is a guy that no hitter wants to face."

The Yankees began a nine-game home stand Tuesday night with a 6-4 loss to Detroit after playing 18 of their previous 20 games on the road. The extended stay away from home was necessitated by Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Yankee Stadium. "Hey, you can't argue with the Pope," Girardi said. "The actual playing of the games on the road is not a big deal. It's a bit of inconvenience, but the worst part is the packing. It's tough when you have to sit on your suitcase to get it to close."

The Yankees, though, were happy to unpack. "Basically, we were on a seven-city, 20-game road trip because the two days we were home just felt like another stop," Mussina said. "We've been keeping late hours, checking into hotels at 4 a.m. It's tough. I think we should feel pretty good about where we're at in light of our travel. Hopefully, we'll get into more of a routine and start playing more like the way we know we're capable."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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