The Yankees head into May at 9-14, 6 1/2 games behind the Red Sox in the AL East, having dropped five of six to their rivals over the past two weekends. Despite an Opening Day payroll of $195 million (highest in the game by more than $50 million), and $66 million of which was invested in the pitching staff, the Yankees have allowed 125 runs, seventh-highest total in the game. They’ve achieved that while having to use nine starting pitchers and 11 pitchers as relievers in the season’s first 23 games. Injuries have been the primary culprit, as three of the projected Opening Day starters spent time on the DL, as did the left fielder, and beyond those headline-worthy setbacks, a number of other players either missed time or played through nagging injuries.
The slow start has caused the New York media to party like it’s 1989, generating stories about George Steinbrenner’s displeasure, and feeding rumors of Joe Torre‘s imminent firing in favor of Don Mattingly or Larry Bowa. Despite having had one manager in 11-plus seasons, and only two in the last 16, there seems to be an assumption that Steinbrenner, clearly in his dotage, is still General Von Steingrabber of the 1980s, irrational and emotional, and prone to firing managers on the same schedule he gets his car taken in for a tuneup.
Missing in the rush to draw blood over the Yankees’ place in the standings is that Joe Torre bears little responsibility for the team’s performance to date. The biggest reason the Yankees are 9-14 is that the pitching has been lousy, and the pitching has been lousy because the Yankees have been using their #6, #7, and #8 starters rather than their #1 and #3. Unless you can somehow blame Torre for the injuries suffered by Mike Mussina, Chien-Ming Wang, and yes, even Carl Pavano, it seems silly to blame him for the 125 runs allowed and the 14 losses.
What’s really lacking is the recognition that 2007 is a rebuilding year by design. This winter, Brian Cashman traded away veterans with track records and high salaries in an effort to build the depth in the organization, with an eye towards seasons beyond this one. First dealing away Gary Sheffield for Humberto Sanchez and others, and then trading Randy Johnson for a package of pitchers from the Diamondbacks, Cashman’s big moves made the Yankees weaker in the short term. The Yankees stayed out of the inflationary free-agent market, not overspending on the mid-level pitchers with mediocre track records who were commanding four- and five-year deals for $40 million or more. Cashman also elected to patch the first-base hole with a low-cost solution. That the payroll remains the highest in the game is more about the long-term investments in now-declining players than from any improvements to the roster in the offseason. Some money was spent on Pettitte and Kei Igawa, but other than that, this is not a team in which a lot of new investments were made. Contrast that to the Red Sox or Cubs, who each committed hundreds of millions over the next five to eight years in an effort to win in ’07.
I don’t blame Cashman for his decision making over this past winter. On the contrary, I think he took the right path given the market, the resources at hand, and his desire to build up the organization’s depth. That the depth he added wasn’t ready to help in April of 2007 doesn’t make the plan a failure, and while 9-14 is to some extent a product of his decision making, the short-term results are also a product of short-term problems, rather than some fatal flaw in the team’s assembly. In other words, this isn’t a .391 team.
None of this is to say that Torre is having a good season. Certainly he’s been all over the place with his bullpen usage, but that’s been the case ever since the last Jeff Nelson/Mike Stanton season back in 2000. As far back as the 2003 World Series, when Torre assembled a staff with more lefty relievers than the Marlins had left-handed hitters, you could see that without pushbutton options, he struggled to find the right personnel and usage patterns for the pitchers he had in front of Mariano Rivera. This doesn’t make him a bad manager, just one perhaps not as creative or as flexible as would be optimal. Beyond the bullpen, you can also blame Torre for his bench, which is once again essentially useless, or blame him for his preference for Doug Mientkiewicz at first base over Josh Phelps, but these decisions reflect Torre’s blind spots that go back a long way. If they didn’t warrant firing through 11 seasons, they shouldn’t now, not when the real culprit in the team’s slow start is injuries in the rotation.
Beyond finally being able to pencil Wang, Mussina, and Philip Hughes into the lineup card every fifth day, Torre can do some things that will help his cause. He’s become too aggressive with his relievers-Yankee relievers have thrown 97 innings in 96 appearances, barely one per appearance, continuing a downward trend that goes back a number of years. Torre may have burnt out Scott Proctor last year, and Paul Quantrill before that, by using them too frequently. Torre would be well served to get multiple innings from guys like Brian Bruney and Sean Henn, two younger pitchers with live arms who should be able to throw 30-40 pitches on any given day, while making pitching changes and warming up relievers less frequently. Proctor and Mike Myers can be used to get matchups in the seventh and eighth innings, with Kyle Farnsworth the remaning one-inning guy. Luis Vizcaino may not have a role in this pen, but his roster spot might be better spent on an extra outfielder, or, since 12 pitchers seem to be mandatory, a long man such as Darrell Rasner. However the specifics play out, Torre has to find a way to use fewer pitchers and get more work per outing from the ones he does use.
The Yankees clearly have a challenge ahead of them. As Tom Verducci points out at SI.com, few teams have been able to bounce back from a sub-.400 April to make the postseason. On the other hand, few teams in that position have had the Yankees’ talent, and as Verducci points out in the same piece, recent Yankees teams have played long stretches of great baseball, the kind they’ll need this year. It’s not like a poor April is new to these Yankees. They were 10-14 in April 2005, and barely over .500 in 2004 and 2006. Bad months-remember, we’re noticing a 9-14 stretch more because it’s from the start of the season, rather than in June-aren’t damning, either. That ’05 team also went 12-14 in June and was at .500 as late as June 27. The 2003 Yankees went 11-17 in May. In a long season, you’re going to have stretches of under-.500 baseball. How you react to them can be more important than the short-term results themselves.
The thing to remember is that 23 games just doesn’t mean all that much in any context. It certainly doesn’t damn a manager who has put his uniform on in October in every year of his current gig. For whatever flaws Joe Torre has revealed over the past few seasons, he was considered good enough to helm the Yankees this winter, and nothing he’s done in the first month of the season reveals him to be suddenly inadequate for the job.