Bronx Bomb

The hen is the wisest of all the animal creation because she never cackles until after the egg has been laid.

– Abraham Lincoln

A month ago, as the 2004 season was about to begin, the Yankees were almost universally lauded as the heavy favorites to win the World Series. Coming off of a 101-win season, they had added two elite starters, two top relief pitchers, a right fielder coming off of an MVP caliber season, and a shortstop who had just won the MVP. There were, of course, concerns about the team’s general health and depth, particularly within the starting rotation, but that was likely to do no more harm than make them settle for the Wild Card instead of the division.

It all set up a very boring story: team buys stars, team wins lots of games, team wins World Series. Before a single game was played the complaints about the unfairness of baseball’s economic system were heard, even from the Red Sox — not exactly a poor team. To many in the mainstream media, that the Yankees would win the World Series seemed a foregone conclusion. The only interesting story possible about the Yankees was if they lost.

Well, guess what?

After 20 games, the Yankees are 9-11, and four games out of first place. It’s hardly the end of the world, but with the expectations of everyone entering this season, playing .500 ball for more than two games would be considered a major disaster.

Nor are the Yankees out of it, or even close to being out of it. They’ll have to win five more games than Boston over the course of the season to win the division, but this is baseball. The Yankees will have hot streaks; the Red Sox will have cold streaks. That’s inevitable. And even if the Red Sox don’t slump, one incredibly hot month by the Yankees and they could catch and pass the Red Sox all on their own.

History doesn’t eliminate the Yankees either, as 35 teams have finished their first 20 games with an 9-11 record and made the playoffs, and 15 of them — including the 2002 Angels and 2003 Marlins — have gone on to win the World Series. Indeed, the past three World Champions were at or below .500 through 20 games, and 11 teams have been at or below .500 after 20 games and made the playoffs since 2000.

Of course, going 9-11 isn’t a good sign if you want to make the playoffs, even in the Wild Card Era. What all those teams did, and what the Yankees must do, is play much better baseball the rest of the season. Discarding our previous assumptions about the Yankees, whether or not they’ll overcome their slow start depends on why it’s happened, and whether it’ll turn around.

So, why are they slumping? Well…

Clutch Stuck In Neutral

Over the course of his career, Derek Jeter has garnered a reputation as a Clutch Hitter. Much of that is selective memory, and particularly his inexplicable tendency to be the first one to get a hit in almost all of the Yankees’ many comeback rallies in the 1996 postseason — his first. Whether he really is clutch is debatable, but there is no doubt that Jeter is a fantastic hitter who you feel comfortable having at the plate in any situation.

But so far this season he’s hitting a ridiculously bad .169/.250/.205, and is currently in the midst of an unbelievable 0-for-28 slump. He hasn’t taken his problems with the bat out in the field, though, and if you think this is where I’ll drop in a gratuitous comment about his putrid defense, think again.

Jeter’s Zone Rating so far this season is 5th in all of MLB, the highest of his career by far, and higher than any A-Rod has had in any season but 2000 and 2002. Those numbers SCREAM small sample size — possibly the result of A-Rod cutting in front of him several times this season — but if they hold up, and the more advanced metrics show a significant improvement in Jeter’s defense at season’s end, then this columnist will give Jeter his due.

Jeter’s slump is inexplicable. He’s only turning 30 in June, so a catastrophic decline is unlikely to be occurring. Some reports have Jeter suffering from an injury for the past week and a half, but his numbers never approached respectability this season before the injury took place. Lacking any other relevant information, one must conclude that Jeter is simply having bad luck, though the slump may have become self-sustaining after a few games. However, once the slump is broken, it should have no impact on his performance the rest of the season, and we can reasonably expect Jeter to put up numbers similar to previous seasons for the remainder of the schedule: .300/.370/.450.

Spare The A-Rod, Spoil The Offense

The most notable acquisition the Yankees made in the offseason was trading for American League MVP Alex Rodriguez. Rodriguez has been the best player in the league for several years, and has won the past two Gold Gloves at shortstop, but in order to escape from the seemingly endless mediocrity of Texas, he agreed to move to third base, despite being the superior shortstop.

Whatever the merits of the move, Rodriguez seems to have quickly become comfortable with the hot corner. He’s made several very good plays in the field, and very few poor ones. From that perspective, the move has been a resounding success.

But Rodriguez’s offense is what makes him worth $25 million, and his offense has been mediocre. By no means has he hit as poorly as Jeter, but his hitting has been similar to Aaron Boone‘s dreadful performance in New York last season, and inferior to what Alfonso Soriano, the man he was traded for, has been doing in Texas.

It’s not just bad luck that’s hurting Rodriguez, either. Several times, he’s looked lost at the plate, swinging at pitches Soriano would have considered possibly not swinging at, and making extremely poor contact. On one of his three home runs, he didn’t know he had hit the ball fair, let alone out of the park.

It’s clear from watching Rodriguez bat that he’s having mechanical problems, perhaps caused by eagerness to prove himself to the New York fans, an anxiety that has to be exacerbated by his early struggles. Mechanics can be fixed, and the anxiety will pass. Rodriguez has already started hitting much, much better in the past few games, so again, one can reasonably expect him to put up similar numbers to his past seasons: .300/.400/.600

Naked Sheff

Gary Sheffield offers a much greater dilemma. His 2003 season would have been MVP worthy if Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols hadn’t been around, but having declined in each of the previous three seasons, and having turned 35 last November, expecting a repeat of those numbers was not particularly reasonable, and an extreme decline was possible.

Added to that uncertainty was the revelation that Sheffield had sent urine specimens to accused steroid distributor BALCO, and reports in the San Francisco Chronicle that he had been given steroids in the past. The possibility that Sheffield had been using performance-enhancing drugs, and was probably not using them in 2004 with the new steroid testing policy in effect, made the possibility of an extreme decline seem that much greater.

Sheffield has been getting on base at a good rate, but his batting average is mediocre and his power almost non-existent. Has age caught up to Sheffield, is he just in the midst of a fluke slump, or is there something more sinister at work? Only time can answer the first two questions, and it’s likely we’ll never know for certain the answer to the latter one. Until he starts pounding the ball, Sheffield has to be a question mark, though his power will likely improve at least somewhat.

Bernout

Last season, Bernie Williams looked like an MVP candidate entering May. Always a slow starter, he finished the first month batting over .350 with great power, slugging over .600. Unfortunately, he injured his knee early in May, and after a long hitless streak, had surgery and missed more than a month of the season.

When he returned, his power was gone, his batting average plummeted, and what looked like it would be his best season ever turned out to be his worst since 1993, his first full season. There was some redemption at the end of October, though, as Bernie hit .400/.429/.720 with two homers in the World Series, and would have been the likely MVP had the Yankees pulled the series out. Though less than three dozen plate appearances, the World Series left the impression that Williams might rebound significantly in 2004.

The acquisition of Kenny Lofton threatened Williams’ job in centerfield, but playing DH regularly would help to keep Williams healthy all season, and help to rejuvenate his bat.

But an emergency appendectomy just as Spring Training was starting robbed Williams of a month of training, denied Lofton the opportunity to compete for the centerfield job, and sapped Williams of much of his strength. When Williams returned to the roster after the Japanese trip, he was put back in the field, his claim on the position further solidified by Lofton’s leg injury soon afterwards.

That Williams is a defensive liability has been apparent for the past two seasons, but his bat has been even more putrid at the start of this season: .167/.286/.200. Williams has always been a poor starter, but this goes to a new extreme.

Williams is 35 years old, and has struggled through injuries in recent years. Is he washed up? It’s certainly a possibility.

But Williams also missed all of Spring Training and may still be feeling the aftereffects of surgery. Like Sheffield, how valuable he’ll be is an open question, but one that will be more easily answered. His May is likely to give us a better impression of how he’ll do the rest of the season, but it will almost have to be better than what he’s done so far.

Sierra Missed

Joe Torre has a lot of merits as a manager, particularly his ability to handle volatile personalities in the clubhouse, and keep the wrath of George Steinbrenner away from his players. As an in-game strategist, he has many flaws, and many of the moves he makes in game, or in constructing the roster and lineup are highly questionable.

That’s not to say that Joe Torre is responsible for the Yankees’ woes. He’s made some decisions that may or may not have made it harder for the Yankees to win a few games, but he’s done nothing that specifically cost the team a game. However, some of his most egregious mistakes this season have to include:

- Leaving Ruben Sierra in to bat in the ninth inning on April 22 against Chicago, with the tying run on base and Jason Giambi on the bench.

- Putting Ruben Sierra in the starting lineup several times instead of Tony Clark, Travis Lee or Don Mattingly.

- Pinch-hitting Ruben Sierra for anyone other than Enrique Wilson or Miguel Cairo.

- Keeping Ruben Sierra on the roster after Spring Training.

- Not taking Ruben Sierra out to the woods and putting him out of our misery when he had the chance.

Ruben Sierra is what he is: he can’t run, he can’t field, and his bat speed is gone. He can only hit a fastball over the middle of the plate, and when he gets that, he can crush it almost to the wall. If your other pinch-hitting options are replacement-level middle infielders, he’s got some value, but with two first basemen who can play the outfield at least as well as he can on the roster, he’s worthless.

To be fair, he did stroke the game-winning double against Oakland last night, but ultimately that should do the team more harm than good, as it will ensure many more at-bats for him.

Sierra would be a waste of a roster space if the Yankees had any options to fill that roster space. Whether he should be on the bench is debatable, but he shouldn’t come off of it very often.

Second To All

When Aaron Boone went down with a knee injury in the offseason, what seemed to be a solid roster suddenly had a gaping hole. The thin market for third basemen had led the Yankees to sign Boone to more than he was worth rather than non-tender him and risk being left without a dance partner, and by the time 2004 rolled around, what little options there were for respectable third basemen were locked up. The Yankees gladly let Drew Henson go back to football, dismissed the possibilities of giving Brian Myrow or top prospect Eric Duncan a shot at the job, and looked at Mike Lamb and Tyler Houston as possible stopgaps.

The A-Rod trade ended all of that, but by sending Alfonso Soriano to Texas in the trade, the Yankees simply shifted the hole to second base, where the options were no more appealing. Enrique Wilson is a replacement-level hitter and defender, and Miguel Cairo is not much different, except for the fact that he doesn’t switch-hit.

Wilson hit exceptionally well in Spring Training, and was given the everyday job by Joe Torre. Once the games counted, Wilson stopped hitting, and has put up numbers than make Jeter’s and Williams’ look like MVP caliber: .167/.212/.167. In extremely limited play, Cairo has hit .308/.400/.538, but Torre has been slow to give him the everyday job. The move is not likely to pay large dividends, but until Wilson proves he can hit his weight — or at least get an extra-base hit — it would help.

What the Yankees really need is a real second baseman. Not necessarily a star, but someone who can contribute value to the team with either the glove or the bat. Until they do, second base will be a drag on the lineup, no matter which guy they play.

Wossamatta U.

For the past decade, Mike Mussina has been one of the most consistently excellent starters in all of baseball, but one of the least appreciated. He does everything well, but is spectacular at nothing; he’s never won 20 games, never struck out 250 batters, never led the league in ERA, never pitched a no-hitter, never won a Cy Young Award or the World Series. But when there’s a game that must be won, you feel good with Mussina on the mound.

This season, however, has been a struggle for Mussina. His velocity is down, his control is off, he’s given up home runs, he’s given up hits, his strikeouts are down. His sudden decline is eerily similar to the sudden demise of David Cone, who threw a perfect Game in May of 1999, and from the moment the ball landed in Scott Brosius’ glove, was never the same pitcher. Mussina isn’t quite getting hammered, but he hasn’t pitched well yet, either.

Perhaps Mussina is suffering the aftereffects of the Japan trip, or has suffered from the lack of a full Spring Training, having left the team in early March to attend his father-in-law’s funeral. He might even be concealing an injury. But perhaps he’s simply lost it, having turned 35 in December. It’s still early, so he could very quickly turn it around, but it’s still a frightening and very real possibility.

If Mussina can’t be counted upon this season, it would be one of the heaviest blows to their title chances that they could be dealt. If they make the postseason and Mussina can’t be counted upon, their rotation ceases to have three great starters and seem invincible, but rather features two great starters and two question marks, and is eminently beatable. Even if every other problem listed here turns out in the best possible fashion for the Yankees, this is the one that could undo everything. This could cost them the ring.

El Titan de Bombs

Jose Contreras wasn’t expected to win the Cy Young Award in 2004. There were no real expectations of him, because in the limited number of starts he had last year, he showed two different faces: the Contreras who couldn’t be hit, and the Contreras who couldn’t get anyone out.

So far, it’s the latter Contreras who has shown up for work.

There really has been nothing to like about Contreras’ three starts so far. He’s been hit, and hit hard. He’s struck out a batter an inning, but walked nearly as many. He’s given up four home runs, and has an ERA of 10.64.

Contreras’ great numbers last year weren’t merely the result of weak opponents — he shut down the White Sox and Blue Jays in September, and was dominant against the Red Sox in his first two relief appearances of the ALCS. It’s not the competition that has been his undoing; it’s something else, because he simply doesn’t pitch the same in every game.

Perhaps he’s been tipping his pitches, something the Yankees thought they had corrected before his last shellacking at the hands of the Red Sox, but that Baseball Tonight thinks they’ve spotted. Accusing the Red Sox of stealing signs is somewhat classless and wholly unproductive, as it wouldn’t stop it if it was happening, and wouldn’t fix the real problem if it weren’t.

The Yankees don’t need Contreras to be dominant — if he’s mediocre, they can go with a three-man rotation in the postseason — but they do need him to be effective, and to give the team a chance to win when he goes out on the mound. He has it in him; the Yankees have seen it. They just need to see it more often.

The Yankees’ Fifth Starters Really Haven’t Been Very Good (What? You expected another pun?)

Jon Lieber, coming off of Tommy John Surgery, was slated as the fifth starter going into Spring Training, but the team put him on the DL before breaking camp. His initial replacement, Donovan Osborne, was moved aside in favor of Jorge DePaula after the first week. DePaula then had Tommy John Surgery of his own, passing the baton onto “prospect” Alex Graman, who struggled mightily in Chicago, nearly blowing a huge first-inning lead before being lifted in the third inning. Lieber is expected to return Saturday, and the Yankees are counting on him to be effective. Now.

Lieber was always a solid, if unspectacular pitcher before the surgery, so the Yankees shouldn’t think “ace” when they see him going out to the mound. But if he’s fully recovered, and pitches like he once did, he’ll be one of the top 5th starters in baseball. If he struggles, or gets injured, the Yankees are in trouble, because the options they have to turn to aren’t very appealing.

DePaula’s out, and Osborne hasn’t been an effective pitcher since the mid 90′s. One start isn’t necessarily enough to dismiss Graman, but the way he pitched came close to being enough. Even worse, if one of their other starters goes down and the Yankees are already using Osborne or Graman in the fifth slot, the rotation looks very good on top, but unimpressive overall.

Someone is almost certain to get injured at some point. It happens, and the Yankees have plenty of risk preexisting in the rotation. The lack of rotation depth hasn’t killed the Yankees yet, but unless the offense starts meeting some of the expectations people had for it, the team could kiss the division title goodbye, and struggle to contend for the Wild Card.

The impression this all gives of the Yankees is bleak, but that’s just because these are the problems, and not the bright spots. Javier Vázquez and Kevin Brown have been great for the Yankees, and the bullpen has met the highest expectations. Jorge Posada is red-hot, Hideki Matsui is playing solid ball, and while Jason Giambi is hitting around .200 again with unimpressive power, he’s getting on base at a great rate, and the power displayed in the three home runs he did hit leaves one with the impression that his low power numbers are the result of poor contact, not loss of bat speed or strength.

The Yankees are a very good team, and they will play much, much better than they have. When the lineup clicks, it could be a devastating force, and if Mike Mussina returns to form, the rotation could be impossible to contend with in October. They’ll win a lot of games this year, but the playoffs are no guarantee. As for the World Series, that’s something nobody should think about until the Yankees clinch a spot in October.

The Yankees spent a lot of money trying to win this offseason, and their overall payroll surpasses the competition by leaps and bounds. But the game is called baseball, not payroll, and once on the field, it doesn’t matter how much you make. You can’t buy victories.

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