Five More Questions: New York Yankees

Editor’s note: By chance, not by plan, two writers contributed preview articles about the Yankees. Fans of the team, consider this your lucky day.

I am the sort of fan who spends far too much time thinking about his team. I also live in New York City, where one hears stories about the Yankees at least once a day, and even more if the Knicks have a day off from their win one/lose one schedule. Additionally, I have a job that involves a lot of waiting in venues where it is not appropriate to read a book or listen to music. I’m therefore left a lot of time with my thoughts. Attempting to make that time productive, I scribbled five of those thoughts and used them as the basis for these questions.

Carl Pavano. Why does that name seem so familiar?

Pavano, Pavano. Did I go to school with a Pavano? No, but I know I’ve heard that name bef—oh! He’s a pitcher who used to pitch for the Marlins. In fact, he was pretty good for the Marlins at one point. In 2004 Pavano won 18 games with a 3.00 ERA and 20 Win Shares, leading a Marlins staff that also included Brad Penny, Dontrelle Willis and Josh Beckett in all three categories.

After that 2004 season, Pavano signed a four-year contract with the Yankees and things more or less instantly began heading downhill for him. He began the 2005 season 0-2 and peaked with back-to-back solid (and alliterative) starts against the Mariners and Mets in May. After a start against the Orioles in June, Pavano began a long and varied trip to the disabled list and he has not appeared in a game for the Yankees since.

So what can the team expect of “Glass Carl” this year? Projections vary wildly but are arguably no better equipped to guess at Pavano’s performance this year than Carnac. Pavano has been mediocre in spring training but apparently healthy. On the con side, even before his injuries Pavano’s strikeout rate—fewer than six per nine innings—was a question.

Whether Pavano slots in as the Yankees’ fourth or fifth starter is also a question, but even as the fourth starter he needs only to match the numbers put up by Jaret Wright. If Pavano can stay healthy, he should manage that at least and be an asset, albeit an overpriced one, to the 2007 Yankees.

This Alex Rodriguez story isn’t going away, is it?

By mere mortal standards, A-Rod has had three brilliant seasons in New York. If one prefers traditional Triple Crown stats, Rodriguez’s average line for the Yankees is .300, 40 HR, 119 RBI. If you are a fan of advanced metrics, he has averaged more than 30 Win Shares during his Yankee tenure.

Unfortunately for A-Rod, a number of factors have conspired to give the overwhelming impression that his time in New York has been a disappointment. Some of these struggles Rodriguez has brought on himself by his comments to the press about his teammates last summer and his failures in the postseason. Others are to a large extent beyond his control, like the Yankees’ inability to win a World Series during his tenure and the endless comparisons between him and Derek Jeter. And that doesn’t even get into the ongoing, endless debate over A-Rod’s ability, or inability, to hit in the clutch.

This spring the main story lines for Rodriguez have been his admitting to his deteriorating relationship with Jeter and whether he will “opt out” of his contract after this season. For me, these are nonstories since the latter is irrelevant until the end of the season and the former should not affect the team’s play.

Ultimately, Rodriguez’s play will be the answer to these questions. If he “struggles” through another season like last year—which was still good for 12 Win Shares above Bench—and the Yankees fail to win a title, this story in all its facets will continue to grow. If A-Rod powers himself to another MVP-caliber season and the Yankees finally win their 27th World Series, the only story will be how many millions it will take to bring Alex back to the Bronx.

Mariano Rivera. Possibly a robot?

At some point either the effectiveness or the health (or both) of Mariano Rivera, the Yankees’ peerless closer, figures to wane. He missed much of the last two months of the previous season with elbow troubles, although he returned for the playoffs. Until that waning begins, however, betting against Rivera is apparently a fool’s exercise.

The 37-year-old reliever has not posted an ERA above two since 2002. Although his strikeout rate dropped in 2006, going from more than one per inning to barely over six and a half per nine, he continued to thrive. Rivera continued to show excellent control, walking just 11 in 75 innings. He also maintained his aversion to the home run; the last time he allowed more than three in a season, Chuck Knoblauch was his left fielder and Mike Stanton his primary set-up man.

Leaving aside his time as a starter in 1995, Rivera’s career ERA is barely over two. He has never had an ERA over 2.85 during his relieving days. But is this the year that some combination of age and the league finally catch up to Rivera? As a closer, Rivera does not have the high inning totals of others his age, but he has appeared in more than 700 regular season games and nearly 75 postseason games. Rivera has been in good form in spring training, allowing no runs and just four base runners (all hits) across nine innings.

Someday Rivera may prove he is no robot, and that his cut fastball will go from being devastating to merely effective. But until that day comes, Yankees fans can continue to look forward to remarkable performances by their man in the ninth inning.

I wonder what Presidential contenders think of Chien-Ming Wang?

As the likes of Hillary, Romney, Obama, McCain and others have traveled the nation raising money and support in their attempts to reside in the White House come January 2009, they have shared their opinions on a variety of issues. So far as I know, however, none of them has opined on what kind of year they expect from Chien-Ming Wang. That’s notable because it makes them seemingly the only people not to weigh in on Wang’s 2007 season.

Detractors of the Taiwanese righthander point to his strikeout rate as a cause for concern. Wang struck out just 76 in 218 innings in 2006. That rate was actually down from his 2005 numbers, which had themselves raised serious questions about Wang’s ability to survive—let alone thrive—at the major league level.

Wang’s supporters, while conceding his low strikeout rate is a problem, point to other factors they believe give him a chance at success. For one, if Wang is reluctant to strike anyone out, he is even more so to give up the walk, allowing just over two per nine innings in 2006. He also is stingy with the long ball, allowing only 12 in his 218 innings. No pitcher who qualified for the ERA total allowed fewer in 2006. Twelve was also the lowest total for pitchers with 200 or more innings since Kevin Brown and Carlos Zambrano allowed 11 and eight respectively in 2003.

So what do I think of Wang’s chances in 2007? Insofar as his strikeout rate is concerned, I must side with the detractors. While there is a non-zero chance of Wang being a pitcher able to get by despite virtually no strikeouts, it is highly unlikely. Nonetheless, Wang has been capable in the past of posting acceptable strikeout totals. In the minor leagues he struck out more than seven per nine innings. If Wang can improve his slider and get a few more swing-and-miss outcomes from his sinker, he can bring his strikeout rate to respectability and remain a good pitcher for many years to come.

Do you think my office would mind if I took a really long lunch?

I ask this not because I take long lunches as a policy (although I am writing this during my lunch break) but rather because my office is within a few blocks of New York’s “Canyon of Heroes.” New York City teams that win titles are celebrated down this stretch of Broadway with a ticker tape parade. If the Yankees were to win a World Series this season, I doubtless would have to take some time off from work to help them celebrate.

But the question is whether the Yankees are capable of winning that title. By most objective measures, they would have to be among the favorites. The Red Sox have reloaded after a disastrous 2006 but the Yankees’ offense figures to have a solid shot at 1,000 runs. Although the pitching may not bring up memories of the early years of the Torre Dynasty—the return of Andy Pettitte notwithstanding—if the offense provides enough runs, there are enough arms to carry the Yankees to 90 or more wins and a trip to the playoffs.

It is the playoffs where the Yankees have struggled the past few years, going out in the first round three of the last five years and carrying a record of 9-11 in postseason games since 2004. Where the blame for this falls is an open debate; candidates range from Joe Torre to Alex Rodriguez to bad luck to anyone who took the mound at any point during those games. There is probably some truth in all of those explanations.

So is this the year the Yankees finally overcome whatever has been keeping them from that end-of-season champagne celebration? They have as good a shot as any Yankee team of the past few years, and it is sure to be interesting watching them to find out.

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