Rivals in Exile: Last Place

Ben Jacobs: Well, thanks to New York’s poor play in the last 15 games and Boston’s poor play in the last two games, the Yankees are all alone in last place as of Saturday night. Obviously, it’s very early in the season, but I’m guessing this is the latest the Yankees have been in the cellar in a long, long time.

The Yankees have had a lot of problems, but the big one has obviously been starting pitching. Only one starter — Carl Pavano — has made multiple quality starts, and the Yankees only have four quality starts as a team. New York’s rotation has an ERA of 5.65, and has averaged just 5 2/3 innings per start.

And the news for the Yankees didn’t get any better Saturday, as Jaret Wright hurt his shoulder and his headed to the disabled list. It’s never good to have a starting pitcher get hurt, but normally it wouldn’t seem so hard to replace a pitcher with a 9.15 ERA.

In this case, however, since the Yankees did a terrible job of constructing their roster, they didn’t really have any backup starting pitchers. And the pitcher who was supposed to be their spot starter — Tanyon Sturtze — is also on the disabled list.

So the Yankees’ new fifth starter is Chien-Ming Wang, who has had decent success in the minor leagues with low walk and home run rates and a moderate strikeout rate. He’s been uninspiring in four starts in Triple-A this year, and while that doesn’t mean he won’t become an effective pitcher, it doesn’t exactly sound like the answer to New York’s problems.

With Wright on the shelf, Kevin Brown looking more and more like he’s done, and Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina both struggling to be effective, the Yankees have allowed the most runs in baseball. Yes, even more than the Rockies (although in one more game).

Of course, I would be more pleased with New York’s slow start if Boston hadn’t just lost two games in a row to Tampa Bay, both of which were very winnable.

The Red Sox have received some amazing starting pitching, as the rotation has a 3.42 ERA even though Curt Schilling has been ineffective in all three of his starts. But the excellent starts have been countered somewhat by a bullpen that has been very suspect — both in its performance and in the way it’s been used by Terry Francona.

And while the Red Sox are averaging 5.33 runs per game, the offense just doesn’t give me the confidence right now that it’s given me most of the last two years.

Right now, the Red Sox have four players — Manny Ramirez, Jason Varitek, David Ortiz and Trot Nixon — producing pretty well on offense, and the other five are anywhere from below average to really, really bad right now.

The great thing about the Red Sox offense wasn’t just that Ramirez and Ortiz formed one of the best 3-4 duos in the league, it was that all seven players who got at least 400 plate appearances had at least an .800 OPS.

I expect the Red Sox to eventually have the sort of lineup they had last year, with offensive threats from top to bottom, but right now there is a frustrating lack of production from more than half the lineup.

Of course, it’s hard for me to be too upset about Boston’s 10-8 record when that’s still three games ahead of the Yankees, and only one game out of first. Where you are in April doesn’t matter, as last year certainly proved, but I still like being in or near first place and ahead of the New York.

Larry Mahnken: I’m not really paying much attention to Boston much right now, or the standings. I just checked them for the first time in a while today. I didn’t know the Yankees were in last place, but they’re 8-11, which is exactly the same record they had after getting swept by Boston at home almost exactly a year ago.

They were four and a half back then, and they’re four back now, so big deal. It took them about a week to get back into first place last season.

There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about the Yankees right now. The only hitter who has been at all impressive is Jeter, and Bernie, Tino and Womack are simply killing the lineup. No starter has been dominant, and Wright and Brown have been outright terrible. The bullpen has been unimpressive, and the defense is what it is.

But the Yankees faced almost all of these problems last season, too. Jorge Posada was their only truly impressive hitter through 19 games last April, and only Javier Vazquez and Kevin Brown had impressed on the mound.

The pitching staff never really turned around, and in the case of Vazquez and Brown, things only got worse, but there does seem to be better hope for the Yankees this season on the mound. Randy Johnson gave the Yankees his first real “Randy Johnson” start in pinstripes on Sunday. Mike Mussina struggled without his best stuff early last year, but he seems to be managing with less than his best this season.

Andy Phillips’ big game on Sunday may be the best thing to happen to the Yankees this year. He’s a guy who can hit some and fill in at several positions (he’s a poor glove man, but then so is everyone else on the team). He’ll give the Yankees a right-handed bat at first against lefties, and maybe, just maybe, he’ll force Tony Womack out of his job.

Jaret Wright’s injury may have been an even better thing for the Yankees. If he misses a lot of time, it could free the Yankees up to get out of his contract early, and they won’t have to put up with his lousy pitching.

It also gives Tiger Wang a shot in the majors, who has the virtue of not being Jaret Wright, and it finally got Colter Bean a call-up to the majors, where maybe, just maybe, he’ll pitch well enough to impress Joe Torre and get a legit shot.

Are these the kind of things that will save the Yankees’ season? No, but they’re positive things that I did not necessarily expect to happen, and that’s always good.

What will turn the Yankees’ season around are steady performances by their lineup, and solid pitching to back them up. There’s room for almost everyone on the team to improve, and I’d be stunned if they didn’t. I don’t expect them to be in first next week, but then, I didn’t expect that last year, either. I wouldn’t be shocked if it happened again.

BJ: Well, a blowout win certainly does a lot to make things seem better. For the Yankees, it gives them the chance to say, as you did, “Well, this is where we were last year and we still won 101 games.”

It also lets them carry a great offensive performance and probably the best starting pitching performance of the season through the day off. Of course, after the day off, things don’t get any easier for the Yankees, as they have to play the Angels for three games.

Maybe the Yankees will reel off eight straight wins like they did after starting 8-11 last year, but let’s see them win three in a row first. Of course, I don’t care what the Yankees do over the next few weeks as long as the Red Sox don’t do what they did at this time last year.

After starting off 15-6 last April, the Red Sox started their three-month run of playing about .500 (41-42) ball. They simply cannot do anything like that again.

Last year, they got away with it because they got incredibly hot early in August and went 42-17 to end the season. They certainly can’t count on being able to do that again.

The Red Sox are a respectable 11-8 right now, and they need to keep moving further away from .500. Basically, they need Schilling to start pitching like Schilling, they need the bullpen to sort itself out, and they need Kevin Millar, Edgar Renteria, Mark Bellhorn and Bill Mueller to start pulling their weight on offense.

The main thing, I guess, is that not much is significantly different from last year. At this point last year, I still thought the Red Sox and Yankees would both make the playoffs, and they did. And right now, I still think the Red Sox and Yankees will both make the playoffs.

The Yankees do seem to have more vulnerabilities this year than they did last year, but it would be foolish to think the Yankees are incapable of getting very hot just because we haven’t seen it yet. New York will make a run at some point within the next month or so, and I just hope the Red Sox aren’t going in the opposite direction when that happens this year.

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