With the official second half beginning on Thursday in Toronto, here are the most pressing question the Yankees will face over the next two-and-a-half months:
Will the pitching hold up?
This is actually a two part question: a) Will the starting pitching hold up, and b) Will the relief pitching hold up?
If you were to ask any baseball “expert” at the beginning of the season they would have pointed to the Yankees’ starting pitching as their weakness and their relief pitching as their strength, yet through 88 games both has performed extremely well, with unlikely stars emerging.
The Yankees pitching staff has posted a 3.46 ERA—good for fourth in the American League. The starting staff has been bolstered by a resurgent AJ Burnett, unprecedented return by Bartolo Colon, and smoke-and-mirrors from Freddy Garcia. The Yankees were one of the few teams in Baseball who had a consistent five-man rotation throughout the first half and have those three, along with CC and Nova, are to thank.
When Hughes returned from the DL the Yankees indicated they will give him every opportunity to prove he can return to his 2010 pre-All Star dominance. So the question really is: Can two of the three previously mentioned starters hold-up?
In my opinion—and I am a pessimist—the answer is no; and it may not be because of performance. It is illogical to assume injuries will not occur. The Yankees have already lost Hughes (although part of that was performance) for the entire first half, and Colon for a short period of time; so the risk of losing another starting pitcher is still very real.
The Yankees can take solace in the fact that they do have starting pitching depth. Ivan Nova, who at 8-4 was in the running for AL Rookie of the Year, was demoted to AAA to make room for Hughes. If any starter gets injured or does not perform well, Nova will be the first to make the trip from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to the Bronx.
The bullpen is another issue, and it hinges on Rafael Soriano. Soriano has been miserable this year, but that does not mean he cannot return from the DL to help the Yankees immensely. Robertson (and Chamberlain while he was healthy) stepped up in Soriano’s absence, but the Yankees’ bullpen past Rivera and Robertson is thin. Logan is not pitching well and Mitre is a mop-up man. Ayala and Noesi are unproven, which is not to say they are incapable, but they will need to prove themselves in the second half in order to be relied upon in October.
How will the Yankees fare without Alex Rodriguez?
A-Rod will be likely be out through the end of August because of knee surgery, which was performed before the All Star break in order to give the Yankees and Alex a few free days to recover. With A-Rod out, Robinson Cano will replace him in the cleanup spot and a combination of Eduardo Nunez and Ramiro Pena will fill in at third base. Nunez, who already successfully filled in for one future hall of famer this season, will have the task of replacing another. We all know how Nunez responded to that challenge, so the pressure will instead fall on the middle of the Yankees’ order—specifically Cano—to make up for the loss of A-Rod.
Robinson has had a good season, great for most players. But he has not been nearly as productive as he was in 2010 when he finished third in MVP voting. The main reason is because he is less patient at the plate. Cano has walked only 17 times this season, causing his OBP to be 40 points lower than it was a year ago. Most notably, Cano is swinging at over 40% of pitches outside of the strike zone, about 8% higher than his career percentage. If Cano can reclaim his dominance from a year ago, the Yankees will be fine with Rodriguez out.
What position, if any, will the Yankees target at the Trade Deadline?
Brian Cashman’s number one priority at the trade deadline should be finding a left-handed reliever. Here’s why:
When Theo Epstein traded for Adrian Gonzalez and signed Carl Crawford to add to a lineup that included Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz, and JD Drew, they immediately became vulnerable to left-handed pitching. As we know, the Yankees are 1-8 vs. Boston this season and that can be attributed to the fact that the Yankees do not have enough left-handed pitchers to neutralize the Red Sox left-handed-heavy lineup. Those five previously mentioned lefties have slugged 18 extra base hits in those 9 games, including 8 home runs. If we think the Yankees and Red Sox will be competing for the pennant in October, and I do, then CC Sabathia and Boone Logan are not going to get it done alone.
In other bullpen trade rumors, the Yankees have been linked to the Heath Bell sweepstakes. With Soriano returning (hopefully) I do not see the Yankees overextending themselves to get Bell.
Like the previous two seasons, the Yankees have indicated they are in the market for a right-handed bat off the bench. In 2010 they picked up Austin Kearns (who didn’t work out well) and in 2009 they picked up Jerry Hairston Jr. (who worked out a bit better than Kearns, and actually proved to be a valuable bench player in the playoffs). I do not see the Yankees entering this market in 2011 however; because they have more pressing needs and confidence in Nunez to be the ‘super-utility’ player Jerry Hairston Jr. was in ’09.