By Sweeny Murti
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“Remain calm, all is well!”
–Kevin Bacon as Chip Diller in Animal House
This has been my rallying cry for the last two months as I try to talk our very own Neil Keefe in off the ledge. For some reason, it appears almost tragic to Neil and many other Yankee fans that the team hasn’t already started to sell World Series tickets and Mayor Bloomberg hasn’t already started to plan the parade up the Canyon of Heroes (yes, the parade goes UP the Canyon, not down…minor pet peeve, but I digress).
LISTEN: Brian Cashman details Sabathia’s opt-out clause
I know Cliff Lee is in Philadelphia and Andy Pettitte is sitting at home in his bathrobe. But that’s no reason to think that on February 14th the Yankees are doomed. Do they need pitching help? Of course they do. But this is a long season. It always is.
Think back to 2005. The Yankees had acquired Randy Johnson in the off-season (and Carl Pavano by the way), and I remember being on the air before the Sunday night opener against Boston at the old Yankee Stadium, talking with Joe Benigno and Tom Verducci about a team that could possibly win 105 games and was easily the odds on favorite to win it all.
When that 2005 season opened we had no idea who Chien-Ming Wang, Robinson Cano, Aaron Small, or Shawn Chacon were, but they all came along during the course of the season. There was even a point when the team with the $171 million payroll actually had NO ONE to start a game in Boston and had to trade for Al Leiter.
That 2005 team didn’t win it all, bounced in the first round by the Angels. But the point is this—that season turned on the contributions of people who were not in the plans as the season began. People who weren’t on the major league roster on Opening Day helped turn the Yankees into Eastern Division Champs by the end of 162 games. This is called a baseball season, and that’s what the Yankees are about to embark on in 2011.
That’s not to say that there aren’t legitimate concerns about the Yankees entering this season. There’s a reason the Yankees are being questioned as they enter 2011, and while people consider questions about Russell Martin and Jorge Posada and Joba Chamberlain and Curtis Granderson, for me this season hinges on the following four questions:
1 – Who’s the 4th starter?
2 – Who’s the 5th starter?
3 – Which A.J. Burnett shows up?
4 – Will Derek Jeter bounce back?
Considering that three of these four questions involve 60% of the starting rotation, clearly this is an area where there is plenty to fret over. For now, barring unforeseen circumstances I would think that Freddy Garcia and Ivan Nova have the inside track on the 4th and 5th spots. With what these two provided in 2010 as a barometer (Garcia was 12-6, 4.64 ERA in 28 starts for the White Sox; Nova was 12-3, 2.86 ERA at AAA-Scranton and 1-2, 4.50 ERA with the Yanks), they could provide reasonable production in the back half of the rotation. Consider that the AL Champion Texas Rangers had Colby Lewis, Scott Feldman, and Rich Harden make a combined 72 starts last year totaling 24-29, 4.68 ERA, and anything close to .500 or better will be acceptable from these two spots in the rotation. And a strong bullpen, with the additions of Pedro Feliciano and Rafael Soriano, should make that possible.
Of course all that depends on how good the top half of the rotation is, and that hinges on question 3. A.J. Burnett needs to be the pitcher he is capable of. And for those who think that pitcher never shows up, I disagree. He just shows up less frequently than we’d like and last year turned into something so incredibly miserable that we were beginning to wonder if the “Good A.J.” would ever show up again.
It’s important to note here that, contrary to popular opinion, Good A.J. really does exist. Consider that in 2010 Burnett was as good for half the season as he was bad the other half. In April, May and July Burnett combined for 9-3, 2.92 ERA in 16 starts. But in June, August, and September he combined for 1-12, 8.12 ERA in 17 starts. His last two months were particularly excruciating, punctuated by Bengie Molina’s 3-run HR in Game 4 of the ALCS that just about sealed the Yankees fate.
Its at times like this I feel like Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi, telling Darth Vader, “There is still good in you…I can feel it.” For Neil Keefe’s sanity I will refrain from mentioning Game 2 of the 2009 World Series.
There is now way to sit here and tell you the Yankees have gotten anything close to their money’s worth out of Burnett in the first two years of his five year contract. But there is just enough promise in those good outings—and enough dollars left on the contract that make him impossible to move—for the Yankees to keep believing there is still good in him.
To win a pennant, most players on a team have to meet or exceed expectations. If CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes meet expectations they should set up the rest of the rotation very well and that leaves Burnett as the keystone to the whole thing. Good A.J., are you out there?
That leaves us with only question 4. What do you say Oh Captain My Captain? Derek Jeter established career lows in batting average (.270), on-base percentage (.340), and slugging percentage (.370) in 2010. He turns 37 in June and every one of his 600 at-bats will be dissected to determine if he’s losing it or getting it back.
Everything about the Yankee lineup in 2011 really revolves around Jeter. If he rebounds to post acceptable numbers (say .280 BA, .370 OBP) then the rest of the Yankee lineup should fall into place nicely. And although you’d like a higher OBP at the top of the order, it might be acceptable with the type of production we can expect from Nick Swisher, Mark Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez. A healthy Jorge Posada as DH and the revamped Curtis Granderson will anchor the bottom half of the order that can still be one of the top offenses in the league.
If Jeter continues a backward slide, however, that’s where the problems begin, with Joe Girardi having to entertain the idea of moving Jeter down the order and disrupting that balance. It already is part of the discussion based on Jeter’s 2010 and the possibility that a healthy Brett Gardner can be a better option.
But Jeter’s commitment to quiet the critics is a theme his closest friends say drives him. That’s what the Yankees are counting on after signing on for three more years. His age and declining production were the reasons for the acrimonious negotiation. Now its up to Jeter to prove he’s worth the money. That’s what his friends say he’s good at, proving others wrong.
All four of these are major issues, I know. But every team in baseball has questions this time of year, even the optimistic ones. While the Yankees ponder what becomes of the back half of their rotation, the newly favored Red Sox wonder about Josh Beckett and John Lackey, two of top of the rotation stalwarts, and the enigmatic Daisuke Matsuzaka. And the questions about an aging Derek Jeter also apply to an aging David Ortiz, whose slumps have been so dramatic that they prompted questions about his demise each of the last two years.
The Yankees have some questions. But if they didn’t, what fun would the next six and a half months be? It’s baseball. It’s what we love, and it all begins again this week. Its okay that the Yankees aren’t being measured for their World Series rings today. Remain calm, all is well.
Do you think it’s too early to panic? Sound off in the comments below!