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Keefe To The City: Yankees Return Home Rolling

Eduardo Nunez, Robinson Cano, Brett Gardner

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By Neil Keefe
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The Yankees return home on Friday after another successful road trip. After finishing up their last homestand with a 6-1 record, the Yankees continued their winning ways on the road, going 4-2 against the Cubs in and Reds.

It’s been just over a month since the last time Sweeny Murti, “The Voice of Reason,” joined me for an email discussion. Since our last discussion, the Yankees have been rolling (except for those three nights at the Stadium against the Red Sox) and everything is going well except for a few injuries. With the final leg of the interleague schedule coming up and July 1 just around the corner, Sweeny and I talked about the state of the Yankees.

Keefe: This is our first discussion in print since May 20. That’s a long time. Since then, the Yankees have gone 20-11 and have only lost two series in the last 33 days (Seattle and Boston). So for the most part “The Voice of Reason” hasn’t been needed. But also in that time the Yankees have had to deal with injuries to some key players, forcing Joe Girardi to juggle the lineup in a variety of ways, including some very odd way at that.

With Derek Jeter on the disabled list with a calf strain, Girardi has turned to a leadoff platoon of Brett Gardner and Nick Swisher to fill the void with No. 2 on the shelf. And in this time, Gardner has proven again to be effective as a leadoff hitter and effective against left-handed pitching at the same time, which poses two very important questions: Should Gardner become the full-time leadoff hitter at some point (I know Girardi said Jeter would become the leadoff hitter again when he returns) and what is Andruw Jones’ role on this team now?

I have been pro-Jeter for leadoff forever, but I’m beginning to be persuaded by the other side of the argument and the results have been there recently. I don’t think Jeter should lose his leadoff role due to injury, but then again, maybe he shouldn’t have had it to begin with and it was just my Jeter blinders preventing me from saying so.

As for Jones, his job was to play left field against left-handed pitching, but with Gardner proving that lefty hitter can hit lefty pitchers too (What a concept!), Jones’ role has been and should be diminished. So if Jones isn’t going to play against lefties (at least I hope he doesn’t) and he can’t hit righties, what’s his job?

That’s a lot to digest in our first conversation back from a nearly month-long hiatus.

Murti: As long as you’ve been taking your meds, I’m confident that we didn’t lose too much ground since our last conversation.

The lineup switches involving Gardner have little to do with Gardner’s ability or inability to hit lefties. It has more to do with the fact that Swisher has a .451 OBP vs. LHP (compared to a not-too-shabby .390 for Gardner) and Jones has a .483 SLG vs. LHP (compared to Gardner’s .343).

What does all that really mean? It’s not about lack of confidence in Gardner. It’s simply that Swisher in the leadoff spot and Jones’ power numbers make them options for better run production in most cases against left-handed pitchers. Swisher is getting on base at a significantly higher rate and Jones offers the potential for power, especially important in a hitter’s ballpark with no DH.

It’s also about getting Jones some ABs. Granderson has been soooo productive against lefties that he’s now an everyday guy. If Jones doesn’t play for Gardner, he will NEVER play. People have complained for years about the Yankees having weak options on the bench. There was some excitement this spring about having an experienced guy like Jones for that role, but if he never plays what difference does it make?

I understand you’re excited about Gardner’s recent hot streak, but it wasn’t too long ago that Gardner was in your line of fire as unable to hit or steal bases or basically do anything you wanted him to do. Let’s just remember this is a long season.

Keefe: The last time we talked, Jorge Posada was hitting .183 and was a week removed from pulling himself out of the lineup for hitting at the bottom of the order. Today, Posada is hitting .225 (including .391/.431/.543 in June) and hit his first home run since April 23 in a big spot against the Reds on Wednesday afternoon.

Posada has been relegated to mainly a pinch-hitting role with the team on the road for interleague play, but it’s obvious he has been swinging the bat better of late. Is the old Jorge coming back or at least somewhat of the old Jorge? Is it possible that the theory that he needed time to get comfortable becoming a designated hitter and learning how to hit without playing the field was actually the case?

Murti: Is it possible that you are starting to think logically?

Posada’s start to the season was terrible and he knows it too. It was quite possible he may have gotten off to a bad start if he was playing the field too, but he used to be able to not think about his at-bats and go right back to catching. Now he has 30 or 40 minutes to think about his last at-bat. Excuse? Maybe. But reality nonetheless.

Posada has been hitting great for the last month, but you would still like to see the power numbers come back. He hit his first home run in two months, and that’s not what you’re looking for from your DH.

Keefe: Come on, Sweeny. I ALWAYS think logically. But speaking of Posada, let’s talk about the Yankees backup catcher Francisco Cervelli, who’s miraculously still a Yankee. It’s obvious Cervelli can’t hit and a year after leading AL catchers in errors (despite being a backup) he’s up to his old tricks, especially on throws to second base.

The Yankees were lucky with off-days and rainouts during the beginning of the year that they were able to hide Gustavo Molina on the bench and give Russell Martin nearly every start at catcher until Cervelli was healthy. But at this point even Molina (a career .128/.160/.170 hitter) would be a better option than Cervelli since he can at least play defense.

I know we always like to talk about the last guys on the roster and how if they were better they wouldn’t be the last guys on the roster, but I’m not sure what Cervelli is bringing to the table to justify a major league roster spot.

Why not let Posada catch a game here and there? It’s not like his defense is any worse than Cervelli’s and it would free up a roster spot. And it’s not like Posada’s bat is that important to the Yankees lineup in that his catching or a potential injury would derail the Yankees’ chance at success.

Murti: I’m coming around on this one, only because of the poor stolen base numbers. Entering Wednesday, Cervelli had thrown out only 11 of 85 base stealers in the last two seasons, which is a miserable 13 percent (Posada was consistently 25-30 percent for most of his career). His game-calling and defense strictly behind the plate (non-throwing) seem to be pretty good, and his offense for the most part is acceptable for the backup catcher. Yes, he needs to get the bunt down more consistently.

Overall, I think he has regressed. He was considerably better just two years ago, but the options are limited. Molina is OK I guess, but nothing more than a stopgap. I would think Cervelli has to realize that for a guy who some considered a good starting option as little 14 months ago, his career path will take a serious turn if he doesn’t improve in the areas I mentioned. Enough people in the organization still like his tools (if not the way he’s used them lately) that I think he still has time to get straightened out.

Keefe: Give me a minute to collect myself. Agreeing with me about getting rid of someone? Is this real life? It must be real life because so far today Cervelli is 0-for-2 with two strikeouts.
Ivan Nova had a great start against the Reds on Monday night and I’m beginning to think Nova has a little Chien-Ming Wang in him. Will he win 19 games in back-to-back years? I don’t know. No one does. But the way he can effortlessly go through a lineup when his hard sinker is down in the zone is very Wang-esque. That along with the fact that he sort of came onto the scene unexpectedly as a prospect that wasn’t very heralded and no one put a lot of stock into like Wang in 2005. But like Wang, when the sinker is up, he looks like Wang against the Indians in the 2007 ALDS.

Nova now has seven wins (second on the team) and is starting to dispel the idea that he can’t pitch in this league. What do you expect out of him the rest of the way and what do you think his ceiling is in his first full season in the majors?

Murti: Nova has been impressive at times, and looked young at times. It comes with the territory I guess. He has some swagger to him and when he combines that with his fastball, curveball, slider, changeup working the way it did Monday night … well, you get a great outing. It doesn’t happen all the time. Most pitchers will tell you they only have about three or four games a year when they feel they can throw every pitch as well as Nova did that night against the Reds.

Nova’s potential looks good, but you’ve got to be willing to let him lose a few games and learn from them. Two weeks ago you were wondering if he still belonged in the rotation. That’s the way it’s going to be for a young pitcher on a contending Yankees team. No loss is a good one. Nova’s second half will be interesting to watch, once he faces teams again and gets deeper into his first full year as a big league starter.

Keefe: Four times this year A.J. Burnett has gone at least seven innings and allowed two earned runs or less and has earned the loss or taken a no-decision. Just from that alone, it’s obvious A.J. Burnett (7-5) has been better in 2011 than he was in 2010. OK, a lot better.

Last June, Burnett was 0-5 in five starts with an 11.35 ERA in what was the worst month for any pitcher I remember ever. It forced to pick him apart every week and even create a way to measure the three types of Burnett starts/meltdowns. This June he’s 2-2 with a 4.21 ERA, which could be better if he can ever figure out how to pitch well against the Red Sox as a Yankee.

We have talked a lot about Burnett this season and last season (maybe more than any other player) and now that the season is getting to the midway point, is there anything different you have noticed from Burnett aside from his changeup that’s leading to consistency? To me, he seems like the same Burnett with wild pitches and sometimes erratic stuff, but he seems to be eliminating the inevitable brain fart inning where he gives up a four or five spot. Maybe it’s Russell Martin’s presence after all?

Murti: Wow … I think that’s as close to complimenting A.J. Burnett as you’ve ever come. Not even after … wait for it … Game 2 of the 2009 World Series (!!) were you this positive about Burnett.

Burnett just seems far removed from last season, he just doesn’t seem like the same person. I think that’s a big reason he has been able to avoid the bad inning like you’re talking about. Russell Martin and the changeup are both part of the equation. The wild pitches? Well, as long as his curveball is that nasty, that’s going to happen, no matter how good or bad he’s pitching.

And just think, a little run support and you might be talking about Burnett for the, GULP, All-Star team!?!?

Keefe: Who would have thought that an injury to Bartolo Colon in June would be so devastating to the Yankees?

Before Colon’s injury he had been on a roll, looking like the guy who won the Cy Young in 2005 and pitching like almost another ace for the Yankees and clearly their No. 2 starter (sorry, A.J.). I have already apologized several times to Bartolo for my piece that was probably the most anti-Bartolo Colon piece in the world before the season and I was wrong. And now that he’s gone, I miss him.

Without Colon in the rotation, there’s a serious hole in the Yankees starters that has now been filled twice by Brian Gordon. How surprised are you at the way Colon had pitched before his injury, and what is the general consensus in the clubhouse about how dominant he can be as another front-end option for the Yankees?

Murti: I don’t know a single person who isn’t surprised by what Bartolo Colon gave the Yankees before pulling up with a hamstring injury earlier this month. He was blowing hitters away in spring training and did it consistently once the season started. The good news about the injury is that it wasn’t his arm. The bad news is that it’s still an injury to a 38-year-old body and that will take time to heal. The Yankees will be careful, and I wonder if he can get more than one start in before the All-Star break. That’s just me guessing right now since it all depends on how quickly he heals.

Colon was pitching like a front-end guy before he got hurt, and that excited everybody in the Yankees organization. But I think its also very realistic to say the Yanks have already gotten more out of him than they had any right to expect. That said, they will need more because the pitching market isn’t great and it will still take time to develop. Too many teams are still in the playoff picture and won’t be willing to give it up.

The Yankees probably already had rotation and bullpen upgrades on their minds, and that is even more the case after the injuries they’ve suffered.

Keefe: It wouldn’t be tradition if we didn’t finish by talking about Boone Logan, so let’s talk about the “left-handed specialist.”

I will be sad when Boone Logan leaves because it will mean a lot less “Ladies and gentlemen” from me on Twitter, but it will be good because, well, he won’t be able to hurt the team anymore.

On Monday night, Logan comes in to face a lefty and hits him on the first pitch, and then gets pulled. This wouldn’t be a big deal if people were shocked by the result of him failing to get out the one guy he is asked to get out. At some point the Yankees have to recognize that having a lefty in the bullpen just to have one isn’t a good enough reason to have one. If he can’t get hitters out and can’t get LEFTIES out then it’s time to move on and give someone else a chance.

How much longer until the Boone Logan experiment comes to an end? Give me something to be happy about.

Murti: Well, timing is always important. As I am reading this question from you, Boone Logan is sitting happily in the dugout, having retired both Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. This brings his batting average vs. lefties down from .300 to .286. On the positive side, lefties are batting .000 against Logan in the last 15 minutes.

Rest assured the Yankees can still have the best or second best record in the American League with Boone Logan on the staff. Do I trust him against David Ortiz or Josh Hamilton? Of course not. But I do trust that he won’t be the one asked to get them out in October.

With all the injuries and problems that we seem to think the Yankees have, Boston is still the only team decidedly better than the Yanks right now and there are almost 90 games left to work on that. Replacing Boone Logan is part of that plan, but if it were that easy they would have done it already. As the great Ed Rooney once said, I don’t trust him as far as I could throw him.

There will come a day when the Yankees have someone other than Boone Logan trying to get out lefthanders. They’ve given him plenty of chances, and this year he hasn’t taken advantage of it. He won’t get that many more chances, trust me.

Follow Neil on Twitter at http://twitter.com/NeilKeefe

Follow Sweeny on Twitter at http://twitter.com/YankeesWFAN

How would you grade the Yankees’ season so far? Sound off in the comments below…