Keefe To The City: Yankees Setting Up For Second Half

The Yankees are notoriously known for being a second-half team, but you wouldn’t have known that from Thursday’s game.

After a solid first half, the Yankees enter the second portion of the season with question marks popping up all over the place. Between the devastating loss of A-Rod for four to six weeks, the hope that Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia can duplicate their first halves and the uncertainty of the bullpen after Mariano Rivera and David Robertson, the Yankees find themselves in a scary situation.

Ben Kabak of RiverAveBlues.com joined me for an email discussion to talk about what to expect from the Yankees in the second half.

Keefe: It’s the second half! We made it! And by we, I mean the Yankees, who went into the 2011 season with the plan of trying to stay afloat until July and until the trade deadline, and the fans who had to buy into this “We’re rolling the dice” strategy. How do I know this was the Yankees plan? Because Brian Cashman said it over and over and tried to make it stick into Yankees’ fans minds that he did the best he could in the offseason and that he believed in the team he built. When I first heard Cashman say this at the Hard Rock Cafe breakfast in a I was in shock and the 2011 summer flashed before my eyes and visions of the “Games Back” column number began piling up until the words “mathematically eliminated” popped into my head. After the dreadful Summer of 2008, which I like to forget didn’t happen like the 2004 ALCS, I didn’t know if I could handle another epic failure just three summers removed from that one. Luckily, we won’t have to find out.

So far, Cashman’s massive gamble is paying off. It’s paying off so much so that Bartolo Colon thinks it’s 2005 and Freddy Garcia thinks it’s 2001 and Jorge Posada is starting to remember that he gets paid to hit the ball. But how long can all these gambles and high risks last for? I don’t know if anyone knows. It’s like Cashman has a seven-team parlay and the first six things have gone right, but now he needs the final piece to go his way and that is for the Yankees to reach the postseason.

Right now the Yankees are in a good spot in the division and wild card standings, but are they a team built for a championship? I don’t know. I guess … kind of. But I would like to be more sure of it.

What do you think? What have you learned from the 2011 Yankees through the first half?

Kabak: One of the key things I’ve learned from the 2011 Yankees – and it’s not necessarily a lesson in team-building – is how much fun it can be to watch a team play baseball. Last year, the Yankees pretty much backed into the playoffs. They weren’t playing well in August and September, and neither they nor Tampa Bay really wanted to claim the division. They handily beat the Twins but ran into the Cliff Lee juggernaut. They were banged up and bruised, and it seemed like a slog.

This year, though, the Yankees are fun to watch. They’re on the field just enjoying the game every day, and it shows. Curtis Granderson is the toast of the town, and CC is right behind him. Watching Bartolo Colon turn back the clock has been a blast. He just goes out there and throws like it’s no one’s business. While Freddy Garcia seems to be walking a tightrope sometimes, he too has far exceeded expectations, and even Ivan Nova – a pitcher I’m not very high on – had his flashes.

The real test, obviously, is going to be the remaining set of games. They have a five-game lead on a playoff spot but with a grueling road schedule. A strong Phil Hughes will help, and I think Cashman will try to find another pitcher. We’ll hear about CC’s looming opt-out, Colon’s fountain of youth and, hopefully, the return of Rafael Soriano to give the bullpen some length. With A-Rod out until mid-August at best, the Yanks will face their challenges, but it’s been a fun ride so far.

Keefe: You’re right, the Yankees have been fun to watch this year and I think it’s because of the unknowns in Colon and Garcia coming through and getting to watch a young starter learn on the fly in the majors with Nova (even though he’s no longer in the majors), and watching Granderson have his best season in the bigs. At times it’s frustrating with the way Joe Girardi decides to handle things in the late innings, and I guess even in the early innings sometimes too.

A-Rod is gone for the rest of the July and possibly all of August. So, that means that the Yankees are without the most important (not the best) hitter in their lineup for the majority of the second half. When A-Rod is in the lineup it certainly feels more complete and it’s obvious what his presence brings to it, and without him it makes that 7-8-9 weaker and takes a big bat out of the heart. It’s a devastating loss to have him out for that long at such a crucial part of the season, but it’s important that he is at or near 100 percent for September and October.

With A-Rod out, Eduardo Nunez takes over at third base and I think we can both agree that we just hope there aren’t that many balls hit to third over the next month and a half. Nunez has proven he can hit at this level and is getting better with increased playing time, but the defense is no one where close to being consistent and it’s a cause for concern whenever he has to make a play.

Supposedly if Brian Cashman had included Nunez in the trade to the Mariners last year for Cliff Lee, Lee would have been a Yankee and they probably go to the World Series and very well could have won it. Then Lee would have had time in New York, and they would have been the front-runner to extend him or re-sign him after the season. Instead, well … we know what happened. Now, the other day Jonah Keri wrote that a trade of Nunez to the Mariners for Erik Bedard makes a lot of sense, but I disagree because if Nunez could have been part of a package that landed the Yankees Cliff Lee, then I don’t think settling for Bedard makes much sense.

What are your feelings on Nunez and what do you think his future is with the Yankees?

Kabak: Nunez’s future is an interesting question. I’m not very high on Nunez, and I probably would be more willing to move him than the Yankees are. I don’t believe it’s ever been confirmed that the Yanks shot down Nunez in any potential Cliff Lee deal (correct me if I’m wrong), but Nunez’s future wouldn’t stop me from moving him in the right deal.

I know we’ve seen some bad fielding from him in the early going this year, but he seemed to find a groove with regular playing time. While replacing Jeter, he was hitting well, and his fielding seems far more confident than it did earlier in the year. He’s still just 24, and while I don’t think he’s going to knock down fences, he could be a very serviceable short stop in an era in which those are at a premium.

I take it back: One-plus innings into the first game back from the All-Star Game, and Nunez has already botched two plays he should have made. He’s a shortstop by trade, and I don’t think his future is at third base. Cashman may have to poke around for a bargain bin third baseman to hold down the fort for the next few weeks during A-Rod’s absence.

Keefe: After I praised Bartolo on Thursday, he goes out and struggles for the second straight time. I’m willing to chalk it up as an extended layoff and only his third start since coming off the DL and his second start that wasn’t against the Mets. But the last thing I want is for the clock to be striking midnight on the Yankees No. 2 starter.

With Phil Hughes back it’s almost as if the Yankees made a trade for the starter they have wanted and needed. Now there are only two weeks to figure out if Hughes will be his old self and if Colon and Garcia can keep it up.

Should the Yankees make a move for another starter?

Kabak: I really do think the Yanks need to pick up another starter. We just don’t know what Colon and Garcia can give them lengthwise, and even Hughes is a wild card. He had decent results in his first start back, but he still wasn’t putting hitters away. His strikeouts were down, and his location was off. To me, it looked as though Colon’s hamstring was still bothering him on Thursday and we’ll know soon enough what the Yanks’ plans are. A pitcher has to be the first target.

Who’s available though? That’s the real issue. Maybe the Yanks could coax Hiroki Kuroda from the Dodgers, maybe the Mariners are willing to sell on Bedard. Ubaldo Jimenez is an intriguing name, but the Rockies will demand a lot. Personally, I’d love to see the Yankees target some of the Marlins’ starters. If they could wrestle a Ricky Nolasco or, even better, an Anibal Sanchez, I’d be thrilled. That’s dreaming high though.

Keefe: I have been afraid that one day Derek Jeter would be moved down in the order but that day is becoming more and more of a reality. The Yankees were dominant while he was gone (against the NL though) with Brett Gardner hitting leadoff and it posed the serious question of “Once the 3,000th hit is over, is it time to move Jeter down?”

I don’t think it’s time yet for a move, but a lot of people do. The only person whose opinion matters is Girardi’s and he doesn’t seem like he is going to make a change. And for now, this is one of the few things I agree with Girardi on.

The problem is if a move is made, where would Jeter hit and what would the lineup look like with him somewhere other than first or second?

Kabak: I don’t think a lineup change is needed per se. Considering how little batting order matters in the overall scheme of the game, people spend a lot of time talking about it. That said, the Yanks are using a lineup in which the hitter who gets on base the least is leading off and thus earning the most plate appearances. It seems a little backwards to me, and I wouldn’t mind a change.

I could envision two lineups with Jeter lower, but it depends how much lower. You could have Gardner leading off with Jeter batting 7th in front of Russell Martin and Eduardo Nunez or you could have Nick Swisher leading off with Jeter batting 6th in front of Martin, Nunez and Gardner. I’m not sure if Jeter is better equipped for the six spot than he is the leadoff position though.

Keefe: Rafael Soriano is close to returning in about two weeks unless he suffers a setback (knock on wood). Soriano caused me a lot of stress at the beginning of the year and David Robertson has helped relieve that stress. But now with Soriano coming back, it looks like he is going to get the eighth inning back when I don’t think he should.

Yes, Soriano earned his contract for what he did in Tampa, but he did little to prove he deserves the eighth inning at this time of the year. It’s not like he’s a proven star who proved himself with the Yankees coming off the DL. It’s a guy who has made a $35-million deal for a setup man look as ridiculous as everyone thought it originally was. I think Girardi has to go with what’s working and the hot hand, and right now that’s Robertson.

Kabak: One of my criticisms of Joe Girardi has been his unwillingness to get creative with his reliever usage. Perhaps some of that is due to the nature of the psychology of relievers, but I don’t see the need to label guys based on innings. David Robertson should come in where he excels: in high leverage situations with runners on base. Rafael Soriano could, if he’s back to form, do the same. If Soriano is pitching as we know he can, then the Yanks have an enviable problem of too many good arms. I’m less worried about who is pitching which inning and more concerned about the innings that precede those relief appearances.

Ultimately, Soriano was signed to set up, and that’s what he will do. If he still isn’t good at it, the Yanks can use Robertson. That’s a nice luxury to have.

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

What kind of shape are the Yankees really in as the second half of the season gets underway?

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