By Ernie Palladino
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The Yanks are still waiting for Mark Teixeira, Kevin Youkilis and Derek Jeter, and will remain in that holding pattern for varied amounts of time.
Those are pretty big names — need we even talk about Alex Rodriguez, whose pinstripe career remains in limbo? — to be missing on a consistent basis. And yet, Joe Girardi has his guys in first place with the likes of Lyle Overbay, Jayson Nix and Travis Hafner playing regularly. And there is little reason to think things will slack off unless Joba Chamberlain lays out Mariano Rivera for shushing him one too many times.
True, the offense has been inconsistent of late. Much of the success is due to the pitching, as evidenced by Mo’s 15-for-15 save record, Andy Pettitte’s return Saturday to the reliable, in-control pitcher we’ve seen most of his career, and Hiroki Kuroda’s continuation of a 5-2 start with 7 2/3 innings of two-run ball Sunday.
But still, it all kind of makes you wonder, if Girardi’s team is doing this well absent their offensive stars, how powerful will these guys be at full strength?
We could get a taste of the future this week, when Curtis Granderson is scheduled to return from his Triple-A rehab of a broken forearm. Girardi will certainly have to work him back into an outfield that is functioning just fine with Ichiro Suzuki, Brett Gardner and Vernon Wells, not to mention Brennan Boesch, who will probably head to the minors as soon as Granderson drops his duffle bag at his locker.
The problem — and it’s a nice one for Girardi to have at this point, given the mountain of injuries the Yanks have incurred — is how to get all these guys the proper playing time. Wells, especially, has produced in left, hitting .295 with nine homers and 20 RBIs. That’s one homer less than team-leader Robbie Cano, and the RBI total ties him with Overbay for second on the team.
He and Cano went back-to-back Sunday in the Yanks’ fifth straight win, 4-2 over the Royals.
It’ll be hard to yank Wells out of the lineup. The balancing act for Girardi will be where to play Granderson, who has been getting work in all three outfield positions during rehab. Suzuki is an everyday player in right — he didn’t re-sign over the winter to be platooned — and his position was strengthened with Saturday’s two-run homer in a 3-for-5 outing that helped his team snap out of a six-game hitting slump.
Gardner has made himself just about untouchable in center because of his speed. With shortstop Eduardo Nunez joining the DL army Sunday and Cano battling a painful right toe problem that started when he fouled a ball off it against the Athletics during the last homestand, Girardi probably won’t want to monkey around with his defense up the middle any more than he has to.
So it’s likely Granderson will be looking at a fill-in role for now. Maybe DH, too. He went 2-for-4 and an RBI in his third Triple-A rehab game as a designated hitter, a day after homering as a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre outfielder, so it’s not outlandish that Girardi would slip him in there for the likewise lefty-swinging Hafner. That spot could use some consistency right now, as Hafner went into Sunday’s game hitting just .130 in eight May appearances thanks to a 3-for-23 slump. He has six homers, but hasn’t hit one since April 27 against Toronto.
Girardi’s other head-scratchers will come later. Overbay has done an admirable job replacing Teixeira at first base, hitting .263 with 20 RBIs. His two-run, second-inning homer Saturday triggered the 11-6 onslaught over the Royals. He snapped out of a 3-for-33 slump with the 4-for-5, five RBI outing.
Chris Nelson and Nix are combining well enough at third as Girardi waits for Youkilis’ back to cooperate. The shortstop mess that now includes Nunez’s replacement Alberto Gonzalez, won’t settle down until Jeter returns at some point after the All-Star break.
The injury count being what it is, Girardi will have to continue mixing and matching personnel for a long time. But Granderson’s return may offer a first glimpse of what the Yanks might look like when they’re finally healthy.
Whenever that is.
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