Friday, July 2, 2010

Yankees back in first in AL East

I know, I know. The Yankees have been back in first for almost three weeks, so I'm behind the 8-ball on this one. But I haven't posted on the Yanks in over 2 months, so it's about damn time I give them some love!

The Red Sox slumped early in the season, finishing April 11-12 and standing at 20-20 in mid-May. The Rays have slumped lately, going just 14-20 in their past 34 games that started with a three-game sweep against Boston in late May.

While their major competition in the AL East has been up-and-down (and no, I don't include the Blue Jays), the Yankees have been a model of consistency with a 15-7 April record, a 16-13 May record and a 16-10 mark in June. Their steady play can be attributed to an offense that ranks second in the American League in runs scored despite injuries to Jorge Posada and Curtis Granderson and less-than-expected production from Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira.

Robinson Cano has done more than enough to pick up the slack in the Bronx, leading MLB in batting average at .353 and hitting a team-leading 16 home runs, including an MLB-best 10 against left-handed pitchers. Nick Swisher is playing like an All-Star (.287, 13 HR, 47 RBI) and Brett Gardner's .317 average, 49 runs and 24 steals have been a pleasant surprise to many who thought he wasn't an everyday player. For the record, I wasn't one of them and I was very happy when we traded Melky Cabrera to Atlanta to open up playing time for Gardner, but even I didn't expect him to be THIS good.

Add in the Yankees starting pitching, which has three of the AL's top 10 winners (C.C. Sabathia and Phil Hughes have 10 wins, Andy Pettitte has 9) and you can see why the Yankees have played consistent baseball all season with limited contributions from their two highest-paid hitters.

A.J. Burnett and Hughes have struggled lately, but the resurgence of Javier Vazquez (who I told fans to be patient with in April) has made that easier to stomach. After allowing 25 earned runs in his first 23 innings this season, Vazquez has allowed just 21 in his last 58 (3.26 ERA).

The bullpen is still a mess, and that's something I expect the Yanks to address at the trading deadline. I've heard rumors about trading for Cliff Lee, but I don't think they have the prospects to pry him from Seattle and frankly, they really don't need another starter.

Injuries to Sergio Mitre and Alfredo Aceves have left the Yankees with no relievers outside of Mariano Rivera with an ERA under 4.00 except for Boone Logan, who I still don't trust. Joba Chamberlain has struggled mightily with his location despite just 12 walks in 32.1 innings.

He consistently misses within the strike zone and I can't count the times I've seen Yankee catchers set up on the outside corner only to have Joba miss a few inches off the inside part of the plate or vice versa. The constant moves from the bullpen to the rotation and back to the bullpen have obviously had an adverse affect on Chamberlain, but is it too early to think that he may never become the dominant pitcher (starter or reliever) that everyone thought he would be?

The bullpen struggles have been covered up by the fact that New York's starters have been able to work deep into games and bridge the gap to Joba and Rivera (or just Rivera). But that won't last into the summer and the Yankees will need to find a reliable seventh-inning pitcher and possibly a set-up man if Joba's struggles continue. San Diego's Heath Bell comes to mind, if the division-leading Padres decide to be sellers in the trade market.

I still fully expect the Yankees to come out on top in the AL East and even if they somehow don't, they should make the Wild Card. Rodriguez and Teixeira will start hitting like themselves soon enough and while players like Swisher and Gardner may tail off, Cano won't. He's a legitimate MVP candidate this season, right up there with Detroit's Miguel Cabrera. It's scary that this Yankees team might be even better than they were last season.

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