The idea that the Yankees don’t have enough talent to make a run at the Red Sox,” wrote Mike Lupica in the July 3 Daily News, “is ridiculous.” Is it? Few who have watched Joe Torre’s teams over the last six seasons doubt that they are chronic underachievers and that their manager has contributed to that syndrome. But what about the Yankees’ talent level? Is it really on a par with the Red Sox and other American League pennant contenders? Are the team’s main problems physical, or, as Yogi might put it, is half their game 90 percent mental?
Despite winning back-to-back series against the Twins and the Angels to close out the first half , the 2007 Yankees look to be the worst team the franchise has seen since Buck Showalter was fired at the end of the 1995 season, the first squad since then to be under .500 at the break. But the 1995 team, though it was just 33-39 at the midway point (of a season shortened to 144 games because of the lockout), finished 46-26 in the second half to win the wild-card playoff berth. The 2007 Yankees, with five wild-card contenders ahead of them, are going to have a much tougher path to the playoffs, even if they do finish 20 or so games over .500 between now and the end of the season.
But what are their chances of playing that well from here on in? A quick survey of the available resources would indicate two probabilities: slim to none. This year’s Yanks may well become the first team in baseball history to have four Hall of Famers on the roster and still lose more games than they won. By Hall of Famers, we’re not talking about guys playing out their career, but men at or near their peaks, namely Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Roger Clemens, and, of course, Alex Rodriguez, who is solidly in line for the unofficial title of Greatest Season Ever on a Sub-.500 Team. (Despite therecent hamstring pull, he’s still leading the MLB in runs, home runs, RBIs, and slugging percentage, and in total bases is second—by only one base, 201 to 200—to Colorado’s Matt Holliday.)
Granted, Clemens and perhaps Rivera may be past their prime—but in catcher Jorge Posada, currently having his best season ever, the Yanks have a marginal Hall of Fame candidate at a key position, and in Chien-Ming Wang, who has won 70 percent of his career starts, they have a pitcher who may soon be perceived as a HOFer. How does a team with this kind of talent struggle to win half their games?
The answer is: the rest of the team. Let’s start with power. The Yankees are known as the Bronx Bombers, but this year there should be no plural in the title. Hideki Matsui with 11 is the only other Yankee to reach double digits in home runs. In fact, Rodriguez is responsible for 33 percent of the team’s home runs this season. To understand what an eye-opening statistic that is, you have to go back to the last Yankee who dominated his teammates to a comparable degree—Babe Ruth, who from 1920 to 1924 averaged between 40 to 50 percent of his team’s HRs.
When you consider A-Rod’s value to the Yankees this year, think of it this way: In games when he has hit a home run, the Yankees are 20-6; in games when he hasn’t, they are 22-37. In two games this season, he has hit game- tying home runs in the ninth inning, and the Yankees have still gone on to lose. Simply put, if A-Rod can’t do it, there’s no one else around to pick up the slack.
Nothing about the 2007 Yankees is more puzzling than the team’s overall power outage. In 2006, Posada, Jeter, and Robinson Cano combined for 42 home runs; this year, they’re on pace for about half that. The biggest drought has come at the positions you should be able to expect the most power from—first base and designated hitter. Including Jason Giambi, who started twice at first base, the Yankees have used a ridiculous total of six players at the position without finding anyone who can hit a lick: Doug Mientkiewicz, Josh Phelps, Miguel Cairo, Jorge Posada, and Andy Phillips. So far, the Yankees have used up 290 at-bats for their first basemen while producing just eight home runs—the lowest total at that position in the major leagues. And with Giambi out, the Yankees have no effective hitter to fill in at DH. The solution might seem to be moving Jorge Posada to first base, but that would leave Wil Nieves to catch, and Nieves (.120 BA with no homers) makes the team’s first basemen collectively seem like Lou Gehrig.
The shallowness of the Yankees’ talent pool is put in bas-relief by a single startling statistic: In games decided by one or two runs, they are 8-23. Even when the Yanks get good starting pitching, there is simply no one who can come off the bench or out of the bullpen late in the game to give them an edge in tight situations. The dread that Yankee fans feel in the late innings of a close game isn’t paranoia—it’s the weight of the overwhelming odds against them.
So, to reply to Mike Lupica, the Yankees are much closer to making a run at the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who have the worst record in the league, than at the Boston Red Sox, who have the best. The difference in being the 2007 Yankees and being the worst team in the American League is A-Rod.