No point right now in looking into the Yankees chances of getting Cliff Lee — though offhand I’d say the odds are about the same as they were for the Knicks in landing LeBron James. There’s also not much point wondering what the Yankees need to do to pull themselves together next season. There’s plenty of time for that over the rest of fall and the winter.
For now, let’s try to figure out what went wrong this year. The sad fact is that the Yankees’ ugly four game to two loss to the Rangers in the ALCS — in which, in four defeats, the Yanks were completely uncompetitive and outscored 31-6, including two humiliations at home where they were whipped by a combined score of 18-3 — was not an aberration but in fact the logical result of problems the front office chose to ignore all season.
Let’s start out by looking at it this way: the 2010 Yankees were the 2009 Yankees stood on their head. Last year’s team, you’ll recall, was mediocre to bad for the first couple of months of the season, started to right itself shortly before the All-Star break, and was an express train going into the playoffs that never looked for a moment as if anything could stop it.
This year’s team was exactly the opposite. For the first 100 games everyone was comparing the 2010 Yankees to the previous year’s model, and from most angles the comparison held up. The Yankees went through a 19-7 July in which they outscored their opponents by 50 runs; at that point, they had a 66-37 record and were everyone’s favorites to go all the way again. But after that, they began to lose steam — not quickly but slowly and steadily.
Counting the postseason series with the Twins and Rangers, in which they were a combined 5-4, the Yankees were exactly 34-34 after July 31. In retrospect, it was the Minnesota series, not the one with Texas, which was a fluke.
What went wrong? Looking back on it, what went wrong was exactly what should have gone wrong. Start with the offseason reacquistions of Nick Johnson and Javier Vazquez. The Yankees have a generous habit of giving just about everyone they trade away a second chance. In the case of Johnson and Vazquez, we’ll just have to write it off to bad luck. Both were disasters. Johnson, who was supposed to be a DH to replace Hideki Matsui, was injured and out for the year after just 24 games — hitting a dismal .167. Vazquez ended the year 10-10 with an ERA of 5.32 and was so bad in the second half he was left off the postseason roster.
Okay, bad luck. But to paraphrase Branch Rickey, bad luck is the residue of design. The Yankees rolled the dice when acquiring Vazquez, who has a history of being erratic. and in coaxing Andy Pettitte to stay on; Pettitte, who turned 38 in June, had has a history of breaking down late in the season, and that’s exactly what happened this year. Brian Cashman and the front office has no Plan B as to what they might do if either or both Vazquez or Pettite couldn’t perform — no plan that is, except the usual Yankee crisis management thing of going out and trying to buy a superstar before the trade deadline. The object of this year’s mad scramble was Cliff Lee. Cashman still insists that the Seattle Mariners wanted too much for Lee; I’d like to sit Cashman down, hook him to a lie detector, and ask him the question again.
As for the bullpen, Joe Girardi’s one definite strength as manager in 2009 was his ability to organize and put together a relief corps that could bridge the gap from the witching hours in the 6th and 7th innings to Mariano Rivera. This year he was completely unable to do that, and again the team’s front office must be held accountable. A large part of the problem was the failure to make an early decision and stick to it regarding Joba Chamberlain, but with or without the Joba problem, the single biggest failure of the Yankees from the beginning of the Joe Torre era though the end of this year’s playoffs has been the inability of the richest team in baseball to come up with — year in, year out — a couple of decent, reliable relief pitchers to take the Yankees through the late innings to their closer. (Really, couldn’t they have gotten Kerry Wood before August? And wasn’t there someone else just as good also available?) Whether by bringing someone up from the farm system or simply purchasing an available hold or set-up man, the refusal of a team with a payroll of $210 million to address this problem is inexplicable.
On the other side of the ball, in Matsui and Johnny Damon the Yankees let go two hitters they could have kept; both had slightly better seasons than the men who replaced them. Matsui didn’t exactly light things up with the Angels, but finished at .274 with 21 home runs, 84 RBIs, and an OPS of .820 — figures much better than the combined efforts of Nick Johnson, Lance Berkman, or anyone else the Yankees tried to plug in at the DH spot. For that matter, Damon didn’t do badly for Detroit, where he batted .271 with eight home runs, 36 doubles, 11 of 12 stolen bases, and an OPS of .791. More to the point, both Matsui and Damon could hit both left and right handed pitching, which is more than can be said for Berkman, who was mediocre batting left-handed (.267) and no better than a pitcher (.171) batting from the right side. But that’s what you deserve when you sing a player whose nickname is “Fat Elvis.”
The Yankees did help themselves a bit by using the position of DH as a convenient recovery spot for Jorge Posada, Mark Teixeira, and Alex Rodriquez when they were coming off injuries, but not matter how you look at it, either Matsui or Damon as the regular DH would have been a big improvement over the guys the Yankees ended up plugging in.
Together the Yankees’ two late season acquisitions, Berkman and Austin Kearns, played in 73 games, batted .245, and drove in just 16 runs, so the Yankees gave themselves no help coming down the stretch when the rest of the team started to limp.
Why was the team limping through August and September? Well, Teixeira and A-Rod were playing sore and sometimes hurt, and, let’s face it, Derek Jeter was showing his age.
The Yankees got practically no production at all from the catching spot and late in the year tried alternating an oft-injured Posada, who could not throw, with Francisco Cervelli, who could not hit — or, to be fair, could not hit with power. Cervelli played in 93 games and batted .271 with a respectable OBP of .359, but had not home runs and finished with a slugging average, .335, lower than his OBP.
So — the 2010 Yankees got substantially less production out of the DH, catcher and shortstop positions (where Jeter’s batting average dropped a depressing 64 points). Having paid no real attention to putting together a real bench, there was no one around to pick up the slack when A-Rod and Tex didn’t hit.
Pitching? When Andy Pettitte missed the last two months with a groin strain and A.J. Burnett proved to be the overrated bust Yankee fans feared he was all along, the front office again made no effort to shore up the rotation, kidding themselves into believing that they could plug the gap with the likes of Ivan Nova, Dustin Moseley and Sergio Mitre, letting the three of them soak up 19 starts (for a combined 5-9). There was no one to pick up the slack.
Here’s an even more dismal fact: the Yankees, coming down the stretch and into the postseason, had no ace. In two games against Texas, C.C. Sabathia (though he escaped without a loss in his first game against the Rangers and somehow came out with a win in the second) was awful, giving up 17 hits in ten innings in his two outings and posting an ERA of 6.30. Down the stretch, C.C. was just so-so, with six mediocre to bad starts in last eight tries, reversing his performance at this time last year and causing observers to wonder whether all that extra weight put too much strain on his arm. Whatever the reason, Sabathia has now lost the aura of invincibility he worked so hard to build and no longer seems like the pitcher the Yankees got him to be: the guy you want out there in the big game.
An even bigger loser was Phil Hughes, who, in the first half of the year looked as if he was going to fulfill his early promise as “The Pocket Rocket” but was so-so to bad in nearly all his second half starts. Worse, after overpowering the Twins in the ALDS, he gave up 14 hits in 8.2 innings of two starts against the Rangers for an ERA of 11.42. This came exactly at the point at which you would have thought Hughes was going to assert himself as the hard-throwing young superstar the Yankees had been waiting for.
What went wrong with Hughes? The simplest explanation is probably the most accurate. As with Joba, the Yankees waited too long to make a decision on whether they wanted Hughes to be a reliever or a starter, and by the time they put him in the rotation he didn’t have sufficient time to build up his arm strength. Nolan Ryan built an American League champions around the concept of not coddling young pitchers, of building them up by letting them pitch. The Yankees have pursued exactly the opposite policy, thinking that somehow young pitchers will learn to pitch while sitting on a bench. After the debacles against the Rangers, it seems doubtful that Hughes will ever reach the potential he had just two years ago.
The most distressing fact of all for the Yankees is that the only two effective pitchers in the postseason were Pettitte, who gave up just five hits and two runs in seven innings in losing Game Three of the ALCS) and Rivera, who pitched just three innings in six games and allowed no runs. If you’re a fan of bitter irony, consider this: the Yankees’ only two reliable pitchers at the end of the 2010 season were two holdovers from the dynasty’s first pennant-winning team back in 1996.