The Yankees open the second half of the 2008 baseball season with a 50-45 (.526) record. They are in third place in the AL East, six games behind the division-leading Red Sox and 5.5 games behind the second-play Rays. In the Wild Card picture, they rank fourth behind the Rays, Twins (3 games), and A's (1 game), and just a half game ahead of the Texas Rangers.
A year ago, they were in a nearly identical position. Ninety-six games into the 2007 season, the Yankees had a 50-46 (.521) record, were in second place in the East, 7.5 games behind the Red Sox, and were in fourth place in the Wild Card race, 6.5 games behind the Indians, four games behind the Mariners, and a half game behind the Twins.
From that point, the 2007 Yankees went 44-22 (.667) to come within two games of the eventual World Champion Red Sox in the East and take the Wild Card by six games over the Mariners, who went 37-28 (.569) over the same span.
The Yankees weren't supposed to find themselves in this sort of spot again, and will have a much more difficult time digging themselves out of it this year due to potentially season-ending injuries to Chien-Ming Wang and Hideki Matsui and the continued lineup shuffling required by Jorge Posada's sore shoulder. Here's a look at what went right and wrong in the first half of this season for the Yankees, and what we might expect to see from them in the second half.
Better Than Expected
Mike Mussina The last four seasons have been tough for Mike Mussina. Entering 2004, Musina had nine straight seasons of 200-plus innings, eight straight seasons with a K/9 over 7.00, and a career ERA of 3.53 against a league average of 4.59. Suddenly, at age 35, age caught up to him. Elbow and leg injuries resulted in annual trips to the 15-day disabled list as Mussina only topped 180 innings once from 2004 to 2007 while posting a 6.97 K/9 and an ERA of 4.36 against a league average of 4.52. Things seemed to bottom out last September, when Mussina gave up 20 runs in 9 2/3 innings across three starts and lost his rotation spot to 21-year-old rookie Ian Kennedy, who was in his first professional season. Entering the 2008 season, Mussina was earmarked as the pitcher most likely to be pushed aside to make room for Joba Chamberlain's move to the rotation.
Instead, Moose emerged as the staff ace during the first half. He was 1-3 with a 5.75 ERA after his first four starts, but if you took out the runs Manny Ramirez drove in against him in two of those games, Mussina's ERA dropped to 3.09. Moose then peeled off a streak of five straight wins in which he posted a 2.76 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and a 5.67 K/BB. Most expected Mussina to run out of luck after that streak, and he seemed to when he was unable to get out of the first inning against the Orioles on May 20 following a two-out Derek Jeter error, but over his next nine starts leading into the break, Moose posted a 3.16 ERA with six quality starts in nine tries. Due to their failing offense, the Yankees are only 2-4 in Mussina's last six starts, but five of those games saw Mussina turn in a quality start, and the four loses came by scores of 4-2 (twice), 3-2, and 2-1. Meanwhile, Mussina has authored 2-1 wins over both the Rays and Red Sox since righting his ship in early April.
Joba Chamberlain There was a long and unnecessary debate this winter over whether or not the Yankees should convert rookie set-up sensation Joba Chamberlain back to starting or leave him in the bullpen. The Yankees did the right thing, and Joba has silenced everyone who thought he should stay in the bullpen. What's remarkable, though, is how quickly and smoothly the transition happened.
Chamberlain had a 2.66 ERA, a 1.13 WHIP, and 25 strikeouts in 20 1/3 innings as the Yankees' primary set-up man when Joe Girardi announced that the process to move Chamberlain in to the rotation had begun following Joba's two-inning outing on May 21. Chamberlain then made just two more extended (and scoreless) appearances out of the pen before making his first start on June 3. His abnormally-low pitch limits hurt him in that first start as he was pulled after 2 1/2 innings due to the patient approach of the opposing Blue Jays, but he improved significantly in his next start, a Yankee win over the Royals, and that was the end of the transition. If you include the May 21 game, Joba's transition period lasted roughly three weeks and saw him post a 2.25 ERA and strike out 16 in 12 innings across three relief outings and two starts. Since then, he's posted a 2.57 ERA and struck out 38 in 35 innings over six starts, four of which were Yankee wins.
In a first-half marked by the struggles of Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy, Chamberlain smoothly and swiftly emerged as the budding ace he'd been projected to be. He's also already one of the team's biggest stars, which makes it difficult to remember that he's a 22-year-old kid in his second professional season who made his major league debut less than 12 months ago.
The Bullpen One argument for leaving Chamberlain in his set-up job centered on the issue of who would replace him in the bullpen. Thanks in large part to the organization's aggressive promotion of their young arms and Joe Girardi's willingness to use them in big spots, that hasn't been an issue. The Yankee bullpen posted the fifth-best ERA in the AL in the first half, and while that certainly owes a lot to the performances of Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera (whom I'll get to in a moment), it's also due to a group of pitchers who weren't even certain if they'd make the 25-man roster this spring (most of whom didn't).
Brian Bruney was Joba-like (1.59 ERA, 12 K in 11 1/3 IP) in the secondary set-up spot before fracturing his foot at the end of April. He was replaced by Edwar Ramirez, who didn't give up his first run of the season (in the majors or minors) until May 31. Ramirez has a 4.91 ERA since then, but hasn't allowed a home run since June 18 and entered the break with a streak of eight scoreless innings over six outings and has struck out 21 men in 17 innings since June 1. On the season, Ramirez has a 2.73 ERA with 36 Ks in 33 innings, which just outpaces Jose Veras (2.87 ERA, 29 K in 31 1/3 IP), who has since emerged as the Yankees' seventh-inning guy by posting a 1.40 ERA since June 5.
Emerging behind Veras and Ramirez has been minor league veteran Dan Giese, who was brought up to be the long man in Joba Chamberlain's first two starts (Giese's line: 6 1/3 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 3 K), then later made two starts of his own (one good, one bad) before being shifted back to the bullpen in the sort of short-relief role he's most familiar with (5 1/3 scoreless innings thus far). Taking all of Giese's relief outings together, he's posted a 0.71 ERA and 0.87 WHIP in 12 2/3 innings.
The best of the bunch, however, may be David Robertson, a second-year pro out of the University of Alabama who was taken in the 17th round of the 2006 draft. Robertson started the year in Double-A Trenton, but his 0.96 ERA in 18 2/3 innings there got him promoted to Scranton after just nine appearances. A 1.62 mark in triple-A got the 23-year-old bounced straight up to the majors, and he's thus far posted a 2.25 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and struck out nine in his eight innings out of the Yankee pen.
Robertson and Giese are more recent editions to the Yankee pen, but having found them in the first half, the Yankees and Joe Girardi are in position to make good use of them in the second half. Veras, Ramirez, Robertson, and Giese give the Yankees a strong, relatively young, inexpensive, and diverse core of right-handed arms in the bullpen and stand as one of the most encouraging developments of the first half.
Also, I have to give some props to Kyle Farnsworth, who enters the break on a seven-inning scoreless streak and has a 1.42 ERA dating back to June 11, and a 2.16 ERA dating back to May 31 (roughly the middle of Joba's transition phase) with 17 Ks in 16 2/3 innings and just two home runs allowed over that span. Overall, Farnsworth's K/9 is up from a career low of 7.20 last year to 8.12 on the season and his 3.51 ERA thus far is far and away his best in his three years as a Yankee. In fact, the latest point during either of the previous two seasons in which Farnsworth's ERA was that low was May 13, 2006. Maybe, just maybe, Joe Girardi was right about him.
Mariano Rivera This won't take long: 1.06 ERA, 0.64 WHIP, perfect in 23 save opportunities, 50 Ks against 4 BBs in 42 2/3 innings (that's a 12.5 K/BB!). In non-save situations he's merely posted a 2.00 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, and 21 Ks against 2 walks in 18 innings. In save situations he has a 0.37 ERA, 0.49 WHIP, and 29 Ks against 2 walks (14.5 K/BB!) in 24 1/3 innings. That's how the greatest closer of all time can exceed expectations at the age of 38. Wow.
Put Mo on top of the rejuvenated Farnsworth and the four young righties and you have a six-man pen that could well be the best in baseball. The catch is that nearly everyone is due for some correction in the second half. Still, the talent is there for that fall-off to be minimal.
Johnny Damon It's a bit odd to write about Johnny Damon as a positive while he's on the DL for the first time in his career, but even with the DL stay, Damon has played only one less game than Jason Giambi and was having a career year before he jammed his shoulder while trying to take a home run away from Kevin Youkilis two weeks ago. Damon got off to a rough start, hitting .197/.324/.344 through April 19, but since then he's hit .349/.404/.500. His .319/.387/.470 slash stats on the season are all close to career highs (save the OBP, which is one), and in the depressed offensive environment of the American League thus far this year, that all translates to a 130 OPS+, which far exceeds his previous high of 118 from his final year with the Royals. How quickly Damon can return from his injury and how well he hits when he gets back will have a major impact on how close the Yankees get to the postseason this year.
Jason Giambi Like Mussina, Giambi benefits from low expectations. Named the starting first baseman entering the season, Giambi was expected to be a butcher at the bag, or to break in half while attempting to pick a sinking Derek Jeter throw out of the dirt. None of that happened. Instead, Giambi nearly made the All-Star team and launched the most unsettling fan fashion in recent memory by crediting his strong first half to the mustache he started growing in late May. Giambi still isn't the ideal defensive first baseman (Baseball Prospectus's Rate has him at just a tick below average, which is darn good for the Big G), but more problematic than his defense has been his inconsistency at the plate.
Giambi was hitting .150/.317/.375 on May 4. He then went .355/.470/.755 from May 5 through June 17, with the 'stache emerging somewhere in the middle of that run. Since June 18, however, he has been slumping again, hitting just .211/.337/.352. Still, given the fact that first base and DH were the Yankees' two weakest offensive positions last year and Giambi has the highest OPS+ on the team among players who haven't hit the DL this year (in fact, the second highest OPS+ on the team, period, behind Alex Rodriguez), you absolutely have to count Giambi as something that went right in the first half.
Before I get to listing the players in this category, I should point out that meeting expectations is a good thing. Rather than thinking of this as the "neutral" section between the good (Better Than Expected) and the bad (Worse Than Expected), consider this the "good" category and the above something more than that.
Andy Pettitte Pettitte contemplated retirement this winter, but returned on a one-year deal at age 36. He has been the Yankees' primary innings-eater this year (6.25 IP/GS without missing a turn), but his ERA has been almost exactly dead average. He was worse than that over his first 13 starts, but has surpassed Mike Mussina as the staff ace over his last seven, posting a 2.36 ERA and going 5-2 over that span. Pettitte had a similarly dominant streak last year starting after the All-Star break. In his first nine starts after the 2007 break, he went 7-1 with a 2.61 ERA. If Pettitte can continue his second half success this year (career: 4.12 ERA before the break, 3.53 after), he could thrust his team into the playoff chase.
Alex Rodriguez Alex Rodriguez couldn't possibly have been expected to repeat his career-best 2007 MVP season, but he's come closer than many might have thought. If not for the fact that he missed most of May after rushing back from a quad strain suffered in April, he'd probably be in the top category, and could well wind up there if he stays healthy and keeps hitting. The team went 6-11 when Alex was on the DL, and has played at a .588 clip since his return on May 20. If it's possible for a ballplayer to earn the kind of money he makes, he does.
Worse Than Expected
Derek Jeter One of the most consistent hitters in the game over the course of his career, Jeter enters the break with a two-digit OPS+. The last time he posted a mark as low as 103 was 1997. Jeter has hit .303/.376/.432 since June 1, not a far cry from his career .316/.386/.459 line, but that average and OBP would both be his lowest since 2004 and the slugging his lowest since 2002. Jeter also seems to have stopped stealing bases, having gone just 5 for 7 on the season after having swiped at least 14 bags in all but his injury-shortened 2003 season. Still, despite my complaints about his poor throws from shortstop, his error pace is at or below his career average, and his range factor is up from last year. Most likely, Jeter will finish the year right around his career marks, but as he enters his mid-30s there is reason to be concerned.
Team Health Injuries and umpires are two things I try not to blame for team performance. Good teams overcome both, but this year's Yankees been have undeniably, and possibly irrevocably, undermined by injuries. Both Johnny Damon and Jorge Posada hit the DL for the first time in their careers. Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter both missed time early in the year due to quad injuries. Three-fifths of the Opening Day rotation landed on the DL, with neither Chien-Ming Wang nor Phil Hughes expected back until September, if at all. Hideki Matsui could be out for the year. And that doesn't count the injuries to backups Jose Molina and Wilson Betemit (and, for that matter, Shelley Duncan), relievers Brian Bruney, Jonathan Albaladejo, and Chris Britton, or expected rotation reinforcement Alan Horne.
The relievers have been replaced successfully as per the above (and Bruney is close to returning). Rodriguez, Jeter, Molina, and Betemit are all fully recovered and back in action for the big league club. Similarly, Britton and Ian Kennedy are off the DL and pitching for triple-A Scranton. Still, the lingering effects of Posada's shoulder injury, the continued absence of Wang and Matsui, the latter compounded by Damon's DL stay, and the gap in rotation reinforcements caused by the injuries to Hughes and Horne (and Jeff Marquez) are all major and ongoing concerns that could keep the Yankees out of the playoffs for the first time since 1993.
Hideki Matsui Matsui was the team's best hitter in the early going, hitting .337/.417/.495 through the end of May, but he managed just two more extra-base hits in June before swelling in his left knee began to limit his playing time and eventually pushed him to the DL at the end of June. I suppose it's a bit unfair to list Matsui as a disappointment given his contributions over those first two months, but as continued set-backs in his rehab make season-ending surgery on his knee appear increasingly likely, there's really no where else to put him. If Matsui's season really is over, the Yankees will have gotten roughly the same contribution from him this year that they got in 2006 when he broke his wrist.
Chien-Ming Wang Surprisingly, Wang's already contributed almost as much to the 2008 Yankees as he did as a rookie to the 2005 Yankees (roughly 100 innings with a league-average ERA). Of course, we tend to forget that Wang missed August and nearly all of July in 2005 due to a mysterious shoulder injury. Wang is also expected to deliver more than a merely league-average performance. Based on his first half alone, he's a disappointment on the order of Jeter. Based on his prospects for the second half, which he could miss entirely due to a Lisfranc fracture suffered while running the bases in Houston, he's a much bigger problem than the gently aging captain. Wang hopes to return in September, and if all else goes well, a cavalry ride from the team's displaced ace could push them into the postseason, but a lot of things have to go right for both the Yankees and Wang for that to happen.
Jorge Posada The third most harmful injury to hit the Yankees this year has been the partial labrum tear in Jorge Posada's throwing shoulder. Posada's shoulder started hurting him immediately, as he missed two games after catching Wang on Opening Day. By the season's second week, he was limited to DH duty. A few starts behind the plate in late April proved to be premature, and Posada landed on the DL for the first time in his career on April 28. Posada was on the shelf for more than a month while getting multiple opinions on his shoulder. The ultimate consensus was the he could wait until after the season to have the labrum surgically repaired, but despite returning to action on June 5, Posada has caught three consecutive games only once and has started behind the plate in just 20 of the Yankees' 36 games. What's more, he's hit just .253/.375/.384 since returning, which despite the solid on-base percentage, is a disappointing performance, particularly given Posada's increased presence at DH and first base, positions which carry a larger offensive responsibility than catcher. When the Yankees signed the 36-year-old Posada to a four-year contract this past offseason, they knew he was unlikely to stay behind the plate for the full term, but having this happen in Year One is a near disaster and places increased pressure on Posada to stay behind the plate after having his shoulder repaired this winter.
Melky's just 23, but this will be his third season as a major league starter, and it could be a decisive one for his Yankee future. Scranton center fielder Brett Gardner was one of the last cuts in camp and will be breathing down Melky's neck all year, something both Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman have been rather upfront about in the press. . . . This year he'll be the Yankees' starting center fielder on Opening Day for the first time in his career, and the club will be looking for him to reward their continued faith in him with a breakout season.
Melky appeared to be delivering on that expectation early on by hitting .291/.359/.505 with six home runs through May 4, but since then he has hit .218/.273/.273 with just two more taters. That's two and a half months of sub-replacement-level offense, which is utterly unacceptable. Brett Gardner is already sharing the outfield with Cabrera as Johnny Damon's replacement in left field. If Gardner gets his bat going before Damon returns (a fairly big if), the Yankees absolutely must move Melky to the bench or even back to triple-A.
Robinson Cano As bad as Melky has been, Cano has been worse. Having quickly established himself as a second-half performer in his first three major league seasons, Cano entered 2008 determined to improve his first-half showing. Instead, he hit an abysmal .151/.211/.236 in April and has been merely his usual weaker first-half self since (.288/.318/.413 since May 1 vs. career .280/.314/.416 prior to the break). That April was enough to sink his season line below Melky's. What's more, Cano's .246/.285/.358 has been more consistently useless than Melky's hot-and-cold .241/.301/.347. The good news is that this continuation of Cano's career pattern (save for that April) allows the Yankees to expect Cano to replicate his .334/.366/.540 career second-half numbers, and Robinson hasn't allowed his poor hitting to undermine his strong defense. Still, to this point in the season, Cano has been the worst of the Yankees' nine intended regulars.
Bobby Abreu After struggling through April and May last year, Bobby Abreu hit .309/.396/.520 from June 1 through the end of the year, a near match for his .300/.408/.500 career line. Entering his walk-year, I expected more of the same from Abreu, but he's been significantly less than. Take away his excellent May (.330/.407/.570) and he's hit .251/.320/.383 in the season's other two and a half months. His cumulative line more closely resembles his overall season stats of a year ago (.274/.345/.436 this year vs. .283/.369/.445), but falls short of even that low (for Abreu) standard. Abreu gets points for health and for avoiding the depths to which the team's other healthy regulars--Cano, Cabrera, and even Giambi--have sunk at various times this season, but that's hardly enough for a borderline Hall of Famer and the team's number-three hitter.
The Bench Coming into the season, I thought the Yankees had their best bench in years. Replace years of infield futility with the lefty power of Wilson Betemit, compliment that with the righty pop of Shelley Duncan, mix in the respectable back-up catching of Jose Molina, and top off with a flier on veteran hitter Morgan Ensberg. It sounded like a perfect recipe. Not so.
Posada's shoulder forced Molina into the lineup where he first excelled (.364/.364/.576 on April 13 with a league-best seven doubles), but then, perhaps due to the unfamiliar strain of everyday play, Molina popped a hamstring. After six days of cooling off on the bench, he's hit .191/.239/.244 since April 19, which is enough to make Melky Cabrera look like the second-coming of Mickey Mantle. What's worse, with Molina required to start behind the plate on a regular basis and with Posada frequently unavailable as the team's DH, the Yankees have decided to devote a second bench spot to a third catcher. Chad Moeller got the occasional start in April and May (hitting a respectable-for-a-back-up-catcher .250/.339/.346), but since June 2 he has made just one start, appeared in just eight other games, and caught in only five of those (he was twice a first baseman and once a pinch-hitter for the pitcher in an NL park).
Ensberg got the majority of the starts at third base in Alex Rodriguez's absence, but didn't hit a lick during that span (.179/.258/.179) and, after striking out in three of his five hitless appearances off the bench following that stretch, was cut in favor of an extra reliever.
A slugging sensation as rookie last year, Duncan was pushed to the minors early in the season by the need for injury replacements for non-disabled players such as Jeter, Molina, Rodriguez and Posada (the latter of whom thought they could get away with a few days' rest rather than the DL stays they ultimately required). Shelley raked in triple-A, but hit just .173/.267/.288 in irregular playing time after being recalled in late April, earning another demotion, after which he continued to struggle and has since had his season most likely ended by a separated shoulder.
Betemit, too, has been a disappointment, hitting just .243/.268/.411, a line distressingly close to the .226/.278/.417 he put up after arriving at last year's trading deadline and in stark opposition to the .231/.359/.474 he sported when he arrived from the Dodgers.
It's no wonder, then, that the Yankees have practically forgone their bench entirely by going with three catchers and 13 pitchers. On days when Jorge Posada catches, the Yankee bench consists of Molina and Moeller, both catchers, one of whom never plays, and Justin Christian, a 28-year-old rookie outfielder whose skill set is extremely redundant as a backup and possible alternate to Cabrera and/or Gardner.
In essence, then, the Yankees have no bench, just a backup catcher and a pinch-runner. When Molina starts, Betemit sits and you get a backup catcher, a pinch-runner, and an offense-first utility infielder who's not hitting. Given my praise of the bullpen above, it would have made a great deal of sense to have either released LaTroy Hawkins or demoted Billy Traber, neither of whom has pitched well, and added a player of some actual value to the bench. The alarming part is, that player didn't seem to exist within the organization during the first half.
Scranton's best hitter right now is Matt Carson, a 26-year-old part-time outfielder at triple-A with a career .256/.312/.411 line in the minors. They have Ben Broussard down there, a veteran lefty-hitting platoon first baseman, but he's not hitting much. Pre-season Ensberg alternate Jason Lane isn't hitting. Occasional call-up Alberto Gonzalez isn't hitting. Cuban Juan Miranda, another left-handed first baseman, is doing moderately well after struggling through some shoulder injuries in the first half, but he has just one home run since May.
It is this lack of reinforcements that has allowed the bench to become so neglected. Fortunately, the Yanks have finally made a move to bolster their backups by bringing in right-handed first baseman Richie Sexson, who was released by the Mariners at the end of the first half. Sexson was released because he was not only not hitting (.210/.302/.392 this season and last combined), but moping about his lack of playing time. Still, assuming Sexson's come to grips with being a part-time player, his .344/.423/.623 line against lefty pitching this year could make him the player the Yankees hoped Duncan was going to be for them. Then again, Sexson hit just .225/.312/.394 against lefties last year and has been a full-time player since 1999, so there's just as good a chance that he'll be a bust like the rest of the bench. Still, good on them for finally trying something. Besides which, Betemit, Christian, and Molina/Moeller is still better than last year's first-half bench of Miguel Cairo, Kevin Thompson, and Wil Nieves.
Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy Its both way too early and counterproductive to their continued development to call Hughes or Kennedy busts, but their 2008 seasons certainly are. Hughes started off on the right foot in the third game of the season with a quality start that matched Toronto's Dustin McGowan in a game the Yankees eventually won 3-2, but he couldn't repeat it, posting a 11.25 ERA in five straight Yankee losses and striking out just nine men against 12 walks in 16 innings. Eventually it was revealed that Hughes had a stress fracture in one of his ribs and he's been on the DL ever since. He's finally rehabbing now, but isn't expected back until September, if not next season. That's a huge loss, as Hughes was expected to emerge as a young horse in the Yankee rotation this year and instead will have given them just that one quality start through the season's first five months if not beyond.
Kennedy's story is worse, as he was bad right from the get-go, getting lit up by the Rays for six runs in 2 1/3 innings in his first start. Rain turned his second start into a bizarre relief appearance in which he retired nine of the last ten men he faced after coughing up two quick runs to start his stint. Kennedy then got revenge on the Rays with a quality start in a game the Yankees won after his departure, but swollen walk totals and inconsistency thereafter soured his manager's opinion of the young righty.
In his fourth appearance (third start), Kennedy walked five Orioles before getting pulled with two outs in the third inning. Girardi fumed. Kennedy's next start, in Cleveland, was better (5 IP, 3 R), but he still walked four. Two more poor starts (9 2/3 IP, 9 R) earned Kennedy a ticket to Scranton, but his replacement, Kei Igawa, was even worse, and after one dominant triple-A outing (7 1/3 shutout innings, no walks), Kennedy was back. Rematching with the Orioles, Kennedy turned in his second quality start of the year, but walked four men in the process. Back in Baltimore for his next start, Kennedy didn't issue a single free pass, but did cough up four runs in three innings before being pulled due to a oblique strain, which subsequently landed him on the DL.
Kennedy has since been activated, but was told he'll need to pitch his way back to the majors. After a dominant rehab start for high-A Tampa, Kennedy has allowed six runs in nine innings across two triple-A starts while walking six. That's not going to do it.
The Rotation Reinforcements The Yankees remain one of the most pitching-rich organizations in baseball (just ask anyone who follows Scranton or Trenton, as a traffic jam of talented starters is forming between the levels), but with Kennedy's failures and the injuries to not only Wang and Hughes, but Alan Horne (who missed most of April, all of May, and is now somehow back on the DL with a "tired arm") and now Jeff Marquez (who struggled early, but was cruising in June before getting hurt), there's a dearth of major league-ready reinforcements. Joba Chamberlain is already in the rotation. Darrell Rasner is too, and so is Dan Giese, who was very successfully converted to starting at Scranton in April, but has since returned to the bullpen. That has pushed the Yankees so far down on their starting pitcher depth chart that we're back to weighing the relative merits of Sidney Ponson, Jeff Karstens, and Kei Igawa, a debate which the Yankees' pitching depth was supposed to have rendered moot.
That's not to say there's not more on the way. Daniel McCutchen continues to improve at Scranton and has been down right dominant in his last two starts, but after seeing Kennedy's struggles, the Yankees have become loathe to rush another young pitching prospect (McCutchen, though 25, started the year in double-A). Fellow 25-year-old Alfredo Aceves, a Mexican League find, may be the exception. He started the year, his first in this country, in high-A Tampa and has raced up to triple-A where he looms as the potential next big thing out of Scranton, but a groin injury has slowed his progress there. Ross Ohlendorf, another 25-year-old, has switching back to starting since being demoted at the end of June, effectively trading career paths with Steven White, who was both moved to the bullpen and dropped from the 40-man roster in the firts half. As for Ohlendorf, in three triple-A starts, he has a 2.92 ERA and 15 Ks against 3 BB in 12 1/3 innings, so maybe there's something there. That, or the Yankees are building him up as trade bait.
McCutchen, Aceves, and the refitted Ohlendorf all need time to develop, however, and the traffic jam is behind them with pitchers such as Jason Jones and Phil Coke (both also 25 years old--1982 must be a good vintage for pitchers). Jones and Coke (you can just smell the headline puns brewing around Phil Coke, can't you?) are running out of things to prove in double-A, but can't find an opening in the triple-A rotation.
As a result of this development gap, the Yankees are taking the sort of flyers on used up veteran arms we'd all hoped were a thing of the past: putting Ponson in the major league rotation, auditioning Victor "The Wrong" Zambrano, and signing former Chuck Knoblauch trade bait Eric Milton to do his Tommy John rehab in Scranton pinstripes. Joe Girardi even discussed Carl Pavano's rehab last week. The Yankees pitching crop is still plentiful, but next year was supposed to be this year when it came to harvesting those fruits.
* * *
Okay, so what does all this tell us about the Yankees' second half? It seems the rotation is what it is and will need Mussina to keep it up, Joba to continue to develop, and Pettitte to go on a dominant second-half run to get this team to the playoffs. Cavalry appearances from Wang and Hughes (or Freddy Garcia?) would be exciting, but neither can be expected to be effective after several months of inaction, and in both cases there's a chance that they may not return at all. Kennedy, meanwhile, looks like he needs to spend the rest of the season in Scranton getting his head (and possibly his mechanics) straight.
Counter to that, the bullpen has been excellent and could be even better in the second half with Bruney ready to replace Hawkins (assuming Traber will get demoted to make room for Sexson), Robertson growing into a high-leverage role, and Farnsworth and Veras and even Rivera pitching better than they ever have as Yankees. There will be regression there, of course, but there's enough talent and depth to compensate for it.
The offense desperately needs Damon back, Cano's typical second-half mashing, and some level of production out of center field and catcher (league average would be great, but I'd settle for replacement at this point). The Rumors of a Barry Bonds signing in light of the news that Matsui's season is most likely over is a topic for another day, but that particular can of worms may need opening if this team doesn't snap it's July malaise (3.67 R/G since June 29 with 27 of those 55 runs coming in two games) coming out of the break, or if Damon's return is delayed any more than the week currently being projected. Some consistency from Jason Giambi and the rejuvenation of by Bobby Abreu would be appreciated as well.
As for the bench, just be glad this is the American League. Posada's arm seems like something the team is just going to have to deal with all year, and that likely means the extra catcher will stay. Taking a chance on Sexson is a good move well worth Billy Traber's roster spot and the pro-rated league-minimum salary Sexson will draw from the Yanks, but he could go bust just as quickly as Ensberg did, in which case nothing's been gained. The strong pen could allow the Yanks to increase the bench to a five-man unit, but finding those extra men remains a challenge that even a Bonds signing wouldn't solve. To that end, I wouldn't be surprised to see another Molina- or Betemit-level trade go down before the deadline, with the Yankees swapping a secondary minor league reliever for some major league bench reinforcements.
Statistically, the Yankees are in as strong a position to make a playoff run as they were a year ago when they went on to win the Wild Card, but with regards to personnel, in terms of both performance and health, they are in the deepest hole they've been in since before the Joe Torre era. They can still climb out of it and make their 14th-straight playoff appearance, but a lot more will have to go right in the second half than did in the first for that to happen.