Memorial Day is the first pit-stop of the baseball season, where we can check in and have some sense of storylines that will illuminate the season. The Yankees go into June tied with the Red Sox for first place. The Devil Rays beat the Yanks 7-6 on Sunday afternoon. The Yanks were down 6-0 going into the eighth. The Bombers end their longest road trip of the year, 8-4. The Sox and Yanks are tied for the best record in the game. I think that the best is yet to come for the Yankees, and of course the Red Sox will improve when Trot Nixon and Nomar return. Either team could also make a significant trade this summer too. The Yanks started off slowly, but have played very well since bottoming out against the Red Sox in Fenway Park. The greatest concern with the Yanks is keeping the team healthy, but that's the greatest concern with every team, isn't it? If they stay healthy, they will be rough on the opposition.
I've enjoyed watching the team a lot. I prefer them to the 2002 or 2003 editions. I loved Soriano and Nick Johnson, but I like Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield better. I like Kevin Brown better than Roger Clemens and I love Javier Vazquez. Not only that, but I like seeing Willie Randolph next to Joe Torre instead of Popeye Zimmer. And it's great to see Roy White, uncle Luis, and Don Mattingly on the coaching staff too.
Here are some my loose impressions of the team so far...
Behind the Plate:
We are seeing Jorge Posada (.295/.440/.591) at his best. Posada hit for more power in April but reached base more often in May and for the second straight season, has been the most consistent bat in Joe Torreís line up. Itís not likely that Posada will play at a higher level than heís been playing right now. If he does, itís nothing but gravy for Yankee fans. When Posada called out his teammates after the Angels ambushed the Bombers in the 2002 playoffs, I thought Posada was really putting the pressure on himself to be like one of the old Yankees. To that point, Posada was known more for having the red ass than for being a team leader like Mike Stanton or Cone. But he put his money where his mouth was last year and it turns out he is one of those old time Yankees. As Jay Jaffe observed in his profile on Posada earlier this season, the Yankee catcher was wholly deserving of MVP consideration last year. So far this season, heís picked up right where he left off. I donít know how much longer Posada will play at this level, but enjoy it while it lasts: this is his prime.
Iíve long been one of Jason Giambiís biggest supporters. I desperately wanted George to sign him after they lost the World Serious against Arizona, and was grateful when they did. Giambi got what he wanted, so everything should be peachy, right? Giambiís had two good seasons, in spite of being hurt last year. Heís off to a good start this year (.270/.406/.540), but heís not so much fun to watch.
Walk to whiff: 24/27
His body language is rigid and tense. You see him on the bench and he looks coiled, uptight. The only time he appears relaxed is when he's talking with Mattingly, but I donít get a sense of comfort with his teammates. This is especially disappointing because Giambi was such a team leader with the Aís. I donít know what you can chalk it up to. Playing in New York? I canít call it. But heís not the same player. He doesnít look like heís enjoying himself much. Still, I want to like him, and I miss watching him hit.
Tony Clark (.260/.376/.494 in 77 at bats) is my girlfriend Emilyís favorite player this year. (splits) She is drawn to slow, patient guys. When we first stared watching games together in 2002, Giambi was her boy. Then came Posadaóďcause nobody pays attention to himĒóand then Matsui, cause she saw him on Regis and he seemed like a nice guy. This year, sheís taken a shine to Ruben Sierra, probably just because I spent so much time cursing him out early in the year. But nobody beats Tony Clark, who she calls ďCecilĒ, after the turtle in the Bugs Bunny ďTortoise vs. the HairĒ Warner Brothers cartoons. She calls him Cecil because of his big eye-lids, and she likes him because he comes across as a stand-up guy in interviews, and of course, because heís big and slow.
During the championship years, the resident cruddy-platoon position was left field. This year weíve got second base and center field (no offense). I prefer Miguel Cairo (.271/.323/.407 in 59 at bats: splits) to Enrique Wilson (.223/.258/.357 in 112 at bats: splits). I donít know that heís that much better of a player, but I like to watch him more. Cairo looks like a combination of Oliver Stone and Derek Jeter jammed together. Emily calls him ďMr. Magoo.Ē He plays a professional second base and can hit for a little power. Wilson is funny, but not funny enough to make him lovable. He seems to be a popular teammate with the Yanks, but heís not a fan favorite. Maybe thatís because heís just not very good (though he has already tied his high for homers in a season). Heís not even very cuteólike Super Joe McEwingóor very zhlubbyólike Luis Sojo. Wilsonís got a helicopter swing thatís all ass though. I call him Weeble Wooble cause he reminds me of one of those little toys that rolled around but never flipped over that we had back in the 70s. Wilson leans about as far back as any hitter in the league. But no matter how far he leans, he never falls over.
That canít be right. This guy is the automatic 200 hit, running scoring catalyst to the Yankee offense, isnít he? But there it is, Jeter has been awful, a shadow of his former self. The primary reason for the spike in Jeterís May numbers is because he got hot at the end of the month in Texas, Baltimore and Tampa Bay. So whatís up with Jeter? Is it A Rod? Is he getting old? Itís gotta be A Rod, right? A few weeks ago, Joe Torre said that Jeter was simply saving his sophomore slump for his ninth year. Maybe this is just his off-year. Hey, he's entitled. And thatís not to say that he canít play well for the rest of the season and hit .275-.285 for the year and still score 100 plus runs.
One of the most interesting aspects of Derek Jeterís season is that heís playing some of the best defense of his career. Considering that Jeterís defense has been the topic of debate for the past few years, itís worth mentioning. I recently spoke with my friend Rich Lederer about it, and he pointed out that:
Jeterís range factor and zone rating are the highest ever and his fielding average is the second highest of his career. He is also on pace to approximate his first two years in the bigs in terms of assists while committing the second fewest errors of his career.
The Hot Corner:
After a slow start, Alex Rodriguez (.295/.385/.539, splits) has been everything the Yankees expected him to be:
And heís not even really hot yet. But Rodriguez has reached base in what? 37 consecutive games. He has played admirably at third base too. Heís also shown some speed, leading the team in steals with nine in ten attempts. Heís got a great arm and that has gotten him by as he learns his new position. But what can I say? Itís hard to take your eyes off the guy. Heís technically sound without being mechanical; his swing is fluid. Heís a competitor. Whatís not to love?
Godziller Matsui (.320/.431/.531, splits) is a better player in 2004 than he was in 2003. Heís more patient and heís hitting the ball in the air more, hence for more power (Walk to whiff: 33/33). He also leads the team in 41 runs scored.
Matsui is an appealing Yankee in the mold of the Roy White, Willie Randolph professional but low-key Yankees. The rub is that he just so happens to be the most famous player in Japan, but he blends into the background here in New York. Heís not a spectacular player in anyway, but he is durable and reliable. Sometimes he looks refreshingly awkward. But he also hits relatively well against lefties, makes most of the plays in left, always hitting the cuff-man man and plays a fundamentally-sound game.
When healthy, Kenny Lofton (.278/.369/.431 in 72 at bats, splits) has been effective. Iím a long-time Lofton-hater, so itís taken some time for me to get used to rooting for him. But I think Iím there. Lofton often looks to be in high spirits in the dugout. His teammates seem to like him and if heís OK with them, well I guess he can be OK by me. I still donít think much of him as an outfielder but he is an improvement over Bernie.
I think Bernie (.238/.333/.375) is going to have an excellent season before its all said and done. I'm guilty of going with my heart on this one, but I think Bernie has another good summer or two left in his bat. He started off slowly like he usually does and he started to improve in May. I think heíll be a hot bat in July or August, and have one of those five week streaks where he carries the team.
Gary Sheffield (.282/.384/.415) had a constipated start to his Yankee career.
Sheff wasnít as bad off as Jeter or Williams, but he wasnít hitting for power at all. However he did lead the team in hitting with runners in scoring position. Sheff started to hit during the second half of the Yankees' recent road trip (the whole team was hitting). I feel as if it is just a matter of time before he hits for power again. In the meantime, he hits the ball harder than any Yankee since Winfield. That, in and of itself, was been great in terms of entertainment-value alone. Heís got a strong arm and makes some tough plays in right. Also makes his share of blunders. He doesnít have as steal, but has been caught stealing four times. Heís become one of my favorite hitters. It just looks like he wants to punish the ball, and it feels like heís going to do just that in each at bat. Heís got a vicious swing that is lighting quick, but doesnít strike out much (22 whiff, 29 walks).
What with all the beef on the Yankee roster, there are many different guys who get the chance to DH. Bernie, Giambi, Posada. But Ruben Sierra (.310/.349/.530 in 100 at bats, splits) has been the surprise bat off the bench this spring, so letís go with him as the DH.
Sierra stand far off the plate from both the left and right side. It never looks to me that heíll be able to get a hit. But heís been a great boost and helped turn the Yankees around after they were swept by Boston.
Mike Mussina got off to a terrible start. He kvetched about the Japan trip and was effected by a truncated spring training. Heís looked better in May, but far from his best yet.
Kevin Brown has generally been his nasty, old self so far. Just axe the D-Rays. Heís 4-0 against them. Brown has had a few poor starts, but overall has been imposing. I like him in the role of the hard-ass old ace better than I liked Clemens. Brown is more tortured. It looks like itís miserable to hit against him. Everything is hard and in on the hands. Heíll also let a pitch fly every now and then, which is important because Mussina, Vazquez and Lieber are control pitchers who donít back hitters off the plate at all.
Javier Vazquez is my favorite Yankee pitcher since El Duque came to the team in the summer of 1998. I love his delivery, love his intelligence, and I love his competitiveness. Heís a pleasure to watch. The Yankees havenít scored a lot of runs for him but thatís likely to change. Heís had a few bad outings, but even when heís getting killed, he still competes and makes smart pitches. He does give up the long ball---several times off breaking pitches when heís ahead on the count. Iím grateful that the Yankees have him. Would I rather have Vazquez than Andy Pettitte? You betcha.
Jon Lieber is an appealing sinker ball pitcher. Heís a good old boy with a sense of humor. He throws a lot of strikes and a lot of ground balls. Works briskly and is efficient. Gets rocked on occasion, but is more stable, if less promising, than Jeff Weaver.
Finally, Jose Contreras is the resident high-priced head case. Heís become the Cuban Hideki Irabu without the public backlash. I go back and forth between feeling sad for Contreras to being confused by him to wanting to strangle him. Heís got dynamite stuff, but no poise. Get a runner on first and he starts to get nuts. What gives? Nowhere to go but up for Contreras.
The bullpen isn't well-rounded but they are strong at the back end. How important is Steve Karsay's return now? Paul Quantrill (4.40 ERA in 30.2 innings) looks like Beetle Bailey to me. Heís a durable sinkerballer who started off well but has run into trouble of late. I like him well enough though. He does have a gimpy knee that was aggravated in April, but he could simply be suffering from a dead arm or an old fasioned case of suckitous. Flash Gordon (1.57 ERA in 28.2 innings) has been great. Couple of bumps in the road here and there, but generally top-notch. Rivera says that heís the best set-up man heís had since 1997 and heís probably right. Cub fans and Sox fans assured me that Iíd enjoy having Flash on the team and they were right too. Heís short and athletic and can throw cheese (to go along with an above-average curve ball). Gordon looks like a little attack dog, small but fierce. He even gets away with having a pencil-thin mustache. How cool is that?
Our man Mo Rivera (0.96 ERA in 28 innings) continues to use a two-seam fastball more. He introduced the pitch last year, and likes to balance the cutter against it. Rivera may not be the best relief pitcher in the game but he still holds is own and is among the elite. He's just padding his resume now. He's one of my all-time favorites of course. I don't write about it much, but he's the special one. The one who I hold my breath for the most, the one who I want to be great more than anyone else.
In all, the Yankees have been entertaining to watch. They are an old team, with a weak bench, but I like their personality. There is a lot of Grade A Beef on the Yanks. That's always good for some laughs, to have a bunch of thick-necked mashers to root for. The new stars fit the business-minded Yankee persona well too. Who knows if they will stay healthy? A string of bad injuries and the Yanks could miss the playoffs. Then again, they could cruise through the regular season like the 2003 Braves only to lose in the playoffs. Or they could make it back to the World Serious again. I think that they are the best team in the AL, along with Boston and Anahiem. They might not be the best of the three, but they'll be a tough out. Hopefully, the best is yet to come.