I heard you missed me, I'm baaaaack. I brought my pencil. Hey, gimme something to write on, man.
For those who didn't notice, I've been away for the last ten days. I visited some friends down Fairfax Station, Virginia, took in a painfully boring 14-inning game between the Astros and Nationals at RFK, spent a day at the museums in DC, then spent six days on the island of Chincoteague. There Becky and I saw the annual pony swim and auction, relaxed on the beach, toured wetlands on Assateague Island by foot, car, bicycle and boat, rocked the mini golf, air hockey and go-karts, ate our yearly allowance of sea food, and gorged on the world-class ice cream at Muller's. Then, on the way back up we made a stop in Philadelphia to meet the day-old daughter of one of our closest friends. All together not a bad ten days, save Becky's frightening sunburn and the misery of driving through Delaware the long way.
While I was away I paid only marginal attention to the fates of the home nine through my friends' internet connection, the ESPN ticker, and the surprisingly strong signal of WCBS 880 AM. From such casual observation, it seemed the Yanks were holding their own while filling their basket with every burned-out, cast-off hurler they could find on the MLB scrap heap.
Having since brought myself up-to-date via the box scores, transaction wire, and this blog (props to Alex for picking up my slack and reminding me why I so loved Bronx Banter when I was just a reader), it seems I had it about right. In the ten days I was away, the Yanks went 5-3, and in their last three series against the Twins and Angels (twice) they went 5-5. Not bad when facing such elite competition. They finished July with a 17-9 record (just their second winning month of the season and a half-game better than their 17-10 May), are 10-7 since the All-Star break and have thus far gone 13-8 through the first half of the punishingly difficult portion of their schedule. Entering tonight's game they are comfortably in second place in both the AL East (2.5 games behind the Red Sox and 3.5 games ahead of the Blue Jays, whom they'll face in Toronto this weekend), and the Wild Card race (2 games behind the still surging A's and 2.5 games ahead of tonight's opponent, the Cleveland Indians).
As for their recent spate of transactions, signing Hideo Nomo to a minor league deal was something of a no-brainer. Nomo, who turns 37 at the end of the month, may indeed be finished as a major league starter, but with four starters on the DL, three more having failed miserably in spot starts, and Aaron Small now a regular part of the rotation, the Yankees could use an insurance policy such as Nomo, who has six quality start on the season, one of which beat Randy Johnson at the Stadium back in April.
I didn't know about the Shaw Chacon trade until I found myself listening to Chacon's first Yankee start on the radio while on my way to pick up some lunch following a mosquito-plagued bike ride through the wetlands. Frightened that the Yankees might have given up something valuable to get him, I picked up a copy of the New York Times at the local gas station (one of two on the island from what I could tell) but the story on Chacon's arrival mentioned only that he was acquired for two minor league pitchers, failing to print their names. It wasn't until Sunday night that I learned that those pitchers were Ramon Ramirez and Edwardo Sierra.
Back in spring training I had listed Ramirez just below Chien-Ming Wang on the Yankees' organizational depth chart based largely on his K/BB ratios and the fact that he had cracked the Clippers roster in each of the last two seasons. The Yankees were clearly less impressed (perhaps due to the shoulder tendonitis that interrupted his 2004 campaign, or perhaps due to his unimpressive showing in two spring training appearances), sending him back to double-A Trenton where he pitched reasonably well only to struggle again with the Clippers.
As for Sierra, originally acquired from Oakland in the Chris Hammond trade, he was once thought to be a potential successor to Mariano Rivera due to a blazing fastball and corresponding strike-out rates, but his wildness, which was once a minor concern, got out of control at single-A Tampa last year where he walked 8.32 men per nine innings. That, combined with the acquisition of James Cox in this year's amateur draft (supposedly an only slighly lesser version of Hudson Street and his understudy at the University of Texas) made Sierra plenty expendable. Both men are 23 years old and have been assigned to the Rockies double-A club in Tulsa where they've thus far been knocked around.
As for Chacon himself, obviously his start on Saturday was encouraging, but I still don't expect much out of him. While with the Rockies this year, Chacon walked more men than he struck out outside of Coors field. Over the previous four seasons he has posted a 5.21 road ERA and walked 5.03 men per nine innings outside of Denver. For those who think he could get bumped into the bullpen when/if Pavano and company return (Pavano is now expected to start on Monday, I'm no longer holding my breath), Chacon was a disaster as the Rockies closer in 2004, walking as many as he struck out, blowing nine opportunities, and posting a 7.11 ERA (6.19 on the road). Best of all, the reason Chacon was sent to the bullpen to begin with is that his stamina over the course of the season makes Paul LoDuca look like Lance Armstrong. He's 0-15 with a 6.89 ERA for his career after July 31. I'm willing to withold judgement for a few starts, but I would be surprised to see Chacon, who is still in his arbitration years, still with the team in 2006.
Finally, it was obvious that the Yankees would pick up Alan Embree if the Red Sox were unable to trade him during the ten-day DFA period and thus were forced to release him. Indeed they did, as well they should have. Though I have to question the wisdom of subsequently dumping Buddy Groom (who was designated for assignment then traded to the Diamondbacks for a player to be named or cash, which is about as close to a bag of balls as you're gonna get), a move which creates a roster spot not for Embree, but for for Wayne Franklin.
To me the Groom deal was a lesser version of the decision to trade Robin Ventura after the deadline acquisition of Aaron Boone in 2003, but with less justification. In 2003, the Yankees had both Ventura and Todd Zeile on the roster when the acquired Boone for Brandon Claussen. It seemed obvious that Zeile (a righty like Boone and a lesser player than the left-handed Ventura in every way) should have been the player dumped to make room for Boone. I still believe that Ventura could have made a key difference as a pinch-hitter in the postseason that year, while Zeile was released just 17 days later, ultimately to make room for Juan Rivera to platoon with Karim Garcia in right.
The difference then was that Ventura actually had some trade value as evidenced by the fact that two years later, both players acquired in that trade, Bubba Crosby and Scott Proctor, are on the Yankees 25-man roster. Groom clearly had no trade value, which makes it all the more perplexing as to why he was sent packing. The only clues we have as to why the Yankees would prefer the mystery meat of Franklin and Alex Graman to Groom are Buddy's partingshots at Joe Torre, which echo many of my comments over the years about Joe Torre's tenuous trust in his relievers, resulting in the division of his bullpen into "his guys" and the rest, the latter of whom pitch about once a week when the Yankees are winning, if they're lucky.
As for Embree's value, he claims that his early season struggles were the result of a mechanical flaw that he's since corrected, though it's difficult to find much proof of that in his numbers which steadily worsened over the first three months of the season and didn't show a marked improvement in July. Still, if that's indeed the case, he could be an essential part of the Yankee bullpen as he was for the Red Sox in 2003, 2004 and the second half of 2002. Even better, the Red Sox are paying all but $100,000 of his $3 million contract, which will only make it sweeter if he helps to neutralize David Ortiz and Trot Nixon down the stretch. If not, well, had the Yankees not dumped Groom, there would have been no risk involved. Not that Buddy Groom was any great shakes, looking at their season stats, the only real difference between Groom and Embree thus far this season is Embree's inflated ERA, which could be the result of the pitchers who have followed him into games allowing his runners to score. And, of course, Embree's seen a lot more action (21 more appearances to be exact).
That just about brings us up to date (I'll save my comments on Aaron Small, the centerfield situation, and Joe Torre's use of Andy Phillips for when they're more obviously relevant). So, with the Yankees and I both having enjoyed yesterday's off-day, we swing back into action tonight with a three-game series in Cleveland against:
Jason Dubois replaces Jody Gerut (Pirates)
Jeff Liefer replaces Brandon Phillips (minors)
Rafael Betancourt (drug suspension) replaces Matt Miller (DL)
Brian Tallet replaces Fernando Cabrera (minors)
1B Ben Broussard
2B Ron Belliard
SS Jhonny Peralta
3B Aaron Boone
C Victor Martinez
RF Casey Blake
CF Grady Sizemore
LF Coco Crisp
DH Jeff Liefer
R Jose Hernandez (IF)
R - Jason Dubois (OF)
S Josh Bard (C)
R Kevin Millwood
R C.C. Sabathia
R Jake Westbrook
R Scott Elarton
L Cliff Lee
R Bob Wickman
R Bobby Howry
L Arthur Rhodes
R David Riske
L Scott Sauerbeck
R Rafael Betancourt
L - Brian Tallet
L Travis Hafner (DH)
R Matt Miller
R Juan Gonzalez (OF) (60-day)
L Grady Sizemore (CF)
S Coco Crisp (LF)
R Jhonny Peralta (SS)
S Victor Martinez (C)
L - Jeff Liefer (1B)
R Ron Belliard (2B)
R Aaron Boone (3B)
L Ben Broussard (1B)
R Casey Blake (RF)
The above roster includes just 24 names because Travis Hafnerwho has been out of action since being hit in the head ??? and was exepcted to be activated today, left his rehab game yesterday after one at-bat due to "not feel[ing] 100 percent" (most likely meaning reoccuring dizzy spells). Bad news for the Tribe, great news for the Bombers. With Hafner out, the Indians have turned to journeyman Jeff Liefer, though it would seem obvious for them to use Jason Dubois, acquired from the Cubs for former Rookie of the Year candidate Jody Gerut. Another break for the Yanks, though Eric Wedge has somewhat compensated for his poor choice of DH by promoting Jhonny Peralta to the three-hole after having burried him at the bottom of the line-up for most of the first half of the season.
Otherwise, there's not a lot about the Indians that differs from when the Yankees took three of four from them at the Stadium just before the All-Star break. Scott Elarton, who beat the Yankees with seven strong innings on Old Timer's Day for the only Cleveland victory against the Yanks thus far this season (thanks in part to Joe Bullpen) goes tonight against Al Leiter, whose mound histrionics and high-wire pitching were described beautifully by Alex after his hard-luck loss against the Twins last week.