The second half of the Yankees' 2006 season kicks off with a bang tonight as the Yankees take on the defending World Champion Chicago White Sox at the Stadium. The White Sox are one of two American League teams the Yankees have yet to face this year (the other, the Mariners, comes to town on Monday), and one of two teams that stands between them and a playoff spot. The White Sox lead the Yankees by six games in the Wild Card race. That's a much tougher row to hoe than the 2.5 game deficit the Yankees face in the AL East, but the Yanks and Chisox are actually far better matched than you might expect.
Although the reputations of their two pitching staffs differ significantly, both have been equally effective thus far this season, with the White Sox allowing 4.715 runs per game and the Yankees allowing 4.721 runs per game, putting the two teams in a virtual tie for the fourth-best run prevention in the American League. The same thing is true on defense. Despite their disparate reputations, the Yankees actually have a slightly higher defensive efficiency than the defending World Champs, with the two teams ranking third and fourth respectively in the American League.
Where these two teams differ is offense. Thanks to the acquisition of Jim Thome (.298/.414/.651, 30 HR, 77 RBI), a career year from Jermaine Dye (.318/.397/.646, 25 HR, 68 RBI), and a breakout season from 28-year-old Joe Crede (.294/.331/.512, 16 HR, 57 RBI), A.J. Pierzynski's rediscovery of his 2003 form (.320/.365/.440), the usual contribution from the suddenly consistent Paul Konerko (.313/.384/.449, 21 HR, 67 RBI), and more of the same from Tadahito Iguchi (.287/.346/.429), the White Sox have the major league's best offense, and one that's powered by getting on base and hitting for extra bases.
That's not to say that the Sox don't have a couple of stiffs. Juan Uribe has 11 homers, but a Womackian .264 on-base percentage and has been losing occasional starts against righty pitching to Alex Cintron, who has just two bombs, but 56 more points of OBP. Rookie Brian Anderson, meanwhile, has more than replaced Aaron Rowand's defense in center, posting a staggering 122 Rate, but is cruising down the interstate at .192/.280/.324, forcing his manager to sacrifice his glove for the bat of lefty-hitting utility man Rob Mackowiak (.309/.396/.407) against certain right handers.
The contrast between the Sox and the Yankees lends a great deal of support to the idea that what the Yankees most need is a big bat for right field. (A quick aside, today's New York Postback page featured a big photo of Bobby Abreu along with a headline suggesting that the Mets and Yankees were both trying to deal for the Phillies' right fielder. First of all, the Mets aren't going to get a right fielder from a division rival when what they need most of all is starting pitching. Second, it reminded me of a similar Post back page from 2000 featuring Sammy Sosa. Sosa didn't wind up going anywhere, and the Yankees made a brilliant and unexpected deal for David Justice. Seeing that Abreu headline, I began wondering who might be a similar high-profile, yet off-the-rumor-radar acquisition for the Yankees this year. It would have to be a veteran with a big contract looking to jump off a sinking ship for one last chance at a title. Preferably someone who'd been there before, maybe even had a ring of their own. The names that I came up with were Moises Alou and Luis Gonzalez. Remember, you heard it here first).
That said, any team willing to take a gander on Sidney Ponson is clearly in need of pitching. The Yankees are still fourth in the majors in runs scored, but with their sudden loss of faith in Shawn Chacon (which hasn't been entirely undeserved, but still feels premature), they're essentially without a fifth starter. Aaron Small's glass slipper has shattered, Darrell Rasner might not return to action this year, Matt DeSalvo and Jeffrey Karstens crashed and burned in Columbus and were demoted to double-A, Ramiro Mendoza has been awful of late, Sean Henn spent most of the first half on the DL, Steven White is still finding himself in triple-A, and the Yankees' fourth starter is Jaret Wright, who still hasn't pitched out of the sixth inning (though after he struck out ten and walked none in his last start while allowing just four hits and throwing just 91 pitches and still got the hook after six, I became even more convinced that the Yankees have imposed that ceiling in an attempt to keep Wright healthy).
Think about this for a second: wouldn't Jason Schmidt help this team more than Bobby Abreu?
At any rate, this weekend's series with the World Champs is a big one. The Yankees need to make a dent in the Sox's Wild Card lead and prove that they can hang with these big boys the way they did with the AL-best Tigers at the end of May. Tonight they'll take their first stab at the Sox by taking on the undefeated Jose Contreras. Easily the Sox's ace this year, Contreras has actually not been as consistent as his 9-0 record might lead you to believe. He's the only Sox starter to have missed a turn, having spent 15 days on the DL with sciatica (the Sox as a whole have been alarmingly consistent, their opening day roster differing from today's by just one man, reliever David Riske, and their current record falling just two games shy of their record at the same point a year ago). After being activated in late May, Contreras recorded three no-decisions, dodging the loss in a 12-8 defeat at the hands of the Indians who touched up El Titan de Bronze for six runs in five innings. In his last three starts in June, he gave up 15 runs in 17 2/3 innings and three of his last five starts have also been no decisions despite his receiving an average of eight runs of support over that span.
The Yankees will counter with Randy Johnson. Johnson was acquired prior to the 2005 season to be the difference maker and in a way, he has been. The Yankees won their division last year because of a late-season run that was lead by Johnson's stellar performance down the stretch in which he won each of his final eight starts, posting a 1.93 ERA and a 0.82 WHIP and allowing just two home runs over 51 1/3 innings pitched. They then lost the ALDS in large part because Johnson spit the bit in Game 3. With the Yankees easily within striking distance of the playoffs coming out of the All-Star Break, it's very likely that Johnson, who was maddeningly inconsistent during the first half, will make the difference yet again down the stretch.
The Yankees can guess at what they'll get out of the other three permanent members of their rotation in the second half. Mussina will likely regress slightly from his strong first half, but will continue to turn in quality starts. Wright will continue to give the Yankees a solid five or six innings each time out with an occasional stinker, and Wang will continue to mature into an efficient and occasionally dominant innings eater. But Johnson's a mystery. He was excellent in four of his last five starts during the first half (take off the eighth inning of his final start against the Indians when he was trying to save the bullpen with a nine-run lead and his line in those four outings was 27 1/3 IP, 15 H, 5 R, 1 HR, 2 BB, 27 K), but the exception was a miserable loss to the Mets in which he allowed eight earned runs (though he did strike out seven in six innings pitched). It could be that this is what Johnson is now, inconsistent, but if one side of Randy Johnson's split personality takes over, he will take the team with him to glory or destruction. Tonight we'll get our first indication of which direction he's headed.