Now that Joe Torre has (in an absurd bit of media-fueled theater) been officially not fired, the Tigers and Kenny Rogers have done to the A's (and in the latter case the Cardinals) what they did to the Yankees in the Division Series, and Yankee senior vice president of media relations Rick Cerrone has been fired as a low-impact mia culpa to Alex Rodriguez over Tom Verducci's now infamous Sports Illustrated article, the Queens of Hearts and Chicken Littles have finally quieted to the point that we can look back at the 2006 New York Yankees without having to shout above the din. As I did last year, I'll take a player-by-player look at the 2006 Yankees over the course of my next several posts, but before I do, let's kick things off with a quick look at how the team performed as a whole:
The 2006 New York Yankees finished the season with the American League's best record (97-65, a game better than the surging Twins) and tied with the eventual pennant-winning Tigers for the league's best Pythagorean record (95-67, two games better than the Twins). The primary reason for this success was that the Yankees boasted the major league's best offense. The Bronx Bombers led majors in runs scored (930 total, 5.74 per game) thanks to a balanced attack that saw them finish second in the American League in both home runs (to the defending champion White Sox), and stolen bases (to the Angels, whose 72 percent success rate paled next to the Bombers' 80 percent), while drawing just one less walk than the second-best A's (Boston lead the league). In a season in which the average American Leaguer hit just .275/.339/.437, the Yankees as a team posted a .285/.363/.461 line, their team on-base percentage of .363 outdistancing the Red Sox's second-best mark by twelve points.
On the other side of the ball, the Yankees finished second in the league (to the Tigers) in defensive efficiency, a huge turn around from last year's tenth-place performance and one that surely had a great deal to do with their completely revamped (unintended though it might have been) outfield. Such an efficient defense also helps put into context the league average performance of their pitching staff (4.73 runs allowed per game and a 4.41 team ERA, which works out to a team ERA+ of 99). In front of an average defense (or worse yet, the iron-gloved 2005 Yankees), that lukewarm pitching performance just might have turned the blood cold. But with the everyday players contributing at an elite level on both sides of the ball, the Yankee pitching didn't need to be better than average during the regular season. When the bats were cooled by the majors' best pitching staff in October, however, the team's shortcomings on the mound were thrown into sharp relief, resulting in a quick first-round exit at the hands of the eventual pennant-winning Tigers.
Still, the 2006 Yankees were a good team that avoided prolonged slumps (their longest losing streak was four games and their worst month was a .538 June) and only got better as the season progressed (first half-winning percentage: .581, August: .600, September .621). Of course, they were also the oldest and most expensive team in the major leagues, but bubbling up below the surface are a couple of young hurlers who could improve the team in their three trouble areas: age, price, and pitching. I'll take a look at what the future could (and perhaps should) hold for the home nine in the coming weeks, but for now, let's look back at the 2006 club. I'll start today with the outfielders, as major injuries to the team's starting corner outfielders and middle-of-the-order sluggers were central to the progression of the Yankees' 2006 season.
Re-signed to a four-year $52 million contract in the offseason, Matsui began the 2006 season much like his previous three, surging out of the gate only to fall quickly into a slump as his swing degenerated. Matsui homered on opening day and in three of the Yankees' first five games, ultimately hitting safely in the Yankees' first nine games, concluding that streak with a .371/.450/.657 line. He then went 0 for 7 in his next two games and hit just .172/.250/.259 in games ten to twenty-five. As in years past, Matsui's problem was that he was opening up too quickly and lunging at the ball, resulting in an increase in ground balls to the right side, and a dearth of solid contact. Fortunately, Don Mattingly, in his third season as Yankee hitting coach, having seen these symptoms twice before, identified the problem and counseled Matsui accordingly. In the two games after this story appeared on May 2, Matsui went 5 for 10 with a double and his first home run in twenty games.
Unfortunately, in the top of the first inning of the Yankees' May 11 home game against the Red Sox, Matsui broke the radius of his left arm near the wrist while attempting to make a sliding catch of a sinking liner off the bat of Mark Loretta, the game's second batter. The play was gruesome to watch and immediately ended Matsui's 518 consecutive game streak (on top of 1,250 consecutive games to conclude his career in Japan) as he didn't play a full half inning or take a turn at bat before being removed from the game.
Showing extraordinary character, Matsui actually issued a statement apologizing to his teammates for the injury. He then proceeded to spend as much of his ensuing three-plus months on the disabled list as possible working out one-handed. Matsui, who hit .308/.438/.615 from May 3 until his injury, finally returned to action on September 9 and reached base five times, going 4 for 4 with a walk. He proceeded to hit .396/.477/.585 over the remainder of the season, eventually reclaiming his left field job from Melky Cabrera.
Gary Sheffield .298/.355/.450 (.288) 151 AB
Gary Sheffield began 2006 with the best April of his Yankee career, ending the month with a .341/.390/.516 line, but hopes of another stellar season in pinstripes for the Iron Sheff came to a violent end on April 29. In the fifth inning of that Saturday afternoon's home game against the Blue Jays, Sheffield hit a grounder to Toronto second baseman Aaron Hill. Hill's throw forced first baseman Shea Hillenbrand into the baseline where Sheffield ran into him on his way to the bag. Moving at full speed at the instance of impact, Sheffield tumbled forward and as he attempted to brace his fall, jammed his wrists on the Yankee Stadium turf. It was a scary moment as Sheffield writhed on the ground in obvious pain and both he and Hillenbrand, who took a knee to the head, were removed from the game.
Despite the drama of the moment, however, the extent of Sheffield's injury was not immediately apparent. Early reports predicted that Sheffield would be back to normal once the swelling in his hands went down, but a week later he had appeared in just two games and managed just one single in seven at-bats. It was clear that Sheffield wasn't healing as quickly as the Yankees had hoped and on May 9 he was placed on the 15-day DL to allow his wrist to heal properly. Matsui's injury occurred just two days later, and in the panic that ensued it was revealed that Sheffield's DL stay was in part due to the fact that he had refused a cortisone shot in his ailing left wrist.
Sheffield was activated as soon as he was eligible and put together a five-game hitting streak, but failed to pick up an extra base hit in 25 at-bats and returned to the DL on June 1. The ultimate diagnosis was that Sheff had torn a ligament and dislocated a tendon in his left wrist, a soft tissue injury that was every bit as serious and more prone to lingering issues than Matsui's fracture. Sheffield's estimated return dates receded into the distance, surpassing even Matsui's.
In the meantime, the emergence of Melky Cabrera, the trade deadline acquisition of Bobby Abreu, and the return of Matsui squeezed Sheffield out of the outfield picture. When he finally returned to action on September 22, Sheffield did so as the Yankees' first-baseman. By all accounts was an inadequate defensive first baseman, Sheffield didn't do much in his 29 trips to the plate at the end of the season and, but he did jack a homer in each of the season's final two games, his first since before the injury. That was enough for Joe Torre to put the borderline Hall-of-Famer on the postseason roster. Sheffield picked up an RBI single in Game 1 of the ALDS, but went hitless in Game 2, was benched in favor of Bernie Williams against the left-handed Kenny Rogers in Game 3, much to his dismay, and failed to reach base in the decisive Game 4.
Yesterday, the Yankees picked up their $13 million option on Sheffield for 2007, though they did so with every intention of trading him early this offseason.
Johnny Damon .285/.359/.482 (.295)
The Yankees' key acquisition last winter, Damon was given the same four-year $52 million deal as Matsui to become the very overdue replacement for Bernie Williams in center field. Though the deal was roundly criticized when it was made, due in large part to the fact that Damon will be 35 in the contract's final year, Damon earned his keep in year one. As the Yankees' lead-off hitter, Damon saw 4.09 pitches per at-bat (21st most in ML, 13th in AL), set a career-high with 24 home runs, and stole 25 bases. In the field, though Damon's throwing arm is no stronger than Bernie's, he was one of the main reasons for the Yankees improved defensive showing, posting a 2.36 range factor compared to the league average of 2.29 and Williams' 2.07 mark in 2005.
It's not insignificant that Damon, the hated face of the curse-breaking 2004 Red Sox, had very little difficulty winning over the formerly hostile Bronx faithful. Damon played with a variety of injuries throughout the season, including early-season shoulder tendonitis and a fractured right foot suffered while making one of a series of highlight-reel catches in Toronto on April 18, both of which he reaggravated while making another tremendous catch the night of Hideki Matsui's injury. Despite the injuries, Damon appeared in 149 games, put together one of his best offensive seasons (career highs in homers, OPS+, and EQA), never complained, always hustled, and even volunteered for first-base duty in the Yankees rain-delayed 5-4 walk-off win against the Mariners on July 18. Even my wife, who hates the Red Sox more than anyone I know, warmed up to Damon by season's end.
Melky Cabrera .280/.360/.391 (.273)
Melky Cabrera went from prospect to suspect after a disastrous six-game midseason try-out with the Yankees in July 2005, but when Gary Sheffield first landed on the disabled list on May 9, the Yankees called up their hottest minor league outfielder. Inserted into the line-up in right field that night, Melky Cabrera (.385/.430/.566 after 31 games in triple-A), went 2 for 3 with his first major league RBI. Two nights later, Hideki Matsui broke his wrist and Cabrera became the Yankees' regular left fielder.
It immediately became apparent that Cabrera was a different player than the one that had patrolled center for the Yankees the previous summer. Whereas Cabrera had performed miserably in the field in his first stint with the team, Melky adjusted quickly to Yankee Stadium's spacious left field and soon teamed with Damon to form the best defensive outfield duo the Yankees have had since Bernie Williams and Paul O'Neill were in their primes. In addition to leading American League outfielders with twelve assists, Cabrera contributed the Yankees' defensive highlight of the year on June 6 when he robbed Manny Ramirez of a game-tying eighth-inning homer to preserve a 2-1 Yankee win over the Red Sox at home, a fitting counter point to the inside-the-park home run by Trot Nixon that effectively ended his trial run in 2005.
Meanwhile, at the plate, Cabrera was not only a different hitter than the one the Yankees had seen in 2005, but a different hitter than Cabrera had ever been prior to 2006. After drawing just 98 walks against 207 strikeouts over his first three professional seasons, Cabrera suddenly became a patient contact hitter in 2006. Between Columbus and the majors, Cabrera drew 66 walks against just 68 strikeouts in 2006, and saw 3.65 pitches per plate appearance with the big club. An unexpected on-base machine, Cabrera failed to reach base in just three of his 19 games in May, just three of his 26 games in June, and just three of his 25 games in July. That sort of day-in/day-out contribution, reaching base in 87 percent of his starts over his first three months with the team, made Cabrera a valuable contributor at the bottom of the Yankee order and a viable lead-off alternative on days when Damon needed a breather (Melky hit .333/.405/.467 in 75 at-bats atop the Yankee order while going a perfect 4-for-4 in stolen bases from that spot). The sugar on top of Melky's season was the increase in slugging he displayed in July and August. After connecting for just six extra-base hits in his first two months, Cabrera slugged .475 in July, highlighted by his walk-off homer in the July 18th game mentioned in the Damon entry, and put up a .312/.279/.463 line with 20 extra-base hits in those two months.
Bobby Abreu .330/.419/.507 (.329) 209AB
With both of the Yankees' slugging corner outfielders out indefinitely, Brian Cashman pulled off what could prove to be the best trade of his career at the trading deadline, acquiring Bobby Abreu and starting pitcher Cory Lidle for a quartet of unexceptional minor leaguers. Abreu, perhaps the most underrated player in the game prior to the trade, had long been under appreciated due to his multi-faceted abilities and the fickle nature of Philadelphia sports fans. A career .301/.412/.507 hitter at the time of the trade, Abreu looks like a power hitter in the batters box, but has more career stolen bases than home runs and the most finely tuned of his many skills is his ability to get on base. When he won the 2005 Home Run Derby, the ten-year veteran finally seemed to be getting the attention he deserved, but that performance was followed by a power outage that lasted right up through the trade. From the 2005 All-Star break to the 2006 trading deadline, Abreu hit .270/.405/.424 with just 14 home runs and was homerless in his final 35 games as a Phillie.
That all changed once Bobby put on the pinstripes. Abreu homered in his eighth game as a Yankee and put together a ten-game hitting streak beginning with his second game as an American Leaguer. Quickly installed as the Yankees' number three hitter, he lead the major leagues in pitches per plate appearance over the remainder of the season (4.44, consistent with his major-league-best 4.45 mark over the entire season), rebounded to his pre-Derby form by hitting .330/.419/.507 with seven home runs and ten stolen bases in twelve tries over the season's final two months, and represented yet another defensive upgrade in the Yankee outfield. Abreu followed that up by driving in four runs in the first postseason game of his career, reaching base in all four games of the ALDS and hitting .333/.412/.400 for the series. While Abreu may not have the raw power of Jason Giambi or Alex Rodriguez, he may be the best pure hitter the Yankees have had since Bernie Williams was in his prime. Best of all, he came to New York with another year left on his contract and a club option for 2008.
Bernie Williams .281/.332/.436 (.273)
Though it seemed an inevitability even before the injuries to Matsui and Sheffield, Bernie Williams played far more than he should have in 2006. Holding what amounts to a tenured position in the Yankee outfield despite having exhibited a sharp decline in production over the previous three seasons, Williams made 462 trips to the plate in 2006 and played 101 games in the field. When Williams was starting at DH against a lefty, this wasn't a problem, as Bernie hit a completely unexpected .323/.387/.549 against lefties (though always a better hitter from the right side, he hit just .231/.305/.286 against southpaws in 2005). Unfortunately, most of his playing time came in the field and against righthanders. In those situations, Williams was brutal, hitting just .261/.305/.383 against the righties, playing a sub-par right field (1.71 range factor against a 1.85 league average), and a positively brutal center (1.57 RF in 200 innings vs. 2.29 league average). He was also a pathetic 3 for 19 as a pinch-hitter. Most alarming, despite a very modest increase in power over 2005, Bernie posted far and away the worst walk rate of his professional career, walking just once every 14 plate appearances. In his lone postseason appearance, Bernie did DH against a lefty, but went 0 for 3 with two strikeouts.
Bubba Crosby .207/.258/.299 (.206) 87AB
For the third year in a row, Bubba made the team as the fifth outfielder out of spring training. But whereas he earned the spot the previous two years, this spring he was outplayed in Tampa by Kevin Thompson, Kevin Reese and even Mitch Jones, all of whom are younger than Crosby. The emergence of the Kevins should have pushed the 29-year-old Crosby out of the picture in the spring. Instead, it was a poorly timed hamstring injury, one that came just one week after Hideki Matsui's injury, that did the job. Crosby hit .290/.333/.387 while starting half of the Yankees' games in the stretch between Sheffield's injury and his own, but by the time he returned to action in mid-June, Melky Cabrera had claimed the left field job and Bernie Williams was in the middle of a brief hot streak as the Yankee right fielder.
Bubba made just nine starts in his final 34 games with the team and was designated for assignment in the wake of the deadline deals for Abreu and Craig Wilson. Though he hung on with Columbus for the remainder of the season, he hit just .238/.347/.393 there. A six-year minor league free agent, Crosby, now 30, has likely played his last game in a Yankee uniform.
Kevin Thompson .300/.417/.500 (.329) 30AB
The 26-year-old Thompson deserved to make the team over Crosby coming out of spring training, and did nothing but hit in his three brief call-ups in June (3 for 11, 3 BB, 2B, HR, 4 RBI), July (2 for 7, SB), and September (4 for 12, 3 BB, 2 2B, 2 RBI, 4 R, SB). Of course, over a much larger sample he was rather unimpressive with the Clippers (.265/.345/.428 in 362 ABs), but even those numbers were better than Bubba's. Though the jury's still out on his fielding, Thompson played all three outfield positions in his 19 games with the Yankees and should be the frontrunner for the fifth outfield spot heading into his peak age-27 season next year.
Kevin Reese 5 for 12, 1 BB
The lesser of the two Kevins, Reese, a year and a half older than Thompson and strictly a corner outfielder, was actually the man called up after Matsui broke his wrist, but he lasted just 11 days in that stint (2 for 5 and only one game started) and 15 in a second (3 for 7 with a walk, two games started), and was ultimately replaced by Aaron Guiel. Back in triple-A, Reese's season came to an end when he separated his right shoulder in a collision with right fielder Russ Johnson in mid-July.
Terrence Long .167/.250/.194 (.149) 36AB
Long was the man who replaced Reese on the roster the first time, an abomination typical of the old Yankee way of replacing potentially useful rookies with veterans who have proven that they're worthless. Then something amazing happened. After stinking up the joint in his first ten games, both at the plate and in the field, Long was benched, then designated for assignment, while rookie Melky Cabrera continued to start in left field. As much as the thought of T-Long in pinstripes continues to give me the dry heaves, in retrospect, the brevity of his Yankee career is yet another sign that the Yankees' decision making is headed in the right direction.