The second half of the season begins today. It begins with the Yankees struggling — struggling to score runs, stay healthy and take advantage of a pretty good pitching staff. It begins with them still above .500, but slipping closer and closer to a losing record.
The Yankees were much better early in the season, but there’s a growing sense that the current struggles are much closer to their long-term reality.
“I’ve seen them (play well),” manager Joe Girardi said. “That’s what I’ve seen with my own eyes. It’s not like they did it someplace else. I saw them do it and I really believe that they can do it again. … I think you’re starting to see some at-bats are better for us. I think Andy’s stuff has been better, I think CC’s stuff has been better. I think CC’s stuff is better than it was in April when he won a lot of games. That makes me believe that we can play that well again.”
Halfway through the season, very few things have gone according to plan, and there a real sense of mystery — at almost every position — about what the Yankees can expect going forward.
The plan: Give career backups Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart a chance to carry the load. Count on defense at the position; get offense elsewhere.
The reality: Stewart has become an everyday player while Cervelli sits on the disabled list and Austin Romine struggles in a backup role.
What worked? Cervelli actually looked great before breaking his hand. He had an .877 OPS and his defense was sharp. In his place, Stewart has hit above his career numbers, and the Yankees have remained the second-best team in the American League at throwing out base stealers.
What didn’t? No surprise that the Yankees have been near the bottom of the league in terms of offense from the catching position. Romine has a .352 OPS in his first extended look at the big league level.
What’s next? Still waiting for Cervelli to get healthy. J.R. Murphy is experienced a sort of breakout season, but the Yankees seem to be in no rush to push him to the big leagues to play a part-time role. Barring a trade, the Yankees seem most likely to simply hope Cervelli can provide an offensive boost before it’s too late. Until then, they seem perfectly happy with what Stewart has done.
The plan: Let Lyle Overbay and Kevin Youkilis split time at first base while waiting for Mark Teixeira to get healthy and takeover his familiar role as an everyday first baseman and middle-of-the-order run producer.
The reality: Teixeira’s return lasted just 15 games, Youkilis hasn’t been able to fill his half of the replacement platoon, and Overbay’s production has been limited to vs. right handers.
What worked? Overbay was actually terrific as a last-minute replacement. He held down the fort — with his own obvious limitations — until Teixeira returned from a wrist injury. Early indications were that Teixeira would avoid season-ending surgery.
What didn’t? Teixeira is ultimately lost for the year, and asking Overbay to be an everyday player — something he hasn’t done in a while — is leaving him overexposed with bad matchups that don’t fit his strengths. With Teixeira under contract, the Yankees system hasn’t focused on developing a standout first baseman to fill such a hole.
What’s next? There is really not an in-house alternative. David Adams has played some first base in a pinch, but there’s no experienced alternative outside of some veterans stashed in Triple-A. It seems to be either Overbay or a trade addition.
The plan: One last year before he hits the open market, let Robinson Cano play every day as the Yankees best all-around position player.
The reality: Cano’s stayed healthy, and he’s still a no-doubt-about-it all-star, but he’s having a slightly down year and talking openly about being pitched differently without much protection in the lineup.
What worked? Cano is basically the only big name, everyday player who hasn’t gone on the disabled list.
What didn’t? Cano’s had a .909 OPS the past three years combined. This season, his OPS has been in the mid .800s. It’s hardly a bad season, but the Yankees have been desperate for offense, so it’s a bad time for Cano to take a slight step backwards. Of course, there’s also every chance that Cano’s season is a direct result of the players around him. Why would anyone give him something to hit?
What’s next? The only question is Cano is whether the Yankees will be able to re-sign him at the end of the year. The idea of trading him and punting on the season seems hard to imagine. As long as he’s healthy this season, he’ll almost certainly stay right where he is.
The plan: Kevin Youkilis was signed to fill in for Alex Rodriguez, and Jayson Nix was around to play some third base off the bench and against lefties.
The reality: The Yankees have been forced to dig into their farm system, with David Adams emerging as the current regular third baseman. Youkilis had back surgery, and Ronnier Mustelier has also spent most of the season on the disabled list, taking him out of contention as a possible alternative.
What worked? Youkilis actually looked pretty good in spring training, and he got off to a strong start in early April. Adams also hit really well when he first arrived in the big leagues and at least momentarily looked like a ready replacement.
What didn’t? Inevitably, Youkilis couldn’t play, and his back seemed to seriously sap his offensive production when he tried to play. Adams eventually went cold, the Chris Nelson experiment didn’t last and Mustelier has been unable to help after his terrific spring. What hasn’t worked at third base? Pretty much everything.
What’s next? Amazing how desperately the Yankees need Rodriguez at this point. Third base is one position that was supposed to provide some right-handed power, and now the Yankees are left hoping Rodriguez can provide it. Adams has looked a little better lately, but there’s still a real need for a productive version of A-Rod to make a difference.
The plan: When hopes of Derek Jeter breaking camp faded away, the Yankees handed the shortstop position to Eduardo Nunez, trusting that his defensive improvements would carry into the season.
The reality: What seemed like a minor Nunez injury has kept him out of the lineup since May 5, putting the shortstop position largely in the hands of Nix (with occasionally help from guys like Alberto Gonzalez and Reid Brignac).
What worked? Nunez’s defense actually was much better, and Nix has done a good job getting on base against lefties.
What didn’t? Nunez didn’t hit much, and for the most part, Nix has hit about the way you’d expect a third-string shortstop to hit. Mostly, though, what hasn’t worked has been Jeter’s ankle. His spring setback has left him going through a long rehab process all year.
What’s next? Shortstop is a hard position to fill, but Nunez is playing in minor league rehab games, which suggests he could be back fairly soon. And the Yankees have made it clear that they’re going to prepare Jeter to return to the position that’s been his for nearly two decades.
The plan: Have Curtis Granderson spend some time learning the position in spring training and play him there quite often during the season.
The reality: Granderson broke his arm in his first spring game, then broke his hand in his eighth game off the disabled list. Instead, it’s been mostly Vernon Wells in left, for better and for worse.
What worked? Short-term, the Wells signing worked perfectly. He actually was a very productive everyday player while Granderson was on the disabled list for the first month or so. More recently, what’s worked has been the arrival of rookie Zoilo Almonte.
What didn’t? Eventually, Wells reverted to his old, familiar struggles. When Granderson went back on the DL, Wells was completely unable to regain his early form, which was a significant problem because of the Yankees’ desperate need for a right-handed hitter.
What’s next? Granderson is rehabbing and should be back eventually, but for now it seems that Almonte is going to continue getting regular at-bats against both lefties and righties. If Mustelier or Brennan Boesch gets healthy again, one of those could factor in as well, but for now it’s Almonte plugging the hole until Granderson returns.
The plan: Assuming Granderson was able to adjust to left field, the Yankees were ready to give Brett Gardner a chance as an everyday center fielder.
The reality: Not only has Gardner played center nearly every game, he’s been the Yankees regular leadoff hitter and put up numbers that have him in the mix for the All-Star game.
What worked? In short, Gardner worked. He’s been a good defensive player — which was a fairly safe bet — and he’s also shown some unexpected pop while getting on base at a good clip at the top of the order. He and Cano are the Yankees only offensive bright spots this season.
What didn’t? Without Granderson, the Yankees really haven’t had a strong alternative in center. Ichiro Suzuki has played there, but it’s basically been Gardner every day. And for whatever reason, Gardner hasn’t been running much on the bases.
What’s next? More of the same. At this point it seems a safe bet that Granderson will return as a left fielder and Gardner will keep playing in the middle of the outfield and the top of the order.
The plan: Impressed by last year’s partial season in pinstripes, the Yankees gave Ichiro Suzuki a two-year deal, which made it clear that he was expected to play right field every day.
The reality: It’s been an up-and-down season for Ichiro, but at least he’s remained healthy and — for the most part — has not been a total black hole offensively.
What worked? Lately Ichiro’s been one of the Yankees better hitters. Despite his age, he’s been able to play nearly every day and he’s hit especially well against lefties.
What didn’t? Oddly, Ichiro has struggled quite a bit against right-handers. And he’s gone through stretches when he’s looked completely lost at the plate. His on-base percentage is still pretty low despite a good month of June.
What’s next? More Ichiro. Might see him get some days off after Granderson returns, but the position is his barring an outfield trade. Probably going to be his next year, too.
The plan: Let Travis Hafner hit against righties and use the DH position to give veterans a half day off against lefties.
The reality: Veterans haven’t been healthy enough to take those half days off, and the short-term Ben Francisco experiment was a complete mess. Hafner’s been one of the team’s better power hitters, but that’s not saying much.
What worked? Hafner was tremendous in April, helping the Yankees jump out to a strong start and at least temporarily filling a sizeable gap in the middle of the order.
What didn’t? Hafner was brutal in May and only occasionally productive in June. Meanwhile, the Yankees have never really had a helpful right-handed designated hitter.
What’s next? The Yankees badly need offense, and any sort of trade or player off the disabled list would surely have a trickle-down impact on the DH position, at the very least upgrading from the right side and moving Hafner out of the cleanup spot.
The plan: Pretty familiar, really. Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte were re-signed so that the Yankees could use essentially the same rotation that they used last year.
The reality: More or less as expected, except with David Phelps in the rotation instead of Ivan Nova. Pettitte has dealt with some back injuries, but he’s been available most of the year.
What worked? Kuroda has been terrific, and until Saturday night, Phelps was pitching very well as a rotation replacement. The Yankees have also gotten strong spot starts from Vidal Nuno and positive news on Michael Pineda’s rehab.
What didn’t? CC Sabathia’s first half didn’t meet expectations. He wasn’t necessarily bad, just didn’t pitch up to typical “ace” standards other than his workload. Phil Hughes has been wildly up and down; either extremely good or extremely bad, still lacking consistency as he heads toward free agency.
What’s next? Sabathia and Kuroda are locked into the top two spots, but Pettitte is still trying to get on a roll since coming off the disabled list, and the Yankees will eventually face a decision to use two of Hughes, Nova, Phelps and Pineda as big league starters.
The plan: Use a bunch of familiar faces to form a bridge to the greatest closer of all time.
The reality: Mariano Rivera has been terrific in his final season, and Dave Robertson remains a standout setup man. The impact of Joba Chamberlain’s inconsistency has been minimized because of the emergence of Shawn Kelley and Preston Claiborne, who unexpected impact relievers.
What worked? The late innings have been as secure as ever. Rivera and Robertson have seen to that. Kelley has emerged as a strikeout artist, a surprisingly strong addition that came to the Yankees in a spring training trade with the Mariners. On the whole, the bullpen has remained a strength.
What didn’t? Chamberlain’s most notable moment came when he got into a very public spat with Rivera. Otherwise, he’s struggled since coming back from a rib cage injury. Boone Logan’s overall numbers have been pretty solid, but he hasn’t been particularly good as a left-on-left specialist. Mark Montgomery, the top relief prospect expected to make his big league debut this season, has instead struggled with underwhelming Triple-A numbers and stints on the disabled list.
What’s next? The bullpen has been the least of the Yankees worries and remains that way heading into the second half. A second lefty might help with some matchups — and the Yankees have stockpiled some options in Triple-A — but for the most part, the go-to relievers seem to be in place.
Associated Press photos