State of Play: Taking Stock of the 2013 New York Yankees

The Yankee offense appears to be headed in the wrong direction.  (Photo by Keith Allison)

The Yankee offense hasn’t had much to cheer about lately. (Photo by Keith Allison via Flickr)

With yesterday’s lifeless loss to Greg Maddux Derek Holland and the Rangers, the Yankees’ record fell to 42-36, and the team appears to be at a legitimate crossroads as the baseball season nears the halfway point.  The Yankees have seventeen games left before the All-Star break, and how the team performs during this stretch may provide a glimpse into whether the Yanks can remain in contention for a playoff spot the rest of the year.  As such, this appears to be an opportune time to take stock of the 2013 New York Yankees.

Patience Appears to be Wearing Thin

Well, the bloom is off the rose…reality has set in…they’ve fallen back to earth….the honeymoon is over…all that shimmers is sure to fade… (Wait – did I really just quote a Fuel song?  At least it wasn’t Nickelback.)

Anyway, regardless of which cliché or derivative song lyric one chooses to utilize, it is clear that yesterday’s loss may have been the tipping point for some Yankee fans.  The uneasy courtship between this team and its fans may have reached critical mass as people have simply grown weary of watching the group of feeble batsmen that Joe Girardi unconvincingly attempts to pass off as an offense night after night.

Due to multiple injuries (of both the foreseeable and fluky varieties), the Yankees were forced to get creative (read:  desperate) with the roster entering the season.  This resulted in compiling a rag-tag collection of castaways and exiles.  The Yankee roster was the island of misfit toys, with Vernon Wells as King Moonracer, Lyle Overbay as Charlie-in-the-Box, and Travis Hafner as the Spotted Elephant.  Looking at the opening day lineup, an uninformed viewer would rightfully assume that Hank Steinbrenner had morphed into Rachel Phelps.

Indeed, given all this uncertainty, none of the prognosticators picked the Yankees to even sniff postseason play this season, and the universe of Yankee-haters (which is quite large) was already salivating in anticipation of the impending abject failure of a season.  The Evil Empire was finally on the brink of returning to the abyss that was 1981 through 1992.

But, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum:  the Yankees didn’t lose.  At the end of April, the team was 16-10.  At the end of May, the team was 31-23.  And, perhaps most astonishingly, for the first time since the early 1990s, the big, bad New York Yankees were the underdogs.  After years of rooting for teams with high-priced star power, the fans were actually embracing this plucky band of has-beens and never-weres.

Part of the basis of this bargain between the team and its fans, however, was the belief that this team of misfits was only a temporary fix.  While fans cheered for the early season success of players like Jayson Nix and David Adams, no one really believed that these players could carry the load for a full season.  The fans were told that these temps were here to keep the team afloat until the reinforcements arrived.  Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter, and Curtis Granderson were all expected to be back well before the All-Star break.  Unfortunately, not only did these players never fully return, but additional players suffered injuries (Kevin Youkilis, Francisco Cervelli, and Eduardo Nunez) leaving the Yankees to scramble even more.

Unsurprisingly, as the calendar flipped to June, the early season magic began to wear off, and the offense went into a steady decline:

Month

R

H

HR

RBI

BB

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

April

120

230

36

106

81

.261

.330

.432

.763

May

102

219

27

98

65

.233

.286

.376

.662

June

80

170

17

77

70

.218

.286

.327

.612

(Statistics courtesy of baseball-reference.com)

Since May 26th, the Yankees are 6 games under .500 and are averaging 3.1 runs per game.  In fact, during that span, the Yankees have scored 2 runs or fewer in 14 of the 30 games.  (I will pause to let you think about that for a second.)  The fact that the team’s run differential on the year is -5 is a testament to the pitching staff.

The offensive woes have led the fanbase to turn all Lou Grant on this team (“I hate spunk!”).  Given the makeup of the roster, this is not a situation where a bunch of players are slumping at the wrong time.  It’s clear that the Yankee offense is trending in the wrong direction, and anyone watching this team play recently can see the writing on the wall:  if the Yankees are going to have any shot to make the playoffs, the team clearly cannot continue on this path.

The question is whether there is anything that the Yankees can feasibly do to right the ship.

Vernon Wells is Who We Thought He Was

Out of desperation, the Yankees traded for the seemingly untradeable commodity known as Vernon Wells.  Despite having two subpar seasons (which is putting it mildly), the Yankees took a flier on Wells in an attempt to catch lighting in a bottle.

As Brian Cashman explained, “We thought [he] would be a fit here, at the very least, in that role that Andruw Jones had been playing for the past two years.  But no, there was no magic, unearthed data point.  The fact that he was having a tremendous spring didn’t really move us.  Our needs grew and we were able to come up a little bit more on what we were willing to take on.”

From April 1 to May 15 (38 games) Wells hit .301/.357/.538/.895 with 10 home runs and 23 RBI.  This led to some overly exuberant proclamations from certain writers:

Predictably, over the next 33 games, Wells batted .132/.145/.167/.312 with 0 home runs and 7 RBI, which – surprise, surprise –  has left his season statistics perfectly in-line with the previous two years (.226/.266/.374/.640).   Wells is not resurrecting his career, and he is not a savior.  He was never intended to be one.

The Yanks traded for him out of desperation and hoped he could provide a spark for the first two months of the season before being relegated to a fourth-outfielder role when Curtis Granderson returned.  Wells actually held up his end of the deal as he played well for the first six weeks of his Yankee tenure.  But when Granderson returned to the disabled list and the Yankees were forced to continue using Wells as an everyday player, the clock struck midnight and Wells was exposed.  As Willie Degal would say, “[O]n a scale of 1 to 10…he stinks!”

If the Yankees are to have any chance at reaching the playoffs, Wells must  be considered – at best – a fourth outfielder for the rest of the season.

Salvation Does Not Lie Within

Normally, when contending clubs have injuries or ineffective play, they reach down into their minor league system for a younger player to temporarily fill the void.  Examples this year include the Nationals (Anthony Rendon to replace Danny Espinosa), the Rangers (Jurickson Profar to replace Ian Kinsler), and the Cardinals (Michael Wacha to replace Jake Westbrook).  Admittedly, these are extreme examples because these players are some of the best prospects in all of baseball, and I would not necessarily expect the Yankees to have comparable players on call.   However, it is disheartening to look at the upper levels of the Yankee farm system and realize the cupboard is completely bare.

The Yankees have absolutely no talent at the upper levels of the minor leagues.  (Back in March, I told John Flaherty that this issue was  my biggest concern for the season.)  When injuries struck, the Yankees were forced to turn to solutions outside the organization, signing Brennan Boesch, Reid Brignac, Chris Nelson, and Ben Francisco.

The internal options consisted of David Adams (a player who was released in spring training to make room on the 40 man roster for the aforementioned Vernon Wells), Austin Romine (who is clearly overmatched at the plate), Thomas Neal (who is on his third team in the past three years), and Zolio Almonte (a player ranked as a top-15 prospect in the Yankee farm system, which speaks more to the lack of talent than anything else).  The Yankees’ best position player prospects are playing in A and AA (Gary Sanchez, Mason Williams, Tyler Austin, and Slade Heathcott) and are not close to major league ready.

In recent days, some Yankee beat writers have latched onto a quote from John Daniels, the Texas Ranger General Manager, to justify the Yankee struggles over the last two months.  When discussing the potential impact of injuries to a ball club, Daniels explained: “There is no contingency for your best players.”  His point is that no team has adequate replacements to fill in when star players are injured.  While Daniels’ sentiment is well taken, it is really not applicable to the situation the Yankees face.

No one expected the Yankees to have minor league players who could replace the offense the star players would have provided.  However, it is not too much to ask that a team has at least a few serviceable minor leaguers who could temporarily step in.  The internal options that the Yankees have used during the season (Adams,  Romine, Neal, Corban Joseph,  Nunez, and Almonte) have been downright abysmal, batting a combined .189/.248/.277/.525.   Scarily, there are no better options at the AAA level as the roster is populated by former major league flame outs like Corey Patterson, Brent Lillibridge, Josh Bell, and Fernando Martinez.

So, if the players on the roster aren’t the answer and there are no talented players in the minors to help, where can the Yankees turn?

Who Can the Yankees Actually Trade?

Over the last few weeks, there have been many calls for Brian Cashman to fix the offensive woes through trades.  But, this request raises a very fundamental question: who can the Yankees actually trade?

There have been a number of posts (for example, here and here) suggesting that the Yankees trade Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain for middle-of-the-lineup bats.  That would be great!  The Yankees could trade the most inconsistent member of the starting rotation and the weakest member of the bullpen for a power-hitting right-handed bat!  Alas, there’s a flaw in this plan.  Namely, why would any other team want these players?

Hughes and Chamberlain are both free agents at the end of the season and neither pitcher is having a good season.  If a team is in a pennant race, what good would it be to add pitchers who are having poor seasons?  If a team is out of a pennant race and is in the process of rebuilding, what good would it do to trade for pitchers who will become free agents at the end of the season? I just don’t see why any team would want to trade for them.  Furthermore, even if a team was interested in trading for Joba or Hughes, what type of player could the Yankees expect to receive in return?  A past-his-prime veteran who is having a subpar season or a middle of the pack fourth outfielder-type?  The Yankees already have plenty of these players.

The lack of minor league depth also hurts the Yankees’ ability to make an impactful trade.  With all the emphasis on reestablishing the farm system and getting payroll under control, I cannot imagine the Yankees trading any of their big ticket minor leaguers.  Thus, any trades the Yankees do make involving minor leaguers may be of the smaller variety (such as trading someone like Nik Turley or Dellin Betances, players whose stocks have taken a major hit as they have reached the upper levels of the minor leagues).  Again, I am not sure whether another team would be interested in kicking the tires on these types of players.

One avenue I could see the Yankees exploring would be trading Adam Warren, Ivan Nova, or David Phelps.  These three pitchers are 25 or younger and possess both major league experience and a solid minor league background.  Additionally, all three are under team control through at least 2017, which gives these players greater value on the trade market.   Some team may view one of these pitchers as a middle of the rotation starter for future seasons.  Trading these pitchers would certainly be feasible if Michael Pineda is able to successfully return to the rotation in a few weeks.  Using one of these pitchers as the centerpiece of a trade may be enough to obtain someone like Paul Konerko or Michael Morse, who both play on teams looking to rebuild and who would likely not receive a qualifying offer.

Waiting for the Cavalry to Arrive

The Yankees continue to keep their fingers crossed that the injured players return.  We now know for certain that Teixeira will not be back this season and the same is likely true for Kevin Youkilis.

The Captain needs to return soon .  (Photo by Keith Allison via Flickr)

The Captain needs to return soon. (Photo by Keith Allison via Flickr)

Curtis Granderson and Francisco Cervelli appear to be the closest to returning to the lineup.  All indications are that both players should arrive sometime before the end of July.  Although mum’s been the word for Derek Jeter’s rehabilitation timetable, he has been cleared to participate in baseball activities.  Realistically, the earliest the team should expect Jeter to return would be during the first few weeks of August.

As for Alex Rodriguez, there have been mixed reports on his return to the majors.  Some reports have suggested he is ready to start playing in games while others claim he is still far away from such activities.  Factor in the rumors swirling about the potential suspensions for the Biogenesis mess, and A-Rod is most definitely a question mark to return at all this season.

The best case scenario plays out like this:  Curtis Granderson and Francisco return to the lineup shortly after the All-Star break, and Derek Jeter returns by August.  While there have been positive signs for Rodriguez’s rehabilitation, I would not be surprised if he does not appear in any game this season.

The Bottom Line

So, where does that leave the Yankees?  Does the team simply give up and keep trotting out the same uninspiring lineup night after night?  Well, not necessarily, no.

Initially, the Yankees need Gardner and Cano to continue hitting at high levels, and the team needs a couple of other players to step up on a consistent basis (looking at you Travis Hafner and Ichiro Suzuki).

Second, the Yankees have to stop using Lyle Overbay as an everyday first baseman.  While he has been serviceable against righties, he is simply unusable against lefties this season (.186/.216/.314/.531).  At this point, the solution should be Brennan Boesch.  Although he  is currently on the AAA disabled list, all indications from the sportswriters covering the Scranton-Wilkes Barre Yankees are that the shoulder issue is minor.   As soon as he is healthy, the Yankees need to promote him and form a platoon with Overbay at first base, with Boesch playing against all lefties (career .284/.346/.417/.763 hitter against lefties).  Additionally, when not playing first base, the Yankees should also play Boesch in the outfield in place of Wells until Granderson returns.

Third, Cashman has to keep working the waiver wire and looking at free agents for potential upgrades at short stop and third base (as well as a backup catcher in the short term).  Case in point: the Yankees are rumored to be looking to sign the recently released Ian Stewart.  The team is not going to necessarily find a diamond in the rough, but it’s hard to imagine any newly-signed player performing much worse than the players already manning short stop (.271 SLG / .538 OPS) and third base (.325 SLG / .620 OPS).

Fourth, the Yankees need to get at least a few of their everyday players back into the lineup.  The return of Granderson and Cervelli will provide instant upgrades in left field and catcher.  The return of Jeter may be the key to the season.  A healthy, productive Derek Jeter for the final two months of the season drastically changes the complexion of the Yankee lineup.  Of course, there is no guarantee that Jeter returns for the final two months or that he returns at a productive level.  However, even a subpar Jeter would be a massive upgrade over the Nix/Brignac/Nunez/Gonzalez combination at short stop.

Fifth, Cashman must be receptive to any type of trade overture.  Indeed, Cashman has already indicated that the Yankees are “open for business” regarding potential trades.  If Granderson and Jeter are able to return, Cashman needs to set his sights on upgrades at third and first base or, at the very least, a right handed batter with some pop who could spell either Overbay and/or Hafner against lefties.   This is the type of year where every little bit helps, so even a minor trade may pay dividends.

Ultimately, for the Yankees to remain contenders in the ultra-competitive AL East, numerous things have to break right:  (1) Jeter, Granderson, and Cervelli must return from injury and play well; (2) Cano and Gardner need to avoid prolonged slumps; (3) Ichiro and Hafner must contribute at a higher level; (4) the team needs to find anyone who can play third base at even a replacement level; and (5) the pitching staff needs to continue to pitch like it has.  Oh, and the team needs to avoid any further injuries.

So, if all that happens – and with a little luck – the Yankees may possibly have a chance to reach the postseason.