Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Breaking Down the Yankees for the Second Half--The Starting Lineup, Part One

[So the All Star Game is officially over--and we can thus consider ourselves in the second half.

This is where it gets fun.

All of those days players got rested in the first half? Well, now they have to play. Now the pennant races start to heat up, and every move a team makes, be it a trade, a free agent signing or simply bringing someone up from AAA has even more added meaning.

What do we expect from the Yankees?

I'm going to do a series of posts addressing this, because there's so much to say that having it all in one post would a) kill your eyes and mine, and b) give me carpal tunnel at the age of 23.]

For your lunchbreak, I'm going to tackle the one area that's remained relatively problem-free: The starting line up.

Here I've included hitters 1-5, because I think any more and the post will get too long. I'll be back with the rest of the line up a little later on today.

The Starting Line Up

The goal of an offense is to score as many runs as possible. The Yankees? Their 495 runs scored is tops in the Major Leagues and frankly is not too far off the pace if this team wanted to score 1000.

The most impressive thing here isn't just that the Yankees are scoring runs; it's the way they are doing it. Aside from the Chien Ming Wang disaster starts, games in which the Yankees have been blown out are few and far between. The twenty-five come from behind wins and eight walk off wins are illustrative of an offense that keeps fighting.

The offense alone can't win a World Series, but with these guys, it's not for a lack of trying.

In the second half there will probably be more attention paid to Mark Teixeira--who has been slumping--now that the excuse of cold weather is no longer acceptable. Joe Girardi will still have to do a balancing act in center, with Brett Gardener and Melky Cabrera--and both of them seem to perform better when they are not playing every day. Johnny Damon and Nick Swisher will need days off--for different reasons, mind--but as the pennant race heats up these will become harder to come by.

Still, out of all the problems the 2009 Yankees have, the offense is pretty low down on the list.

Derek Jeter

The renaissance that Jeter had in the first half was good enough to make him this year's leading AL vote getter in All Star voting. Getting him out of the second spot has drastically cut down on his grounding-into-double-plays, even if we're still not quite used to seeing him hit first.

The biggest boon to the Yankees, however, may very well be his improved defense, which has been attributed to playing further back in the field. It's as though Yankees fans have been whisked back to 2000...

In the second half, the Yankees just want more of the same from Jeter: great hitting and good defense. They could, perhaps, do without him trying to steal third with none out, but such are minor complaints.

Johnny Damon

Damon's first half witnessed a power resurgence that was unabashedly aided by the short right field at the new Yankee Stadium. He's been a good choice to bat second because of his relative lack of hitting into double plays, and he's also been a very poor ambassador for whatever bat company he uses--breaking at least one bat a game.

Going into the All Star break, Damon was hitting a not-so-robust .147 for the month of July--perhaps indicative, again, of his body beginning to betray him. Certainly, a nagging calf injury has kept him out of the line up on occasion and even kept him from fielding decently while in it.

For the second half, what the Yankees need is simple: they need Damon not to break down. An outfield of Swisher-Gardner-Cabrera for any length of time won't give the Yankees a whole lot of power, and it will over expose all three (who may be over exposed already). Hideki Matsui probably can't play the outfield all year unless there are literally no other options aside from forfeiting the game and Eric Hinske is, many believe, not an every day player. The Yankees will easily take Damon's kind-of-cringeworthy arm and misplays if it means his bat is in the line up.

Mark Teixeira

Perhaps the most important thing Mark Teixeira did in the entire first half is show the Yankees just how wonderful it is when everyone on the infield can play a little bit of defense.

Sure, the 20+ home runs and loads of walks help, as does his hustle in running out routine pop ups, but the defense is the first thing you notice when comparing him and Jason Giambi.

In the second half, Teixeira's fate will probably be even that much more bound up with Alex Rodriguez.

When A-Rod is on a roll and crushing pitches, Teixeira will likely get more pitches to hit as teams figure out that it's a bad idea to pitch to A-Rod with men already on base. If, however, A-Rod slumps--and he does--teams will again pitch around Teixeira. It would not hurt Teixeira's cause if he were to hit for a higher average. Right now his .275 average is his worst since his rookie season. Of course, when your OPS is .913, you tend to let these things slide.

Alex Rodriguez

His tumultuous first half saw him miss a month with a hip injury, come back and hit nothing but home runs, which slowly morphed into nothing at all, and then, only after a two-day rest period, has he begun to look something of the A-Rod of old. He may very well be the only player you've ever seen with a batting average of .256 and an OBP of .411.

A lot of this has to do with the inordinate about of games in which Robinson Canó hit fifth. Since Canó has some sort of can'thitwithmenonbaseitis, pitchers simply worked around A-Rod and pitched to Canó, who more often than not grounded into a double play--but more on him later.

Now that Canó has been moved out of the fifth spot--hopefully for good--Rodriguez is getting more pitches to hit. Rodriguez hit all of .207 in June, but is hitting .350 in July. A lot of that probably has to do with him being rested, but don't discount actually having protection in the line up.

In the second half, the Yankees need Alex Rodriguez to hit like Alex Rodriguez. They need to be careful that they actually do rest Rodriguez--once a week if possible--because the hip is only going to get worse until the entire thing can get repaired in the off-season.

Jorge Posada

The most notable thing about Posada thus far is that despite the hamstring injury that had him on the disabled list, his shoulder doesn't just seem to have held up okay, it actually seems to be stronger than it was before last year's disaster.

Teams were--rightfully--willing to run all over Posada to test the arm; while he may be no Molina Brother behind the plate, he has certainly held his own.

The controversy of him having tiffs with the pitchers is overblown--he's found a way to work well enough with AJ Burnett and Joba Chamberlain's had problems with every catcher--so please, please don't get too caught up in that.

With a bat, Posada is having a usual Posada-like season; his batting average fits in nicely with career norms; the on-base percentage is on the low end, true, but Posada makes up for this with a higher slugging than normal. It's not Posada's 2007 campaign--a career year hidden by A-Rod's antics--but the Yankees will take that production from a catcher without blinking.

The biggest concern going forward is, like Johnny Damon, what the wear and tear of late summer and a pennant race will do to a 38 year-old catcher's body. The Yankees know full well now how valuable Posada's bat is, so don't be surprised if he gets a number of half-days at DH or Girardi seems to pick odd days to just rest him entirely. The last thing the Yankees want is to go into that final Boston series with Posada being unable to play because he's too beat up.

[That's long enough for now, I'll be back with the Lineup, Part 2, later on in the day, followed by the bench and the bullpen].