3 Obstacles Standing Between the New York Yankees and Title No. 28
New York's first 10-game winning streak since 2009 (the year they won No. 27) has put the Yankees back atop the competitive AL East by two-and-a-half games and has seemingly made them the favorites to represent the American League in the World Series.
But not so fast, Yankee Universe. Your team isn't flawless.
Yes, the Yankees are undoubtedly the hottest team in the game at the moment. They lead all of baseball in home runs and fielding percentage. They rank in the top 10 in both runs scored and team ERA, and they have one of the strongest bullpens in the bigs despite an injury to the best closer the game has ever seen.
But I'm still not convinced. I am not yet certain that New York's aging roster can hold off hungry divisional opponents in Tampa Bay, Toronto, Baltimore and even Boston. I haven't seen enough to tell me that, if they make it, the Yankees can beat the likes of Texas, Los Angeles or Detroit in a five- or seven-game playoff series.
Because nothing is decided in June.
But if the current date doesn't convince you that it is too early to judge playoff contenders, then maybe some facts will.
Here are a few factors that separate the New York Yankees from greatness.
Inefficient/Inconsistent Run Production
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It has become a trend in recent years for the Yankees. Throw out a starting pitcher that can keep you in the game, and hope the big bats can slug their way past the opposition.
A formula that has netted the organization 11 first-place finishes in the last 14 seasons is also one that has proven relatively ineffective in the postseason in recent years. Aside from the championship run in 2009, the Yankees have failed to make it out of the first round in five of the last six years.
Fans in New York hope that isn't the case for their beloved team in 2012.
And as much as I wish I wasn't the bearer of bad news...I am.
Because this year New York has epitomized what it means to be called the Bronx Bombers. They are dependent on the long ball more than ever as their league-leading 101 home runs have accounted for more than one-third of their total run production to this point.
An anemic .216 BA with runners in scoring position ranks them 28th out of 30 teams in the majors, and the numbers drop even lower with two outs. Brett Gardner's absence from the lineup means they possess virtually no speed to create havoc on the base paths, and a batting order filled with power hitters means that bunts and productive outs can be few and far in between.
In fact, the Bronx Bombers are so reliant upon the home run this year that Saturday's extra inning victory in Washington was the first "W" the Yanks have picked up in a game in which they did not go yard.
But despite these telling statistics, New York has managed to win 41 games behind a solid bullpen, sensational defense and raw power. They have scored 315 runs, which ranks them seventh in the major leagues; however, a dependency on the long ball is both evident and alarming.
When facing the game's premier starting pitchers in the playoffs, home runs are tough to come by. And when a team is unable to manufacture runs in a tight ballgame, they typically find themselves on the golf course in the final days of October.
Let's hope that isn't the case in 2012.
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With the recent return of veteran Andy Pettitte, it seems as though New York has found its clear-cut, three-man rotation for a potential ALDS matchup. But the question remains: who will follow Sabathia, Kuroda and Pettitte in Game 4?
The candidates are obvious. And if recent history is any indication of how they will perform, Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova would both make excellent options. But shaky starts to the season for both pitchers have Yankee fans pleading for consistency.
While neither starter has a ton of playoff experience at just 25 years of age, Nova may be the better option after pitching into the ninth inning of a loss to the Tigers in last year's ALDS.
On the other hand, much of Hughes' postseason success has come as a reliever from 2007-2009. And though he did pick up an impressive win against the Twins in 2010, the righty got shelled in two starts the following year against Texas.
Solid outings for each in their last three starts has certainly sparked optimism among Yankee faithfuls, but midseason success against lowly lineups simply isn't comparable to what they would face in the playoffs. Interleague-quality starts against the likes of the Nationals, Mets and Braves just don't translate to October.
At this point, it's a toss up. With similar numbers across the board, only time will tell who will ultimately slot into that fourth spot in the Yankees postseason rotation.
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For nearly two decades, the Yankees have had a luxury unlike any other team in baseball history: a constant at the back of the bullpen that virtually shortened games to eight innings and crushed any hope opponents had for a comeback.
And now it's gone.
At least for 2012, the best closer and arguably the greatest postseason performer in history will not be available. For the first time in 16 years, New York won't have Metallica's "Enter Sandman" to look forward to in the ninth inning. This October, someone other than the one they call "MO" will have to close ballgames for the Yankees if they make it to the playoffs.
And it could cost them.
Now, ever since Mariano Rivera tore his ACL shagging fly balls during batting practice, the Yankee bullpen has hardly missed a beat. Rafael Soriano has stepped into the closer role effectively, saving 13 games in just 14 chances.
But Soriano is no MO, and his resume crumbles in comparison.
Over the course of his 11-year career, he has been to the postseason just twice. And in those two chances (one with the Rays and one last year with the Yankees), Soriano has pitched just 7.2 innings.
MO? Try 141.
Soriano has surrendered four earned runs in his limited playoff experience, while Mariano has given up 11. The only difference is that MO has pitched 20 times the number of innings.
Now, I'm not here to say that Rafael Soriano isn't capable of filling the role effectively, because he is. I'm not jinxing him or setting him up to fail in October, but the simple fact remains that, for the first time in almost 20 years, the Yankees don't have certainty in the ninth inning. They are missing the glue that has held their bullpen together through five World Series titles.
Sadly, it wont be No. 42 closing No. 28.