New York Yankees: Role Players Have Been a Pleasant Surprise in First Half
Michael Pineda, the future staff ace, didn't make it out of spring training. Mariano Rivera, the closer of all closers, was sidelined for the season by a freakish injury suffered while shagging fly balls during batting practice in Kansas City.
Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira are putting up numbers that would be acceptable for players making half their salary, and catcher Russell Martin is struggling to hit his weight.
And yet here are the New York Yankees sailing along with the best record in baseball at the All-Star break.
Well, because Derek Jeter carried them through a difficult first month or so of the season. Andy Pettitte came out of retirement to solidify the starting rotation. Rafael Soriano stepped in admirably for Rivera. And a cast of extras on the bench and in the bullpen has responded with timely hits and shutdown relief work.
The Yankees are winning even though Robinson Cano and perhaps Jeter will finish the season with a batting average near or above .300. The Bronx Bombers are winning because they are living up to their nickname by leading the majors in home runs.
So while CC Sabathia may be the only starter you may bet the house on every time he pitches, the Yankees are getting contributions from all 25 players on the roster. One of their strengths is their depth, and that has enabled them to survive injuries to key players such as Rivera, Brett Gardner and Pineda.
Let's give props to some of those who have played a supporting role.
Soriano Closing the Door on Criticism
Rafael Soriano had a disappointing 2011 for the Yankees. He was signed as a free agent after having a career year as the Tampa Bay Rays' closer in 2010 with the expectation he would slide into the setup role for Mariano Rivera.
But an injury and ineffectiveness slowed him through the first half of the season, which gave David Robertson the opportunity to step into the setup role.
So, Soriano began this season as the seventh-inning pitcher, getting paid closer money. I even suggested that the Yankees trade him by the deadline to fill a need they might have.
The next day Rivera tore his Achilles heel and went from expendable to invaluable.
He is 2-0 with 20 saves and an ERA of 1.60. He has 34 strikeouts in 33.2 innings. Given that Robertson was shaky in his two opportunities to close before going on the disabled list, it's clear that Soriano may have saved the Yankees season thus far.
Chavez Showing Rodriguez How It's Done
It's been awhile since Eric Chavez was a Gold Glove third baseman for the Oakland A's, averaging 27 home runs and more than 90 RBI. He is now a role player for the Yankees, giving Alex Rodriguez a breather at third and getting some needed at-bats as the designated hitter.
Chavez is thriving in his supporting role. He has been in 55 games and is batting .282 with seven homers and 19 RBI. He has had a bigger role than in 2011 and started 24 games at third.
At 34, Chavez is actually younger than A-Rod, and, if he can avoid the injury bug, there may be a team willing to give him a chance to be a starting third baseman or full-time DH in the future.
Feet of Clay? Arm of Gold
If you are a left-hander and can walk to the mound under your own power, you might have a long career in the majors. But, nothing in journeyman reliever Clay Rapada's career suggested he would be as effective as he has been in Yankee pinstripes.
The Yankees are the 31-year-old Rapada's sixth team in seven years. In 2011, he appeared in 32 games for the Baltimore Orioles, and, while he was 2-0, he had an ERA of 6.06.
In fact, his best ERA was an even 4.00 when he appeared in 13 games for the Texas Rangers in 2010.
This, however, has been a breakthrough season for the 6'5" lefty. Rapada has been in 41 games in his specialist role and has a 2.55 ERA in 24.2 innings. His success has mirrored that of the entire Yankees bullpen, which includes David Robertson, Boone Logan, Cody Eppley and Cory Wade.
As good as Rafael Soriano has been as the closer, those opportunities wouldn't be there without the guys who set the table ahead of him.
Still Has a Jones for the Show
With Brett Gardner on the disabled list since April, the Yankees have had to rely on several players to pick up the slack. Until recently, Raul Ibanez and Dewayne Wise got the bulk of the playing time with Andruw Jones mostly serving as a DH.
Jones, however, turned back the clock before the All-Star break, getting more playing time in the field and delivering in a big way at the plate. In his last seven games spanning two weeks, Jones is hitting .346 with four home runs and eight RBI.
That has raised his season's total to 11 home runs and 22 RBI in 144 plate appearances. The Yankees miss Gardner's speed and defense, but Jones, Ibanez and Wise have more than compensated with power and production.
Yankees Welcomed Andy with Open Arms
Andy Pettitte is 40 and currently on the disabled list. If he doesn't pitch another inning this season, however, the 40-year-old member of the core four has done his part to right the Yankee ship and help propel them into first place in the American League East.
Pettitte spent all of 2011 in retirement, but that could not suppress his hunger for baseball. With the blessing of Yankee general manager Brian Cashman, Pettitte ended his retirement at an opportune time.
The Yankees had lost prize acquisition Michael Pineda for the year with shoulder surgery, and none of the starters behind CC Sabathia had stepped up to claim the No. 2 position.
Pettitte has not only picked up without missing a beat, but his presence and experience has taken the heat off Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes, who all benefited by Pettitte's presence.
The Yankees are hoping Pettitte will return from his fractured ankle sometime in August or early September, and be ready to give them his usually outstanding postseason performance.
Pettitte's return might be the Yankees most pleasant surprise this season.
Wise and a Master of Deception
Another journeyman who has made the rounds, Dewayne Wise has found new life with the Yankees. Baseball fans are going to remember how he duped umpire Mike DiMuro into believing he had reached into the stands to catch a foul fly in late June, but Wise has provided more than just sleight of hand.
In addition to the late-inning defense he provides, Wise has started a dozen games in the outfield and has been especially hot recently, batting .462 with two homers in his last 10 games. He is batting .260 for the season in a limited role, and is not the automatic out he was expected to be.
While he is no Babe Ruth, the 34-year-old Wise also gave the Yankees two-thirds of an inning of scoreless relief in a one-sided loss to the Chicago White Sox.
The Captain Comes Through
Derek Jeter is 38 years old, and, despite being a Yankee icon, there was some doubt whether he should have been re-signed to a new multi-year contract after the 2010 season.
Although talks were not publicly acrimonious, there were some testy exchanges in the media and questions were raised whether Jeter was worth the money—which includes $16 million this season.
He has more than answered that question in the affirmative. Jeter is batting .308 with seven home runs, 25 RBI and seven stolen bases. His OBP is .354. He is tied with Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers for the league lead in hits with 111.
And, Jeter still plays a steady shortstop, compensating for diminished range with the experience he has gained over a remarkable career.
After hitting .400 or better for the first few weeks of the season, Jeter finished May batting .389 with four home runs—helping carry the Yankees when almost everyone else in the lineup was struggling.