The news on Andy Pettitte, however, continues to be less than encouraging.
When Pettitte went down with a broken left fibula in late June, indications were that he'd be back sometime in September. Here we are on the eve of September, and now nobody has any clue when Pettitte will be back.
This includes Pettitte himself. His arm is fine, but he said this week that he has a long way to go before he's in pitching condition. Via The Journal News:
I'm hoping that whenever I'm able to get on the mound, whenever that process is, that I'll be able to build up that stamina. I have no idea. Like I've told y'all all along, I have no idea how my stamina is going to be. Not only in my arm, my legs. I feel like the arm's going to be good, (but) I've had eight weeks of really not doing a whole lot other than riding a bike and swimming in the swimming pool as far as trying to condition. That's a long ways away from driving off the mound downhill.
According to Jim Bowden of ESPN, Pettitte was able to throw off a mound on Friday. Apparently, he felt good.
That's a good sign, but Pettitte is still far from being out of the woods. With the minor-league regular season coming to an end and the minor-league postseason coming to an end in a couple weeks, it's going to be difficult for Pettitte to get back into the swing of things before returning to the majors. Re-establishing himself in the majors will be an entirely different headache.
None of this is good for the Yankees. It's all well and good that they're getting A-Rod back pretty soon, but they'd no doubt rather have Pettitte back first.
Note: Stats come from Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
If this was 2007, the Yankees getting A-Rod back for the stretch run in September would be a pretty huge deal. That scenario would involve the Yankees welcoming back an MVP-caliber superstar.
That's not what Rodriguez is anymore. At this point in his career, he's just another guy.
A-Rod wasn't having a bad season at the time he got hurt, mind you. His .806 OPS still ranks eighth among major league third basemen with at least 400 plate appearances, according to FanGraphs, and he was providing passable (not great) defense at the hot corner.
The reason we think A-Rod is having a bad season is because he was capable of posting an OPS over .900 as recently as 2009. That his .806 OPS this season is lower than the .823 OPS he posted in an injury-riddled 2011 season doesn't help his cause either.
And yes, he's struggled in clutch situations as well, hitting just .218 with runners in scoring position. Since his power has largely disappeared, these are the situations he needs to be excelling in at this point in his career.
It's no surprise that the Yankees haven't really missed A-Rod since he's been gone. After scoring 128 runs in July with him in the lineup right up until July 24, the Yankees enter the final day of August with 132 runs scored for the month.
A-Rod's return certainly won't hurt the Yankees' offensive production, but he's not going to give it much of a boost either. The status quo is likely to hold.
If Pettitte were to return to the Yankees' rotation, on the other hand...
Pettitte far surpassed expectations when he returned to the Yankees after sitting out the entire 2011 season, going 3-3 with a 3.22 ERA in nine starts. He had his ERA as low as 2.77 through his first seven starts.
The Yankees' rotation itself was a well-oiled machine when Pettitte was healthy and pitching well. In June alone, Yankees starters won 15 games and posted a 2.62 ERA, best in the American League and second only to the New York Mets among all major league teams.
Ever since Pettitte's injury, things have basically gone south for the Yankees' starting rotation. It posted a 4.12 ERA in July. So far in August, it has a decent—but not great—3.82 ERA.
The only real rock in Joe Girardi's rotation over the last couple months has been Hiroki Kuroda. The Yankees have seen CC Sabathia go on the disabled list twice. Phil Hughes has been characteristically up and down. Ivan Nova struggled and then had to be put on the disabled list last week. Freddy Garcia gives fans heartburn every time he takes the mound.
The Yankees' rotation misses Pettitte. He had some rough starts in May and June, but the Yankees could generally rely on him to provide six quality innings every time he took the mound. The only guy they can rely on to do that every time out now is Kuroda.
The Yankees' rotation woes haven't killed them yet, but the key word there is "yet." It's hard to imagine them missing out on the postseason, but their balky rotation could be what leads them to lose their grip on the AL East.
Indeed, it's already pretty loose.
As recently as July 18, the Yankees held a 10-game lead in the AL East. They looked well on their way to their third division title in the last four years.
Nowadays, it's looking like it will take a Spartan-like last stand for the Yankees to hold the line.
Naturally, the Yankees' next 10 games just so happen to be against the Orioles and the Rays. They have another three-game set lined up against the Rays in the middle of September.
It's doubtful that Pettitte will be back in time for any of these games, though his presence would definitely help. The Yankees' starting rotation isn't much better than Baltimore's starting rotation right now, and it's certainly not better than Tampa Bay's starting rotation.
The Bombers' schedule is going to lighten a little bit once they get past their last series with the Rays, as series against dud teams like the Blue Jays, Twins and Red Sox will await them. The only tough opponent the Yankees will face in the final couple weeks of the season is the Oakland A's.
The Orioles and the Rays are probably still going to be within shouting distance at that point. And even saying that assumes, of course, that the Yankees are still in first place by the time they get to the lighter portion of their September schedule.
They're going to need to fight as hard as they possibly can in order to secure the AL East, which they should very much want to do seeing as how all sorts of crazy things could happen in a one-game wild-card playoff.
If the Yankees do stumble, it won't be because of their offense. It's an imperfect unit, to be sure, but we should all be past the point of thinking that offense is the Achilles heel of these Bronx Bombers.
Pitching is. Even with Sabathia back healthy, the Yankees' starting rotation isn't very scary. He's beatable, and so are the other three guys the Yankees have lined up behind Kuroda.
The Yankees need Pettitte back and pitching well in order for their opponents to fear them again. Plain and simple.
They also need him back because he'd be a shot in the arm for a club that needs one.
The Yankees have a well-earned reputation for being an unstoppable juggernaut. They're called the "Evil Empire," but they more closely resemble Major League Baseball's very own Death Star, capable of destroying anyone and anything that gets in their way.
Not so much this year. The Yankees may have the second-best record in the American League behind the Texas Rangers, but we know as well as ever that they're not indestructible and we certainly know they're not unstoppable.
The Yankees have been banged up the entire season, and it's looking like the injuries they've suffered and the grind of the season are taking their toll. The Bombers are a mere 23-22 since the All-Star break and have lost seven of their last 11 games.
To finish the season strong, they need healthy bodies. They could also use a morale boost, and that's something Pettitte can provide better than A-Rod or whomever else the Yankees may be welcoming back in the near future.
Pettitte is not unlike Derek Jeter in that he's essentially a walking, talking definition of what a Yankees player is supposed to be. He's always been a hard worker and a class act, not to mention a great teammate.
When Pettitte decided to make a comeback this spring, it was A-Rod who said it best (via ESPNNewYork.com):
I always say the same thing about guys like Jete and Posada and Mo: Their performance on the field completely makes you overlook the impact they make in the clubhouse. The culture that we have here, guys like Andy is such a huge part of that. He did miss it and I know we missed him. We're very happy to have him back.
This sounds like typical player rhetoric, but A-Rod's words rang true when Pettitte finally returned to the mound on May 13 this year. His return triggered a run that saw the Yankees win 27 of their next 40 games, taking over first place in the AL East in the process.
They were 46-28 the day Pettitte last pitched. Since then, they're 29-27.
A lot of problems are to blame for this mediocre showing. A lack of mojo—or whatever you want to call it—is one of them.
The Yankees could get their mojo back when Pettitte returns. If so, they should be able to survive the rest of the regular season in first place.
Pettitte's prospective return looms large from an October standpoint as well.
When (or if) the Yankees get to the postseason, they know that Hiroki Kuroda and CC Sabathia are going to be their first two starting pitchers out of the gate. Assuming they have a choice, of course.
As for who will start Game 3 for them...
Well, that's anybody's guess right now. The Yankees have plenty of options, but no real good ones.
Phil Hughes would probably be the best option, but he's about as dependable as an oblong bowling ball. Freddy Garcia fits that bill too, as he relies too much on smoke and mirrors to get hitters out. Ivan Nova is both unreliable and hurt. David Phelps is untested.
When Pettitte was healthy, it was obvious that he was going to figure into the Yankees' plans for their postseason rotation in some way, most likely as the club's second or third starter. Once Kuroda established himself as an ace, Game 3 duty seemed to be a lock for Pettitte once he got healthy.
All bets are off now. The Yankees don't even know for sure if Pettitte is going to be back this season. Even if he does come back, he'll have to prove that he's even worth putting on the postseason roster, much less deserving of a spot in the Yankees' postseason rotation.
If Pettitte fails to come back, the Yankees are going to be in a tough spot. If he comes back and doesn't pitch well, the Yankees are going to be in a tough spot. Nothing A-Rod or anyone else does will change that.
If Pettite comes back and pitches well, however, the Yankees are going to be looking good. They'll have a solid Game 3 starter lined up, and that will allow them to take on all comers in the postseason.
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