Is Mark Teixeira's Return Enough To Swing AL East Crown Back to the Yankees?
Teixeira is expected to rejoin the Yankees for the first game of their season-ending series against the Boston Red Sox on Monday, as reported by Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News. He last played on September 8 in Baltimore, when he aggravated a left calf strain trying to beat out a crucial double-play ball (you know, this one) in the ninth inning of a 5-4 loss.
Officially, Teixeira still hasn't been cleared to play. The Yankees, however, are assuming that their switch-hitting first baseman will be given the green light to suit up. Joe Girardi is already planning on starting Teixeira at first base against the Red Sox and righty hurler Clay Buchholz.
For that matter, Girardi sounded like he was champing at the bit to start Teixeira:
It’s the first time we’ll have our whole lineup for a long time, which is really good. It will make our lineup different; you think about less of lefties being stacked together, too. ... It seemed like everyone was throwing lefthanders against us and Tex is a huge bat against lefthanders. It’s affected us.
With three days left in the regular season, the Bombers find themselves tied with the Orioles for first place in the AL East. The hope is that Teixeira's return will give the Yankees some sort of momentum swing that will ultimately deliver the club's third AL East title in the last four years. They'd love nothing more than for him to be Gandalf at the end of The Two Towers.
But can Teixeira actually be that much of a difference-maker over the next three days? Or will he be just another guy?
It's a good question, and the answer isn't necessarily the one the Yankees are hoping for.
It's no secret that Teixeira is on the decline as a player, and it became clear enough when he was last on the field that nothing should be taken for granted when it comes to his bothersome left calf. It kept him out of action for nearly two weeks in late August and early September, and then he aggravated it simply by running hard out of the batter's box.
It's safe to assume he won't be doing that again, but that will be just fine with the Yankees as long as Teixeira provides the kind of value he typically provides: power at the plate and excellent defense at first base.
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Teixeira's defense should be OK. We could see some of his defensive range take a hit, but even if that does come to pass, his range will probably be at least equal to that of Nick Swisher, who has generally done a fine job of filling in at first base when the Yankees have needed him to this season.
At the very least, Teixeira should still be able to pick throws out of the dirt, much to the satisfaction of New York's occasionally spotty infield defense. Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano will all be glad to have Teixeira back.
The bigger question mark where Teixeira is concerned is how much power the Yankees can expect to get out of him. After all, it's not like he was hitting for a ton of power even before he got injured.
In 21 games in August, Teixeira hit only three home runs and slugged just .408. His three homers were accompanied by only three doubles.
Stretching back even further, Teixeira has produced only four home runs and slugged just .405 over his last 33 games. In those 33 games, the Yankees compiled a record of 14-19.
Oddly enough, the Yankees have gone 17-13 in the 30 games Teixeira has missed since coming down with his calf injury in August (h/t Wallace Matthews of ESPNNewYork.com). They actually haven't missed him all that much.
For a while there, it looked like the one guy who did miss Teixeira was Cano. It's typically been Teixeira's job to protect Cano in the lineup, so the slump that Cano went into in late August and through most of September was more than a little disconcerting. In 25 games between August 28 and September 24, Cano hit just .204/.297/.347 with three homers and 10 RBI.
In Cano's last six games, however, he's hitting .625/.630/.833. Five of his 15 hits have gone for doubles.
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In each of these six games, Cano has been protected in the lineup by Swisher, and he too has seen an uptick in his production since moving behind Cano in the order. In his last nine games, Swisher has hit .354/.475/.667 with three homers and nine RBI. Protecting Cano in the lineup with Curtis Granderson directly behind him seems to be agreeing with Swisher.
As such, Girardi has a bit of a dilemma on his hands. Should he break up the Cano-Swisher-Granderson trio in his lineup to accommodate Teixeira, or should he risk inserting Teixeira in the middle of it and hoping for the best?
Since the Yankees are playing the Red Sox over the next three games, it's a risk that Girardi can afford to take for at least one game. Indeed, it's hard to imagine a better opponent for Teixeira to return against than the woebegone Red Sox.
Boston's starting pitching has been a perpetual state of turmoil ever since Opening Day this season, and the problem hasn't gotten any better in September. Per FanGraphs, Sox starters have a 5.74 ERA this month, with a BB/9 of 4.00. Their 16.4 HR/FB rate this month ties them with Toronto's starters for the worst such mark in the major leagues.
Teixeira should be happy to see Boston's pitchers. He has a .952 OPS and four home runs against the Red Sox this season, and the only starter he's about to face who's handled him particularly well during his career is Jon Lester. He has an .819 OPS and two career homers against Buchholz, and he has a 1.229 OPS against Daisuke Matsuzaka in his career.
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So despite the fact that you have to keep your expectations for Teixeira lowered due to the instability of his left calf, his track record against the Red Sox suggests pretty heavily that he should be able to make some sort of impact over the next three days. He surely won't be entirely useless (though the Yanks have their fingers crossed there).
Granted, "some sort of impact" probably won't be enough to swing the AL East race in the Yankees' favor. Not in the same way that, say, a "major impact" would, anyway. The Yankees shouldn't make plans to hang another banner just yet.
As such, the more pressing question regarding Teixeira's return may be what kind of impact he could have if the AL East is still all tied up at the end of the day on Wednesday. In that scenario, the Yankees would head to Baltimore to take on the Orioles in a one-game playoff for the AL East on Thursday, with the loser settling for a mere wild-card berth.
If it comes to that, the Yanks will need all hands on deck to avoid what could be a one-and-done showing in the 2012 postseason on Friday. Production from Teixeira would therefore go from being a bonus to being a necessity.
And that's where things get tricky. Teixeira has hit pretty well at Oriole Park at Camden Yards this season, to the tune of an .833 OPS in six games, but the Orioles have generally handled him pretty well this year. In 10 games against the O's, Teixeira has compiled a mere .669 OPS with a single homer and three RBI.
So, once again, the notion that Teixeira will merely have some sort of impact sounds about right.
Plus, it must be kept in mind that we're talking about a guy who has only played one game this month, and his preparation for his return this week consists merely of 13 simulated at-bats on Thursday and Friday and five innings of instructional league ball down in Tampa. He'll probably still be trying to shake off some rust if and when he takes the playing field on Monday night.
The Yankees can still win the AL East, but nobody should be expecting Teixeira's return to make another division title a lock. He'll certainly help, but he won't lead the way.
Yankees fans should hope for awesome, but plan on "meh."
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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