After splitting a double-header on Wednesday with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Yankees are set to welcome the Tampa Bay Rays in for a four-game set this weekend that will have ramifications on the muddled AL East standings.
Average record in AL East now 37-32 and margin is only eight games from first place to last. Now THAT'S a tight race.— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) June 19, 2013
Heading into play on Thursday, all five teams, including the once disappointing Toronto Blue Jays, are within six games of each other in the loss column. Despite only owning two more losses than the first-place Red Sox, the Yankees seem fortunate to be at 39-32 at this juncture of the season.
Due to a bevy of injuries, the Bronx Bombers have been a shell of their former selves, scratching and clawing to score runs all season long. As a team that now relies on the back of good starting pitching to get by, the latest clunker by Phil Hughes was a disappointing moment for the team.
While it's hard to expect Brian Cashman to make a blockbuster deal this July, three former stars, two of which have resumes for Cooperstown, are on the mend.
At some point this summer, the Yankees could add Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Michael Pineda to their 25-man roster. While it's foolish to believe all three will appear at full strength, avoid setbacks in rehab and play regularly upon returning, it's the best hope New York has to stay in and thrive among the AL East contenders.
Amazingly, even older and diminished versions of Jeter and Rodriguez would be more than enough to transform the Yankee lineup. Some of that is due to their excellence and consistency, respectively, while some of it is a reflection of how poor their replacements on the left side of the infield have been.
Last year, in a renaissance season for Jeter, the Yankees captain posted a .316/.362/.429/.791 line. Those numbers were good enough to rehash talk of a run at Pete Rose's all-time hits record.
Due to ineffectiveness and injury among the contingency plans this season, or, to be blunt, Eduardo Nunez's lost season, the Yankees have been forced to play a duo of Jayson Nix and Reid Brignac in Jeter's absence. Collectively, Yankee shortstops have posted a .543 OPS, good for 27th in baseball and 248 points lower than Jeter's mark from last season.
Even an inconsistent, injury plagued 2011 version of Jeter posted an OPS of .743. That's exactly 200 points higher than this current group.
As per the usual, things are more complicated with Alex Rodriguez. Due to hip surgery, as opposed to Jeter's fractured ankle that merely needs healing, it's hard to count on Rodriguez returning at all. Factoring in the Biogenesis scandal, his presence in 2013 may not be felt for a single game.
Report: Alex Rodriguez called Anthony Bosch while Yankees faced Tigers in 2012 ALCS | http://t.co/J0CjfpIJEP— NY Daily News Sports (@NYDNsports) June 19, 2013
If the controversial figure can rehab and escape the long arm of baseball's law, he represents another gigantic upgrade over what the Yankees have trotted out at third base this season.
Due to Kevin Youkilis' lingering back injury, struggles from neophyte David Adams, Nix's time at third and an unmemorable two weeks from Chris Nelson, Yankee third basemen have hit a collective .254/.304/.348 in 2013. Their .652 OPS is 22nd among third base groups in baseball.
Despite the vitriol around Rodriguez, the Biogenesis fallout and steep decline from the former MVP, he still manged an .806 OPS last summer before taking a Felix Hernandez fastball to the wrist in late July. That production would rank 7th among all third base groups in the majors right now.
If Jeter and Rodriguez represent gigantic improvements from their replacements, starting pitcher Michael Pineda is a combination between an insurance policy and an upgrade.
The 2011 version of Pineda (3.74 ERA, 9.1 K/9IP, 3.15 SO/BB) is better than the current version of Phil Hughes or David Phelps at the back end of Joe Girardi's rotation, but his presence might be more integral in providing a cushion in the likelihood of injury or regression from one of the rotation's three stalwarts.
CC Sabathia is coming off two disabled list stints late in 2012, Hiroki Kuroda continues to out-pitch his age and peripherals (2.78 ERA, 3.40 FIP), and Andy Pettitte already has spent time on the shelf this season.
Which player is most vital to the Yankees quest for October?
If one or two of that group has an injury or drop in performance later in the summer, Pineda's performance becomes more important than a marginal upgrade over Phelps and/or Hughes. It becomes vital to their survival in the AL East.
Ultimately, Yankee fans shouldn't expect the best-case scenario in performance from Jeter, Rodriguez or Pineda, but in a division that could see everyone separated by less than 10 games, the specter of 75 to 85 percent of what those players recently were could be the difference between a postseason spot and the division cellar.
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