To the casual observer, the Yankees appear to sit in a comfortable position atop the American League East. It is true that after taking two of three games in the Bronx over the weekend from their closest competition, the Yanks now possess a full three game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays.
As owners of the best record in baseball at 58-33 as of July 19, there is clearly no need to panic in the Bronx. That being said, this most recent series with the Rays did help to illustrate some of the concerns for the team moving forward into the dog days of summer.
If the Yankees hope to continue their first half success into the pennant stretch and earn a spot in the playoffs to defend their 2009 World Series championship title, there are certainly a few issues that must be addressed for that to occur.
Let's take a look at three critical keys to a successful second half for the Bronx Bombers. In this installment, I will focus on the Yankees' front five arms in their pitching staff.
No. 1: The Starting Rotation
Through this point in the season, the starting rotation has undoubtedly been a strength for the Yankees. After a slightly sluggish start, CC Sabathia has been every bit the ace that the Yankees expected when they signed him prior to the 2009 season. Andy Pettitte has pitched with poise and guile, utilizing his vast experience to continually confound hitters, enjoying one of the best first halves of his illustrious career. Phil Hughes has rewarded the team's faith in him, smoothly transitioning back to the starting rotation after a hugely successful 2009 campaign in the bullpen.
Although the other two starters have experienced their own personal peaks and valleys, AJ Burnett and Javier Vazquez have both been valuable at times, giving the Yankees experience in their front five arms. While Burnett is still struggling to find his top form, Vazquez appears to have overcome the issues that plagued him early in the season.
While the Yankees still have a rotation that would be the envy of many teams, the weekend with the Rays served to highlight a few chinks in the armor.
Andy Pettitte's groin injury unfortunately throws a serious curve into the Yankees' second half plans. Amidst reports from the team that he may be sidelined four to five weeks, the Yanks must quickly decide whether they will be serious players in the trade market prior to the July 31 deadline.
It is never desirable to lose a trusted veteran pitcher who is sporting an 11-2 record and a sub-3.00 ERA, but thankfully the timing is such that the Yankees at least have the option of potentially trading for an arm to bolster the rotation in Andy's absence.
AJ Burnett offers another concern, but for different reasons. While he got off to a scintillating start to his 2010 season, his severely uneven performances over the past two and a half months have left many wondering if he can ever harness his immense talents and perform at a level worthy of his $82.5 million contract.
Uneven performances and massive contract aside, AJ has now immaturely and selfishly jeopardized the team's best interests by throwing a temper tantrum and injuring himself while doing so. For a pitcher with a well-established reputation for being injury prone, self-inflicted wounds may be the most difficult to accept.
As of now, AJ Burnett is expected to make his next start, but his performance and behavior leave much to be desired from a veteran pitcher whom the Yankees must now count on to fill the void left by the injury to Andy Pettitte.
Lastly, the workload of Phil Hughes leaves the Yankees with another issue to contend with down the stretch. The 24-year-old hurler, also the owner of an 11-2 record and a 3.65 ERA, has now thrown 101 innings, already surpassing his total of 86 innings in 2009.
The Yankees intend to carefully monitor Hughes' inning total, making sure that he doesn't drastically surpass his '09 workload. This leaves the team with the dilemma of whether he can remain in the rotation for the duration of the year, or whether he may have to return to the bullpen down the stretch as a method of limiting the burden on his young, talented arm.
With the injury concerns to Pettitte and Burnett, along with AJ's fragile psyche, the Yankees appear to have at least 40 percent of their rotation representing significant question marks forging ahead into the second half. Although Hughes has thus far remained healthy, while pitching very effectively, the desire to protect his arm as a core member of the Yankees' future remains paramount and the team has shown no willingness to deviate from their stated plan.
Of course, the Yankees may decide to bolster the rotation from within, possibly seeing what they have in youngsters such as Ivan Nova or Zach McAllister, both pitching for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees. Nova has pitched well all season, boasting a 7-2 record with an ERA in the low 3's, although his walk rate has been an issue at times. McAllister started the season well, but has struggled as of late, displaying a tendency to be very hittable,as opponents are hitting .298 against him to this point in the season. At this point, these options seem unlikely, as both of these pitchers are younger than Hughes and may themselves run into concerns over their pitching workload.
The Yankees being the Yankees, it is more likely that they will dip into the trade market ahead of the deadline to see if they may be able to pry a veteran starter from their current club. We saw the willingness to do this already, when they almost completed the trade for Cliff Lee, and that was before the rotation had the severe questions that it does now.
Names like Roy Oswalt, Dan Haren, Ricky Nolasco, and Ted Lilly have been discussed, as have lesser likely options like Kevin Millwood and Ben Sheets. Oswalt, as a top-tier starter might be cost prohibitive based on his big money contract and likely significant cost in prospects. Millwood is in the last year of his deal, but has pitched terribly for Baltimore this season, and is currently on the disabled list with the always worrisome forearm tightness. Sheets is pitching decently for the A's, although he's still on a rather expensive one-year deal worth $10 million in base salary plus potential performance clauses worked into his contract.
Both Haren and Nolasco are under their respective teams' control for at least the next few years, making them more desirable trade targets, but also lessening the desire to part with them. This leaves me to figure that the most likely option for the Yankees might be Ted Lilly.
Lilly, a former Yankee who was traded away in the ill-fated move for Jeff Weaver, is enjoying a solid campaign for the woeful Chicago Cubs. He still gives up the longball too frequently, but his command has been good, with a walk rate of 2.2/9 innings and a quality WHIP of 1.13. It would seem that replacing Pettitte in the short term with another lefty arm would be beneficial, considering the short porch in right field. Strangely though, lefties are slugging .506 against Lilly this year, so the benefits might not be as great as one might think. Over his career though, lefties have slugged only .396 against him, so he may just be a pitcher in need of a change of scenery to recapture his top form of the last few seasons in Chicago.
Whatever the Yankees plans for the rotation, they know the clock is ticking. With the trade deadline and Tampa Bay looming, they know they don't have time to rest on their laurels and remain stagnant. Whether making a blockbuster trade, or possibly a lower profile supplemental move; the Yankees rotation, earlier a massive strength, has quickly become an area of concern.
Please return later for my continued analysis of the three primary concerns for the Yankees as they progress into the second half of the 2010 season.
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