So far, 2009 has proven to be the most exciting year for the New York Yankees since 2001. Clutch hitting late in games seems to be a recurring theme, there are finally some reliable arms in the bullpen, and most importantly, strong team chemistry seems to be back.
The team's dominance since the All-Star break has led many people to believe that the Yankees are uncontested favorites to be the American League representative in the World Series. You would be a fool to pick against the Bronx Bombers with a year like this, right?
Well, not so fast.
There is no debating it. The Yankees are currently the best team in baseball. They lead the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim by five games in the loss column for the best record in the American League, which would give them home field advantage throughout the playoffs (a vastly overrated benefit if you ask me, but that is neither here nor there).
But, the Yankees are not invincible. What seemed like a huge strength at the beginning of the 2009 season has now become a bit of a weakness.
At the beginning of the season, the Yankee rotation projected to be a collective group of established veterans and all-stars. CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte, and Joba Chamberlain. Are you kidding me?! That sounds like a "murderers' row" of pitching!
Unfortunately, this is no longer the case.
After some shaky starts (shaky is an understatement) and a minor league stint, Wang was finally put on the shelf, receiving shoulder surgery in late July. He is now out for the season, ending up with a 1-6 record and a 9.64 ERA.
With Wang out, the rotation still appeared strong. Prized prospect Phil Hughes was called up to fill in the fifth spot of the rotation and, for the most part, did a serviceable job, going 3-2 with a 5.45 ERA in seven starts. However, he has since been moved to the bullpen in order to cut down on his innings total for the year and protect his right arm.
Since Hughes' move, journeymen Sergio Mitre and Chad Gaudin have filled in the fifth spot, for the most part. Both proved to be highly inconsistent.
A.J. Burnett has also proven to be a bit of an enigma. At some times, he has pitched like a Cy Young Award candidate. At others, he has pitched as if he is in way over his head. He stands at 11-9 with a 4.33 ERA. Not exactly what the Yankees had envisioned when they signed him to a five-year contract worth over $80 million, but not terrible either.
The real concern with Burnett comes from his last nine starts. Since August 1st, Burnett is 1-5 with a 6.14 ERA.
And finally, the strategy devised by the Yankees to limit Joba Chamberlain's innings may have made Joba a complete mental case.
His last three starts have been good, giving up one run verus the Angels and two on both September 9th versus Tampa Bay and September 4th against the Toronto Blue Jays.
However, everything is relative. Because of the "Joba Rules," the starts lasted three, three, and four innings, respectively. In my opinion, this is not nearly enough to judge Joba on, especially since he still did not show any ability to get outs with a lesser amount of pitches.
So, looking at the playoffs, the Yankees are left with two reliable starting pitchers, with the rest appearing to be a bit of a crapshoot.
CC Sabathia currently has a 17-7 record with a 3.42 ERA. Pettitte stands at 13-6 with a 4.14 ERA. With the way things are going, these will be the starters for Games One and Two in the ALDS.
Both are very solid choices, however, even Sabathia has shown a tendancy to implode in the playoffs. In addition, let's not forget that Pettitte was originally penciled in as the fourth starter in the rotation and now is acting as a number two.
Perhaps this is thinking a little too much into it, but both facts could prove to be detrimental to New York.
In my opinion, the key truly is A.J. Burnett. If he can settle down and pitch like everyone knows he is capable of, he can be slotted in as the number two pitcher during the ALDS, moving Pettitte, and his postseason-rich resume, back to what could be a pivotal Game Three.
However, if Burnett falters, so will the Yankees. With talk of Joba not even pitching in the first playoff series, the Yankees need A.J. to have his A-game by the time October rolls around.
Like defense in football, the old baseball cliché is that pitching wins championships. The Yankee offense can only bail out the latter end of the starting rotation so many times. While seeing walkoffs and games with scores upwards of five runs is fun to watch, these things are often absent in the playoffs.
The previously struggling Daisuke Matsuzaka turned in a solid six innings for the Red Sox last night, giving up no runs and eventually earning the win.
At 6.5 games behind New York (five in the loss column), it is doubtful that Boston will catch the Yankees in the division with so little regular season games remaining. But if Boston can throw Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and Matsuzaka at you, along with ol' reliable Tim Wakefield in a playoff series, watch out.
While it may still be a little to early to start thinking about playoff matchups, the fact remains that the Yankee starting rotation had better get its act together if New York has any plans to bring home number 27 this year.