"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Our Long National Nightmare

Just when it seemed the Yankees injury woes couldn’t get any more woeful, things went from bad (a DL stay for Gary Sheffield) to worse (losing Hideki Matsui for the bulk of the season) to epidemic (season-ending surgery for Sturtze and Pavano and a DL trip for Bubba Crosby) to the point at which the players started searching for hidden cameras in the trainer’s room, sure that Ashton Kutcher is behind all of this.

As the Yankees headed across town to meet the Mets last Friday, it was revealed that a comebacker off Shawn Chacon’s left shin in the same game against Boston in which Matsui broke his radius was responsible for Chacon’s subsequent poor performance and would cause him to miss his scheduled start in the subway series finale. In the first game at Shea, Jorge Posada was pulled in the second inning due to back spasms and did not play for the remainder of the series, not even coming to bat on Sunday for Kelly Stinnett with the bases loaded and two out in the top of the seventh with the Yankees trailing by two. Friday’s game ended with Kyle Farnsworth also complaining of back problems. He did not pitch for the remainder of the series. And just to add insult to injury, Bernie Williams pulled a muscle in his behind (the second backside injury on this team this year) and was forced to skip Saturday’s game save for a pinch-hit appearance in which he was hit with the only pitch he saw and then promptly forced out at second on the next play.

Meanwhile, the Columbus shuttle has been in full effect, dropping off new arrivals such as Melky Cabrera, Kevin Reese, Scott Erickson, Mitch Jones, and Colter Bean. Yes, the answer to the question “how many guys have to go down before they’ll finally give Colter Bean a shot” appears to be eight (or four pitchers: Sturtze, Pavano, Chacon, and Farnsworth). Bean was called up Saturday because the injuries to Chacon and Farnsworth and the resulting move of Small into the rotation had limited the Yankees to a five-man bullpen, with Scott Erickson (a.k.a. The Thing That Wouldn’t Die) and the overworked Scott Proctor being two of the five, and two of the remaining three being left-handed. Bean replaced Mitch Jones, who had replaced Bubba Crosby the day before and saw no action in his one day in the major leagues. That transaction reduced the Yankees to a four man bench under NL rules at Shea. The bench was then further reduced to three men–Miguel Cairo, Andy Phillips and Kevin Reese–by Posada’s inability to play.

That bench situation has been rectified, but only technically. Shawn Chacon was placed on the DL this morning as the hematoma on his left shin is healing, but slowly. To fill his spot and flesh out the bench to four men under AL rules (here’s hoping Phillips gets the call at DH) the Yanks have promoted outfielder Terrence Long. The only encouraging thing about Long’s promotion is that the Yankees didn’t feel the need to promote a catcher, which suggests that Jorge Posada’s back is not a major concern. Indeed, Posada will supposedly be “available” for tonight’s series opener in Boston, though that doesn’t mean Stinnett be starting his third straight game.

As for Long himself, he’s an abysmal baseball player. He basically has the same skill set as the Ghost of Bernie Williams (can’t hit, can’t run, can’t field, is increasingly unlikely to draw a walk), except that Long is eight years younger and lacks the borderline Hall of Fame credentials to keep his career afloat. Last year, as the starting left fielder of the major leagues’ worst team, the Kansas City Royals, Long hit a Bernie-like .279/.321/.378. The Royals declined to offer him a contract for this year and he landed with the Reds triple-A farm team in Louisville where he hit just .229/.260/.292 in April, earning his release. The Yankees, desperate for triple-A outfielders with Cabrera and Reese in the majors and Kevin Thompson down with a hamstring injury, signed Long a week ago today. He’s since hit .353/.421/.588 in 17 at-bats with Columbus, numbers which include two walks and two extra base hits and thus define small-sample fluke.

The good news is that Terrence shouldn’t be here for long.

As I suspected, Hideki Matsui’s injury did indeed convince Gary Sheffield to get a cortisone shot in his injured left wrist last week (which we’ve only just learned because Sheffield has been avoiding the media as if they’re the ones responsible for this rash of injuries). Sheffield, who was eligible to come off the DL this past weekend, shut down a batting practice session on Friday due to pain in the wrist, but had a successful turn in the cage yesterday and will join the Trenton Thunder today for a rehab assignment that should have him back in the Yankee lineup later this week. Joe Torre has said that Sheffield should only need a game or two with the Thunder, which could mean he’d be able to come back during the current series in Boston, but I suspect we’re more likely to see him rejoin the Yankees at home against the Royals on Friday.

Meanwhile, the Yankees are continuing to take fliers on the farm with Brian Cashman recently inking Erubiel Durazo to a minor league deal. The 32-year-old Durazo is a defensively-challenged first baseman (to be polite about it), but a legitimate lefty bat who could be an asset to the Yankees well beyond their current plague of injuries. A career .281/.381/.487 hitter, Durazo’s 2005 season was ruined by an elbow injury that led to Tommy John surgery in late July. Signed to a minor league deal and invited to camp by the Rangers, Durazo failed to make the team, then hit .289/.365/.434 with their triple-A club while regaining his strength from the surgery. He became available to the Yankees by exercising an out in his contract much like the one Carlos Peña has in his deal with the Yankees. Peña, a lefty first baseman who can actually play the position, has picked up his game somewhat of late and now boasts a .257/.383/.467 with the Clippers thanks to a .288/.408/.525 May (those May numbers through the 19th). It would behoove the Yankees to expand their bench to five men in the near future in order to employ Peña or Durazo as a lefty pinch-hitter or even a DH platoon partner with righty Andy Phillips (the dream is alive!).

The Yankees are also rumored to be close to signing Richard Hidalgo and Jason Romano. Hidalgo is a 30-year-old right-handed hitter who has played all three outfield positions, at times very well, but has been incredibly inconsistent at the plate. A career .269/.345/.490 hitter, Hidalgo hit .309/.385/.572 in his final year with the Astros in 2003, but has scuffled over the past two seasons, hitting .221/.289/.416 in an injury riddled season with the Rangers last year. Hidalgo signed a minor league deal with the Orioles this spring, but left camp before playing in a game when his wife fell ill. He subsequently asked out of his contract and supposedly considered playing in Japan. If nothing else, Hidalgo has the power and defensive ability that Long lacks.

Romano is a soon-to-be 27-year-old righty-hitting utility man. A first-round draft pick of the Rangers, Romano was compared to Chuck Knoblauch before the shine came off his prospect status and he became fodder in a number of very minor deals that sent him through the Rockies, Dodgers, Devil Rays, Reds and Marlins’ franchises. This spring he was given virtually no chance to make the Brewers. Romano has a variety of skills, he can play all three outfield positions as well as second, third and shortstop, has a bit of power, some patience and decent speed, but doesn’t do anything particularly well.

Returning to the big league club, Sheffield should take Long’s roster spot by Friday. Small will likely make Chacon’s next two starts this Saturday against the Royals at home and then on June 1 in Detroit. Chacon will be eligible to come off the DL on June 1 at which point the Yankees will have to decide what to do with Colter Bean. I think we know what the decision will be, but I’ll hold out hope that the combined performances of Bean, Small and Scott Erickson over the next week and a half will convince the Yankees that Bean is the most valuable of the three. Bubba Crosby will then be eligible to return that weekend, likely bouncing Kevin Reese back to Columbus, at which point the contributions of Sheffield, Crosby and Hidalgo should convince the Yankees to return Terrence Long to the Phantom Zone where he belongs. Meanwhile, Peña will have had another chance to opt out of his deal by then.

Hey, at least this team isn’t boring. Speaking of which, despite the fact that the Yankees were playing with multiple replacement players and several men short on the bench and in the pen, all three games against the first-place Mets came down to the final at-bat–the Mets and Yankees victimizing each other’s closers to win in their last at-bats on Friday (a game-winning David Wright single against Mariano Rivera) and Saturday (a game-tying four-run rally against Billy Wagner in the ninth and a game-winning single by Andy Phillips in the top of the eleventh) and the Yankees scoring once against Duaner Sanchez in the eighth on Sunday only to strand the tying run on second against Wagner in the ninth–which should stand as some sort of moral victory.

As I said in my Friday preview of the subway series, the Yankees played well to start the season. If they can simply hold on during this rough patch, countering their loses against the better teams (2-4 against the Mets and Red Sox over the last two weeks) with wins against the similarly weakened or simply weaker teams (4-3 against the A’s and Rangers over the same span with Boston and Kansas City on deck), they should be able to stay within shouting distance of the Sox and could make a strong run once the team returns to health. Besides which, these injuries are forcing this team to take a look at players such as Cabrera, Bean, Phillips, Reese and Durazo, players we in this space have clamored for them to employ on their bench, in their pen, and even in their line-up. Now if only they’d let Darrell Rasner take Chacon’s starts instead of Small . . .

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver