This week, the Yankees secured a postseason spot, so they won’t be casual observers for a second consecutive October. It’s only right to want to project various playoff scenarios – who they will play, who will pitch, which division series they’ll choose, etc. – because with a week left in the regular season, there’s not much else to talk about.
That is … unless you follow the Yankees regularly and are tuned into the Joba Chamberlain situation. Despite the Nebraskan’s 6-inning, 86-pitch quality start last night, The Joba Situation is no longer at mission critical, but is still serious. Put it this way: there’s no reason to call “The Wolf.”
The commentary and range of quotes coming out of Seattle on Sunday were contradictory. On one hand, there was Joba, Clemens-like in denial that he had good stuff despite being shelled for seven runs int here innings. On another, there was the elephant in the room: the Rules that had the Yankees “building him up” to go six innings, so as not to exceed the limit of 165 innings set for him. Somewhere, Jim Kaat is railing this philosophy and not even icing his shoulder.
Looking at quotes from Joe Girardi and judging from the pundits’ assessment of the Yankees’ view, Joba was put to the coals. The “we want to see what you’re made of” rhetoric seemed to be coming a little late to have any kind of effectiveness. The tone, at least the way I perceived it, was a cover-your-butt for potentially mishandling him. The situation could have been avoided in two ways: 1) the Yankees could have kept him in the bullpen as the lead set-up man and eventual successor to Mariano Rivera, or 2) since making him a starter, unleash him the way Nolan Ryan is managing his young guns in Texas. In other words, let the opponent dictate when your starting pitcher should be removed from the game.
Prior to Friday night, the argument could have been made that Joba was put in a no-win situation, both literally and figuratively. He had either an inning limit or a strict pitch count, so there was no margin for error. Either way, if he was pitching well, he couldn’t lobby to stay in the game if he performed at an ace-caliber level. Jorge Posada’s quote following last Sunday’s debacle in Seattle, was telling, considering the source:
“It’s tough to pitch like that. It’s tough to pitch when you don’t know what’s going on … It’s just tough to pitch like that.”
Joe Girardi had a different take.
“I don’t think he can make that an excuse,” Girardi told the media. “You’re still getting the baseball and you still have a job to do.”
Could Joba have pitched better under those circumstances and restored confidence in the organization and the fan base? Absolutely. But he didn’t, and in so doing, put himself in a position where he was pitching for his future. Girardi made that clear in his pre-game press conference when he said – four times, per Daily News columnist John Harper – that he needed to “see Joba compete” and that there were “no guarantees” as far as Joba’s place on the playoff roster. Calling an athlete’s competitive fire into question is akin to emasculating him. That added more gas to a fire that was already smoldering.
What’s amazing about the Joba situation is that since the current rules were put into place (prior to the August 16th start at Seattle), the Yankees only went 3-4 . Save for the two forgettable outings in Seattle and the Toronto game where he pitched OK but Roy Halladay nearly no-hit the Yankees, they saved face.
So now what? We’re left with more questions, because we’ve seen this type of effort from Joba before. So much has been made about how the Yankees have managed Joba this season that after a while it all sounds like a test from the Emergency Alert System. That’s not to say every opinion offered has been bogus. ESPN Radio’s Don LaGreca made an interesting point Friday, when he noted that this type of procurement of pitchers is rampant among Major League teams, except it’s not seen at the top level. The only comparable example in the Majors, LaGreca said, was the Rays’ careful handling of David Price and the debate whether he should be a starter or a closer, based on his postseason success in 2008.
For now, Joba is a starting pitcher and regardless of what the organization is telling the media, he’s a better option than Chad “I can give you four innings of great stuff but then I’m going to implode” Gaudin. Banter colleague Cliff Corcoran nailed it in his game recap when he wrote:
“He … should be allowed to pitch without limits against the Royals in preparation for potential playoff work. His performance in that game could determine a lot, including which ALDS schedule the Yankees choose. If he’s similarly effective, the Yankees might prefer to let Joba start an ALDS game in order to keep him in the groove.”
We’ll see …
The papers salivated over the fact that the Yankees could potentially clinch their first division title in the new stadium with the Red Sox watching. They also highlighted that the Yankees do not want the Red Sox to celebrate a playoff berth in the building. Both possibilities are still in play after the 9-5 Yankee victory, so for the purposes of this column, that topic will be left alone.
Regarding the playoffs, the key, as always will be the pitching. Jayson Stark ranked the Yankees’ starters fourth among the AL playoff teams, and for good reason. Every single pitcher – including CC Sabathia – is “iffy,” as he put it. They could also dominate.
Stark, discussing the column on Michael Kay’s radio show Thursday, did make a good point about Sabathia and his postseason failures: the Indians in 2007 and the Brewers in 2008 rode him into October, having him pitch on short rest in order to get to the postseason. A rested Sabathia is likely a strong Sabathia for the Yankees.
And then what with the lineup? The Yankees have destroyed mediocre pitching this season and while they’ve had spot success against the likes of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and Roy Halladay, I disagree with the “this a great hitting team” moniker that’s been heaped upon them simply because they can score runs in bunches. To wit: the Yankees scored three runs on four hits against Scott Kazmir Wednesday afternoon and looked like the Mets lineup in every other inning. Is that the mark of a great hitting team? Granted, the three runs were all they needed, as A.J. Burnett was great and the bullpen held up, but a good hitting team is capable of building off the momentum of such a strong inning. It’s all about the approach. If the Yankees can take the approach they took against Lester last night to every single pitcher they face from here and on into the postseason – force the pitcher to throw a lot of pitches the first time through the order — they have a great chance of advancing.
Now what of the series the Yankees will play? The likely opponent is the AL Central winner, as the Yankees have a comfortable 7.5-game lead over the Angels for the best record in the American League. This Yankee team is probably the best-equipped playoff team since the 2003 edition in terms of balance through the lineup and top-to-bottom through the pitching staff. I don’t see this Yankee team getting complacent as the 2002 team did, nor are there many questions as to what roles certain high-priced players will be filling or about the mettle of certain pitchers. That wreaked havoc on Joe Torre in 2005, ’06 and ’07.If I’m Joe Girardi, I’m not saying this publicly, but I want the Twins to come back and overtake the Tigers. That’s the only scenario that would prompt me to choose the ALDS with two off days. If the Tigers hang on, I’m inclined to agree with those who believe picking the series with two off-days plays into the Tigers’ hands. No way do I want to see both Justin Verlander and Edwin Jackson twice.
One thing I do want to see: how the next two weeks shake out.
It’s nice to be using the words “Yankees” and “playoffs” in the same sentence again. All the discussion of “what if” makes this a whole lot of fun.