Spring Turbulence Shakes Up New York
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
For both New York baseball teams, the glasses are half full. Of course, that also means they’re half empty. As this is being written, both teams are in first place, the Yankees in a tie with the Red Sox, the Mets by one game over the Phillies. That’s the half-full part.Yet, for each team the goal is not to be in first place in mid-May, but to be in first place on October 1. Right now, each team is encountering the kind of turbulence that has the potential to shake their tenuous grasp on their respective divisions.
Since opening the season with a glorious 9-2 record, mostly propelled by victories over the disarmed Nationals and Marlins, the Mets have gone just 14-12, a pace which, if maintained over the remainder of the season, would leave them with roughly 90 wins – a total sometimes good enough to win a division title, but often not.
In their next three series, the Mets face the Cardinals,Yankees, and Phillies, all top clubs. Given the currently improvised nature of the starting rotation (the Scott Kazmir trade is the gift that keeps on giving), it’s going to be difficult for the Mets to put together a run of series victories. With no days off, “Glavine, Martinez, and pray for rain” is a desperate strategy, one made all the more so because off the odd days when one of the two aces fails to pitch well. Pitching prospects Mike Pelfrey and Alay Soler need more time in the minors before being called up, and the Mets have rightly resisted making a desperation call. The day may come, though, perhaps as soon as in another month; there’s only so much of Jose Lima and his Little Orphan Annie hairdo a serious team can endure before sinking.
The Mets have also refused to make what seems on the surface to be an obvious move: promoting Aaron Heilman to the rotation.Willie Randolph’s adamancy in the face of multiple requests from the pitcher himself suggests that he firmly believes that whatever value Heilman could provide as a starter, he wouldn’t be nearly as successful as he is in the bullpen. In other words, Randolph believes that Heilman is not a major league starter. Brian Bannister may return soon from his hamstring inhury,but his shaky command so far suggests that he’s going to have great difficulty in maintaining his low earned run average.
There is nothing wrong the Mets’ offense that Cliff Floyd, currently hitting .195, couldn’t solve if he could just snap out of whatever Sleeping Bernard Gilkey funk has possessed him since the start of the season. Sure, you can quibble about second base still being inadequately manned by Kaz Matsui, and you’d be right. But at this point, the second base problem pales in comparison to the Floyd follies.
Randolph has already shown some impatience with Floyd, giving him time off in recent days. The danger here is that Randolph will fall in love with someone like Endy Chavez. Randolph has gotten great work out of Chavez, a confirmed non-hitter, but all it will take to break that spell is concerted playing time. Floyd must soon be fixed or replaced, but the answer – paging Lastings Milledge – is not currently on the major league roster.
The key for the Mets is a healthy dose of skepticism. They weren’t really an 9-2 club – no team is, and management can’t take it for granted that the club’s problems will solve themselves. Rather, their position must be aggressively maintained.The alternative is that that Phillies sail by them. Pat Gillick’s team is suddenly getting excellent starting pitching; with the addition of Cole Hamels, they may have three-fifths of a good rotation in place. That’s a fifth more than the Mets have at the moment. The Phils also have the depth to survive the loss of Aaron Rowand, who’s still seeing stars after crashing face-first into the centerfield all in Phialdelphia while robbing a win from the Mets.
Over in the Bronx, the Yankees have suffered a worst-case scenario. Due to their lack of upper-level prospects, the team wasn’t well-positioned to endure a loss to any starting player,but outfield is a particular sore spot.While last year’s draft finally brought some young fly-catchers with potential into the system, they’re years away. It will still be some time before we can add anyone to the list of outfielders of any significance produced by the Yankees system since the mid-1960s. Right now that list reads Bernie Williams, Roberto Kelly… and Bobby Murcer. It’s an appallingly brief list.
Resultantly, with Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield on the shelf, the former possibly for the season, the Yankees have to rely on Williams, Bubba Crosby, and Melky Cabrera to take up the slack. Cabrera was a changed man at Columbus, batting .385 AVG/.430 OBA/.566 SLG prior to his call-up. In his few appearances thus far, he’s shown far more patience at the plate than he did during his brief call up last year, seeing nearly five pitchers per plate appearance. Last year, he saw roughly two, swinging at anything within the same area code as home plate. That bodes well for the future, but there is no way of knowing if it will translate to above average production right now.
Crosby, for all his everyman popularity, is a non-entity, so that leaves Williams. Bernie is the most recent exemplar of that myopia among athletes about their own skill level, the one that inspired Grantland Rice to write the poem about how an athlete is always the last to know that he just can’t do it anymore. At .245/.282/.333, Williams can’t do it anymore. Given that his traditional dominance against lefthanders has continued this year, perhaps he could be utilized in a platoon role, but the longer the Yankees persist in using him, the more they’re going to feel the hurt from Matsui’s loss.
The trick for both the Mets and Yankees will be to recognize things for what they are.As Casey Stengel said,”If we’re going to win the pennant, we’ve got to start thinking we’re not as good as we think we are.”
Mr. Goldman writes the Pinstriped Bible forwww.yesnetwork.comand is the author of “Forging Genius,” a biography of Casey Stengel.