by Trevor Whenham - 4/21/2006
Yankees fans, and those that rely on the team for a steady stream of wins to pad the bankroll, have to be a little concerned by how this season has started for the team. It hasn't been disastrous (they're 7-7 as I write this), but they are the most expensive mediocre team in sports history. They've fallen 3.5 games behind the Red Sox in the AL East and, as an extra blow to their pride, the Mets are outperforming them, too. It's no time to panic, but the first 14 games have raised some definite questions about the team, and the answers to those questions will determine how the season goes for the team and for those who bet on them:
1) Is Randy Johnson going to be okay?
You can give a 42-year-old pitcher a pass for starting out a bit slow. His first three starts were fine if not overwhelming. He had a complete game loss and two shorter outings that turned into wins. Those aren't the concern. His last game against the Blue Jays was. In 3.1 innings he gave up 9 hits, 7 earned runs and 2 home runs. Kelly Stinnett, the Yankees backup catcher, who was behind the plate that day, said that his slider had no bite at all. "It's a batting practice fastball for a lot of guys." There was speculation that he may even have been tipping his pitches. Anyone can have an off day, but for him to be so mechanically flawed and so mortal has to make you think. The biggest concern is that he says he feels fine, so it isn't simply an injury. Can his body hold up? The Yankees had better hope so.
There's another issue, though - how Randy will handle adversity. He hasn't had the best relationship with the New York media since he arrived. He has taken a lot of heat over his bizarre recent decision to sue the mother of his daughter, who he has never met, for the return of child support. If it goes badly for Johnson for a few starts in a row, I get the sense he could snap. That would mean that things would only get worse. It would also bring a lot of negative attention and energy down on the team.
2) Mariano Rivera's just having a rough start to the season, right?
Rivera has been the most consistently nasty reliever of the last decade. Smoltz and Gagne may have been as good or better for short periods, but Rivera has sustained it. As hard as he throws, it's impressive that he has stayed reasonably healthy. Especially when the lifespan of top closers around him has been better measured in months than years. At some point it only makes sense that his arm isn't going to be the deadly cannon it has been for so long. Yankees fans have to be nervously awaiting that moment. This year hasn't conclusively shown that he's done by any means, but it has raised a couple of flags. He took a bad loss in a game against the Twins, giving up two earned runs, and he only has two saves. By comparison, Boston's rookie closer, Jonathan Papelbon, has 7. The Yankees need Rivera in the bullpen to scare batters late in games. He'll probably slide back into form. At least the team hopes so.
3) What's up with the back end of the rotation?
Another question about pitching. Notice a trend? Other than Mike Mussina, the whole staff has been suspect so far. It's really incredible that a team with the payroll and the bats that the Yankees have could have such an unimpressive rotation. Their last three pitchers, Chien-Ming Wang, Jaret Wright and Shawn Chacon, haven't scared anyone yet. Opposing batters are hitting better than .300 against all three of them. They are all capable of throwing a good game, as Wang did in his last start, but they are maddeningly inconsistent. Wright got rewarded with a big contract after one good year in Atlanta that he has yet to come close to replicating in even short bursts, while Shawn Chacon's problems weren't all due to pitching in the pitcher's graveyard of Colorado, after all. How far can this team go with these three guys picking up the ball over half of the time?
4) What happens if the offense stumbles?
This seems like a silly question. The lineup that the Yankees have assembled is downright frightening for opposing pitchers. They have seven starters batting .290 or better and the stars are swinging the bats like they need to. Only Hideki Matsui hasn't caught stride yet, but he'll find his way soon. There is really nothing to be concerned about with the offense. It's running smoothly. And that's the problem. The offense is performing and the team is only playing .500 ball. What happens if a star or two hit a rough spot? If the offense at mostly-full throttle is barely enough for the pitching staff, what happens if they can't keep the needle this high on the gauge? Or, even worse, what happens if someone goes down with an injury for an extended stretch? As good as their starters are, the backups leave something to be desired. Miguel Cairo, Andy Phillips and Bubba Crosby are a step down, and that's being kind.
5) How long until Steinbrenner loses his mind?
There are a lot of reasons to admire George Steinbrenner, but his patience is not one of them. The Yankees haven't won a World Series since 2000 and haven't even made the series since 2003. He has gone out and got almost every bat that there is to get, but the results haven't come. They're always in the playoffs, but that's not good enough for the Boss. The pressure has been on Brian Cashman to turn it around and even Joe Torre, who was for a long time the most untouchable coach in sports, had to defend his job last year. If things don't change soon, Steinbrenner could completely blow a gasket. Heads will roll and it's anyone's guess how far he goes or what effect it will have on the team.
The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect the opinions of Doc's Sports baseball picks.