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The New York Yankees Season Review

Editors' note:  I wrote this for the crew an MN Game Day , an aggregator of Twins blogs,  for distribution at this past weekend's Yankees/Twins series.  If you're going to tonight's series finale, look for the vendors in the red vests outside the Metrodome for the program.

The New York Yankees 2008 season began with the hopes of a triumvirate of young pitchers who would allow the Yankees to stay away from the $10 million  per season free agent pitching market for several seasons.  21-year-old Phil Hughes, 23-year-old Ian Kennedy and 22-year-old Joba Chamberlain were going to lead the way into the next decade as a rapidly aging team morphs into a younger, more hungry version like it had been in the mid-to-late 1990s.

This was the rationale behind the specter that currently haunts a Yankees team that enters this four-game series with the Minnesota Twins.  What is the specter?  The refusal of Yankees’ General Manager Brian Cashman to part with two of  triumvirate, along with center fielder Melky Cabrera and a 4th prospect rumored to be AAA right-hander Jeff Marquez, for former Twins’ ace Johan Santana this past winter.

With Johan Santana pitching every 5th day on the other side of New York City, the Yankees and their fans cannot help but see Santana’s six wins and 3.41 ERA as they look at their own pitching staff and wonder what could ..no should have been.  There is no hiding the complete failure of Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy, who both find themselves on the disabled list with respective ERAs of 9.00 and 7.41 in a combined 59 2/3s innings over 12 starts.  The pair has only 39 strikeouts against 38 walks.  There is no way to blind hindsight.  The Yankees would have been better with Johan Santana at this point in the season.

Even if the organization did not garner the gushing praises of the national baseball media for its fiscal restraint and long-term vision, the Yankees were still set-up to mash their way through any rough patches the young pitching encountered.  Who wouldn’t expect as much after bidding against themselves to give Alex Rodriguez $300 plus million just weeks after he opted for free agency during Game Four of the World Series and after the team spent a couple of months swearing they would not do so if he did opt out?

Then the team gave their 36-year-old free agent catcher Jorge Posada a four-year $52 million contract to remain behind the plate.  The idea of giving a catcher that much money in the expected twilight of his career certainly crossed the organization’s mind.  After all, baseball has been over run by Ivy League educated men and women who came of age in the Moneyball/cost-benefit analysis environment of today’s game.

Unfortunately, the market place conspired against the Yankees to force their hand.  If there isn’t a supply of quality catchers but there is demand for a good one, then a team in need of a good catcher gets stuck either paying whatever the market will bear or goes with the likes of Jose Molina and Chad Moellar.  The Yankees would be forced into paying whatever it takes to get one.  By publicly courting Posada,, their cross-town rival Mets again forced the Yankees into a situation that hindsight  shows to have been unwise as Posada has missed most of the 2008 season, and the 1st of four at $13.1MM, with a damaged throwing shoulder.

Finally, the Yankees made a financial move that is all the rage amongst their less wealthy brethren.  They signed arbitration-eligible second baseman Robinson Cano for four seasons at $30 million with two additional club options that would buy out Cano’s first two years of free agency. Although those two club options would commit the Yankees to paying just $14 and $15 million each, not many of their brethren would be so cavalier for a 2B whose skills are purely hitting-based i.e. he has little usable speed (10 stolen bases in twenty attempts over three seasons) and walk rates that only look good if one applies the adage “Lies, damned lies and statistics.”  Cano’s total walks grew from 2006 to 2007 by 117%!  A closer look shows he drew just 18 in 2006 and then took 39 in 2007 – with 135 more at-bats.

With those three comfortably in the fold along with $13 million dollar corner outfielders Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, a $16MM Bobby Abreu, $19 million dollar SS Derek Jeter and $21 million 1B/DH Jason Giambi, the Yankees brass, and most of the baseball intelligentsia, believed this team would still hit.  After all, they had done so previously and had the baseball skills that would allow it – talking walks and hitting home runs.

Just like the young pitching, the hitting also disappointed.  At the end of May, the Yankees team ranked 7th amongst the fourteen American League teams in on-base percentage and 10th in walks taken.  That combination cannot allow their 5th highest HR total to get the team higher than the middle of the pack in scoring runs.  Combined with a middle of the road showing in pitching, and the Yankees have become a middle of the road baseball team.

There are rays of hope.  The biggest is Joba Chamberlain who is slated to make his first start of the 2008 season on Tuesday.  If he can provide the above-average innings everyone in New York expects, then the Yankees will have stabilized their rotation.  Assuming the older bats in the team’s line-up heat up with the temperature, the Yankees may be able to salvage what has been a disappointing 2008.

With just three days left in the month of May, though, the 2008 baseball season has taught the New York Yankees organization and its fans the bitter lesson learned by one of God’s most humble creatures lo’ those many years ago:

 
But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!