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One for the Thumb

Derek Jeter has four World Series rings. Now that the Yankees are finally playing at their pay grade, could this be the year he gets his fifth?

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Illustration by Mark Nerys  

The first month and a half of the 2009 season couldn’t have gone much worse for the New York Yankees. For reasons yet to be determined, the new $1.6 billion stadium is playing like Coors Field with pricier beer. The PR disaster that was the Legends Suite seats—the insanely priced tickets whose occupants look suspiciously like empty blue chairs, which, I remind you, are protected from the unwashed groundling masses by a moat—made the team seem detached from reality. Alex Rodriguez rehabbed from an injury while a supposedly explosive book about him was collectively harrumphed away. He reemerged just in time for another (rather limp, by A-Rod standards) spate of Madonna–or–Kate Hudson tabloid headlines.

But most troubling: The team, struggling with injuries and inconsistent pitching, was two games under .500, approaching the worst-case scenario: surly fans, millionaire “superstars” MIA, and a listless team headed for third place.

Then the Yankees went out and won nine in a row, including three consecutive thrilling walk-off victories, each punctuated by gleeful pie-in-the-face celebrations goaded on by A.J. Burnett, not heretofore known as a puckish imp. The Yankees are winning, but not in the plodding, Just Doing the Job way we’ve become accustomed to in this championship-less decade. This Yankees team actually seems to be—lo!—enjoying itself.

Which will mean nothing, of course, if they don’t win the World Series, because, seriously, it has been long enough already. The unexpected good vibes can’t last all summer. Here’s a look at the pressing issues, and whether the Yankees have the right answers.

What about that fifth starter?
In his first game back after a month on the disabled list, Chien-Ming Wang gave up two runs in three innings in relief, which lowered his terrifying 34.50 ERA to a merely grotesque 25.00. The problem with Wang’s “injury” is that it might not really be an injury at all: They’ve called it a “lack of strength,” which translates to “His sinkerball isn’t sinking, and we have no idea why.”

Despite his epic struggles, Wang would be back in the rotation right now if it weren’t for Phil Hughes’s outstanding start last week against the Texas Rangers: Just when it appeared Hughes still wasn’t ready, he pitched a gem and probably held onto his spot in the rotation. For now. The Yankees are paying Wang $5 million this year, and they can’t send him to the minors without exposing him to the waiver wire. Hughes has no such restrictions. So basically, Hughes is pitching to stay in the majors while Wang merely has to look halfway decent to reclaim his rotation spot. But if Hughes keeps it up, the Yankees can’t just toss away the Great Phil Hughes Breakthrough they’ve been waiting a number of years for.

The Yankees might, perversely, be waiting for an injury to sort all this out. (Obviously, they’re not rooting for one.) The top four starters, C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte, and Joba Chamberlain, are threatening to become the dominant foursome the Yanks expected. But they’re also all notoriously fragile—particularly Burnett and Sabathia, who over the last three years has thrown more pitches than anyone in baseball. If one of them breaks down, the Yankees’ Wang-Hughes dilemma is “solved.”

Can middle relief be saved?
The recent spate of good starts by the rotation has hidden the Yankees’ gaping hole: a wretched and wounded middle-relief corps. Brian Bruney, the right-hander the Yanks hoped could be the proverbial eighth-inning bridge to Mariano Rivera, is back on the disabled list. Assuming you ignore those who continue to insist Chamberlain head to the bull pen—it’s not happening; it shouldn’t happen; please, please shut up—the Yanks need to figure this out fast, unless fans feel comfortable with Mark Melancon staring down Kevin Youkilis with the bases loaded in a tie game in October.

The problem with middle relievers is that they are as plentiful as they are unpredictable. The Rays’ makeshift bull pen last year paved their way to the World Series; but this year, with almost the same crew, they’re struggling. The Yankees have few in-house options, but the only answer might be to throw out every available arm, from the minor league, indie ball, the waiver wire, wherever, and see who survives.

Is Jorge Posada going to be okay?
Posada strained his right hamstring in the beginning of May, and when backup Jose Molina went down three days later, the most expensive team of all time was stuck with a backstop tandem of Francisco Cervelli and Kevin Cash. When the Yankees ponied up the $52.4 million for Hip-Hip Jorge before last season, they knew he’d be an injury risk but couldn’t let a franchise legend leave, particularly coming off a season in which he hit .338. Since then, Posada has missed nearly two-thirds of his starts.


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