One for the Thumb

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.

He returned to the Yankees last weekend, and obviously, they need him; at the time of his injury, he was posting the highest OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage), .987, of his career. They just don’t need him as a catcher: Putting the aging Posada behind the plate now all but guarantees he’s going to get hurt again, probably just in time for the stretch run. He should be DH-ing. Problem is: The Yankees have enough defensively challenged, gimpy DH types. Nick Swisher, Xavier Nady, Hideki Matsui, and Johnny Damon are already fighting for three spots; there’s no room for Posada. So he’ll be back behind the plate, then probably get hurt again.

Will Jeter become a handicap?
The all-American Face of Baseball turns 35 at the end of June, but so far he’s staved off age in a way few could have expected. His much-derided defense has actually improved on past seasons’—his Range Factor, still in the bottom half of baseball, is the highest it has been in four years—and though his batting average and on-base percentage are down, he’s gained in both power and speed. At press time, he’s within four homers of his total for all of last year, and within one steal. The new stadium is certainly helping that power, though it can’t be making him any faster.

That said, he’ll still be 35, the second-oldest regular shortstop in baseball, and two months can’t reverse a decline in skills that has accelerated every year since his near-MVP season in 2006. If Jeter can keep up this pace all year, he’ll have reversed the basic nature of human erosion. And no, not even Derek Jeter can do that.

Is this team the one that can finally break the championship drought?
You may have noticed that neither Alex Rodriguez nor Mark Teixeira has been mentioned yet. During the team’s run through May, the notoriously slow-starting Teixeira came alive, buoyed by A-Rod’s return. Even when A-Rod began under .200, Teixeira benefited simply from pitchers’ fear of the third-baseman, seeing more pitches to hit and depositing them consistently over the fence (including his already-famous broken-bat home run off World Series MVP Cole Hamels). No team in baseball has a more potent back-to-back combination than Teixeira and A-Rod.

And no team has a more unpopular and potentially fragile duo, either; Scott Boras’s two proudest pupils are the target of opposing teams’ fans everywhere. And neither has proved much in the postseason: Teixeira has just one series to his name (he hit fine, if for little power, in the Angels’ four-game loss to the Red Sox last year), and A-Rod … well, everybody knows about A-Rod’s playoff woes. Teixeira and A-Rod are the centers of the Yankees’ offensive attack, and it’s one thing to dominate the regular season but another entirely in freezing October and against the opposition’s best pitchers.

Which is to say that the Yankees, if they can keep everyone healthy—considering everyone’s age, no simple feat—have the type of team that can stay hot throughout the regular season. But the regular season has never been the measure of the Yankees. The 2000 Yankees, their last World Series winner, won only 87 games. Girardi’s next postseason game as a manager will be his first. Sabathia, whose rubber arm can keep its elasticity only so long, has lost his last three postseason starts. If everything goes as it has, and as it can, the Yankees will return to the postseason after one year in baseball exile. Until October, though, we still won’t know if this new, updated version (Yankees 8.0?) is improved over any of the old, failed versions. Your guess is as good as theirs.

Nymag.com’s Joe DeLessio contributed to this column.

E-mail: will.leitch@nymag.com.

One for the Thumb