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One for the Thumb

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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.


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