There are few phrases that will delight New Englanders more than the phrase that will be featured prominently in many articles that discuss baseball this week — the last place New York Yankees.
At 4-8 the Yankees are off to their worst start in more than a decade. Many pundits will say there is nothing to worry about with 150 games remaining to be played and New York having arguably the best collection of talent in the majors. But are we to take from last season’s historic collapse against Boston in the ALCS that perhaps the Yankees decline at the start of the season is no mirage?
Harken back a couple of generations to 1965. The Yankees had been the dominant team in baseball for more than a decade and a half, winning 14 pennants and nine World Series in the 16 seasons from 1949 through 1964. After being swept by the Dodgers in the 1963 World Series and losing in seven games to St. Louis the following season, the Yankees string of five straight AL pennants came to an abrupt end.
The Yanks finished sixth in a 10-team league that season, followed by a last place finish in 1966. It would be more than a decade before the Yankees would return to the postseason.
There are many similarities between the 1965 and 2005 Yankees. Today’s team has aging veterans, most of whom are in the latter half of their outstanding careers. Many are in their final couple of years and sharp declines are not uncommon.
Pitching is a major concern. Mike Mussina and Kevin Brown have each shown declines in performance over the past couple of seasons and ace Randy Johnson is 41 years old. Jaret Wright had one strong season in Atlanta, but has otherwise had an undistinguished and injury-plagued career. A similar statement can be made about Carl Pavano.
The bullpen has not been dominant and closer Mariano Rivera has not been the same since he was on the mound in the Yankees seventh game loss to Arizona in 2001. His problems against Boston in last season’s ALCS and this season’s opening series can no longer be written off as an oddity or an aberration. With no closer-in-waiting, the Yankees should be concerned.
Although this picture of doom and gloom is a minority view and may be overstated, a close look at the Yankees’ roster shows Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Hideki Matsui as the only starters under 33 years of age. And that trio is right at 30 years old. Injuries become more of a concern and with no young blood ready to step in when needed, it may be age rather than the Red Sox that brings an end to the Yankees dynasty.
Though not as successful in terms of pennants and World Series titles, look at how the Atlanta Braves have sustained their high level of success for 15 years. They seem to have a regular infusion of young talent from the farm system, be it in the field or on the mound. Of course they make free agency moves just like the Yankees. But unlike the Yankees, the Braves are able to harvest their minor league talent rather than trade most of their prospects away.
Things figure to get very interesting in the Bronx over the next few weeks if the losing continues. The Yankees have series this week against Tampa Bay and Toronto, the two teams expected to vie for the basement in the AL East. New York will be solidly favored to win all four games and enter their weekend series hosting Texas back at .500.
If this is not the case, do not be all too surprised if manager Joe Torre resigns citing "mental exhaustion" and the need for a change. The "mental exhaustion" might well be translated as "I just can’t take any more of George’s ranting and raving." In the past few seasons there have been rumors of the uncertainty of Torre remaining as Yankee manager so his departure under any set of circumstances would not be a shock.
The Los Angeles Dodgers sport baseball best record (9-2) two weeks into the season. Management was criticized for most of their offseason moves, but the offense has been a major surprise that has spearheaded a strong start. Also Baltimore, the Chicago White Sox and the Washington Nationals have been pleasant surprises.
Baseball is a game of streaks and with more than 90 percent of the season still to be played much can and will change. Baseball is said to be the truest of the major sports because of the lengthy season. Interestingly, though, wild card teams have had success in recent World Series. That points to momentum often being the key in a relatively short sample of seven or fewer games.
A major development over the first couple of weeks has been the relatively large number of starting pitchers able (or allowed) to pitch deep into games. We’ve had an usually high number of complete games. Through this past Sunday, 38 of the 354 starts made by pitchers have lasted at least eight innings. That’s more than 10 percent. This will be monitored to see if this pace continues. If so, it would mean fresher bullpens later in the season, which influences how games of August and September must be handicapped.
Here’s a look at four series to be played this weekend.
Nationals at Mets: Washington had enthusiastic support at home this past weekend as baseball returned to the nation’s capital for the first time in more than 30 years. The Mets began the season by losing their first five and then won six in a row. Both teams figure to rely more on their pitching than offense. The Mets have the better balance, but the bullpen and closer Braden Looper have has struggled. Preferred picks: UNDER at totals of 8 or higher, Mets at -125 favorites, Washington as a +150 dog, especially when Pedro Martinez pitches.
Reds at Marlins: Cincinnati brings the offense. Florida has the pitching. That always makes for an interesting matchup. Florida has gotten excellent starting pitching, but the offense has been perhaps the most erratic in the game. In their first dozen games the Marlins scored two runs or less five times and eight runs or more four times. Cincinnati’s pitching is weak and the Marlins should have offensive success. Preferred picks: Marlins at -140 in any game started by A.J. Burnett, Dontrelle Willis or Josh Beckett. Reds at +120 against Al Leiter or the fifth Marlins starter. OVER at 7 or less. UNDER at 9 or more.
Orioles at Jays: Toronto has the better starting pitching. Baltimore has one of the top lineups in baseball, scoring at least five runs in nine straight games and averaging 7Â½ per game. Preferred picks: Baltimore as an underdog with Rodrigo Lopez. Take Toronto and young Gustavo Chacin at -150, except against Lopez. If Lopez faces either Chacin or Roy Halladay, take UNDER if 8 or higher. Other than Chacon, go OVER at 10 or less.
Indians at Mariners: Both teams have underrated offenses and improving pitching. Seattle has been a pitcher’s ballpark since opening several seasons ago. Preferred picks: UNDER at 9 or higher. Underdog at +125.