The Yankees were such a horrid team through the first five weeks of the season that by last Saturday morning they had played their way into a last-place tie with the Devil Rays and onto Page One of The New York Times. On the heels of the worst collapse in postseason history--in the 2004 ALCS, which they lost after being three outs from sweeping the Red Sox--the Yankees have positioned themselves to become the most expensive flop ever, the Waterworld of pro sports, a $208 million front-page disaster.
As noted Yankees shaman Yogi Berra once observed, "It gets late early out there." Berra's wisdom regarding the shadowy leftfield at Yankee Stadium could also be applied to the 2005 season. At 11-19 before beating the Athletics last Saturday and Sunday, the Yankees faced long odds of reaching the postseason for the 11th straight year: Among the 80 teams to make the playoffs in the wild-card era, only one, the 2001 A's, did so after being eight games below .500 a week into May.
"I think [the Yankees] are done," says a National League scout. "I'm not ready to say it with absolute certainty because they still have a lot of star talent. But right now they don't look like they can make [the playoffs]. Their bullpen is a scary, old bullpen."
Be it the relief corps, a thin starting rotation or a badly configured lineup, what makes the Yankees' start loom as more of an omen than a slump is that the organization has conceded that it has run out of resources to fix the problems on the fly. The team's existing payroll and a 40% luxury tax on every subsequent purchase forced the Yankees to say no last winter to free-agent centerfielder Carlos Beltran, whose young legs and quick bat are precisely what the club needs. Moreover, a fallow farm system has been of little help for years.
The best the Yankees could do in the short term was an ugly patch job last week that can't possibly get them to the playoffs: Warhorse Bernie Williams, who needs a cutoff man to reach second base, was removed from centerfield; slumping leftfielder Hideki Matsui, no great defensive player himself, took Williams's place; punch-hitting second baseman Tony Womack replaced Matsui, though he's woefully inadequate as a corner outfielder; and rookie Robinson Cano and his suspect glove were called up from Triple A Columbus to take over at second. "Our roster does not have the flexibility that you'd like to have," general manager Brian Cashman says.
New York is paying about $25 million to two designated hitters who can't hit ( Williams and Jason Giambi), its centerfielders had the worst slugging percentage in the majors at week's end (.287), its DHs ranked last in batting (.179) and its second basemen had zero home runs.
However, an increasingly vocal and irritable George Steinbrenner was correct last week to lay the bulk of the blame on the team's pitching (and to put Cashman, manager Joe Torre and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre on unofficial notice). Measured by opponents' batting average (.297), the Yankees' pitching staff was the second worst in the major leagues. When asked what was at the top of his to-do list, Cashman agreed with the Boss, saying, "Pitching--the back of the rotation and the bullpen."
Kevin Brown (1-4 with a 6.39 ERA after getting the 6-0 win on Sunday) has been a churlish albatross. "Brown is done," says the NL scout. "He's not a guy who knows how to pitch. When he struggles, all he knows is to come at you hard, except he doesn't have the good hard stuff any more."
Cashman has been calling other clubs for pitching help, but the trade market traditionally is dormant in May. "If I have to, I'll go down to Triple A and get arms there," says Cashman, who has already summoned Chien-Ming Wang from Columbus and Sean Henn from Double A Trenton as injury fill-ins. Relievers Paul Quantrill, Mike Stanton, Felix Rodriguez and Tom Gordon--all 32 and older--have almost no tread left. Even closer Mariano Rivera, 35, has seen his stuff and aura diminish. Old, high-mileage relievers just don't become spry as the season grinds on.
If the Yankees are to mount a comeback of historic levels to make the postseason, it must be on the backs of its top three starting pitchers ( Randy Johnson, Carl Pavano and Mike Mussina) and the only four every-day players who are not in decline or unproven ( Matsui, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield). That's because they've spent themselves into a corner, with little hope of finding a way out.