Yankees Preview July 7-9Huge two days on tap as Rays crash AL East party
Game 1: Andy Pettitte vs. Scott Kazmir
Game 2: Sidney Ponson vs. Edwin Jackson
Slow Starter, Part Deux: That's Robinson Cano. The Yankees' second baseman got off to a rough start last year too but nothing like the .151/.211/.236 debacle Cano experienced in April. He picked up the pace in May, only to post a pedestrian 718 OPS in June. On the plus side, Cano has 13 RBIs in his last 15 games.
Since the Yankees passed on trading for a big fish like C.C. Sabathia, they're stuck with an undermanned pitching staff. That means they have no choice but to rely on their offense to carry them, which means Derek Jeter and Cano need to hitting at peak levels. This isn't your usual 95-win Yankees team that can count on 900-950 runs as a luxury. In this much improved AL East, that kind of run production is an absolute necessity.
Addition by Subtraction: Nate Silver of Baseball Prospectus recently explained how the Rays have the most improved offense in baseball of any team in the past 50 years. B.J. Upton moved from second base to center field; Akinori Iwamura moved from third base to second base; Evan Longoria moved from college ball to third base in the big leagues; and defensive stiffs like Brendan Harris, Josh Wilson and Delmon Young moved right out of town.
That last subtraction looked like the biggest risk this offseason. Many baseball observers believed that Young was that rarest of baseball commodities: a future franchise player with just one year of big-league service time, thus making him the kind of young, cheap talent everyone craved.
But the Rays shocked the baseball world by dealing Young and Harris as part of a six-player trade that landed them young starting pitcher Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett. Garza has stepped right in as a key member of one of the most improved pitching staffs in the game. Befor landing on the disabled list, Bartlett has in some ways been more emblematic of the new Rays team. His offensive productive has been well, offensive a .256/.299/.293 line that includes not a single homer. Yet Bartlett is also one of the most valuable glovemen in the game, giving a big lift to a Tampa team that counted defense as its biggest weakness last season.
As Silver notes in his article, the Rays' vastly improved defense has created a cascading effect for the team's pitching staff. With more balls caught behind them, Rays starting pitchers are able to cut down on their pitch counts and go further into games. They're able to throw strikes without fear, more confident that the players behind them will make plays. Improved performance by the starting rotation in turn means less churn for the bullpen. Fewer bullpen innings thrown means the team can pick and choose better, allocating high-leverage assignments to the best relievers while using the pen's lesser lights for mop-up work.
In just their second season of existence, the Arizona Diamondbacks surged to a division title, riding high-priced veteran acquisitions such as Matt Williams, Steve Finley, Jay Bell and Randy Johnson. When the Rays tried to copy that Arizona model, they failed miserably, getting stuck with albatross contracts for washed-up entities such as Greg Vaughn, Vinny Castilla and Jose Canseco. But last season, Arizona rode strong starting pitching, a defense that ranked 9th in MLB in Defensive Efficiency and a well-managed bullpen that saved its best pitchers almost exclusively for the biggest spots. Whether this year's Rays team meant to or not, there's another pattern of mimicry going on this year. This time, it just might pay off with the Rays' first-ever trip to the playoffs let alone their first winning season.
Series Prediction: Pettitte and the Yankees offense should be enough to claim Game 1 of the series, and eventually emerge with a series split.