Commentary

Yankees, Mets still faced with plenty of questions

Originally Published: May 5, 2008
By Bob Klapisch | Special to ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- "It's an endless summer" is what baseball's rational thinkers like to say. But try telling that to the army of New York hard cores, who watched the Yankees and Mets slog through April at a .500 clip and treated it like the apocalypse. It wasn't just talk radio that sounded the alarm, there was squirming in the clubhouses and front offices, too.

Billy Wagner tore into Oliver Perez last week for lasting only 1 2/3 innings against the Pirates. Across town, Hank Steinbrenner was openly questioning whether his Bombers would even make it to the playoffs, let alone dethrone the Red Sox in the American League East.

[+] EnlargePhil Hughes
Greg Fiume/Getty ImagesAfter starting the season 0-4 with a 9.00 ERA in six starts, Phil Hughes was placed on the disabled list with a broken rib.
Of course, that was before an impressive weekend cleared everyone's heads. The Yankees swept the Mariners and the Mets took two of three from the Diamondbacks, so the study of small sample sizes doesn't feel quite as panicked today. But there was no ignoring the parallels between the crosstown rivals, both of whom left spring training with a we-own-the-world mentality only to discover a reality that wasn't nearly as generous.

The Yankees seem either too young (Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy were a combined 0-6) or too old (Jorge Posada is on the disabled list; Jason Giambi is batting .150). Losing Hughes for two months to a mysterious rib fracture was bad enough, but the decision to demote the 23-year-old Kennedy on Sunday was a particular setback to GM Brian Cashman, who'd convinced Steinbrenner his kid pitchers were good enough to justify letting Johan Santana go to the Mets.

Instead, the Bombers were just 2-10 in the games started by their rookie right-handers. Cashman said he hasn't changed his long-term assessment of either Hughes or Kennedy. But Steinbrenner was so disheartened after the Bombers were swept by the Tigers at the Stadium last week -- the first time that had happened since 1966 -- he told the Associated Press he was "disappointed with the way the season has gone."

Steinbrenner's irritation is partly linked to Santana's success. One Yankee insider said, "[Hank] has to read about Santana winning another game every five days, which you know is driving him crazy." It's worth remembering that Cashman is in the final year of his contract, and if the Bombers fail to make it to the playoffs for the first time since 1993, it's the GM who'll pick up the check.

Maybe it's some consolation to Cashman that Omar Minaya, his counterpart with the Mets, has been feeling some heat, too. One person familiar with the thinking of owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon said "the honeymoon is over" for both Minaya and manager Willie Randolph. After failing to win the pennant for the past two years, Mets ownership is giving the GM only one more month to establish control over a weak National League East.

If the club is still a middle-of-the-pack team on June 1, Minaya will be asked to assess whether Randolph is getting the most out of his players and if he's the right man for the job. Fair question: Since May 18 of last year, the Mets are just three games over .500. But the win-or-else edict extends to both men: If Minaya backs Randolph and the Mets fail to make the playoffs, the two could be dismissed after the season.

Carlos Beltran

Beltran

Center Field
New York Mets

Profile

2008 Season Stats
GM HR RBI R OBP AVG
29 2 13 23 .368 .210

The sense of urgency extended to Wagner's locker, where the closer blasted Perez for cleaning out an already-exhausted bullpen in an embarrassing 13-1 loss to the Pirates last Wednesday. A day later, Randolph confronted Wagner, further fraying an already dysfunctional relationship between the two. The normally detached manager must've sensed his clubhouse was spiraling downward; if so, his decision to act came at the right time, just as the Mets were about to begin a three-game series with the National League's best team. To say the Mets needed a good weekend in Arizona is no understatement: Had they been swept by the Diamondbacks, the walls might've indeed started closing in on Randolph.

To be fair, Randolph is dealing from a weakened hand. The starting rotation isn't the same without Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez, both on the disabled list. The lineup missed Moises Alou for the entire month of April before he returned from injury to begin the series against the D-backs and has been undermined by the sputtering Carlos Delgado. But Randolph has to find a way to resurrect Jose Reyes, who's batting just .270 -- and that's after going 5-for-11 against the D-backs. The shortstop hasn't been the same since he was scolded by Randolph last July 7. He batted .205 in September while the Mets were in the midst of a historic collapse.

Here's one more unanswerable question: What's wrong with Carlos Beltran? He's batting .210, including a .186 mark against right-handed pitching.

The Yankees have their own, in-house enigma in Robinson Cano, whom club elders have privately touted as a potential batting champion someday. But the 25-year-old second baseman is hitting just .154 at a time when the offense is under pressure to score more runs. With Posada and Alex Rodriguez both out for at least two to three weeks, it'll be up to Cano and Giambi to turn into run producers.

Giambi is trying to remain upbeat, insisting, "I'm definitely not done. My swing is right there." But the longer trend line suggests otherwise for the 37-year-old slugger. He batted .192 last year from May 1 until the end of the season.

Robinson Cano

Cano

Second Base
New York Yankees

Profile

2008 Season Stats
GM HR RBI R OBP AVG
32 3 8 7 .214 .154

Cano's decline, tempered somewhat by a home run in Sunday's 8-2 win over Seattle, is an even greater mystery, given his age and .303 career average. There are two possible theories: First, the four-year, $30 million contract Cano signed earlier this year could be in his head. Either he's trying too hard to justify his wealth, or else the money has dulled his work ethic (which has never been called intense).

The other possibility is that Cano misses third-base coach Larry Bowa, an old-school, in-your-face mentor who kept the young Yankee focused the past two years.

There's no one on the 2008 coaching staff with quite the same edge as Bowa, now a member of Joe Torre's Dodgers staff. One major league talent evaluator said that once Bowa joined the Dodgers, "I had a feeling Cano would suffer because of it."

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.