Six burning questions facing Yankees
Bombers atop AL East, but that won't last if they can't find a few much-needed answers
As Memorial Day approaches, the Yankees are in first place, which is always a good sign. Still with the easy, home-heavy schedule and the solid pitching they have received, it feels like the Yankees should be better than just six games over .500.
So before you fire up your barbecue, we have a six-pack of question marks for the Bronx Bombers. Many of them center around The Captain, the third baseman and the right fielder.
1. How long can Derek Jeter stay at the top of the order?[+] EnlargeKim Klement/US PresswireDerek Jeter's chase for 3,000 hits will captivate crowds over the next several weeks. But he still needs to produce at the top of the order.
By the time the Yankees return from their nine-game road trip, Jeter 3K should be in full force. If Jeter hasn't picked up his on-base percentage by then, the Yankees should get serious about moving him down in the order.
So much has been made about the Yankees only scoring via the home run, but no right-minded person thinks homers are bad. The problem is scoring half your runs by the long ball is a formula for a hit-or-miss offense. Their lack of diversity in run producing starts at the top.
Jeter's OBP is worse than what his batting average used to be. At .310, he's in the bottom third among all major leaguers. With limited power, The Captain must improve or be moved down for the good of the team.
2. When will Nick Swisher's time run out?
Nick Swisher has shortened the Yankees' lineup. Of the 73 outfielders who qualified for the batting average title going into Wednesday's games, Swisher's OPS (on-base plus slugging) was the eighth worst. There were 64 outfielders who were better than him. Last year, he was sixth out of 56.
Swisher's Yankees career is on the clock because a .208 batting average with two homers and 18 RBIs is not good enough.The team has a club option for a little more than $10 million. He desperately wants to remain a Yankee. If he doesn't begin to hit, it would not be surprising if the Yankees added a top-of-the-line, power-hitting corner outfielder by the trade deadline.
3. Can the real Alex Rodriguez please stand up, please stand up?
A-Rod has gone from looking young to old to young again from month to month. In spring training and early in the season, he looked like he might run away with the MVP award. He was crushing everything, especially righties. His slugging percentage in his first 14 games against righties was greater than 1.000. Since then, it is not even .400 and has hovered in the .360s.
4. Will the Yankees improve with runners in scoring position?
The Yankees' problems hitting in the clutch isn't a team-wide issue. It really comes down to the three players we have already examined: Jeter, Swisher and Rodriguez.
Jeter and Swisher have had the most plate appearances with runners in scoring position. In a combined 94 at-bats, they have 16 hits. That is a .170 average. A-Rod is at .211 in 46 plate appearances.
Others have done fine in the clutch. Brett Gardner (.324 with RISP) continues to make a case for more at-bats and to regain his leadoff spot. Mark Teixeira (.303), Curtis Granderson (.295) and Russell Martin (.286) have all hit well with runners in scoring position. Robinson Cano (.268) can improve, but he hasn't been terrible.
Due to the Yankees' overall inability to hit in the clutch, they've come back only three times in 18 opportunities when trailing after six innings.
5. How will this team handle a tougher schedule?
The Yankees are in first, but they are just 27-21, which figured to be better considering, after their win in the Bronx on Wednesday, they and the Kansas City Royals had played the most home games of anyone in baseball.
The Bombers are just 17-13 at home. That's a .567 winning percentage, which, if the pace continues, would be their worst mark since 2000. That year, the Yankees went 44-36 (.550) at home and won just 87 games overall, though they did win the World Series.
The Yankees play their next nine games out west against Seattle, Oakland and the Los Angeles Angels. The veteran Yankees have the second-best road record (10-8) in the American League.
When the Yankees return home they face the Red Sox, the red-hot Indians and the AL champion Rangers. So this is an intriguing stretch.
6. How long can the pitching hold up?
What might be most disconcerting about the Yankees' record is they have pitched about as well as anyone could have expected. Usually, guys end up being what the back of their baseball card says they are.
Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon have been tremendous, but could tire. For Garcia, that happened in 2010. In the first half, he had a 4.36 ERA and struck out 5.6 batters per nine innings. His batting average against was .270. In the second half, those numbers took a turn for the worse (5.10 ERA, .292 batting average against, 4.4 K/9).
Meanwhile, the last time Colon made five or more starts after the All-Star Game, Barack Obama was a relatively unknown senator from Illinois. Since Colon won the Cy Young with the Angels in '05, he has been nonexistent in the second half. Last year, he didn't pitch in either half.
Joe Girardi thinks A.J. Burnett's mechanics are more consistent, so the skipper believes Burnett will be better for longer. Last year, though, Burnett was slightly superior through 10 starts than he has been this year. Burnett has the same five wins, but his ERA is about a half a run higher (4.02).
The Yankees have chips to trade but it is unclear if a top-of-the-line starter will appear on the market.
All and all, there is a lot of talent in that clubhouse, but it hasn't had the feel of a dominant Yankees team. The record reflects that.
ESPN Researchers Mark Simon and Katie Sharp contributed to this story.
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