It’s no secret that the Yankees are struggling. Their once over-achieving lineup, cobbled together out of necessity, not desire, has gone cold. Their starting pitching, once strong enough to sustain paltry offensive handouts, seems unable to hold its own leads. And their bullpen, which had, early-on, created a watertight final three innings, is starting to show cracks.
With all three major components of the Yankees’ game beginning to sag under the weight of expectations created by what feels now like a late-spring tease, panic is hitting the Bronx. And, unlike in years past, there’s no promise of help on the horizon to counteract the swoon. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are several weeks away, at best, and, now both in their late-3o’s, offer no guarantee of effectiveness. Michael Pineda‘s imminent return should provide a lift to the rotation, but with the pressure to lift up the struggling offense–not overwork–likely contributing to the starters’ woes, his arm may not make a marked difference immediately. And with the new playoff format keeping more teams in the hunt, the likelihood of finding an impact bat–especially given the Yankees’ disappointing farm system–is looking dubious, at best.
Without a crystal ball, there’s no way to be sure what will happen when the dust settles on September 30th. Maybe the offense will rediscover its April magic. Maybe Vernon Wells will remember the way he hit for six weeks and maybe Lyle Overbay won’t find that facing-lefties thing so tough anymore and maybe the Tigers will suddenly have a burning desire to throw Miguel Cabrera at the Yankees at the seductive price of Corban Joseph and Dellin Betances.
Or maybe they will crash and burn. Maybe they will have to swallow their lumps and look toward 2014 (and pray that Robinson Cano‘s resolve to hit the free agent market is as tenuous as that $189 million cap). If that happens, no one will mourn them. Rather, they’ll gleefully parse the post-mortem and analyze what could have been and what went very, very wrong.
But if they do, the requiem should make note of a few Yankees who did everything in their power to keep the team afloat.
It’s clear that Jayson Nix is being asked to play beyond his ability. In parts of six seasons, he carries a .219 batting average and .647 OPS. His most productive years so far have been 2009 and 2010, when he contributed a combined 26 homers and 66 RBI with the White Sox and Indians. He has never had more than 363 at-bats in a season. This year, the 30-year-old is being asked to be a full-time player, appearing in 72 of the Yankees’ 81 games so far. As expected, he’s been unable to replicate Jeter’s numbers–hitting only .240 with a .612 OPS–despite being shuffled around in the order in an attempt to catch lightning in a bottle with the struggling Bombers. When he’s plugged into the lineup every day, the team doesn’t anticipate a power show or even much production. He isn’t there because he’s an exciting addition to an offense. He’s there because if there were any better option to play shortstop or third base, he wouldn’t be.
But Nix’s true value to the 2013 Yankees doesn’t lie in his bat. Where he really shines is on the other side of the ball. With all the (justified) criticism of the way the Yankees have been performing with their bats, little has been levied against their defense–and Nix is a big part of that. With a capable, steady glove that could almost be mistaken for slick and above-average range, Nix is shining in the field. Additionally, he’s shown the kind of versatility the Yankees were expecting when they originally signed him for utility purposes, playing shortstop, third base, and even spelling Cano at second. Yet despite being shuffled around the field almost as much as in the lineup, Nix brings consistency and stability to each position he’s asked to play, no matter what he’s doing at the plate.
Oh, and by the way, he’s tied for second on the team with 11 stolen bases.
Chris Stewart has risen to the top of the Yankees’ depth chart by sheer circumstance. When he was picked up off waivers immediately prior to the 2012 season, it was for sporadic backup to the durable Russell Martin. But when the Yankees decided they could replicate Martin’s production for a fraction of the cost, Stewart found himself in a job-share situation with once-demoted Francisco Cervelli–who would then join the ranks of the Yankee wounded with a broken hand. With catching prospects Gary Sanchez and J.R. Murphy at least a full season away and light-hitting Austin Romine even too unproductive to play every other day on this year’s Yankees, the starting catcher job has fallen squarely into Stewart’s lap.
To say that Stewart has embraced the role would be an inaccurate representation of the way he goes about his business. Neither fiery like Jorge Posada or with the swagger of his predecessor Martin, Stewart brings an understated calm to the backstop. Heated when he needs to be and steady when he doesn’t, he’s deftly handled both pitchers and umpires, working with a staff that’s become a real mix of longtime veterans and rookies fresh off the Scranton Wilkes-Barre shuttle. His presence behind the plate has become so valuable, in fact, that each beating he takes from foul balls, home plate collisions, or tweaks to the groin injury he was nursing earlier in the season becomes magnified.
The Yankees can ill-afford to lose Stewart, whose impact behind the plate hasn’t been dampened by his performance at it. Though he hasn’t torn the cover off the ball, he hasn’t embarrassed himself, either. His .257/.320/.338 (all career highs) won’t win any Silver Slugger awards, but even for a team that was spoiled by Jorge Posada for 14 years, it’s hardly a disaster. With all the Yankees’ offensive issues, Stewart is hardly the problem. And if he can keep the pitching staff in any kind of fighting shape, he’ll deserve much of the credit should the offense regain its May 15th form in time to make a run for October.
Though David Robertson only shows up when the Yankees have a lead late, keeping him on the bullpen bench the past few weeks, he’s quietly putting together an excellent year. Outside of his All-Star 2011, Robertson is on pace for one of the best seasons of his career–and he’s only 28. Though best known for putting runners on base before managing to wiggle out of trouble (dubbed “Houdini,” by the YES Network broadcasters.), Robertson’s WHIP this year is a sparkling 1.053–good for a career-best. This is due, in part, to limiting the number of hits he’s allowing per inning. Opponents are currently batting only .191 off Robertson. And even with a few poor outings early on, the righty has kept his ERA to a respectable 2.59. If the Yankees were winning more games, the back end of the bullpen would look more impressive, but as it is, Mariano Rivera and Robertson have teamed up to give the Yankees a 35-1 record when leading after seven innings. Among all the other reasons why the Yankees will miss Rivera, Robertson’s dominance of the eighth inning behind Mariano has given them the 1-2 punch they’ve been looking for since Mike Stanton was in pinstripes (the first time).
It remains to be seen whether Robertson will be the closer of the future. Early experiments have borne shaky results, but as he heads toward 30, Robertson may develop the maturity and nerves necessary to rack up saves. His performance in this uncertain season has proven he’s at least earned another look.
As the Yankees hurtle toward what seems to be a bottomless rock-bottom, and players and fans alike wait for the tide to turn in the right direction, fingers are getting pointed. The superstar who can’t keep his mouth shut. The ineffective front office that make all the wrong moves too late in the game. The Jekyll & Hyde pitcher who can’t keep the ball in the park. There may be plenty of time to lay blame if the Yankees go home early. But in the meantime, there were at least a trio of Yankees who did everything they could to keep baseball in the Bronx come October.
Photo credit: (May 13, 2013 - Source: Elsa/Getty Images North America).