Yanks' fortunes improve with bullpen
Relievers' consistency turns sluggish start into June surge
NEW YORK -- Derek Jeter made a few wrong turns during his first weekend at the new Yankee Stadium, winding up in the players' dining room as he tried to navigate the maze back to his locker.
Like their captain, the rest of the Yankees also had to find their way in the early going, adapting to their new Bronx home and to each other. But the Bombers have finally adjusted, shrugging off early-season struggles and injuries to finish the first half in prime position for a playoff push.
With one of the game's most patient and productive offenses and a bullpen that is finally beginning to take shape, the Yankees have wrapped up the first half right in the thick of the race, despite the fact that they still have yet to post their first victory against the Red Sox this season.
Club MVP: Mark Teixeira was batting under .200 as late as May 12 and recently endured a homerless stretch spanning 95 at-bats, which only further illustrates how important he has been when everything is going right. Teixeira earned the second All-Star selection of his career after shrugging off a slow start to take his place as one of the American League's most dangerous hitters. The Yankees have also marveled at his run-saving defense at first base and are thirsty for more production in the second half.
Call him "Ace": Yes, manager Joe Girardi likes to call Alfredo Aceves "Ace," but that's not what this category is about. There have been some ups and downs, but over the first half, CC Sabathia has stepped into his $161 million obligation as the Yankees' No. 1 pitcher. There have been a few too many clunkers -- most recently a six-run outing on July 2 against the Mariners -- but Sabathia has proven willing to run the ball deep into games and leads the Yankees in complete games (two) and innings pitched (128 1/3).
Greatest strength: In Spring Training, general manager Brian Cashman envisioned a patient, veteran lineup seeing a lot of pitches and wearing down pitchers, forcing them to attack the strike zone. That has largely come to fruition, as the Yankees lead the Major Leagues in runs scored, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS and walks. Alex Rodriguez's return has lengthened the lineup, and having Jorge Posada back is a big boost over his fill-ins. The Yankees strike out less often than most AL clubs and have gone into motion a little more than expected, with Brett Gardner and Jeter pacing the club in stolen bases.
Biggest problem: The Yankees have some questions to answer in their starting rotation. Chien-Ming Wang is 1-6 and on the disabled list for the second time this season, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that they might not be able to count on the pitcher who won 46 games over the past three seasons. Joba Chamberlain has also been challenged to attack the zone more and has shown the requisite growing pains of a 23-year-old starter trying to harness his stuff, while Andy Pettitte can't seem to figure out how to pitch effectively at Yankee Stadium.
Biggest surprise: Out of nowhere, Phil Hughes has rescued the Yankees' bullpen and succeeded in doing what several candidates -- including the envisioned eighth-inning men, Brian Bruney and Damaso Marte -- could not. (Remember Edwar Ramirez and Jose Veras?) The plan was never to make Hughes into a full-fledged reliever, but like Chamberlain in '07, the need was there. Hughes' place for '09 is in the bullpen, and if he stays healthy, the Yankees can still get him up to 100 innings or so this year and not hinder his development.
Team needs: Hughes' success has taken away some urgency, but if Cashman makes a move at the Trade Deadline, there's a great probability it would be for a bullpen arm. No one knows if or when Marte will return from his exile to Tampa, Fla., and Bruney has been unable to recapture his command after serving two stints on the DL. The Yankees have patched it together with a revolving door of help from Triple-A, but there is room for improvement. The bench was bolstered in late June with the acquisition of Eric Hinske from the Pirates, though that was a reaction to the loss of Xavier Nady to Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery.
He said it: "I can't look Mariano Rivera in the face and say, 'I'm going to weaken your bullpen right now for the future.' It's a balancing act. It's a tough one. It's not easy. You try to make the best choices every day, and you revisit them every day." -- Cashman
Mark your calendar: The Yankees will come back from the All-Star break to tackle a 10-game homestand at Yankee Stadium that includes Old-Timers' Day on July 19 and a July 23 makeup game against the A's, playing a contest that was washed out back on April 20. From there, it's back on the road for a nine-game swing to Tampa Bay, Chicago and Toronto.
Fearless second-half prediction: The 2009 Yankees are a playoff team. The AL East would love to make that a false statement for a second successive season, but there's little reason to think the division or the Wild Card are not within New York's grasp. The Yankees don't match up well with the Red Sox, but they'll will find a way to be playing in October. They might even beat the Sox at least once in their remaining 10 games.
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.