It's time to pause for the All-Star Break. Other than Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and Mariano Rivera, all the Yankees are getting a quick breather before what's sure to be a late-season dogfight in the AL East.
For us, though, the All-Star Break means Midseason Report. And we're giving it to you in two parts.
FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED IN THE FIRST HALF:
1. The new Yankee Stadium is a different breed. I could rave about the open-air tier section or the Brother Jimmy's right behind my Dad's seats. But that's not what everyone's talking about.
There have been 142 home runs hit in just 42 games, way ahead of last year's pace. The short porch and a supposed "jet stream" into right field have been listed as possible suspects, but the obvious reason is that the fence has been moved in slightly in right-center field. The result has been a bunch of "Green Monster" home runs -- dingers that wouldn't have left most other ballparks.
2. The old guard is far from done. Two of the old Yankee lifers, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, have anchored the team early on. Rivera has been his usual self, with 23 saves and a 2.43 ERA. Though he's struggled in non-save situations -- long his Achilles Heel -- Rivera has continued to be the best closer in the business.
Jeter's the one who defied expectations. Thought by many to be over the hill, Jeter has instead posted the third-best average in the AL (.321) and earned his 10th All-Star nod. The captain has thrived in the leadoff spot and is on pace for an incredible 12th season with 100 runs scored. Bill Simmons called Jeter "a washed up shortstop with no range", but the Yankee shortstop has been the team's offensive MVP thus far.
3. Mark Teixeira is the real deal. At the end of April, Teix-Mex was hitting .200 and drawing the ire of the New York press. But since Alex Rodriguez has returned to the lineup, the first baseman has been on fire. Teixeira even nudged out Kevin Youkilis for the starting spot in the All-Star Game, and it's always a bonus to beat out Beantown.
4. The back end of the rotation has been the team's biggest weakness. Going into the season, the Bombers ostensibly had six starting pitchers. But Phil Hughes, Chien-Ming Wang and Joba Chamberlain have been the mediocre, the bad and the ugly. Joba's been the mediocre, with a 4.25 ERA and an average of five innings per start. Hughes has been the bad, allowing eight runs in just 1 2/3 innings in one start and losing his starting job in June. The ugly's been all Wang, whose season has included two trips to the DL and an ERA that only dropped under 10 in his most recent start. (Second-biggest weakness: middle relief).
5. The Yankees are in playoff contention right now because of money well spent. The Yankees spent more than 300 million dollars on Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. Burnett and Sabathia have been the two best starters this season, while Teixeira has been the leading run producer. A-Rod may be making more money, but these three guys have actually been giving more bang for the buck.
FIVE KEYS TO THE SECOND HALF
1. Can Joe Girardi settle on a pecking order in the bullpen? How chaotic has the middle relief been? Among the players who have been Girardi's go-to eighth-inning setup man: Alfredo Aceves, Phil Coke, Phil Hughes, Brian Bruney and Alfredo Aceves. The only constants so far have been Girardi's constant switching and "Enter Sandman" before ninth innings at the Stadium. If the Yankee skipper can settle on one guy, the chaos could give way to a defined hierarchy in the pen and some normalcy for the relievers. My vote is for Hughes, whose stuff is too good to waste in middle relief.
2. The most important Yankee might be the smallest. Though Brett Garnder stands just 5-foot-10, he has stood tall among the plethora of Yankee outfielders. He's got the most range on defense (and is less stupid in the field than Melky Cabrera and Johnny Damon). He's also a constant threat on the basepaths, whether it's stealing bases or going first-to-third on a single. The 25-year-old Gardner will be crucial down the stretch when the other, older outfielders start to fade.
3. Jorge Posada's continued health is absolutely vital. Unless you want Francisco Cervelli calling pitches down the stretch or Jose Molina up in a key September at-bat.
4. They need to play their best against the best. The Yanks are just 2-12 against their main competition in the AL, the Red Sox and the Angels. The 0-8 record against the Red Sox -- the Bombers' worst start vs. Boston in 97 years -- is particularly galling. With 15 more games against the two clubs, Girardi's bunch needs to turn those numbers around
5. Can they get to 90 wins? Since 1995, the Yankees have won fewer than 90 games just twice, in 2000 and 2008. In '00 they won the World Series -- in '08 they missed the playoffs. Meanwhile, they've made the playoffs all 11 times they reached the 90-win plateau. As tough as the AL East is, it's hard to imagine three teams getting to 90 wins. The top two in the division will get playoff berths -- seriously, does anyone expect the wild card to come from anywhere else? -- and the third-place team will go home. Staying ahead of the Rays is more important than getting ahead of the Red Sox. But it'd be nice to do both.
That's all for today. I'll be back tomorrow with first-half grades.
--- Jake Simpson