Column: Expect perils for pinstripes

The Yankees tossed some cash around this offseason. They signed a center fielder adept at getting on base and working the count. That same center fielder also throws like a drunk hair stylist with a torn rotator cuff. But truth be told, this isn’t why their season will end in frustration. The answer is pretty simple: Their starting pitching sucks.

Well, maybe it’s not that bad. They have about seven decent starters who will guide them through the regular season. Come October, this won’t matter. In the playoffs, history has shown it’s more important to have three great pitchers than seven good ones.

Take a look at recent years. The Sox had Pedro and Schilling. The Arizona Diamondbacks had Johnson and Schilling. Even those great Yankee teams had Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and a bullpen that still makes me cringe. Don’t get me wrong, it’s possible to win without elite pitching. It’s also possible for Johnny Damon to gun a runner out at home.

Randy Johnson used to be the epitome of nastiness. And even at age 42, he’s still one of the better pitchers in baseball. However, it’s pretty clear he’s in decline.

A pitcher’s earned-run average (ERA) can be misleading. This is because other factors like team defense and the stadium pitched at can affect it. Statistics are more indicative when they are context-independent. For pitchers, walks and strikeouts are two of the best. If a pitcher strikes out many and walks few, they’ll have success at any level of baseball.

Back in 2001, Randy Johnson struck out 13.4 hitters per nine innings while only walking 2.5. That’s Cy Young Award material. (Which is why he won it in the National League that year.) Since then, his K/9 ratio has dipped from 11.5 (2002) to 10.6 (2004) and 8.4 (2005). Furthermore, he allowed 32 home runs last year. That’s the most he’s ever allowed in his 18-year career.

Two things should worry every Yankee fan and delight every Sox fan. There’s a great chance he’ll decline again in 2006. There’s also a great chance he’ll retire after 2007, so he has no financial motivation. What’s funny is he’s easily the Yankees’ best starter. The closest one is over the hill, too.

Due to his great mechanics, 37-year-old Mike Mussina has long been one of the most reliable pitchers in the majors. Since the strike-shortened season in 1994, Mussina has pitched in 27 or more games each year. Plus, if he hadn’t been on so many mediocre Baltimore Oriole teams, he might be approaching 300 wins (and Hall of Fame consideration). However, like Johnson, Mussina has already seen his best days.

Back in 2001, Mussina walked a thrifty 1.6 batters per nine innings. Coupled with a solid K/9 of 8.4, he was one of the most efficient pitchers in baseball, allowing 27 fewer hits than innings pitched. That was five years ago.

In 2004 and 2005, Mussina had worse BB/9 (2.1, 2.3) and K/9 (7.1 both years) ratios. He also allowed more hits than innings pitched (+13, +19). And even though it’s not the greatest stat, an ERA still means something. Mussina’s ERAs were 4.59 and 4.41. Not terrible, but nothing to be afraid of. So who is the Yankees’ postseason savior?

It’s definitely not “undefeated rookie sensation” Aaron Small (4.4 K/9). Not only is his stuff fluff, but he’s 34 years old. Carl Pavano (5.0)? Nope. Jaret Wright (4.8, 4.5 BB/9)? You crack me up. His only recent success was with esteemed pitching coach Leo Mazzone. Shawn Chacon (4.6, 3.4 after Coors Field) or Chien-Ming Wang (3.6)? Don’t kid yourself. Both are young enough to improve, but they’ll never be anything more than solid inning-eaters.

All the Yankees can do is do what they always do: trade for somebody. But can they? In the past, they were loaded with a Thanksgiving feast of tradeable assets. Notice how I said in the past. In its most recent evaluations, Baseball America ranked the Yankees as the seventh worst farm system in baseball.

The Yankees would have an all-galaxy team if the year was 2001. But it’s not. The year is 2006, and they have a team of mostly geriatric superstars. Rivera is 36, Posada is 34, Giambi is 35 and Sheffield is 37. In fact, pretty much everything about the Yankees is old. Their owner’s old, their manager’s old and their stadium’s old. Their center fielder’s not that old, but his best throw wouldn’t be cited as speeding in a school zone.

I’ll have to admit, I never thought I’d see the Yankees wade in mediocrity. As George Costanza once said, this is the kind of day that almost makes you feel good to be alive. While the Red Sox get younger (Josh Beckett [25], Jonathan Papelbon [25], Coco Crisp [26], Kevin Youkilis [27], Craig Hansen [22]), the Yankees get Bingo players. Now there’s a game they might be able to win.

– Christopher Sabanty can be reached at [email protected]

Leave a Reply