The New York Yankees find themselves all alone in first place through the first 50 games of the season. That is quite astonishing considering the fact that a plague of injuries threatened to derail the team early on.
The Yankees began the season with a three-time MVP on the disabled list as Alex Rodriguez recovered from hip surgery. Xavier Nady, the starting right fielder, was shelved less than a week into the schedule, former ace Chien-Ming Wang was absolutely horrific and landed on the DL himself after three starts, and both set-up men, Bruney and Marte, have spent more time inactive than pitching. And until this past weekend, the Yankees were getting by with their third and fourth-string catchers.
Yet the New York Yankees find themselves atop the division on June 1st, and are in the middle of a streak of well-played ball games, the likes of which we haven’t seen consistently in a few years.
Most Pleasant Surprises
Defense: Following Sunday afternoon’s game, the Yankees tied a M.L. record (’06 Red Sox) with their 17th consecutive errorless game. The infield has combined for only five errors in 863 chances, boasting a .994 fielding percentage.
Chemistry: Whether it’s the postgame pies from Burnett, the Tiger Woods figurine battle for supremacy between Bruney and Gardner, or CC’s NBA playoff suite treat, these 2009 Yankees are a new breed. Add a dash of Swisher nuttiness and a gold-plated WWE belt, and the characters on this team are almost unrecognizable.
Managerial Adjustment: Perhaps Joe Girardi’s Spring Training pool tournament set the tone for the looser clubhouse. Regardless of whether it did or not, Girardi deserves credit for lightening up, being less ornery with the media, and doing a much better job of disclosing the true nature of injuries. My own favorite player in the late 90’s (along with Tino Martinez), I nonetheless was quite unhappy with the job Girardi did last season. He still makes some baffling decisions (especially with the bullpen), but I must give credit where credit is due.
Evaluating the Position Players
Catcher- Jorge Posada:
Jorge spent several weeks on the disabled list, but was very productive before and has picked up where he left off after being activated in Cleveland over the weekend. Jorge looks locked in at the plate.
First Base- Mark Teixeira:
If I were rating the players with a letter grade, April Teixeira would get a D, while Mark in May undoubtedly deserves an A. The insertion of A-Rod behind him in the lineup has done wonders for Tex. Teixeira has also been the biggest difference-maker defensively, having yet to make an error and showing off the kind of range Jason Giambi could only dream of.
Second Base- Robinson Cano:
Cano has gotten off to a great start following a disappointing ’08, both at the plate and in the field. Robbie can once again be considered a premier player, proving last year was just an aberration.
Third Base- Alex Rodriguez:
A-Rod took the first pitch he saw upon being activated from the DL deep off of Jeremy Guthrie. He struggled a bit after that, but has hit quite a few meaningful home runs already (No, really!) and lengthened the lineup considerably. Even more encouraging is the fact that Alex has kept his mouth shut and seems to be genuinely trying his hardest to avoid stirring up more controversy. Let’s just hope that the new and improved A-Rod is here to stay.
Shortstop- Derek Jeter:
Jeter is heating up of late after a relatively slow start. He seems to have rediscovered his power stroke and has also been stealing more and playing a very decent shortstop. Derek has undeniably lost a step as he approaches his 35th birthday, but you’d still be hard-pressed to find a better shortstop in the league, even at this stage of his career.
Left Field- Johnny Damon:
While he has cooled off the past week or so (and happens to be banged-up), Damon has gotten off to an excellent start, capped-off by his walk-off home run against Minnesota last month at the Stadium. Johnny is making a strong case for a return to New York when he becomes a free agent after this season.
Center Field- Brett Gardner/Melky Cabrera:
As the everyday starting CF, Gardner was unable to provide enough offense. Up stepped Melky Cabrera, who took the job and ran with it. Melky has been phenomenal to this point. Gardner, as a complimentary player, has done a nice job lately as well. A little center field competition is a good thing.
Right Field- Nick Swisher:
Nick Swisher’s month of April was outstanding; he quite literally carried the offense. His May, however, proved why Girardi chose Xavier Nady as his starting right fielder. Swisher is a career .243 hitter with a propensity for striking out. He is a good enough hitter that he deserves to be more than a bench player, but he’s not quite good enough to play every day. Nady’s injury and Swisher’s increased playing time has exposed his weakness as a ballplayer. With Nady rehabbing in Tampa and not far off, Swisher can return to the role that suits him best.
Designated Hitter- Hideki Matsui:
Matsui is hard to evaluate. He’s been red-hot for a few stretches this season, and he has also looked totally lost at the plate at times. His bad knees have confined him solely to the role of DH, which puts Girardi in a bind. For now, the Yankees ought to ride him while he’s hot and bench him when he’s not, simple as that.