After getting off to a historic start in April, the Yankees offense has hit the skids in May. As a result, the team’s output per game has dropped precipitously, declining from 5.5 runs in the opening month to 3.6 in the current one. So, naturally, everyone wants to know why.
Not surprisingly, the media has latched on to the team’s age (and, for good measure, renowned pharmacologist Bob Klapish has added steroid withdrawal into the mix) as the main reason for the Yankees’ mediocre start. And, you know what? The pundits are probably right. However, the problem isn’t the advanced age of the offense, as so many seem to think, but the relative youth and inexperience of the starting rotation the Yankees expected to have.
Brian Cashman’s winter strategy revolved around two concepts: complacency in the offense and reliance upon young (and inexpensive) starting pitchers. Although it’s definitely too early to panic about the lineup, especially because the Yankees’ offense still ranks among the league leaders, concern about the starting staff doesn’t seem as premature.
The most obvious crack in Cashman’s master plan was the shoulder injury sustained by Michael Pineda. Although unfortunate, Pineda’s season ending injury can’t honestly be considered an unforeseen occurrence. As soon as the trade was made, much was made of the inherent risk of young starting pitchers, so the eventual outcome wasn’t exactly shocking.
Vulnerability to injury isn’t the only reason why young starters are so risky. Pitchers without sufficient major league experiences also exhibit greater variations in performance. Put less kindly, they are often unreliable. That’s why building a rotation with three young starters (Pineda, Ivan Nova, and Phil Hughes) was such a risky proposition.
The Yankees’ didn’t have to rely on such an inexperienced group of starters. In fact, there were several alternatives to consider. However, instead of pursuing C.J. Wilson, posting a competitive offer for Yu Darvish, or dabbling in the trade market for someone like Gio Gonzalez, Cashman relied upon a more cost conscious approach. Would the Yankees have been better off with one of the more experienced/accomplished pitchers who were available in the offseason? In the short term, the obvious answer is yes, but that doesn’t mean the Yankees can’t quickly remedy the oversight sooner than later.
Last week, ESPN’s Buster Olney reported that the Phillies have already sent out feelers to gauge the market for Cole Hamels. Trading Hamels in May seems like an outlandish suggestion, but considering his reported contract demands, the 28-year old’s days in Philadelphia could be numbered. Presumably, Brian Cashman has already been in contact with Ruben Amaro, but if not, he’d better pick up the phone fast. Over the past few years, the Yankees have lost out on big name mid-season acquisitions like Cliff Lee and Dan Haren, so, if the Phillies ace is available, Cashman might as well start laying the groundwork early.
With the spate of long-term contracts given to pre-free agency players, Hamels could be one of the few elite level starting pitchers to hit the market in the next few years. So, by preemptively acquiring him, the Yankees’ would not only be able to salvage their rotation in 2012, but also go along way toward stabilizing their starting staff for the foreseeable future. Whether or not the Yankees have the prospects to entice the Phillies is another story, but if Amaro is open to taking offers, the Yankees should be very aggressive in making them.
Ironically, the biggest impediment to acquiring Hamels might not be the Yankees’ lack of prospects or the Phillies’ reluctance to trade him amid a pennant race, but rather Hal Steinbrenner’s campaign to dip below the salary cap threshold in 2014. In fact, Cashman’s decision to trade Jesus Montero for Pineda was likely based on a desire to avoid spending heavily on a big name pitcher like Hamels. However, now that Pineda’s injury has thrown his long-term viability into doubt, the Yankees can no longer afford to prioritize budgeting in the boardroom over winning on the field. Fans will accept fiscal restraint if the team keeps winning, but the level of understanding will quickly dissipate as the losses mount.
The Yankees may not be in dire straits, but they are hardly a lock to make the playoffs. Unfortunately, a combination of injuries and poor performance have undermined many of the decisions made in the offseason, so now Brian Cashman must begin to explore every potential opportunity. Maybe the Phillies really won’t trade Hamels, but it can’t hurt to try. On the contrary, as this past winter has shown, not trying could have the most adverse consequences.