The Subpar Subway Series and Its Sub Rosa Subplots

The great sportswriter Leo Tolstoy once observed that all unhappy teams are unhappy in their own way, and so it was with New York’s two baseball teams as this weekend’s Subway Series arrived. The series always generates a lot of hype in NYC, but with the two teams dealing with inner turmoil while playing mediocre baseball, this year’s showdown arrived on an especially flat note that was further punctuated by Friday night’s rainout. From this week’s Hit List, here’s what I had to say about the #11 Mets (20-19 through Thursday) and the #17 Yankees (20-22):

Continuing their middling ways, the Mezzo-Metsos haven’t strung together more than two wins or losses together all month, but if there’s one thing Mets fans can be unequivocal about this year (other than a general “You suck!” that may as well become their rallying cry), it’s that thus far the team’s controversial deal with the Nationals is paying off. While Lastings Milledge is hitting just .238/.309/.327 with a -0.6 VORP for the Nationals, Ryan Church is hitting .310/.378/.538 with a team-high 14.0 VORP for the Mets, with Brian Schneider (.318/.385/.400) adding another 4.8 VORP. If only those two guys would grow cornrows…

Yammering Hank: In a further attempt to prove himself the measure of his old man, the old Boss, the Yankees’ new boss compares his team unfavorably to the Rays as the latter holds the Yanks to six runs in a four-game series which knocks the pinstripes into last place in the AL East–the latest in a season that the team has been in the cellar since 1995. The outburst places pending free agent Brian Cashman directly in the crosshairs just as the team prepares to face Johan Santana in the Subway Series. Not helping matters is Ian Kennedy’s return from the minors to deliver more of the same; he has just one quality start out of seven.

Not pictured in the Mets’ entry are the events following the aftermath of Thursday afternoon’s loss, when closer Billy Wagner ripped his teammates, particularly Carlos Delgado, for not being around to talk to the media after the game, an event which spurred a team meeting and fueled speculation that manager Willie Randolph’s job is on the line. Though Wagner apologized to Delgado, it’s clear he’s become a go-to guy in the team’s unhappy clubhouse, the heir apparent to garbageman/closer John Franco; recently he ripped Oliver Perez as well.

The Mets did have the advantage of throwing Johan Santana against the Yanks on Saturday, rubbing salt in a wound that may well lead to Cashman’s departure at the end of the year. Santana, who even before the rainout had already been pushed back a day in order to set up this marquee matchup, didn’t pitch particularly well, surrendering four runs and three homers in 7.2 innings, but one bad inning from Andy Pettitte and another from Kyle Suckass Farnsworth were enough to make the performance stand up. Santana has now allowed 11 homers in 60 innings this year, a rate of 1.65 per nine. That’s even higher than last year’s career-worst 1.36 per nine; adjusted for park and league levels via Baseball Prospectus’ translated stats, it’s 28 percent worse. Still, he’s 5-2 with a 3.30 ERA and 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings, a performance that would look pretty nifty if it were done in Yankee pinstripes.

Thus this past week has served as a bitter reminder of the risk Cashman took by not trading for the two-time Cy Young winner. With Yankee youngsters Kennedy and Philip Hughes, the two pitchers who figured prominently in the team’s negotiations with the Twins, nursing a combined record of 0-7 with an 8.70 ERA and the latter on the DL until July due to a stress fracture in his rib, the grass is greener on the other side of the Yankees’ fence. Never mind the fact that Melky Cabrera, who would likely have been traded to the Twins, had until recently been one of the team’s most productive hitters (a 7-for-38 slump with two walks and just one extra-base hit has cooled him off). The impossible expectation of manchild Hank is not only for the team to win while rebuilding, it’s to do so without acknowledging the conflicting priorities if not the logical impossiblity of having one’s cake and eating it too.

With Kennedy sputtering in his return from the minors, the day when Joba Chamberlain shifts to the rotation probably isn’t far off, despite the cryptic signals from Cashman and manager Joe Girardi. Chamberlain has now thrown 18.1 innings in relief. If he were to somehow be able to move to the rotation by the end of this month, he’d probably have 21 starts left (Chien-Ming Wang and Andy Pettite both have nine, and in a five-man rotation each slot averages 32 turns). At an average of six innings per start, that’s 132 innings, plus his 18.1 is 150.1, only five above his Rule of 30-based estimate of 145 innings. At the outset of the season, I estimated that Chamberlain would pitch three months on a 90-inning reliever pace and three on a 180-inning starter pace, but the Yankees’ dearth of leads to protect has put him on something closer to a 65-inning reliever pace and thus bought him more starts down the road.

The bottom line, I think, is that there’s a lot of misdirection coming from the Yankee brass in an attempt to disguise the fact that if Kennedy doesn’t get his shit together over the course of the next two starts — the end of this month, basically — the time to move Joba will be upon the Yankees. When that point arrives, it will be second-guessed to high heaven as something that should have been done a long time ago. But the reality is that if the team wants to stick to a realistic workload that won’t endanger Chamberlain’s future — and here I’m omitting a whole debate as to whether the current limits are correctly optimizing the usage of young pitchers relative to their injury risk — they probably couldn’t have sped up the timetable by much and still hoped to have him available as a starter down the stretch.

I’m fond of quoting the famous Leo Durocher line, “You don’t save a pitcher for tomorrow. Tomorrow it might rain,” but that balancing act with regards to the value of this precious resource is the cornerstone of the otherwise the impossible dream of rebuilding while winning. The bullpen may suffer a bit due to Chamberlain’s absence from the setup role, but it will be the right decision at the right time for the team’s best interests, and the player’s as well.

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