Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 28, 2012

Time For Cashman And Girardi To Earn Their Keep

In the span of just a couple of hours, fans of the team with the best record in the majors were reminded just how long sport’s longest season can be. At midday on Wednesday the Yankees announced that ace CC Sabathia had been placed on the 15-day disabled list with a Grade 1 strain to the adductor muscle in his left leg. Sabathia had felt a tug during the 4th inning of his start against the Mets last Sunday. When it felt no better after his Tuesday bullpen session he was sent for an MRI which revealed the groin strain.

Yankees fans were just absorbing the news that their top starter would miss at least two turns in the rotation when their team took the field at the Stadium for an afternoon game against the Indians. Behind a solid performance by Andy Pettitte, New York was leading 2-1 in the 5th inning when Cleveland’s Casey Kotchman scorched a ground ball back up the middle. The ball struck Pettitte in the left ankle, sending him to the ground. After throwing several warm-up pitches Pettitte talked manager Joe Girardi into leaving him in the game, but it was immediately apparent on his next delivery that he was unable to launch off his left leg with any power. After limping into the clubhouse x-rays revealed that the 40-year old left-hander had fractured his left fibula. The initial report was that he would miss four to six weeks. By Thursday the news had grown decidedly worse. The Yankees placed Pettitte on the 60-day disabled list meaning he will miss at least two months. In all likelihood it will be longer; as Pettitte is now said to be facing a six-week hiatus before he can start to throw, followed by another month or more of building up arm strength before he can make another start.

After a sputtering start that left them with just a .500 record and tied with the Red Sox in the AL East cellar one-fourth of the way into their schedule, the Yankees have been on a tear. They’ve gone 25-7, climbing all the way up to the top of the standings along the way. While much of the media focus has been on their always powerful offense, some surprisingly strong starting pitching has contributed significantly to New York’s surge. Suddenly, in less time than it takes to play a single game, forty percent of New York’s starting rotation went on the shelf.

One of the many roles that a team’s manager and general manager play is that of co-captains of the team cheerleading squad. Thus Girardi tried to find the silver lining in Sabathia’s trip to the DL, noting that with the upcoming All-Star break the big right-hander stood to miss only two starts despite being officially sidelined for two-plus weeks. In a similar vein general manager Brian Cashman sought to make lemonade out of Pettitte’s injury by suggesting that the extended time off could mean the veteran would be fresher come time for the playoffs. Of course for that to matter the Yankees must still make the playoffs, and while their recent outstanding play augurs well their fans would be foolish to take anything for granted in the highly competitive AL East, where all five teams were above .500 entering play on Thursday.

In addition to the brief loss of Sabathia and the extended absence of Pettitte, the Yankees lost pitcher Michael Pineda to shoulder surgery without him throwing a single regular-season pitch. Future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera went down with a torn ACL at the beginning of May, and speedy left fielder Brett Gardner appeared in only nine games at the start of the season before injuring his elbow. Of course, manager Girardi was correct when he responded to all this by pointing out that “no one is going to feel sorry for the Yankees.”

Nor should they. While the proximity of Wednesday’s twin injuries was a decided body blow, the Yankees are experiencing what all but the most fortunate of squads deal with at some point during a 162 game season played out over slightly more than half the calendar. In Boston twenty Red Sox players have been on the DL this season, and high-priced outfielder Carl Crawford has yet to make an appearance at the major league level. In Washington the Nationals have lost not one, but two starting catchers to season-ending injuries. Out in L.A. the once high-flying Dodgers started falling back to earth once star center fielder Matt Kemp went on the 15-day DL in mid-May. In Philadelphia second baseman Chase Utley finally played in his first game of the season on Wednesday, but first baseman Ryan Howard is still rehabbing an Achilles injury suffered in last year’s final playoff loss.

It’s not hard for managers and general managers to appear brilliant when everyone is healthy and playing well. It’s when times turn hard that management is tested, and either proves to be creative or is found lacking. Since the early season injury to Gardner, Girardi has done a very good job of platooning Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones in the outfield. Ibanez is 40 and was signed by New York in the off-season to be their designated hitter. Jones is 35 and had been expected to play no more than a backup role. With the oldest starting lineup in the majors, and with one of his few young players in Gardner out, the manager has had to send out three outfielders every day while still filling the DH role, all while finding ways to give all of his aging stars enough time off so that they will still have something left in the tank come autumn.

With the damage inflicted on the pitching rotation, attention now turns to GM Cashman. Yankees fans are no doubt thinking back to 2005, when the team was three starters short at the All-Star break. A parade of also-rans and might-have-beens took the mound at the old Stadium, and it is not a stretch to say that the utterly unheralded Aaron Small saved the Yankees’ season. A veteran journeyman with 190 decisions in the minor leagues and just 25 in the majors when he was called up in July, Small miraculously conjured up his inner Cy Young and posted a perfect 10-0 record for New York.

As recently as Tuesday Cashman appeared understandably content with his roster, indicating that he did not expect to be active at the trading deadline. One day later he said that he would look first within the organization for answers to his sudden problems, which is the right thing to both say and do. But the important thing, nowhere more so than in the Bronx, is to find answers. Yankees fans expect no less. Whether within the organization or without, whether in the form of one person or occupying multiple bodies, Cashman’s sudden and unexpected task is to find the 2012 edition of Aaron Small.

After pointing out that the team could expect no sympathy from other quarters, manager Girardi went on to assert that “guys have to step up.” It’s true, when adversity strikes the players do need to rise to the occasion. But surely the manager knows that in these unwelcome circumstances the same admonition applies every bit as much to both he and Brian Cashman.

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