2013 Yankees: What to expect the next four months

Hector Lopez xx xx xx

Hector Lopez is the second-best Panamanian Yankee ever, behind only a certain reliever with 626 saves and counting (the “and counting” should deter your temptation to suggest Ramiro Mendoza. An all-Panamanian team below). Like a lot of Yankees stars of the late 1950s-1960s, Lopez was an Athletic first. He came over in a 1959 midseason trade with 1962 Series hero Ralph Terry (the big prize, Roger Maris, came after the 1959 season), and Lopez was one of many who completed the best outfield in baseball in 1961 (Yogi Berra was the primary leftfielder). Maris, Mickey Mantle, Berra and Lopez hit a combined 140 of the Yankees’ 240 home runs — though Lopez contributed just three (Berra 22, Maris 61 and Mantle 54). Lopez had better years for the Yankees: he hit 14 homers in 1963, 16 of his 22 in ’59 for the Yankees and 69 of his career 136 homers. He offered power and versatility — he played at least 178 games at four positions (right field, left, third and second). He had his best years, though, for the A’s (double figures in home runs his first five seasons, and career highs in average (.294 in ’57), doubles (28 in ’58) and walks (63 in ’56). He also had the best day of his career for the A’s — he hit three home runs in one game vs. Washington on June 26, 1958. The Yankees released Lopez after the 1966 season, and after two more seasons in the minors, he retired and became the first black manager of a AAA team in 1969 — six years before Frank Robinson became the first black manager in the majors. Lopez’s final totals: a .269 average, 138 homers, .415 slugging percentage, two World Series titles and a 12.9 WAR.

I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: Three Yankees pitched have debuted in the majors this year, which begs the question: When will Mark Montgomery? The Yankees have introduced Patrick Claiborne and Brett Marshall (albeit briefly), recycled Cody Eppley and David Huff, endured Joba Chamberlain, and still no Montgomery. The latter had a dominant 2012 — 64.1 innings, 35 hits, 99 strikeouts in Class A/AA — and a like start to 2013 in AAA, fanning 30 in 23.1 innings. All told, he’s fanned 180 in 116 minor-league innings. Either or both of two things could be holding him back: his control (16 walks this year) or his height (5-foot-11, the same as David Robertson). But next time the Yankees are tempted to promote Adam Warren, they might want to opt for Montgomery.

What is this man doing here? Eduardo Nunez and Jayson Nix have split time at shortstop in Derek Jeter’s absence. That’s bad enough. Reid Brignac is worse. The Yankees spent some of the money they didn’t extend to Nick Swisher or Raul Ibanez to buy Brignac from the Rockies. Here’s hoping it wasn’t much, because that’s what Brignac is worth. Brignac was a second-round draft pick of the Rays and reached the majors at age 22, mostly on the strength of a .326, 21-homer 2006 in the Class A California League. Brignac isn’t the last player whose career was given a boost it didn’t deserve by the Cal League’s inflated stats. The Rays gave Brignac 671 at-bats over three years and gave up after watching him hit .226 and slug .319. They passed him on to the Rockies who passed him on to the Yankees for whom Brignac is 0-for-6. He’s enough to make one miss Eduardo Nunez.

What he said: Yankees GM Brian Cashman on the injury-plagued season: “(Manager Joe Girardi) Joe’s been around here, and he realizes that there are no excuses. No matter what bad stuff happens, we’re supposed to find a way.” What he meant: “I claimed David Huff and bought Reid Brignac for him. What more does he want?”

Outlook: The Yankees spent two weeks of May in first place, which might be both blessing and curse. The former because the Yankees weren’t expected to, given all their injuries; the latter because now they will be.

The Yankees aren’t the best team in the AL East. They have the sixth-best record in MLB after Monday’s loss to the Mets, but just the 11th-best run differential; their 30-20 record should be 28-22, according to baseballreference.com’s pythagorean calculations. Only Joe Girardi credits the two-game difference to the manager.

They also aren’t the woebegones many thought they would be. The New York Times ran a piece on March on the 1965 Yankees’ fall from 99 wins to 77, and speculated that could be the 2013 Yankees. Except with all the injuries, the Yankees still started 2013 with CC Sabathia, Mariano Rivera, David Robertson and Robinson Cano. Does that sound like a last-place team?

Now the Yankees are far past lowered expectations. And therein is a problem: when the injured return, how much better will they be than their fill-ins?

  • The Yankees are paying Mark Teixeira $22 million and Lyle Overbay $21 million less. Yet Teixeira hasn’t hit more than .256 since 2009 and his .807 2012 OPS is only 38 points better Overbay’s .769.
  • The Yankees are paying Alex Rodriguez $27 million-plus and David Adams $26 million less. Adams is a 26-year-old rookie who has an .811 OPS in 44 big-league at-bats and an .897 one in 113 AAA at-bats. A-Rod was at .783 when he finished 2012’s regular season at age 37. And need we bring up his three singles in 25 postseason at-bats?
  • Curtis Granderson hit 43 homers and walked 75 times in 2012, yet managed only an .811 OPS (195 strikeouts, a .232 average and 18 doubles will do that). That’s not much better than the .776 OPS Vernon Wells has put up, with the added caveat someone else is paying the bulk of Wells’ $24 million salary. When Granderson returns again from injury, Ichiro should go to the bench, and we’ll see how he reacts to being a once-a-week player (he’s also 355 hits from 3,000 at age 39, and that’s a long way playing only on Sunday).
  • The Yankee leader in OPS is not Robinson Cano, but Travis Hafner, if barely (.893 to .889 entering play Tuesday). When A-Rod and Kevin Youkilis return, will they need to DH? And if so, will it cost Hafner at-bats?
  • I’ll stipulate that Derek Jeter on one leg is better than Jayson Nix or Eduardo Nunez on two. Lots better. And that the biggest improvement any returning Yankee will bring is Jeter. But his .316, .791 OPS in 2012 was his best season since 2009. He stole a career-low nine bases last year, had his second-lowest walk total (45; he walked 43 times in 2003 only because he missed 43 games) and still had a third straight sub-.800 OPS season, his fourth in five years. 2012 already seemed an outlier, and now Jeter is returning from serious injury. It seems fair to ask how good he can be. Better than Nix or Nunez we can be sure.

      This isn’t to suggest the Yankees won’t be better when their injured players return (and finally getting Michael Pineda to pitch may help more, and certainly more than the demoted Jesus Montero has helped the Mariners).

      The Yankees will be better. But how much better it’s fair to ask, and how much of their superior record has been achieved with favor.

      (This also assumes there won’t be more serious injuries, or their returnees won’t be reinjured, like Granderson — Youkilis is almost a given.)

      The Yankees are 9-4 in their first 13 one-run games, and you can attribute that to their bullpen — they may well have the best eighth-ninth inning combination in baseball — or you can say they’ve been lucky. Perhaps it’s been both.

      But the rest of the season will probably proceed much like the first two months: It will be a struggle for whoever wins the AL East, and given the Rays’ bullpen, the Yankees have as good a chance as anyone. But not as good as some may assume.

        (An all-time Panamanian team: Catcher-Manny Sanguillen, 1967-1980, 296/326/398; 1b-Rod Carew, 1967-85, 32/393/429; 2b-Rennie Stennett, 1971-81, 274/306/359; ss-Ruben Tejada, 2010-active, 263/328/323; 3b-Olmedo Saenz, 1994-2007, 263/340/465; OF-Ben Oglivie, 1971-1986, 273/336/450; OF-Carlos Lee, 1989-2012, 285/339/483; OF-Roberto Kelly, 1987-2000, 290/337/430; Starting pitcher-Bruce Chen, 1998-active, 74-72, 4.57; setup-Juan Berengeur, 1978-92, 67-62, 3.90, 32 saves; closer-Mariano Rivera, 1995-active, 76-58, 2.20, 626 saves;

        Team song: Dennis Brown: Money In My Pocket

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