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Thursday, July 15, 2010
Five question marks as Yanks return

By Wallace Matthews
ESPNNewYork.com

Heading into the second half of their season, the New York Yankees hold the best record in baseball and a two-game lead in the game's toughest and most competitive division.

They have beaten the teams they are supposed to beat -- they are 31-20 vs. teams with sub-.500 records, including a whopping 10-2 against the Baltimore Orioles, this year's gift that keeps on giving -- and they have beaten the teams they have had trouble beating in the past. For example, at this point in 2009, they had yet to beat the Boston Red Sox in eight tries; so far they are 5-3 against them in 2010. And they have played their perennial West Coast regular-season nemeses, the Los Angeles Angels, dead even so far, splitting six games down the middle.

In spite of the early season struggles of Javier Vazquez and the more recent floundering of A.J. Burnett, the starting pitching has been exemplary, with three of their five starters already racking up 11 wins, and the ace, CC Sabathia, reaching 12.

And finally, the lineup is starting to heat up, with Mark Teixeira somehow having arrived at 17 home runs by the All-Star break, Alex Rodriguez among the league leaders with 70 RBI, and Robinson Cano, despite a recent cooling off period, hovering among the league-leaders in batting average at .336.

So what could go wrong in the second half?

Possibly nothing. And possibly, quite a bit. The baseball season is a six-month grind, not a three-month sprint, and there are still plenty of games to play and plenty of potholes to navigate. And the death this week of The Boss, George Steinbrenner, only serves to complicate matters.

With 74 games left to play, the Yankees seem poised to defend the World Championship they won last season, but there are lingering issues that remain, and any one of them could rise up and derail what looks so far like an unstoppable express train.

1. The Bullpen

Of course. And not only Joba Chamberlain, although he is the most obvious example of where things could begin to fall apart for them. Whether from the lingering effect of the Joba Rules, or the uncertainty of his role during spring training, or the mixed messages he has received from the organization over the past two seasons, or -- the most frightening possibility of all -- he is harboring an injury, Joba looks nothing like the pitcher who energized a team and its ballpark in the second half of 2007.

Joba Chamberlain
Joba Chamberlain

The injury scenario is highly unlikely, because his velocity remains impressive and even eye-popping at times. But there is no doubt that his once rock-solid confidence is shaky, especially when he falls behind a hitter. Alarmingly, this flamethrower turns into a nibbler when he gets into a negative count, unable to trust his stuff or his ability to blow hitters away. Clearly, he has become a case not only for Prof. Eiland but Prof. Freud, and if the Yankees don't straighten him out soon, we may see a lot less of Mariano Rivera, which is never a good thing.

But Joba is not the only problem. The Chan Ho Parkway is open for business whenever he works more than one inning, and no one seems to have a convincing reason why, or a clue about how to shut it down. Damaso Marte has been hit or miss at his specialty, getting out left-handed hitters, and as (usually) the only left-handed arm out of the pen, that simply cannot be tolerated. David Robertson fluctuates between brilliant and disastrous, although Dustin Moseley has shown some chops in a small sample of appearances.

This is where the Yankees need Alfredo Aceves, out since May with a lower back injury that does not seem to be improving, to stage a miraculous recovery and for Sergio Mitre, a versatile arm who can give them length, to get back to action after straining an oblique muscle while taking batting practice in June. Jonathan Albaladejo, who has been lights-out in AAA, but so far has never had much success at the big-league level, is a possibility, and so is Mark Melancon, who has been up briefly. If the Yankees are going to make a trade deadline deal, this is the area where they are most likely to do it.

2. Injuries

With a roster that has some age on it, this has been an area of concern since Opening Day. And the Yankees have certainly been bit by it, losing seven players to a total of 226 games on the DL. And that doesn't even include Alex Rodriguez' cranky hip, Mariano's cranky flank, or Brett Gardner's sore thumb, which cost each of them a handful of games but no DL time.

Mariano Rivera
Mariano Rivera

Some of the injuries have been perfectly predictable, such as Nick Johnson going down with what is likely a season-ending wrist injury in May. (What took him so long?). Others, like the flurry of injuries to Jorge Posada, are the inevitable result of asking a 38-year-old man to catch nearly every night. Francisco Cervelli has been an adequate backup, but if Posada goes down again for any extended length of time, the Yankees could be in real trouble.

The same goes for A-Rod, who still looks a little sore running to first some times or ranging for balls hit to his left. Even in a down year power-wise, he is a potent run producer in the middle of the order and a bat the Yankees could not afford to lose.

And the fact that Mo skipped the All-Star game with some aches in his rib cage and right knee has to send a ripple of terror through any Yankee, or Yankee fan. At 40-going-on-41, no injury is minor and for any pitcher, an injury to the push-off knee is certainly something to be concerned about. Rivera, of course, is the one Yankee they absolutely cannot win without.

3. Is the bench strong enough?

In the event a key player in the lineup gets injured and must miss a significant stretch of time? Do you feel comfortable, with, say, Ramiro Pena as your shortstop or third baseman if either Derek Jeter or A-Rod get hurt? How long can you go with Kevin Russo as your all-purpose fill-in if one of the infielders or outfielders goes down? Colin Curtis seems to swing a nice bat, but can he do it on a consistent basis? And let's not even start to think about who would be the emergency closer in the admittedly unlikely event Mo goes down.

In years gone by, this is an area the Yankees have traditionally sought to shore up at the trade deadline and if Brian Cashman is smart -- I've never known him not to be -- this year will be no different.

4. With The Boss gone, will there be front-office/ownership disarray?

Even without George Steinbrenner's forceful presence calling all the shots, the Yankees have run astonishingly smoothly over the past three years, from the transition from Joe Torre to Joe Girardi, to the spending of nearly a half-billion dollars on the three players -- CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira -- who keyed the 2009 World Championship run to the shedding of Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon despite their post-season heroics.

Brian Cashman
Brian Cashman

But now, with The Boss truly out of the picture, will someone in the Yankee organization attempt to wrest control of the operation and put his stamp on how the team is run? For the first 30-odd years of his ownership, with the exception of a couple of league-enforced absences, there was no doubt who was making the decisions for the Yankees. But over the past couple of seasons, we can only assume it was Hal Steinbrenner, the younger of George's two sons, who was in charge.

And we can also assume that with The Boss not actively involved, but still alive and somewhat aware of what was going on, everyone was on their best behavior. Does any of that change now, and does Brian Cashman suddenly find himself in the nightmare he was trapped a few years ago, when a faction of Tampa executives operated like a shadow government, proceeding according to its own agenda and overruling his decisions?

Without the Big Dog to keep everyone in line, will rogue elements in the Yankee hierarchy look to exert authority and control over baseball decisions? This is one of the most interesting possibilities to arise out of the death of George Steinbrenner, and a situation that bears close monitoring.

5. What if the Red Sox get healthy and the Rays refuse to go away?

Over the past month, the Red Sox injury report reads like a casualty list from a battlefield. Mike Lowell, Jacoby Ellsbury, Josh Beckett, Jeremy Hermida, Dustin Pedroia, Victor Martinez , Clay Buchholz, Manny Delcarmen and Jason Varitek are either on the DL, have been on the DL, or are simply banged up enough to have missed significant playing time. In addition, Mike Cameron has been hobbled by a sports hernia and Jed Lowrie hasn't played all year due to mononucleosis.

Still, they sit in third place in the AL East, just five games back of the Yankees, a very reversible deficit if just half those players return to action for most of the second half. And, oh yeah, Big Papi has suddenly remembered how to hit again. After that miserable April in which he batted .143 with nary a home run, he now has 18 HRs and, most improbably, made the All-Star team.

As for Tampa Bay, any team with starters like David Price and Matt Garza, a closer as good as Rafael Soriano and bats as dangerous as Evan Longoria's and Carl Crawford's in the lineup isn't about to go away anytime soon. In fact, they're coming to the Bronx this weekend, just two games behind the Yankees and looking to leave town on Monday a game ahead.

So for all the worries the Yankees may or may not have over the second half of the year, that one is real, and it begins Friday night at 7 p.m.

Play ball.

Wallace Matthews is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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