As we head into Memorial Day weekend, three American League teams widely predicted to make the playoffs sit in last place in their divisions: the Yankees, the Mariners, and the Tigers. You can’t really say it’s “still early”—we’re roughly a third of the way through the season. June is looming. Soon, “slow starts” will just become “bad teams.”
While their predicament is shared, the exact causes of their suckery are diverse. Detroit’s problem is terrible pitching. The Yankees have suffered mysterious injuries to their older superstars and mysterious ineffectiveness from their young pitchers. The Mariners? Well, they have no defense, they can’t get on base, and their pitching isn’t very good either. (Gee, what else could go wrong?)
Of the three, the Mariners may be in the worst shape. They’re currently under .400. The Angels have been as good as most of us expected, even dealing with some injuries to rotation mainstays John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar. The A’s have proven the computers right. Even the wild n’ crazy Texas Rangers, who are on pace to allow something like 950 runs this season, have still managed to stay out of the cellar thanks to Seattle. It’s hard to see the Mariners making the moves necessary to right this ship during 2008; their to-do list is a mile long, and they’re 9.5 games out of first already.
Detroit’s offense has been the best in the AL Central. Unfortunately, they have one of the worst pitching staffs in the American League. Plus, their infielders are playing “musical bases” as Jim Leyland tries to find places to stick defensive liabilities Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Guillen. But to climb back up the standings, they’ll need to get better pitching. Staff ace Justin Verlander, who struggled early, has been working on his mechanics and seems to be back on track. But Jeremy Bonderman has been a huge disappointment to fans (and fantasy owners) counting on him to be a strong No. 2, and the other starters aren’t really worth wasting the pixels on at this point. To really contend, the Tigers will have to acquire more pitching. But how will they get it? Despite their horrible start, they’re still “only” 6.5 games out of first and just two games behind Cleveland. I don’t expect the White Sox and the Twins to be able to hold off both the Indians and the Tigers much longer.
The New York Yankees are also shocked to find themselves in the cellar of the AL East. But maybe it’s not as bad as it seems. A year ago today, they were 9.5 games out of first, yet ended up making a run at the pennant in September. Today they’re just 7.5 back. Not so bad, right? Mmmm, maybe.
Last year, 9.5 games back still got them second place. This year, the landscape of the AL East has changed. The Tampa Bay Rays are five games ahead of New York and while they don’t have a Steinbrennarian budget, they’re playing with a lot of great young talent. While the Yankees do have a great lineup on paper, they may be forced to deal with more injuries than they’re used to this year. It’s one thing to lose A-Rod for a stretch; it’s quite another if they have to keep juggling hurting cornerstones such as Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada. Some of their other guys are struggling at the plate—Jason Giambi just barely clears the Mendoza line, and they only have two guys hitting over .300 (and both are hitting .302).
With their offense on the fritz, they needed to be able to rely on their pitching. Yet their only reliable pitcher has been staff ace Chien Ming Wang, who somehow doesn’t get the respect he deserves—even from his own catcher. If the Yankees want to contend this year, they’ll either have to deal some of their prized chips in a midseason trade. Does anyone really expect Carl Pavano is to be the team’s August savior? Even if by some miracle can be effective when he returns, and even if Kennedy, Hughes, and Joba-as-starter can all pitch well, none of them are going to address the Yankees’ biggest need: innings. In the AL, Yankee starters are dead last in innings pitched. If they want to oust the Rays and the Red Sox, they are going to have to acquire themselves the sort of innings-eater who can give their bullpen a rest every fifth day.
Of the League’s three cellar dwellars, New York has the most potential to claw their way back to the top of the heap. The Tigers are floundering so badly, not even Jim Leyland quite knows what to do other than scream in frustration. The Mariners? They’re just SOL. But the Yankees, on the other hand, they’ve got an owner who doesn’t know the meaning of “wait ’til next year.” They’ve proven themselves practically indestructible. You can never count them out. Even if they’re mathematically eliminated, Derek Jeter could still fly backwards around the earth, turning back time to give them just one more chance. Yes, after the nuclear Armageddon, the only things that will be left on earth are cockroaches, styrofoam cups, and the New York Yankees.