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Sweeny Says: Yankees In 'Pitch 22'

By Sweeny Murti

The Yankees have managed to maintain the best record in baseball, even as their starting pitching motto remains "CC…and let's see." At this point, no one is a sure thing after CC Sabathia, and even Andy Pettitte's imminent return can't make you believe he'll pick up right where he left off—having the best year of his career, remember?

There are only 22 games remaining and in those 22 games the Yankees need Pettitte, they need A.J. Burnett, and they need Phil Hughes. They need Javier Vazquez, they need Ivan Nova, and they need Dustin Moseley. Why not? Give the Yankees choices for a 4-man postseason rotation, not winners by default.

This year the Yankees don't have the luxury they did a year ago, when after 140 games they led the division by 9 games and spent the last 3 weeks setting up Sabathia, Burnett, and Pettitte for October. Now they are in a race, with little hopes of running away anytime soon. Home field is important to the Yankees, and they will need to beat Tampa Bay in the division race to get that, regardless of how far ahead they are in the wildcard.

"I think it's important to try to get it consistent down the stretch here," Joe Girardi said about his starting rotation. Girardi is positive by nature and rarely calls out his players in public, so it was no surprise that he didn't start waving red flags about a situation that is sure to be the difference between his team repeating as World Champs and going home early. But he clearly recognizes the need to pitch better than they have lately. "I don't worry about it," Girardi said. "The big thing to me is wanting your starters to feel good about themselves at the end of the year."

The end is near. Only 22 games to go.

*Pettitte's rehab start in Trenton last night appeared to be a successful one, 4 scoreless innings and only 2 hits allowed. Where he goes from here, we have to wait and see. The Yankees have been leaning toward him making another rehab start, and seeing that he only threw 51 pitches that might make sense.

Whether he pitches once more in the minors or just comes straight to the big leagues, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, at this point Pettitte is lined up to make any remaining starts against either Tampa Bay or Boston exclusively. That's not easing down the stretch, especially for a guy who hasn't really pitched a big league game since before the All-Star break.

Pettitte felt good though…here's a key thought he shared with reporters following Thursday night's game in Trenton:

"I didn't know how sharp I was going to be, but I was pretty happy with being able to throw my curveball for strikes and being able to throw my off-speed stuff for strikes when I wanted to and be able to locate some fastballs down and away when I was behind in the count; all the stuff I'll have to do to big league hitters to get them guys out. I wasn't real happy with my changeup; I threw a couple bad ones, I tugged 'em and had a wild pitch on one, I think. The changeup is always a tough one for me. That's just me needing some repetition. But I threw a good one on 3-1 in a count that I like to use it, on that last batter that I think I faced. All in all, like I said, it was a good night."

You can read all of Pettitte's comments on Mike Ashmore's Trenton Thunder blog.

*Next week's series at Tampa Bay is obviously very important in the AL East race. Interesting to note that as of now, the Rays have better head-to-head and division records than the Yankees, and those are the first two tiebreakers in the event both teams finish with the same record and are determining only division winner vs. wildcard, with no playoff game needed. The third tiebreaker is second-half record. Since the Yankees started the second half of the season 2 games ahead of Tampa Bay, a tie after 162 would mean the Rays have the edge in that category as well.

All this really means is that the Yankees are probably losing any tiebreaker scenario so they must win the division outright. That is their goal, although just getting into the playoffs is good enough—a wildcard just means no home field advantage in either of the first two rounds.

Remember, the NL victory in the All-Star Game means home field for the National League for the first time since 2001. Anyone remember what happened that year?

*Some good reading here by our friend Jon Heyman on Derek Jeter's impending contract drama.

True, none of us believe Jeter is really going anywhere and for good reason, but in a world where even Wayne Gretzky was traded (22 years ago, I realize) anything is possible. Heyman speculates on a 3-year deal worth $45-50 million, which is a tad more than the 3-year, $42 million deal Chipper Jones signed with the Braves a few years back.

Chipper's deal is a benchmark that a prominent agent cited to me earlier this year when speculating on Jeter's potential dollar value—same type of iconic and identifiable player to his team. However, that same agent told me earlier this week that if he was Jeter's agent he would never allow Jeter to be the 4th or 5th highest paid player on the Yankees, and next year's salary obligations include A-Rod for $32 million, CC Sabathia for $24 million, Mark Teixeira for $23 million, and A.J. Burnett for $16 million. Oh, and Mariano Rivera who again is having one of his best seasons ever (compared to Jeter who is having his worst) is coming off his contract which pays him $15 million this year, no doubt due for a raise.

Again, none of us believe Jeter will play anywhere except for the Yankees next year. But for how long and how much are the questions we all want answered and it's a little more complicated because of the numbers Jeter has put up in the second half of this season. On June 6th, Jeter was batting .300. From June 8th through September 8th, Jeter played in 81 games (exactly half a season) and produced a line of .233/.314/.321 while his season batting average had slipped to .262.

Still, the Yankees probably know their options are limited here and they can make all their money back on Jeter 3000 hit merchandise (only 102 to go now), so overpaying makes little difference to them.

We'll spend much more time and space on Jeter and his deal down the road.

*Kerry Wood was a great acquisition at the trade deadline. He's pitched in 15 games as a Yankee and given up 1 run in 16.2 innings…allowing 10 hits, 10 walks, striking out 20. Wood takes a lot of pressure off Joba Chamberlain, who has pitched better over the last month, and takes pressure off David Robertson, who we weren't really sure could handle 8th inning responsibility despite his success this year.

Wood could turn out to rank somewhere between David Justice and Jerry Hairston, Jr. in the mid-summer deals that Brian Cashman has used to help bring parades to New York.

Sweeny Murti

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