Sunday, April 20, 2008

Tough Road Ahead For Girardi

I don't envy Joe Girardi. He's in a tough spot - one of the most closely scrutinized manager positions in all of baseball. He's been given a team with a huge payroll and huge expectations to win. Unfortunately, he's also been given the task of helping the rebuilding process, bringing young talent along while simultaneously competing for a division title and hopefully a World Series win.

The problems inherited by Girardi are numerous. First of all, he needs to develop Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes. Many thought Hughes was ready to be a star out of the gate this year, matching his 2007 performances. Ian Kennedy was predicted to fill the back end of the rotation nicely, and become a league average innings muncher who would give up some runs, but get you to the 7th inning stretch. Bringing one young pitcher along is do-able. Bringing two along is tough. Bringing two along with a guy like Mussina who is lucky to reach the 6th inning becomes almost impossible.

Girardi's veteran pitchers may be a bit too "veteran". Andy Pettitte has proven to be a workhorse who can get batters out and get through a lot of innings even when he doesn't have his best stuff. He still has a great pick off move and many other intangibles that make him a great pitcher. He needs run support, however, and can't win games all by himself. More importantly is that Pettitte is getting a little older and will occasionally miss starts with back problems and other minor ailments. With Andy, it's good to have a backup plan - a long reliever who can make spot starts if Pettitte needs to sit one out. Girardi doesn't share this point of view with me, refusing to bring up a long reliever like Rasner (or Karstens or *shudder* Igawa).

The other veteran, Mussina, is acting like his starting days are done. He gives up a lot of runs without giving you many innings. He continues to be stubborn rather than smart when it comes to pitch selection and location, and it's becoming increasingly costly for the team. Maybe Mussina could move into the long reliever spot but his days as a starter are numbered.

The handling of the bullpen has been suspect in my opinion. Joe never brought a long reliever along after spring training. The possible rain game in  Kansas city seemed to shake up Bruney and Kennedy a bit when in retrospect it might have been better to let them stay in their usual patterns. He's brought in some relievers to soon and brought out some guys who were pitching well. Joe still shows some old-fashioned tendencies to use certain guys in certain innings, when he should focus more on using the best guys in the best situations. If you're at a critical junction in the 6th inning and your starter needs to come up, bring in Joba when it counts rather than letting Farnsworth give up the crucial runs and letting Joba close out a meaningless game or simply sit out.

For Girardi, this trifecta of Mussina, Hughes, and Kennedy is proving to be the toughest challenge, and one that is going to require the help of the front office to sort out. Joe's recent interviews with the press are becoming more and more strained as he begins losing his patience with the pitching staff.

The problems given to Joe to solve aren't purely pitching related. Girardi has a plethora of guys who would be better suited in the DH spot than playing a position. Abreu, Matsui, Giambi and Posada (with his sore shoulder) don't quite provide the defense you'd like. Then you have guys like Damon, Duncan and Ensberg who add to the conundrum of what to do with all of these players.

Joe is saddled with guys like Wilson Betemit, whose utility as a utility infielder is pretty minimal and whose bat isn't much better. There's talent in the wings with players like Alberto Gonzalez, but the Yankees don't like to waste mediocre veterans (look at Farnsworth for another classic example).

The Yankees front office has delivered Joe quite a mishmash to sort out. If the Yankees are going to be successful, Girardi will need help getting rid of the dead weight and excess and filling a need or two. It's early in the season, but before long someone will have to realize the current plan isn't working and someone will need to step in and lend a hand.

In the end though, the success of Joe Girardi's first year as Yankee skipper will come down to how he manages his starting pitching and how they perform. Currently it's the team's biggest liability and proving to be the toughest challenge early on. It will be interesting to see how things pan out. Back in his Florida days, Joe earned a reputation for using and abusing his young arms, many of whom were never the same after he left. He'll need a different attitude here, where the guys he is dealing with are expected to be the pillars of the team for years to come.

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