When you’re coming off 2 straight losses to what was the worst team in MLB by a wide margin last year and you decide to sit your leadoff hitter, cleanup hitter, and starting third baseman in the 3rd game of the season, that’s normally a decision that will draw some questions. I certainly had a few in my head when I got a look at the lineup before last night’s game. I didn’t understand why Joe would want to rest Brian McCann already when he’s got a Friday night/Saturday afternoon setup this weekend in Toronto, and I really didn’t understand why he felt the need to play the platoon matchup game with Kelly Johnson and a guy making his MLB debut in Yangervis Solarte when Johnson has a higher career OPS against lefties than righties.
As it turns out, Joe knew exactly what he was doing. Solarate and Ichiro Suzuki combined for 5 hits and 4 runs scored from the bottom of the order subbing for Johnson and Jacoby Ellsbury, leading the offensive charge in the team’s first win. After the game, Joe explained his rationale and laid out his rough plan for the weekend. It was all perfect reasonable. He wanted to give Ellsbury a night off early to help ease him back into regular duty after the calf issue. He wanted to do the same with McCann with a lefty starter on the mound and will probably DH him on Saturday. Nothing wrong with wanting to protect a guy who missed some time late in ST and a catcher who’s already logged a lot of miles behind the plate.
It’s the decision to sit Johnson that really tells the story of what Joe’s trying to do here. The Yanks will be facing 3 straight right-handers this weekend, the more favorable pitching matchup for Johnson’s left-handed power. Johnson is going to play in all 3 of those games, and as the de facto backup first baseman there’s a very good chance that he’ll play 1 of them at first in place of Teix. Joe wasn’t just sitting Johnson last night to sit him. He was sitting him to make sure he would be fresh enough to play when Joe had to sit other guys. Joe’s not just looking at what’s happening today or tonight. He’s seeing the big picture, thinking 2 and 3 and 4 games ahead and planning out who he wants to rest and when. It’s a smart, if not overly cautious, early-season strategy and a departure from how he and the Yanks handled their older/injured players last season.
Last year, Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira were hustled back into the lineup as soon as their ailing body parts were decent enough to put on a uniform. Those moves played out in the worst possible way for them and the team when they were re-injured and missed more time, as it also did with Kevin Youkilis when he was mistakenly re-inserted into the lineup early. The Yankees were so desperate for offense that they pushed their guys coming back from injury too hard and they got burned by it.
Having learned from those mistakes, Joe is already demonstrating that he’s not interested in repeating them this season by giving Ellsbury a day. He’ll demonstrate it further when he finds a way to get Teix and Jeter a day off this weekend, and he’s expanding the strategy to be more proactive with healthy but older guys like McCann, Carlos Beltran (who got a turn at DH last night), and Alfonso Soriano (who started in left but got taken out late for rest/defensive purposes). Joe needs an excuse to see what he’s got on the bench right now with newbies Solarate and Dean Anna. The need to get his regulars some rest and not push his older/banged up guys in the first week of April provides that excuse and provides it in a way that benefits the whole team. Now everybody is fresh, everybody is healthy, everybody gets to play, and Joe gets to take it all in and start making plans for the next week, month, and further down the line.
It’s not just the position players either. CC Sabathia was out after 6 innings and less than 100 pitches on Tuesday. Hiroki Kuroda, after being ridden hard early and then fading down the stretch last year, was also done after 6 and 91. Joe said the plan for Hirok this season is to treat him like Andy Pettitte last season, which will mean more of those 6-inning/< 100 pitch starts and presumably more in the tank for Kuroda in August and September. Seeing how last year’s plans to rush guys back from injury and overwork 30-something-year-old starters worked out for the worst, Joe’s getting an early start on implementing a smarter, more sensible plan this year. If it serves to keep everybody fresh and keep the older, injury riskier players off the DL, that plan could pay some big dividends in the season’s later months.
(Photo courtesy of the AP)