Series Preview: Cleveland Indians @ New York Yankees

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It was truly a tragic twist of fate in the vaunted Ohio Cup. The Cleveland Indians, defenders of the Cuyahoga Valley and bastion of hope for all Northeast Ohio, fell 3-1 to those southern Ohio bannermen, denizens of the shores of the Ohio River, the Cincinnati Reds. Perhaps it was the ever-pervasive chili and its aftereffects, perhaps the climate did not agree with those from the lakefront, perhaps the Reds just have some damn good pitching, but they hold bragging rights for the next year over the whole of the Buckeye State.

 

The past is the past though, and the future is ever rushing towards us, so the Indians must move on and head to America’s Capital of Commerce, New York City. There looms a dark presence, that shadowy beast that lurks in your nightmares like a modern Grendel, the New York Yankees.

We all know the story – twenty-seven championships, running out of single digit numbers to retire, and one of the greatest uniforms in the history of sport. Most any franchise in any sport in the world would dream to be anything like the Yankees. With their unlimited resources and brilliant front office they can do almost anything. They turned Jesus Montero into Michael Pineda, a deal I know will pay off for them soon enough. Paul O’Neill from Roberto Kelly and Joe DeBerry. Alex Rodriguez for Alfonso Soriano and Joaquin Arias. That’s just a small sample, but those who think the Bombers get by simply by hammering at things with money are quite wrong. They’re either hated or loved, the most apt sign of a brilliant, mighty organization. A season that ends in September is an abject failure. Greatness is not hoped for, it’s expected.

 

Unfortunately, these are not the Yankees of five, ten, or 15 years ago. They’re closer to those that played in ‘92 or 93 – scuffling in second or third, now lucky there’s a Wild Card for them to shoot for. Their lineup right now reads like an All-Star Game – from 2006. Brian McCann, Ichiro Suzuki, Carlos Beltran, Mark Texieira, of course Derek Jeter, all once brilliant superstars, now role players in the New York machine. Still valuable, but the turning back of the clock is happening less and less these days. Big names blot out the real value on this team though. Amid all the pedigree and legacy outfielder Brett Gardner toils on, building a brilliant career for himself.

 

When he first came up Gardner was a fourth outfielder, a speed demon who would step in late in games for defensive replacement or for pinch running duties and get a couple hits in his occasional starts. He looked like a baseball player though and there was certainly potential there. He finally found himself a place in the lineup every day in 2010 and was simply brilliant. Amazing defense and strong offense led to him being worth 7.3 rWAR in 2010 – that’s MVP territory. Since he became a regular player he’s averaged 6.2 wins above replacement per 650 plate appearances along with a 108 OPS+. At 30 years old though he’s having far and away his best offensive season. Slashing at .283/.360/.461, his 15 homers nearly doubled his career number and he’s got time to go. He’s not going to steal 49 bases like he did in 2011 but he’s still a threat and goes first to third on a single with ease. No longer a spark plug, Brett Gardner has turned into a key cog in the Yankees offense. For a team so famous for buying their players, this product of their farm is a nice “screw you” to the haters.

 

The Yankees might actually have the most dynamic top of the order in baseball. Along with Gardner they grabbed Jacoby Ellsbury as a free agent and installed him in center. With him and Gardner you could have a corpse, or Adam Dunn for that matter, patrolling right and nothing would drop. Ellsbury is signed through 2020 and the deal got some flack because he’s a speedy outfielder, the kind of thing that drops off quick. He’s flashed power in the past though with a 32 homer season in 2011, and even if that’s an outlier he’s got the potential to blast it. He’s also got 29 stolen bases in 34 attempts this season and has been solid offensively with a 109 OPS+. Not brilliant, but it brings value at least. The good kind I mean. If it weren’t for the fact that everyone batting behind these two guys is old as hell and can’t get around on the ball anymore they’d have  bunch more runs scored. Also, Jeter shouldn’t be batting second, Ellsbury should. But that’s another story.

 

By and large, this team kind of depresses me. There’s so many players I like that are just stinking it up, whether by their own standards or general baseball averages. The one that makes me saddest is probably Carlos Beltran. I don’t know what it is about that guy, but I always wanted him to do great. When he took that called third strike back in the 2006 NLCS to send the Cardinals to the Series it could have been just a footnote in a brilliant career, but he never was able to come around and win the big one. That’s not his fault obviously, the guy has a 1.163 OPS in the postseason and has the record for homers in October – if anyone answered the bell it’s Beltran. But from that time on he just seems snakebit. First the knees sidelined him for a few years, then he was traded to the Giants just as they fell out of the playoff race. His time in St. Louis was individually brilliant but they kept running into buzzsaws in the playoffs, first the Giants in 2012 then the destiny kissed Red Sox in 2013. If ever a man did everything he could, it’s Carlos Beltran. I hope he makes the Hall of Fame, and he probably will, it just sucks that everything kept going sideways despite all his efforts. Kind of the poster child of the best laid plans going awry.

 

It’ll be an interesting series, with all this star power without the power going against a scrappy Indians team that’s got the skills, just not the panache. One move they made before the deadline was to trade some garbage (Yangervis Solarte and some other guy) for Chase Headley, a very underrated move. Headley has had a great glove at third his whole career and mashed a 145 OPS+ in 2012, leading the league in RBI’s. As pointless as RBIs are, doing that for the Padres is incredible – they haven’t been able to hit since ever. It was a brutal outlier season for Headley, the kind of season that makes me worry for Michael Brantley, but now that he’s on the Yankees he’s solidified the hot corner defensively and has knocked a 108 OPS+ with a couple crucial hits since coming over. He’s certainly not going to replace all that A-Rod did over there the last decade, but he’s a solid player and also doesn’t make people think evil thoughts like A-Rod did. And he doesn’t have a nickname that’s just stupid feeling to say and type. Great move by Brian Cashman though.

Oh, in case you didn’t know, Derek Jeter is retiring. Just an FYI.

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