To the anguish of all who root against the Yankees, they are once again the envy of baseball. They have overcome injuries (most notably to Mariano Rivera), and a slow start, to finish the first half with the best record in MLB.
After beginning the season at just 21 up and 21 down, the Yankees have spent the past six weeks basically winning three of every four games. To be exact, they've won 31 of 44 and stand atop the majors with a 52-33 record.
Still, with a $200 million payroll and 27 titles on their resume, the Yankees can always be examined critically. So with the Yanks owning a seven-game lead over the second-place Orioles in the AL East, let's take a look at the five big issues/questions facing the team in the second half of the season.
1. What is the Yankees' biggest concern?
The team's biggest issue is the third baseman. Forget the nearly $30 million he is making this season. Forget the fact that he has five more seasons after this one on his contract. Alex Rodriguez is only a good player right now -- not elite, not even great -- who probably isn't worthy of the No. 3 or No. 4 spot in the Yankees' lineup.
It doesn't matter that batting orders are a bit overrated -- there is a shorthand that comes with those slugger spots. Needless to say, A-Rod's numbers are not worthy of batting in those positions for the best team in baseball.
If you project Rodriguez's stats out, and he played every one of the Yankees' remaining games, he would finish at .269 with 25 homers and 72 RBIs. Imagine if he ends up on the DL for a stint?
His slugging percentage is .436. He does still get on base (.357 OBP), and he leads the team in stolen bases with nine. But until he gets on a hot streak, A-Rod is really a No. 2 hitter. And he turns 37 at the end of this month.
2. Will the Yankees make a big trade for offense?
Yankees GM Brian Cashman will play down the idea that the Yankees could add something, but don't buy the rhetoric. Cashman always acts as if the Yankees aren't going to do much. It is not necessarily insincere, but Cashman will wait as long as he can before he shows his cards.
But here is the thing: What would you add on offense? Cashman is not going to replace Russell Martin. The Yankees think Martin is going to hit more the rest of the way -- which is probably a good bet, since at .179 he can't hit much less. The Yankees also like Martin's defense, so he is not being replaced anytime soon.
Cashman could look for an outfielder if Brett Gardner doesn't make it back by the end of July. The GM told ESPNNewYork.com the other day that Gardner won't return to the big club until July 27 at the earliest. If that date changes again, then maybe Cashman looks outside the organization.
However, the Yankees have a pretty good platoon going in left field with Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones. In the 58 games the two have played in left, they have hit for just a .218 average, but have 12 homers and 28 RBIs between them. The Yankees could upgrade here, but their first choice is to have Gardner come back. (By the way, Ibanez has only DHed in 14 games, while A-Rod has served as the team's DH 21 times.)
3. Will the Yankees make a big trade for pitching?
Cashman is in a position of strength here -- because even without Rivera and, for the moment, CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte, the Yankees are throwing the ball very well. Still, we know that if Cashman sees a way to upgrade, he will try to do it. Remember when the Yankees almost dealt for Cliff Lee in 2010? It seemed like they were almost piling on at the time. If that trade had gone through, who knows? The Yankees might have won another championship or two.
So if a legit No. 2 starter, like Cole Hamels or maybe even Lee again, becomes available, Cashman will be on the horn. There are reasons to believe he won't get anything done, though.
The Yankees want their payroll to fall below $189 million by 2014. A guy like Lee is scheduled to make $25 million in 2014, and he has two more years after that on his contract.
Hamels is a free agent and will demand that type of dough, too. So it is hard to imagine Cashman giving up top prospects for what could amount to as little as one postseason start, if the Yankees were eliminated in the ALDS. So even if these guys are in play, Cashman may not want to use his chips to go get them.
What about a reliever, you ask? Well, if Joba Chamberlain is indeed coming back, throwing 97 miles per hour like he did the other day, then the Yankees don't need another bullpen member.
4. What is going right that could go wrong?
That is what the Yankees really have to figure out -- because like we said at the beginning, this team is the envy of baseball right now. But here is what could go wrong: The starting pitching could go south.
What if CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte don't heal correctly? Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes -- who have had a nice, long stretch of strong starts -- could start struggling again, like they did at the beginning of the season.
With 15 games left against the Blue Jays and 12 against the Red Sox, the Yankees will be playing a lot of division games the rest of the way. Those games essentially count double -- as in, if you lose, you definitely lose a game in the standings.
But this is worse-case scenario stuff. Not impossible, but a very pessimistic outlook.
5. What is going wrong that could go right?
The Yankees are surely going to hit better with runners in scoring position. Currently, they are tied for 27th in all of baseball with the Marlins, with a .231 average in those situations. Only the Cubs, Giants and Padres are worse. It is hard to believe that a guy like Robinson Cano is not going to do better than .193.
David Robertson has not been his Houdini self of late -- Joe Girardi has mentioned that his velocity being down. If Robertson were to become lights-out again, and Rafael Soriano continues to dominate, the Yankees could be as good without Rivera as they would have been with him.