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Derek Jeter's season-ending injury means that Joe Girardi needs to find a new shortstop. But should also be looking for a new third baseman? And what is Jim Leyland going to do with his struggling closer?
There's no competition at all for the biggest story in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series ...
Which is really rough news for the Yankees and their manager, but does not leave him with a particularly difficult choice to make. With Eduardo Nunez taking Jeter's place on the roster, Joe Girardi will have to options at shortstop: Nuñez and Jayson Nix. Nuñez is clearly the better hitter, but Girardi seems to prefer Nix's glove. Either player is capable of getting a big hit at some point, but either would be the weakest hitter in the lineup, most games. It's certainly something Girardi has to think about, but manager make choices like this almost every day.
No, it was the things that happened before Jeter suffered his injury in the 12th inning that will (among other things) keep both Girardi and Jim Leyland from getting a good night's sleep. Girardi has to figure out what the hell to do with Alex Rodriguez, and Leyland has to figure out what the hell to do with Jose Valverde.
This season, eight pitchers threw at least 20 innings of relief for the Tigers. Would you like to guess where Valverde's strikeout-to-walk ratio ranked among those eight?
Valverde's K/BB ratio was slightly under 2. Phil Coke was around 3. The oft-maligned Joaquin Benoit's was around 4. Octavio Dotel's was around 5. These are massive differences, my friends. The one thing Valverde did really well this season was not give up home runs, only three all season. Of course, he's now given up four home runs in his last 9⅔ postseason innings, so you might forgive someone for questioning Valverde's home-run-preventing abilities. Especially in Yankee Stadium, with those right-field seats so close to the pitcher's mound.
Oh, and since we're comparing relievers, would you like to guess where Valverde's ERA ranks among those eight Tiger reliefers?
Last year, Valverde converted all 49 of his save opportunities. Which was a tremendous achievement. He was also exceptionally fortunate, occasionally giving up runs when he had enough cushion where it didn't matter. If you think he just knows how to pitch to the score ... well, I've got a few postseason outings I would like to show you. Valverde was lucky to pitch as well as he did in 2011 with a pedestrian strikeout-to-walk ratio ... and in 2012, it was worse.
If he had the same statistics and the same stuff but was 24 rather than 34, he wouldn't be the Tigers' closer. He just wouldn't. But somewhere along the way (2007, actually), he picked up Proven Closer™ tag and somehow he's still got it.
Or did, until Saturday night. Valverde's been so awful in his last two outings, first against the A's and now against the Yankees, that Leyland might finally make a move. And it's not like he doesn't have any options. The obvious choice to replace Valverde as closer is Dotel. He's old, but you might also say he's experienced, and does have 109 career saves. More to the point, he's pitched better than Valverde in each of the last two seasons. And if Leyland really wants to get radical, he could also dump Benoit as his eighth-inning guy, and let Coke and Al Alburquerque take some of those setup innings.
Leyland, of course, does have the luxury of being ahead in the series. Girardi does not.
After benching the highest-paid baseball player on Earth in the Yankees' most important game all year, Girardi restored Alex Rodriguez to the lineup in Game 1 against the Tigers. Because ... Well, probably because not restoring Rodriguez to the lineup would have created some modest short-term issues, and some gargantuan long-term issues.
Anyway, Rodriguez came up with the bases loaded in the first inning, and grounded out. In the third, he grounded into a double play. And in the sixth, with teammates on second and third and his club trailing 2-0, he struck out on three pitches. And in the eighth ... Well, in the eighth he got bumped for a pinch hitter. It was the third time in the last week that Rodriguez got taken down for a lefty-hitting pinch hitter (Raul Ibanez once, Eric Chavez twice).
Now, it should be said that Alex Rodriguez isn't the only struggling Yankee. Robinson Cano went 0 for 6 in Game 1, extending his hitless streak to 22 at-bats. Nick Swisher's 3 for 23 in this postseason (adding to his previously terrible postseason record). Curtis Granderson's also 3 for 23. These things happen.
But the difference between Alex Rodriguez and his fellow strugglers is that the Yankees have an excellent alternative to him, at least when a right-handed pitcher is starting ... and a right-handed pitcher will start every game for the Tigers in this series. Nick Swisher is a switch hitter. Curtis Granderson bats left-handed. Robinson Canó bats left-handed. There's little point, percentage-wise, in benching one of those guys when there aren't any good left-handed (or right-handed) hitters to replace him.
But in Brian Cashman's infinite wisdom, he happens to have supplied Joe Girardi with a perfectly useful lefty-hitting complement to Alex Rodriguez, in Eric Chavez, who posted a 908 OPS against righties this season.
With Jeter out, there is some sentiment that ... let me let someone else express that sentiment:
That's one way of looking at this situation, and perhaps the correct way. But let me suggest another theory, which is that with Jeter out, the Yankees' margin for error has become even smaller than it was, and thus they simply must grab every little edge they can find. And the numbers suggest that playing Chavez at third base is not only one of those edges, but perhaps the biggest and the easiest to grab.
I think that Jim Leyland is going to make a move, which might mean more of Phil Coke and Drew Smyly in the seventh and eighth innings. With Alex Rodriguez and now Eduardo Nuñez on the bench, Girardi would have a couple of counter-moves at the ready ... which assumes, however, that he's willing grab more edges and pinch-hit for some of his other stars, too.