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Bob Ryan

Yankees not very bossy

They’re in first, but fire is lacking

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By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / August 6, 2010

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Team Checkbook — and I say that with all due respect — has not had as easy a time maneuvering itself into its current spot in the American League East a half-game ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays as you might imagine.

The esteemed Yankee captain and shortstop is having the least productive offensive year of his major league career, and it is accompanied with renewed concern about his diminishing range in the field. The prize offseason acquisition center fielder has been significantly outperformed by the youngster for whom he was traded. The man who was going to become the permanent DH was off to a miserable start before he was lost for the season, which would have been less predictable if his name weren’t Nick “DL’’ Johnson. The pampered bull of an eighth-inning setup man has underperformed so badly he has been replaced as the final bridge to Mariano Rivera by Dave Robertson.

But they’re still a plus-27 (67-40), so something must have gone right.

Given all that’s been going on with the Red Sox, however, wouldn’t you think the Yankees would have had a much better record than the Bostonians since the two last met on May 18? Well, they haven’t. Since last they met, the Yankees have gone 42-26. The Red Sox have gone 42-27. The gap between the two reflects Boston’s sluggish 20-20 start.

The big news in New York since the Red Sox beat the Yankees May 18 was the death of George Steinbrenner. The Boss had long ago relinquished day-to-day control of Yankee affairs to his sons, with Hal, the younger, emerging as the true man in charge.

Left unclear is how much pure baseball input Hal Steinbrenner will have. So until further notice, we must assume that general manager Brian Cashman has as much power as he’s ever had. We will further assume that he feels an innate obligation to continue the George Steinbrenner policy of leaving no stray ballplayers out there if he feels they could be of use to the New York Yankees.

Hence his trade-deadline haul of Lance Berkman, Austin Kearns, and Kerry Wood. Messrs. Berkman and Kearns augment the bench depth, while Wood gives the pitching staff another strikeout weapon, although it must be pointed out that in order to retire his last 11 men he has required 95 pitches. This projects to 233 pitches were he asked to throw a complete game. Yes, I know that’s irrelevant and fanciful, but if someone in Boston can’t have fun messin’ with a Yankee, whom can you have fun with?

One guy you can’t mess with is second baseman Robinson Cano, who, a late dip notwithstanding (1 for 14 this month), has had an MVP-type season. No one would dare argue the premise that he has been New York’s best player. A switch-hitting second baseman with an impressive .945 OPS who can also flash some fancy leather — what’s not to like?

Nor do the Yankees have any complaints with Nick Swisher, the switch-hitting right fielder and occasional first baseman/DH who makes the GM who picked him up in a somewhat unnoticed deal look good every time he steps on the field. Throw in the contributions of Brett Gardner (.388 on-base percentage, 30 stolen bases), and a case can be made that these three guys have, to a certain degree, carried the big names on the ball club.

A lot has been made of Mark Teixeira’s slow start at the plate, Alex Rodriguez’s relatively low home run total, and Derek Jeter’s all-around deflated stats, but when you take a closer look, it suggests we may too often dwell on the wrong numbers. Teixeira may not wind up hitting much more than .270, but he has very quietly driven in 81 runs. A-Rod is not projecting to hit more than 25 homers, but he is second only to Miguel Cabrera in RBIs with 87. And as down as Jeter’s overall numbers are (his .735 OPS is eighth on the team), he has somehow managed to score 78 runs and is thus on pace to score in excess of 100 for the 13th time in his Hall of Fame career. There is still plenty of time left for him to pump up those stats.

Center fielder Curtis Granderson, obtained from Detroit at the steep cost of prized prospect Austin Jackson, has had a rough start that included missing most of May with a groin injury. But he is showing recent signs of life.

Finally, Jorge Posada remains a very dangerous man with a bat in his hands. But he catches less and less.

On the mound, the Yankees are getting their money’s worth from CC Sabathia. Phil Hughes is everything they hoped he’d be. Until he strained a groin, Andy Pettitte was having a turn-the-clock-back season. A.J. Burnett has been a trick-or-treater, with an emphasis on the trick part. The fifth starter, Javier Vazquez, has been so-so.

By far the biggest mound issue for manager Joe Girardi has been getting from the starters to Rivera without the game falling apart. But then the Yankees have only themselves to blame for destroying Joba Chamberlain (5.36 ERA, 1.49 WHIP) with their ridiculous “Joba Rules’’ and their indecision over whether he should start or relieve.

Of course, once they get to the ninth inning with a lead, there are no worries. Rivera is defying age (he’s 40) and all reason with an ERA of 0.91 and a WHIP of 0.63. As great a one-pitch pitcher (cutter) as baseball has ever known, he remains at the top of his game.

It has all added up to them being good, but not great, and they have not been able to shake the Rays. With a $206 million payroll, they know they are supposed to win, and that can be a burden. All in all, the players should feel lucky it isn’t 10 years ago. No better than Tampa Bay? The Boss would not have been pleased.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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