Entering Wednesday's games, the Yankees were five games behind the Red Sox for the American League Wild Card. Those are five great reasons why the Yankees will miss the playoffs for the first time since 1993. But there are better reasons. Here they are:
1. Their starting rotation is in shambles. Blame bad-luck injuries, overconfidence in youngsters or anything else, but the Yankees' rotation is not in a position to help the team down the stretch. More importantly, it isn't in a position to not kill the team. Remember: Sidney Ponson is the No. 3 starter on this team, ahead of Dan Giese and Darrell Rasner. A reinforcement may be coming in the form of Phil Hughes, but he may end up being a day late and a dollar short. Joba Chamberlain's shoulder injury is a cause for long- and short-term concern. Sure, the Red Sox rotation has taken a hit without Tim Wakefield, but the core of Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jon Lester and Josh Beckett should be enough.
Not all is right in the Hub, however. Clay Buchholz has been Boston's answer to Ian Kennedy, and innings restrictions prevent Justin Masterson from replacing the laptop thief in the rotation. The sooner Wakefield comes back, the better. Paul Byrd is not the answer. No matter who is at the back end of the rotation, Boston still has better starters than the Yankees right now. That will prove important down the stretch.
2. Derek Jeter is having the worst season of his career, and no one is saying anything about it. The second part of that sentence won't cause the Yankees to miss the postseason, but the first part will be a major factor. Since 1998, Jeter has put up above-average season after above-average season. If you go by OPS+ (on-base plus slugging percentage on an IQ-like scale) Jeter's total this season (98) ranks the worst in his career. His career rate is 120, and he hasn't posted one below 110 since 1997 when he turned in a 103. His totals in hits, runs, walks, stolen bases and RBIs will be career lows or close to them. Throw in his still-atrocious defense and you have a $20 million albatross.
Jeter's year punches plenty of holes in the argument that Jeter is a prime performer who steps up when things matters most. The Yankees need Jeter's bat more than ever this season. Only Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon get credit for their performances this season. Everyone else would be left back if he were in elementary school. The injuries to Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada have demanded that people pick up the slack. Jeter just hasn't done that, and that is slowly killing the Yankees.
3. Jorge Posada's injury robbed the team of its most underappreciated player. All it took was season-ending surgery for the Yankees and their fans to realize how valuable Posada has been during their run of success. Now he's not around and people wonder where those patient at-bats and walks have gone. Posada was not going to duplicate his career performance in 2007 -- he was at .268/.361/.411 in 195 plate appearances -- but his patience at the plate would have been there to help the team as an above-average hitter at the catching position. Instead, the Yankees have had no choice but to play Jose Molina and Ivan Rodriguez. Those two players cannot come close to what the Yankees lost. Given his age, Posada is no guarantee to be as big an asset for the entirety of his contract, but the Yankees felt that 2008 would be a good bet. Now they will wait on 2009.
4. Melky Cabrera has been one of the worst players in baseball. He hasn't been as bad as Tony Pena Jr., but at least the Royals shortstop got benched. The Yankees have trotted out Cabrera in center field all year long despite a sub-.300 on-base percentage. Some teams can afford to have automatic outs, but combine Cabrera with the rest of the underachieving hitters and the Yankees have a major problem. Austin Jackson may be rushed along in 2009 because of Cabrera's ineptitude. The only saving grace for the current center fielder is that he plays a position in which plus defense can make an impact. But no one's defense is good enough to cancel out a .243/.297/.338 line. And there's some debate as to how good a fielder Cabrera is. If the team were pitching better, Cabrera's black hole wouldn't draw as much attention to itself. But the team isn't doing that, so Cabrera will catch a lot of flak.
5. The Yankees play in the American League. Throw the Yankees in another division -- like the National League East or the NL West -- and they are right in the thick of things. But since they play in the toughest or second-toughest division in baseball, they don't get any breaks. Mediocrity hasn't cut it in the AL for a while, but it does skate by in the NL. Just ask the 2005 Padres or the 2006 Cardinals.