If you've been watching the Yankees in 2011, you may have noticed that the team currently has only one left-handed relief pitcher on the active roster.
Boone Logan, the lone southpaw in the bullpen, has been tasked with silencing some of the big left-handed bats distributed throughout the league.
You may also have noticed that Mr. Logan has not been handling this specific responsibility particularly well so far this season.
That will undoubtedly become an issue as the Yankees forge ahead into the summer of what is already promising to be a season-long battle for supremacy in the talent-laden AL East.
Just within the division there are several talented left-handed hitters on each team, dangerous hitters that the Yanks will have to subdue in critical situations over the course of the schedule.
Boston alone has Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz, Carl Crawford and J.D. Drew, any of whom can do damage in a tight game. Toronto's Adam Lind can change any game with the swing of the bat. Baltimore's Nick Markakis and Luke Scott are far less potent when facing a lefty, and switch-hitters Matt Wieters and Brian Roberts are much more dangerous as left-handed hitters. Tampa Bay's most-productive lefties, Johnny Damon and Matt Joyce, are similarly less productive against southpaw hurlers, especially Joyce, whose production drops off significantly against LH pitching.
Though the sample size is small, the results of Logan's battles against lefties in 2011 are certainly alarming. In 34 plate appearances against the left-handed Logan, left-handed hitters are batting .300 against him with an .830 OPS, while right-handed batters are hitting .118 against him with a .328 OPS.
Reverse those splits, and the Yankees are sitting pretty with a highly-effective left-handed specialist residing in their bullpen.
Unfortunately, the splits are what they are, and Joe Girardi must struggle mightily with the decision to insert Logan into a crucial spot against a tough lefty.
The Yankees actually tried to upgrade their left-handed relief corps in the off-season, with the then-brilliant acquisition of Pedro Feliciano, enticing him to move across town from the Mets.
Feliciano had been a stellar left-handed relief specialist over the last several seasons in Queens, but in only his fourth outing of his first spring training as a Yankee, he experienced discomfort in his throwing shoulder. Unfortunately, doctors diagnosed him with a capsule tear in his shoulder, a serious injury which would require surgery that might cause him to miss the entire year.
Yankees' GM, Brian Cashman, lashed out in the media, criticizing the Mets for "abusing" Feliciano, saying the pitcher that had made at least 86 appearances in three consecutive years had been overworked. The comments only came across as sour grapes however, as the evidence of Feliciano's workload was there for everyone to see prior to the signing. If there was concern over the pitcher's workload, voicing those concerns after giving him a 2-year, $8 million contract seems like extremely poor timing.
No matter how hard the Yankees might wish, the past cannot be changed, so they must concern themselves with the present and immediate future if they truly hope to contend this year.
Once considered a strength for the 2011 Yankees, the bullpen, has found itself with question marks through the quarter mark of the season. The absence of Feliciano, the reverse splits of would-be left-handed specialist Logan, the ever-confounding Joba, and a bizarrely ineffective $35 million setup man in Rafael Soriano have all conspired to elevate tension in the late innings of Yankee games at this point in the year.
Soriano will likely right himself if his health cooperates. He has been a highly successful reliever for the majority of his career prior to donning pinstripes. Joba, though he can still be erratic, appears to have regained the missing fastball velocity that has eluded him in recent seasons. Even with his uneven results at times, he has been dominant at times as well, which has been encouraging.
It's entirely possible that Boone Logan might right himself and once again become the left-handed specialist in the pen that the Yankees need. After all, in 2010 he was highly effective, holding lefties to a .190 batting average with a .501 OPS, precisely the type of numbers you hope for in a lefty reliever.
However, regardless of his level of effectiveness, subduing the league's most potent lefties time and time again can be a difficult mission to accomplish alone, even for the best pitchers across baseball.
Imagine you have a critical game at Fenway, a close score in the bottom of the sixth inning, with Adrian Gonzalez batting with the bases loaded. Girardi makes the obvious move to Boone Logan who comes in, strikes out Gonzalez to preserve the lead. Great! Mission accomplished!
What happens when a similar scenario occurs again in the eighth inning? Do you hand the ball to Joba or Soriano and hope for the best?
This is not a unique scenario that we're envisioning. Critical at-bats can occur numerous times late in a game, and if your bullpen is not well-equipped to play match-ups with the opposing manager, you're going to lose the battle of wits more often than you'd like to.
Perhaps exacerbating the frustration of the situation, is that there are several former Yankee left-hander thriving around baseball. Michael Dunn of the Marlins, ironically traded away to Atlanta in exchange for Logan and two-time New York failure Javier Vazquez, is practically unhittable, dominating hitters on both sides of the plate. His 1.89 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 25 strikeouts in 19 innings appear rather appealing. Phil Coke, traded away to get Curtis Granderson, is holding lefties to .172 average and a .514 OPS. Randy Choate, also with Florida, has struck out 11 of the 19 left-handed batters he has faced, while allowing .211 OPS.
Hindsight is always 20/20, but in this case, it wasn't entirely difficult to envision a scenario in which the Yankees needed another lefty in the bullpen.
Of course, there aren't just left-handed relievers lying around waiting to be picked up by teams in need. Most effective lefties have been snatched up long before May 20.
However, teams are getting to a critical point in the year, at which they can better evaluate the reality of their goals for the 2011 season. Teams don't just suddenly become sellers at Memorial Day, but the time is getting nearer where a cellar-dweller may cut their losses and cash in on a valuable commodity within their ranks.
New York just watched as Boston snatched up recently-jettisoned lefty Franklin Morales, who was shipped out of Colorado for a player to be named. Morales is currently suffering the same bizarre splits as Logan, getting right-handed hitters out, but struggling against lefties. Boston is hoping that he reverts to his form of the last several seasons, when he was dominant against left-handed opponents.
To make room for Morales, Boston designated lefty reliever Hideki Okajima for assignment. It might be difficult for the Yankees to obtain him, as I'd expect Boston to take any other potential deal before allowing him to go to New York.
As previously stated, this early juncture makes it difficult to obtain a player in a trade, as no team wants to send a signal to its fans that they already feel they are out of the race.
Currently, only three teams sit more than six games off of their division lead. The Minnesota Twins, 11.5 games behind the division leading Indians, and the White Sox, eight games out, represent the two most attractive options due to their pitchers handling the rigors of pitching in the AL. However, both teams likely still want to gauge their chances before throwing in the towel so early in the season. Minnesota, though the furthest out, have dealt with a crippling wave of injuries and will hope to surge once their roster is slightly healthier.
Minnesota has a lefty dominating in their bullpen right now, but they are likely in no rush to move Glen Perkins, nor are they likely to want to help their primary nemesis, the Yankees. Perkins however, is a free agent after this year, so the Twins may move him later in the year if their chances in the central don't improve. His situation bears watching.
Chicago, with three lefties in their bullpen might seem a more likely potential partner, but with Matt Thornton and Will Ohman both struggling early, they aren't as attractive at the moment. If Thornton could be pried free at a reasonable cost, I could see the Yankees trying to bring his electric arm to the Bronx.
On the other side of the National League divide, the Houston Astros sit 10.5 games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central and could likely become a seller before long. They might be a potential target for other needs, however left-handed relief is not one of them. The Astros have no established left-handed relief arms that are displaying any amount of success so far in 2011.
For now, all the Yankees can do is hope that another team or two fall further out of their divisional race and look to cash in on valuable arms in their midst. They may have to weather the storm until then, as the time is not quite right to poach a talented arm from a struggling franchise.
You can bet that Brian Cashman and company are scouring baseball for an opportunity to strike. When a need becomes apparent, the Yankees are not typically slow to act. After the failings of both Damaso Marte and Pedro Feliciano to stay healthy and assume a prominent role, it is reasonable to assume the team is eager to fill that void as soon as possible.
Even if Boone Logan were performing the job adequately, he still cannot do it alone.