David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Despite the calm exterior and the daily affirmations, you know a team is creeping closer to the edge when members of the coaching staff begin holding pregame news conferences.
That moment arrived for the Yankees on Saturday when hitting coach Alan Cockrell stood outside the dugout at Fenway Park and talked with reporters about a team-wide offensive slump that has defied explanation.
But fielding questions is not the same thing as providing answers, and we left the Cockrell chat feeling no different about the Yankees’ shocking aversion to crossing the plate.
From our experience, very few coaches are able to suddenly fix what’s ailing an entire lineup or pitching staff. There is no cure-all, no universal antidote.
So Cockrell did what any coach would do in a similar circumstance. Preach patience, insist that no one is panicking. Chalk it up to baseball being baseball. “You can do everything right,” he said, “and have nothing to show for it.”
Or you can do what the Yankees did later that night in falling to the Red Sox, 8-0, for their fourth straight loss and eighth in 11 games: Nothing at all.
Eventually, there comes the not-so-small matter of accountability, and if the Yankees, a $225-million team, continue winning games at a .364 clip, something has to give. Fairly or not, Cockrell’s job would be near the top of the list, only because that’s how this usually works.
Otherwise, the Yankees really don’t have a lot of options as the calendar flips to May. Joe Girardi is signed through 2017, so it’s a bit early to consider the manager in jeopardy. But this is an underachieving team by any measure, and sending out the same names, in roughly the same alignments, is not producing results.
“Track record tells you it’s going to turn around,” Girardi said after the Yankees slipped to six games under .500 (8-14) for the first time since 2007. “I’m not in the business of losing faith in them. That’s not my job.”
The Yankees are now the lowest scoring team in the majors (74 runs) and the worst with runners in scoring position (.192). That’s not necessarily Cockrell’s fault. But he’s the department head, so ultimately the woeful production ends up being his responsibility. After last night’s loss, the tiny visitors’ clubhouse was silent. No conversation. Just players dressing and leaving. “The approach is there,” Carlos Beltran said. “But the energy and everything else is not working.”
Kevin Long was booted from the Bronx for the Yankees’ brutal slide to end the 2014 season. Since Long took over the same role in Flushing, the Mets made it to the World Series in his first season and are destroying the baseball lately in winning eight straight and 13 of 15.
That’s not all Long’s doing, of course. He’s got some established names under his tutelage and a bright young star in Michael Conforto. So does Cockrell — but his stable of older sluggers looks to be on a rapid decline. And where is the Yankees’ version of Conforto?
On the disabled list. There’s little doubt that Brian Cashman would have found a way to get Greg Bird up with the Yankees by now if the first-base prospect wasn’t already on the DL recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. We knew that was a bad break right before spring training, but mostly because the Yankees lost their insurance policy for Mark Teixeira. Evidently, Bird was far more important.
So with Bird gone until ’17, is there anyone else to provide a spark? Not really, unless the Yankees are more concerned than they’re leading us to believe.
Aaron Judge went 2-for-5 with his third homer Saturday for Triple-A Scranton, but his .287 average comes with 27 strikeouts in 87 at-bats.
Cashman signed Nick Swisher to be another Teixeira safety net in Bird’s absence, and he could always toss him into the mix for the sake of stirring things up. Frankly, we’re not sure how much Swisher would help after hitting a combined .196 last season for the Indians and Braves. For what it’s worth, he is batting .340 (17-for-50) with three homers in 13 games since joining Scranton.
Beyond those two, there’s Rob Refsnyder, who’s not hitting (.218) and failed to show he was capable of handling third base before his demotion. That eliminates him as a possible sub for Chase Headley. Former Met Cesar Puello, a righthanded hitter, went 3-for-4 to raise his average to .391 in nine games. Ben Gamel is batting .321, but he’s another lefty-hitting outfielder.
Then again, if the Yankees are that desperate for help from Scranton this early, they’re in bigger trouble than we thought.