David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
BALTIMORE - Brian Cashman's unabashed love for "big, hairy monsters" has served him well over the years in establishing the Yankees as the bully of the American League East.
This season, however, too many of those monsters are playing for his division rivals. And the ones whom Cashman has relied on are spending most of this year on the disabled list -- or not coming back at all.
That's a frightening scenario for the general manager, and with the AL East again looking like the Gold's Gym of the majors, the Yankees could end up getting muscled out of contention. The top two homer-hitting teams in baseball -- the Orioles (115) and Blue Jays (103) -- reside in the East with the Rays (93) and Red Sox (86) in the AL's top seven.
The stripped-down Yankees, now more accustomed to absorbing beatings rather than delivering them, ranked 11th with 81 home runs through 81 games. In Sunday night's 4-2 loss to the Orioles, the long ball bit them again as Baltimore used three swings for three runs on solo shots by Manny Machado, Chris Davis and Nate McLouth. Robinson Cano did go deep for his first homer in 51 at-bats, but the Yankees managed to cobble together only one other run.
"If those balls stay in the yard," Chris Stewart said of the Orioles' brawling attack, "it's a whole different ballgame."
Wishful thinking. The Yankees are the ones feeling fenced in as most of this team's power has been siphoned away by injuries -- and they might not get enough back before it's too late. Mark Teixeira is gone for the season. As for the hurting players still expected to put on pinstripes this season, only Curtis Granderson, mending his second broken bone in four months, is a safe bet to provide some pop after a relatively simple healing process for his pinkie finger.
"You know what you have," Joe Girardi said. "And you have to deal with it."
Staying competitive in the division with this group is going to be a problem. Look at the past decade or so. Since 2000, the Yankees have depended on the home run to win 10 of the last 12 AL East titles. They led the division in home runs 10 times -- tying the Rays with 180 in 2008, the only year the Yankees missed the playoffs -- and averaged 218 homers during that stretch.
Dating to 2009, their last World Series title, the Yankees slugged 244, 201, 222 and 245 homers in consecutive seasons.
Obviously, they also pitched well to fuel that dominant run, but the constant threat to go deep can't be overestimated. It's been at the core of the Yankees' dynasty, and now their AL East rivals use that weapon against them on a daily basis.
"I think you have to have the ability to hit home runs," Girardi said. "If you're not doing that, it's hard to score five and six runs a night."
Girardi has witnessed it firsthand this season. In their last 12 road games, they've hit a total of three home runs. Their record in that stretch is 3-9. The Yankees failed to go deep in 33 of their first 81 games -- equaling their total for all of last season.
Even with the Orioles sweeping the Yankees at home for the first time since 2005, Buck Showalter isn't the kind of manager to admire his team's flexing. He remains wary of his former club despite its feeble appearance, and he talked about having their "noses bloodied" by the Yankees too many times in the past.
"The team that will be standing at the end will be the team that pitches the best," he said. "That's the way it always is."
At the moment, pitching is what's keeping the Yankees afloat. Entering Sunday night, their 3.86 team ERA was the best in the AL East, followed closely by the Red Sox's 3.91. The order was flipped for starters, with Boston's 3.81 ERA on top and the Yankees next at 4.09.
As Showalter suggested, the team with the biggest, scariest monsters doesn't necessarily win. But history has shown that they've helped the Yankees, who could wind up getting mauled by them instead.