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Yankees are holding it together masterfully

Despite injuries to several key players, the team has been able to stay in the American League East race thanks to contributions from unexpected sources.

June 22, 2013|By Kevin Baxter
  • New York Yankees' Vernon Wells hits a ground-rule double to drive in three runs during the seventh inning against the Tampa Bay Rays.
New York Yankees' Vernon Wells hits a ground-rule double to drive… (Frank Franklin II / Associated…)

When Don Mattingly and Joe Girardi faced off at Yankee Stadium last week, the two managers must have felt as if they were looking into a mirror. Consider the similarities:

• Both are former Yankees players.

• Both are managing teams — Girardi the Yankees, Mattingly the Dodgers — with big expectations and the biggest payrolls in their respective leagues.

• And both have disabled lists that read like All-Star teams with the Yankees playing without Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, Alex Rodriguez, Kevin Youkilis and Mark Teixeira, and the Dodgers without Josh Beckett, Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford and Chad Billingsley.

But that's where the similarities end. Because while the Dodgers started Saturday 12 games below .500 and at the bottom of the National League West, the Yankees, who spent 20 days atop the American League East this season, began the day seven games above .500 and only 31/2 games back of division-leading Boston Red Sox.

"We've never said anything about treading water. We wanted to win series," Girardi said of managing through the injuries. "I always feel that your job is to manage the club that you have and try to get the most out of them. And I try to do that."

Which isn't to say it has been easy. Girardi has used six first baseman, five shortstops and tried five players, including outfielder Vernon Wells, at third base. And still the injuries keep coming. Shortly after the team announced last week that Youkilis would need surgery for a herniated disk, Teixeira went back on the DL with the same wrist injury that sidelined him 53 games at the start of the season.

"Our depth has really been tested," Girardi said.

But so has the rest of the organization, which has rallied to keep the Yankees in contention.

"It's a testament to a lot of different departments kind of coming together," said Billy Eppler, the Yankees' assistant general manager for pro personnel. "So much of this entire marathon of 162 games is just managing depth. You know storms are coming. You know the ship's going to teeter back and forth.

"It's just trying to make sure you have the right sails up to kind of steady yourselves in rough water."

The team knew it would begin the season without Jeter and Rodriguez so it began planning for that in the winter by signing Youkilis as a free agent. Then when Granderson broke his arm on his first plate appearance of spring training and Teixeira injured his right wrist nine days later, New York had to scramble again.

In the good old days the free-spending Yankees would simply have gone out and acquired whatever big-name superstar was available. Those days are gone, so the Yankees turned instead to their scouting and player development departments, which convinced the team to trade for Wells and sign journeyman Lyle Overbay on the same day only a week before the season opened.

Wells had become a fifth outfielder with the Angels, who were so motivated to move him they paid the Yankees more than $28 million to make a deal. Overbay, meanwhile, had been discarded by the Red Sox, his fourth organization in three years.

And while neither has set the world on fire in New York — Wells is hitting .221 with 10 home runs and Overbay is batting .248 — the frugal moves bought the team time with Wells starting 60 times in left field for Granderson and Overbay filling in for Teixeira as the everyday first baseman.

"There was this notion that Vernon Wells was getting old. We could rule that out because we saw that his run speed and his bat speed were the exact same as they had been three years ago," Eppler said. "We knew Overbay was still striking the baseball hard. So there were things that we could kind of measure both from a quantitative standpoint as well as having scouts in the stands either backing up or refuting that information.

"It was a collective effort, no doubt."

But what has really kept the Yankees in contention is a pitching staff that has the fifth-best earned-run average in the AL. Though New York has been without Andy Pettitte, Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes at times this season, David Phelps and Vidal Nuno, called up from the minors, have stepped in to pick up some of the slack. And the bullpen has been spectacular with 12 victories and 27 saves in 30 tries.

Contrast that with the Dodgers, whose minor league fill-ins Matt Magill and Stephen Fife are 1-4 with a 4.88 ERA in 11 starts and the bullpen leads the majors with 17 losses and 15 blown saves.

However, reality is beginning to catch up with the Yankees, who have a losing record in June. The team hopes to get catcher Francisco Cervelli back before the All-Star break and Granderson shortly after. But it has no idea when Jeter and Rodriguez will return, Youkilis is out until at least September and Teixeira's injury is beginning to look more chronic than fleeting.

That could leave Eppler and the rest of the front office in a panic as next month's trade deadline approaches. Do they wait, fingers crossed and prayer beads in hand, for their All-Stars to return, then hope they're healthy enough to contribute? Or do they reach into their deep farm system, or their pockets, to shore up the roster, possibly mortgaging their future?

"Trust me, that will get thrown around in the room when we get everyone together at the trade deadline," Eppler said. "Is what we can do externally better than what we perceive that we should be getting back off the disabled list? I'm hopeful that July brings a lot of gifts for us."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11

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