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Is the Yankees’ Decision to Bench But Not Release Jorge Posada A Luxury They Can Really Afford?

by Wendy Thurm on August 8, 2011

In the final game of the three-game weekend series against the Red Sox, Yankees manager Joe Girardi penciled in Eduardo Nunez as the third baseman and Eric Chavez as the Designated Hitter. The decision was notable because the Yankees faced right-handed pitcher Josh Beckett. For most of the season, Jorge Posada served as the Yankees’ DH against right-handed pitchers.

No more.

Girardi’s decision, we learned from Joel Sherman of the New York Post, would apply not only in Sunday’s game against the rival Red Sox, but likely for the remainder of the season.

Jorge Posada–the five-time All-Star and Silver Slugger catcher, and a keystone of the Yankees since 1997–has been relegated to the bench.  According to Sherman, Girardi told Posada: “We’re going with our best lineups” going forward.  Were it not for his history and legacy with the Yankees, Sherman wrote, the team likely would release Posada, like the Mariners did with Jack Cust and the Pirates with Lyle Overbay.

Joe Pawlikowksi of River Ave Blues and Fangraphs analyzed the Posada move in both fora today and questioned whether Posada’s benching is the best move for the Yankees, given the projected offensive output of Posada, Chavez and Andruw Jones (who often is the DH against left-handed pitchers) for the remainder of the season and the limitations of playing through August with, essentially, a 24-man roster. Pawlikowski wonders if the Yankees are trying to make the situation so unpalatable for Posada that he will ask for his release or retire.  Read Pawlikowski’s takes here (River Ave Blues) and here (Fangraphs).

Over at Baseball Nation, Rob Neyer picks up on Sherman’s reporting and Pawlikowski’s analysis and suggests that with the Yankees’ league-leading run differential and near lock on the making the playoffs, the team from the Bronx can afford to be gracious toward Posada without jeopardizing the Yankees’ run to the post-season.

That may be so, if all the Yankees care about is making the post-season.

I assume, however, that the Yankees strongly prefer to win the American League East, leaving the wild-card spot to the Red Sox. Whoever wins the AL East is likely to have home-field advantage throughout the American League playoffs. The Red Sox at 70-43 and the Yankees at 69-44 lead the race for the best American League record over the Rangers (64-51), Angels (63-52), Tigers (61-53) and Indians (56-56). Moreover, whoever wins the AL East will likely play the winner of the American League Central–either the Tigers, Indians or the long-shot White Sox.

Yes, the Tigers have Justin Verlander and yes, the Yankees only went 3-4 against the Tigers this year. But wouldn’t the Yankees prefer to have home-field advantage against the Tigers in a five-games series rather than face Jered Weaver & Dan Haren at Angels Stadium in the first two games of the ALDS?  Sure, CC Sabathia will pitch Game 1 against Weaver, but who will pitch Game 2 against Haren? Ivan Nova?

What’s most interesting to me about the current situation with Posada is whether the Yankees would have made the same decision–to bench but not release Posada–if MLB had already expanded the playoffs to five teams, as has been proposed. Although the details of an expanded playoff system are yet to be resolved (i.e. agreed to by the league and the players), it seems inevitable that playoff expansion will happen in the next year or two. The most likely scenario has the three division winners in each league with a first round “bye” while the two teams in each league with the next best records become wild cards. Those two wild card teams in each league then play each other–in either a one-game playoff or three-game playoff–with the winner going on to the League Divisional Series.

What if expanded playoffs were in effect now? Wouldn’t the Yankees be fighting as hard as possible to win the American League East? Surely the Yankees wouldn’t want to be relegated to a one-game or three-game playoff just to get to the League Division Series. Not with their current starting rotation. Would the Yankees have the luxury to be gracious to Posada (if that’s, in fact, what’s going on now) if they were fighting to avoid the wild card spot?

We’ll never know the answers to these Posada questions. But someday the Yankees may face this very decision with Derek Jeter.  And that will be very, very interesting.

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