Last night's 2-0 loss to the Blue Jays might very well have been the back-breaker. Yes, there have been wilder comebacks than erasing a 3.5-game deficit with 11 games to play, but I digress. The Yankees have had their chances these last few days to make up some serious ground in the Wild Card race, but have failed to make a move and it is costing them their season. A reason for this is due to the ineptitude of Chris Stewart and Ichiro Suzuki.
Chris Stewart, who was acquired from the Giants last spring for reliever George Kontos, did an alright job in a backup catcher's role last season. He hit .241/.292/.319 with a 65 wRC+ in 157 plate appearances while playing good, but not great, defense. Again, for a backup catcher, this is certainly something you can live with, but definitely not something that you would want from a regular, everyday catcher.
Last summer Ichiro was brought in to replace Brett Gardner, and, for someone who had been on the steep decline since the start of 2011, performed as well as anyone could have hoped. The then 38-year-old Ichiro hit .322/.340/.454 with a 114 wRC+ in 240 plate appearances. He hit .261/.288/.353 in Seattle before joining the Yankees last year and hit .272/.310/.335 the season before that. While struggling like that at an advanced age, one would have thought that his two-plus month run with the Yankees last summer was just a fluke and it would have been understandable if they had let him walk during the winter.
Instead of accepting what those two had done last year and looked for upgrades, the Yankees voluntarily decided to stick with what they had and hope for best. For some reason, the Yankees decided to bring Ichiro back on a, not one year, but two-year deal. Two years! Two! This is for someone who sucked the previous year and a half and was nearing 40 years of age. Stewart, who was going to be back anyway, was slated to split time with Francisco Cervelli entering the season. However, before the latter broke his hand, the former started to lose at-bats as the season progressed, but that doesn't matter now. Brian Cashman wanted to keep Russell Martin on a one-year deal and sign Nate Schierholtz to play right field, but ownership overruled him and decided to re-sign Ichiro while punting at the catcher position. Maybe let the GM do his job next time around instead of stepping in and screwing things up.
Of course Stewart and Ichiro aren't the only reasons the Yankees are where they're at right now, but they're certainly a part of it, and it's especially annoying because there were better options that could have been had without putting too much damage on the wallet. Unfortunately there's nothing they can do about Martin, or Schierholtz, or any other catcher or right fielder that could have contributed more than what Ichiro and Stewart have done. Instead, there are in-house options they should look to, and that's Austin Romine (or J.R. Murphy) and Zoilo Almonte.
To be fair, the Yankees might have pulled the plug on Chris Stewart. Before last night's game, Joe Girardi originally had Romine in his lineup before scratching him in favor of Stewart a few hours before first pitch because the former was still recovering from his concussion. This is significant because 1.) Andy Pettitte was pitching yesterday and Stewart had appeared to be his personal catcher, and 2.) Monday was an off-day, so Stewart already had a day to rest. We'll find out if in fact Romine becomes the regular catcher once he's healthy. At the same time, though, the Yankees could, and probably should, play J.R. Murphy instead of Stewart. I didn't see last Saturday's game against the Red Sox live, which was Murphy's first career Major League start behind the plate, but I watched the replay and he didn't look too bad back there. He should be given a shot.
Ichiro, on the other hand, continues to get the starting nod as the regular right fielder. Looking at it from an Ichiro playing time standpoint, the Brett Gardner injury sure hasn't helped matters, but playing Zoilo Almonte would be the wiser choice despite Gardy's injury. This wouldn't be the first time Zoilo took the starting reins from a regular; he took the starting job from Vernon Wells earlier in the season and did relatively well before slumping a bit and injuring his ankle. Zoilo for Ichiro is a move that needs to be made.
One sign of a possible change at catcher and right field may have came last night, as Girardi said these final 11 games are "darn close" to must-wins. He didn't say anything concrete in regards to making a change at the two positions, but with desperate times come desperate measures and he could be sleeping on the idea. J.R. Murphy, Austin Romine, and Zoilo Almonte all could be pieces of the Yankees' longterm future. Chris Stewart and Ichiro are both, sadly, under contract for next year and will be part of the short-term future, but have clearly shown they do not deserve regular roles on a team that has their postseason chances hanging by a thread. The younger guys need to be given a chance.