4/9/2013 10:45 A.M. ET
Subs for sidelined stars playing key roles
By Paul Casella / MLB.com
Given that the Yankees started the season with four All-Star-level players on the disabled list, it didn't turn many heads when they dropped four of their first five games.
A key reason, however, for those losses -- and for notching back-to-back wins in their two games since -- might come as a bit of a surprise.
The veteran reinforcements -- Travis Hafner, Vernon Wells, Kevin Youkilis and Lyle Overbay -- along with shortstop Eduardo Nunez, have more than carried their own weight after being called on to replace the 32 combined All-Star appearances of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson.
In fact, entering play Tuesday, it could be argued those five fill-ins have actually put up better numbers than their banged-up counterparts turned in through seven games a season ago. Albeit a small sample size, the five replacements are hitting a collective .324 (35-for-108) with five home runs and 19 RBIs this season, while the star-studded quartet on the DL hit .252 (29-for-115) with four homers and nine RBIs during New York's 4-3 start in 2012.
"Baseball is a lot of individual battles. When you're up to the plate, you're by yourself; and on the mound, you're kind of by yourself," said Hafner, who's hitting .391 after going 2-for-3 with a homer, four RBIs and three runs scored to pace the Bombers' 11-6 win in his return to Cleveland on Monday. "I can see for like double-play combinations, as far as the team jelling and stuff like that, but we've got guys who have been around a long time. It's a good clubhouse. It seems like everybody knows everybody from somewhere before."
Of the numerous teams, such as the Yanks, starting the season with All-Star-caliber players on the disabled list, some haven't missed a beat (think the Braves without catcher Brian McCann) over the season's opening week, while others (San Diego minus Chase Headley) might be a bit more desperate to return to full health.
It was no secret the Padres would have a difficult time replacing rising star Headley after the third baseman fractured the tip of his left thumb on March 17. Headley, who hit .286 with 31 homers and 115 RBIs, won National League Silver Slugger and Gold Glove Awards in 2012 while finishing fifth in NL MVP Award voting.
Though top prospect Jedd Gyorko has provided a viable option at third base, hitting .261 with three doubles and three RBIs, San Diego's offense has suffered from a noticeable lack of pop. The Padres enter play Tuesday with only 14 runs -- including just one home run -- through their first six games.
Gyorko, naturally a third baseman, switched to second base in the Minors last year largely because of Headley's third-base presence at the Major League level. However, with Cody Ransom going 0-for-6 in his brief time at third this year, manager Bud Black has opted to start Gyorko four times at third base and just twice at second.
"It's been good. It's pretty much been what I expected. It's baseball. You're going to have your ups and downs," Gyorko said. "It's been a learning experience, and you learn from each game."
Similarly, their NL West counterparts in Los Angeles have struggled to find a suitable replacement for All-Star shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who is also sidelined with a thumb injury. Ramirez, expected to miss the first two months, tore a ligament in his right thumb while diving to make a play in the World Baseball Classic.
Instead of calling on Dee Gordon, who missed the second half of last season with a torn thumb ligament of his own, the Dodgers handed the starting shortstop role to Justin Sellers out of the gate. Los Angeles went with Sellers for defensive purposes -- partially excusing his 1-for-16 start to the season at the plate -- but he also made a pair of costly throwing errors in one of the Dodgers' two losses.
While the Dodgers sit at 4-2, thanks in large part to superb pitching, they will likely need to see increased production from the shortstop position to continue their winning ways between now and whenever Ramirez returns.
The Cardinals, another NL postseason hopeful, are hoping Mitchell Boggs can handle an increased role with closer Jason Motte continuing to deal with right elbow soreness. After squandering his first save opportunity in last week's 16-inning loss to the D-backs, Boggs converted his next chance on Saturday to become the first Cards pitcher aside from Motte to record a save since 2011.
"For me personally, it was good to go out there and have a good inning," said Boggs, who was tagged for seven runs (six earned) while walking four and recording just one out in a non-save situation Monday against the Reds. "I don't harp on my good outings, so there's no reason for me to do that with my bad ones. You try to learn as much as you can from all of them and be better in the next one."
Without a clear timetable for Motte's return, Boggs' ability to adapt and learn from each outing could ultimately play a deciding factor in St. Louis' playoff hopes.
Back in the American League, the Red Sox are looking to reignite postseason aspirations of their own. Boston sits atop the AL East with its 5-2 start, despite playing without eight-time All-Star David Ortiz due to ongoing inflammation in his right heel.
Part of the reason for the Red Sox's success in spite of Ortiz's absence has been the fill-in play of Daniel Nava, who has started two games at DH, one at first base and, most recently, one in left field. Nava's three-run homer accounted for all of Boston's runs in Monday's 3-1 victory, and the 30-year-old is now 6-for-12 (.500) with two homers and six RBIs in four games this season.
It's that type of play from unexpected sources that teams like the Red Sox will need to stay in the postseason mix as they wait for some of their biggest stars to eventually make their season debuts.
"[The goal is] to win. Bottom line," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi when asked if the goal was simply to keep the club afloat until his stars are healthy. "I've been asked this question a few times. It's to win games. I still believe we have a team that can go out and play well and win games. That's our goal."