Yankees' Merrill can still salvage season by testing youngsters

August 13, 1991|By Jack Curry | Jack Curry,New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- There are less than two months left in the season and a stretch of 16 losses in the last 22 games has toppled the New York Yankees to fourth place. The Toronto Blue Jays may yet stumble, but New York is not the team likely to catch them.

The Yankees should use the remnants of the schedule to evaluate the club for next year.

Though manager Stump Merrill knows this, he resists. Maybe flirting with the .500 mark and creeping within 8 1/2 games of first place in late July altered his senses.

Before the Yankees swept a doubleheader from the Detroit Tigers Sunday, Merrill adamantly said he was not tossing in the pine-tar rag this soon.

"Let's stay away from that," said Merrill, when asked what the club planned to do over the last 53 games.

It is a tribute to Merrill's positive attitude that he retains hope for this year, but his hopes could be futile.

The Yankees were 10 1/2 games out of first place in the American League East after Sunday's games, and a fourth-grader could figure out how slim their chances are of hurdling three teams.

Even if they uncork a phenomenal streak of 36-17, Toronto simply must play .500 to beat them.

The Yankees seem certain to eclipse their 67 victories from last year and that would qualify the season as a success.

The infusion of Bernie Williams, Pat Kelly and the three rookie starters has added intrigue and spark to what was a dreary team.

Merrill can go further with youth by making a few basic and bold decisions in the coming weeks.

Play Hensley Meulens every day. It is time to see if the most touted youngster this spring can provide the Yankees with a booming bat. He hit 26 home runs and drove in 96 runs at Class AAA Columbus last year, but his numbers have been thin in the majors. Why? The Yankees dubbed Meulens the starting left fielder, then turned the position into a platoon with Mel Hall in the first month of the season.

Meulens concedes his confidence has eroded, and it is time to build it up.

With Jesse Barfield on the 15-day disabled list, it would have been easy to give Meulens 60 straight times at bat.

But Merrill opted to start left-handed hitting Pat Sheridan in eight of the first 12 games Barfield missed. Now they must play Meulens every day, even against the tough right-handers. What does Merrill have to lose? "This is the time," Meulens said, "when I really have to go out and get it."

Leave Bernie Williams in center field when Roberto Kelly is healthy.

Roberto Kelly, remember him? It seems as if half the season has slipped away as Kelly nurses a nagging wrist injury. Williams has moved into the leadoff spot smoothly and played a decent outfield while Kelly has missed 33 games.

There is no reason to move Williams when Kelly returns, possibly later this week. He is a solid leadoff man with a .372 on-base percentage and has reached base in 28 of 32 games. The Yankees know what Kelly can do while they have to see what else Williams can do.

Use Kelly as a designated hitter or in right field. "It might be a nice problem for them," said Williams, "but it's a tough situation for us."

Move Greg Cadaret back to the bullpen when Pascual Perez, who is scheduled to return to the rotation Friday, is healthy. Though Cadaret has won three straight as a starter, the Yankees need him as a reliever.

It is no coincidence the bullpen declined soon after Cadaret was lifted and they need to know if Perez is ever going to be more than an animated prankster who collects $1.9 million while pitching three times a year. "Whatever they do, they do," said Cadaret.

How about four young pitchers in the rotation?

After Perez and Scott Sanderson, the Yanks have room for three pitchers in the rotation, and they will use 25-year-old Dave Eiland and rookies Jeff Johnson and Wade Taylor because Scott Kamieniecki, another rookie, is on the disabled list with a strained muscle in his back. Kamieniecki is expected back Sunday.

When he returns, why not leave all four youngsters in the rotation? It would be intriguing to let each of them start in the final weeks of the year, but it seems doubtful. Sanderson is the ace and is being paid too much to take a powder and Perez has to remain in the rotation because he is a mystery.

Another option is a six-man rotation, but it would destroy work schedules so the young rotation will probably not happen. With a team that should be happily pointing toward next year, it would not be a bad idea.

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