Monday, May 12, 2014

A Tight Knit Group

            Halfway through May, the AL East is prepping up to be close race throughout September and the new look 2014 Yankees have gelled together for the long haul ahead of them. With the influx of alot of big-priced free agents, a few small prayer pick-ups, and the return of injured champions from yesteryear, there was plenty of uncertainly of how this team would come together and respond. Despite only being two games above .500 and the loss of starter Ivan Nova for the rest of the year, the Yankees have met and surpassed all expectations.

            The number one (or #2) concern on most Yankee fans' minds had to be on how would Derek Jeter's legs hold-up after a miserable injury-plagued 2013. He's not exactly tearing the cover off the ball quite yet, but so far there's been no ill-effects from manning his usual shortstop position and he continues to make those smooth Jeter-esk plays in the field after some initial rust in early April. Also, as part of his farewell tour, he's started a collection of useless junk that destined to be burned in the basement of his huge Florida mansion someday.

            Another vital returning cog was the wrist ligaments of Mark Teixeira, who went the entire Spring Training without hitting a homerun. With the frequent amount of shifts he faces, he'll never hit above .260 again, but he was always counted on to hit at least 30 homers and drive in 100 or so RBIs. After a slow start himself, Tex seems to be on that pace as he's already slugged 7 homers in the young phase of this baseball season.

           With the familiars able to answer the bell, the next question was how would the new guys fill in. For starters(literally), Masahiro Tanaka has continued his winning ways from Japan and has been a dominating 5-0 with 58 strikeouts in 49 innings, and has gone deep into his games in all of his starts. He's most likely to face a defeat or two down the road, but the Yankee front office has to breath a sigh of relief that he's definitely no Kei Igawa, and this 25 year-old will be in pinstripes during the prime of his career. Not a one-trick pony who overthrows a fastball, Tanaka pitches with an artillery of weapons and consistently takes a bulldog mentality out onto the mound which hasn't been experienced in Yankeeland in quite some time.

             Ellsbury and the $153 million contract he received would have to fall next on the pecking order, and like Tanaka, so far he's been worth every penny. Perhaps not fully appreciated when only known as a visiting player when he was with the Red Sox, Yankee fans can now see that he's a "game-changer" type and the fact Cashman unloaded the coffers for him is beginning to make more and more sense. He hits lefties just the same as righties, he works counts, gets on base, steals, wrecks havoc on the base pads, applies pressure on the defense, and makes heart-breaking diving catches in centerfield. Girardi has tinkered with him hitting in other spots other than leadoff and he producers where ever he's placed. The fact he's no longer a Red Sox has stymied their offense to date - Boston has struggled to find a replacement for Ellsbury's presence at the top of their lineup. Ellsbury has a track record of getting hurt with the way he plays hard in the field, but as long as he's leading off in the lineup with Jeter, Beltran, Teixeira, Soriano, and McCann behind him; the Yankees should have John Sterling screaming alot this summer.

              The less-costing and less-risky acquisitions such as Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann have fit in fine, although McCann has been slow in the hitting department, but his main job of handling the pitching staff has been receiving great reviews. What GM Brian Cashman was going to need in is a few crap shoots to roll his way if he was to find a solution to the losses of Robinson Cano (for-ev-er) and Alex Rodriguez (2014). Once it was determined Eduardo Nunez wouldn't be able to make the defensive transition to 2B, nor play any other position with confidence, the Yanks felt it was time to say goodbye to their speedy talent. He was designated for assignment (booted), but then picked up by the Minnesota Twins. Perhaps with "big brother" Cano not around anymore, Cashman just wanted to clean house. In his place, Cashman uncovered a gem in Yangervis Solarte on the last day of camp. After spending the better part of eight seasons in the Twins and Rangers farm systems, Cashman picked him up on the free agent market. A second baseman who is also a switch-hitter and can play other infield positions such as third - much more sure-handed than Nunez. Although Cano is likely to win this race at the end, currently Solarte is hitting .315 with 2 homers and 20 RBIs compared to Cano's .295 with only 1 homerun and 19 RBIs with Seattle. Cashman also took a gamble on the often-injured Brian Roberts from Baltimore for a 1-year deal. Also a switch hitter who plays good defense at 2B and has pop in his bat. Both free-agents have soften the blow of losing Cano at 2B and not enough credit can go to Cashman for uncovering these type of players, like Lyle Overbay in 2013, and he's unfairly associated by fans and the media with handing out big money deals over finding good talent for low prices.

             If Girardi could have his way and nobody gets hurt, he would prefer having Solarte at 3B, Roberts at 2B, and use Kelly Johnson as a pinch-hitter off the bench. Ichiro has taken his part-time bench player role in stride and has come back much more sharp than he did in his flat 2013 campaign.

            More Cashman success has to be pointed towards the Yankee bullpen with 'Life after Mo'. Going with the young guns from the farm system (Adam Warren, Dellin Bentances, David Phelps, Preston Claiborne) instead of bringing in a string of free-agents, and shifting Shawn Kelley and David Robertson to the 8th and 9th innings; the bullpen overall has been very productive. In fact, Adam Warren has turned into a bit of a flamethrower in the 7th inning - similar to the work Phil Hughes did out of the Yankee pen in 2009 as the 8th inning guy. As the season wears on, it might not be a big surprise to see Warren take Kelley's spot in the 8th. Though David Robertson's "Sweet Home Alabama" entrance isn't nearly as excited as Rivera's "Enter Sandman", so far Robertson has converted all his save opportunities.

            With all those reasons to be optimistic, not everything is wine and roses with the roster. Within a very short timespan the Yankees had three starters go down. Michael Pineda, who was pitching great in the cold weather for some strange reason, got caught multiple times with pine tar on his body - the second brazenly displayed on his neck for the world to see. Up to that point, he was pitching great and it was looking like that trade two years ago for Jesus Montero had been a genius move. It still might be, but Pineda was hit with a 10-game suspension, but he also complained of back pain during the same time, so who knows for sure when he'll be back. Ivan Nova, who desperately needed to have a consistent season under his belt for 2014, caught the rash of Tommy John related pitching injuries that has been going around MLB recently and encountered a tear in his elbow. Nova had to go under the knife, so he's done for this season and probably part of 2015 as well. The biggest danger has to be the status of CC Sabathia. It was clear going in Sabathia isn't the "ace" anymore who can go 7 or 8 innings of 1-run or less baseball. Even though there's a bunch of years left on his contract the Yankee front office has to be squirming about, they would accept him as a #2 or #3 type to go 6 innings and try to keep it 3-4 runs for the other team. For the most part Sabathia has been that, but he's been blitzed time and time again by these big rally innings that get away from him. Unable to prevent the big inning, Sabathia's record is 3-4 and he's pitching to a 5.28 ERA compared to Tanaka's 2.57. Even worse, Sabathia had to be placed on the DL for knee pain in which he'll likely have to have fluid drained from it. This was an issue he had to play with last year, and it makes everyone wonder if this is going to be a tale on Sabathia moving forward: barely a .500 pitcher who goes 6 innings with a 5.00 ERA and is on and off the DL.

            Luckily, Tanaka has picked up alot of the slack and Kuroda has finally woken up after a slow start to the season. For the short term, Girardi has been able to slot in Vidal Nuno and David Phelps into the rotation to make up for Nova and Pineda's losses. The Yanks have to hope Pineda's back discomfort isn't a big issue so he could slip right back in CC's vacant spot. Even with Nuno and Phelps holding down the fort, their arms aren't stretched out enough to go too deep into games, so that's going to tax the bullpen sooner or later. Cashman brought in an old reliable face in Afredo Aceves to help provide some relief out of the pen, but a move for a starter might be needed in a couple of months if the Sabathia and Pineda injuries don't go away. The rest of the team looks very solid in a highly-competitive AL East, but there's no reason why they couldn't win the division crown or somehow slip into the playoffs at the very least. The other teams in the division have just as many or even more issues than the 2014 Yankees do.

Position: 19-17 (2nd Place AL East - 1.5 games behind 1st Place Baltimore Orioles) 

- Masahiro Tanaka is the real deal!
- Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira have come back healthy in 2014 
- The big-named free agents (Ellsbury-Beltran-McCann-Tanaka) have been tremendous 
- Solarte has been a rags-to-riches story and has emerged as one of the team leaders in RBIs
- The bullpen has been reliable and Robertson has transitioned smoothly into the closer's role.

- Michael Pineda was suspended for 10-game after using pine tar. 
- Hiroki Kuroda hasn't been able to string together positive consecutive starts 
- Jeter's batting .254 for someone is normally around .300
- Brian McCann hasn't gotten his homerun stroke going yet

- CC Sabahia has been rocky to start the season and needs to be placed on the DL for knee pain. 
- Ivan Nova needed Tommy John surgery and is done for this season. 

            Perhaps a final examination into the departure of Robinson Cano from the Yankees should include the opinion of Mariano Rivera. In the book "The Closer: My Story", Cano's former teammate states he would rather have a gritty player like Dustin Pedroia on his team over Cano. The quiet and humble Rivera surprised many by revealing his opinion, but it can't be overlooked that Rivera isn't the only Yankee who felt Cano didn't give 100% at all times. For Rivera to come out to say that, its pretty evident that was the general consensus about Cano in the Yankee locker room and up in the front office. So when it came contract time, the Yankees had to offer him something for the great numbers on the back of his baseball card and the gold-glove defense, otherwise they would've been crucified by the fans and media. So they offered Cano a below-market value deal (compared to other players) knowing full well Cano wouldn't accept it. This way the Yankees don't look like the bad guys because they offered $175 million. They played the same game with Joe Torre after the 2007 season. They had to offer him something to save face with the fans and media, but they also wanted to get rid of him. So their offer was a 1-year deal at $5 million, plus incentives, knowing full well he wanted at least 2 years so he wouldn't be a lame-duck manager in 2008. Torre rejected the deal and the Yankees came out looking innocent and got the guy Hal, Hank, and Randy Levine wanted in Girardi. They played it the same way with Cano; they innocently moved him out of town and made him look like a soulless money-grabber by leaving him on the market for Seattle to wow him with $240 million. The Yankee fans fell right into line with the company motto, plus they know what they saw with their own eyes for all these years. On Cano's return, no video tribute was played for him, despite his nine productive years in pinstripes, and Yankee fans hit him heavy with boos and negative reactions.

           .......Rivera closed one more game for the Yankee front office.......