2014 Season Review: The Captain

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

As the Yankees fell further out of the postseason race this summer, the more the 2014 season became about Derek Jeter. The Yankees long-time captain announced in Spring Training that he had decided to retire after the season, not because the ankle and leg injuries that hampered him throughout 2013 made him realize his body wasn’t capable of doing what it once did, but because he “just felt like this was the right time.”

I don’t think it was surprising Jeter decided to retire this year. That isn’t the unexpected part. The unexpected part was that he announced it on Facebook. Who knew Derek Jeter used Facebook? The man managed to go his entire 20-year career in New York with zero controversy because he avoided things like Facebook. Anyway, the Facebook announcement came a few days before the start of Spring Training, and his big press conference followed a week later.

“This is not a retirement press conference. I still have a season to play. I feel good. This has nothing to do with how I feel. Physically I feel great and I’m looking forward to the season,” said Jeter that afternoon in mid-February. “Parts of 20 seasons I’ve played in New York and 23 counting the Minor Leagues. So I think I’ve done it long enough. I’m looking forward to doing other things in my life. This is a difficult job. I put everything into it each and every year. It’s not a six-month season. It’s 12 months. Again, I’m looking forward to other things. Not yet. But the idea of doing other things is what I’m looking forward to.”

Jeter’s final season was both memorable and forgettable, if that makes sense. Let’s review, starting with the forgettable stuff to get it out of the way.

The On-Field Performance

The 2014 season was, by far, the worst full season of Jeter’s career. He did stay healthy and appear in 145 games, but those 145 games featured a .256/.304/.313 (73 wRC+) batting line and only 24 extra-base hits. Among the 146 qualified hitters in baseball, Jeter had the fourth highest ground ball rate (61.6%) while ranking 140th in wRC+ and 145th in ISO. Only Ben Revere managed to hit for less power (.057 vs. .055 ISO).

Unlike the last few seasons, Jeter had no impact against left-handed pitchers, putting up a .244/.289/.304 (66 wRC+) batting line against southpaws and a .262/.309/.317 (76 wRC+) line against righties. He also hit .212/.293/.250 (56 wRC+) in high-leverage situations. Against pitches measured at 95 mph and above, Jeter hit .167 with a 0.021 ISO, both the sixth lowest marks in baseball. Teams routinely brought in hard-throwing relievers to face Derek in key situations and they buried him, hence his performance in high-leverage spots.

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

And yet, because he’s Derek Jeter, he routinely hit second in the lineup. In fact, only seven hitters had more plate appearances in the top two spots of the lineup this year. When asked about dropping Jeter to a lower spot in the batting order during a mid-summer slump, Joe Girardi replied “it’s not like we have a bunch of guys hitting .300, so that’s why we’ve kept it,” even though he had no trouble dropping others like Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, and even Brett Gardner lower in the lineup. Jeter batted second for sentimental reasons and it cost the Yankees. How much? I don’t know. But it’s clear the team was not putting itself in the best position to win each day.

On the field, Jeter was a detriment to the Yankees. He didn’t hit a lick and his defense was worse than ever before. His mobility was sapped, likely due to a combination of age and his recent leg injuries, resulting in a +0.2 bWAR and -0.3 fWAR season for the Cap’n. You don’t even need to believe in WAR to see he was a net negative for New York. After nearly two decades of brilliance on the field, Jeter was a big problem in 2014 when it came to tangible on-field contributions.

The Farewell Tour

For some reason the Jeter farewell tour seemed to last a lot longer than the Mariano Rivera farewell tour. Maybe because Jeter was an everyday player while Rivera was reliever who pitched in only 64 games. Each team had a little ceremony to honor Jeter as he traveled through their city one last time, and some of the gifts were actually cool. You can scroll through and see each and every one right here. The Stan Musial cufflinks and No. 2 subway tile mosaic were really great in my opinion. The bucket of crabs … not so much.

The Yankees held Derek Jeter Day at Yankee Stadium on September 7th, and they brought out all the big guns for the ceremony. Cal Ripken Jr. was there, Michael Jordan was there, Jeter’s family, Joe Torre, a ton of former teammates, the works. The team wore a special Jeter patch on their hats and sleeve from that day through the end of the season, which was sorta weird because Jeter was never the type to draw attention to himself that way, but also kinda cool. His speech that afternoon was short and sweet:

The Yankees were 4.5 games out of a postseason spot that day and only sunk further out of the race in the coming days, so the rest of the season turned into a huge Jeter love fest. I understand why, but it did get a little tiresome. Announcers spent innings on end discussing Jeter regardless of what was happening on the field and the national broadcasts were about a thousand times worse. By the end of September the YES Network was promoting non-stop, wall-to-wall Jeter coverage, and I’m not sure if that was a promotion or a threat.

After two farewell tours in two years, I’m pretty much tuckered out. That’s not a slight on Jeter (or Rivera), he’s an all-time great player and Yankee and deserved all the praise he received. But I will not be sad there won’t be a farewell tour in 2015. I have farewell tour fatigue. Jeter’s was fun at the start, but by the end of the year, I was ready for it to be over.

The Last Goodbye

On Thursday, September 25th, the day after the Yankees were officially eliminated from postseason contention, Derek Jeter played his final home game at Yankee Stadium. Fans chanted his name pretty much from first pitch through the last. The new Yankee Stadium hasn’t been that loud since the 2009 World Series, maybe ever. In the very first inning, Jeter did this:

I thought it was gone off the bat. It had to be, right? Of course Jeter was going to hit a homer in his final home game. It had to be this way. But no, it only clanked off the wall for a run-scoring double. So close.

Jeter grounded out to end the second inning, struck out for the second out of the fifth inning, then reached on an error and a fielder’s choice in the seventh inning. The bases were loaded with one out, Jeter hit a weak grounder to short, perhaps too weak to turn two, and J.J. Hardy threw wide of the bag at second. Two runs scored and the Yankees took a 4-2 lead.

The Yankees took a three-run lead into the ninth inning and while it would have been memorable no matter how it ended, David Robertson blew the save and the Yankees came to bat in the bottom of the ninth. It totally sucked at the time, but in hindsight, I don’t think I’ll ever be happier that a Yankee blew a save. Without it, this wouldn’t have happened:

That was pretty much the coolest thing ever. Jeter’s final game in the Bronx ended with one of his patented inside-out swings, muscling a walk-off single to right field. The same hit to right field we’ve seen a couple thousand times over the last 20 years.

Jeter finished out his career in Fenway Park that weekend but no one will remember that — he beat out in infield single in the final at-bat of his career for his 3,465th hit, the sixth most in baseball history — that walk-off hit was essentially the end of his playing days. At least it will be for Yankees fans. The Captain stepped to the plate, drove in the game-winning run, then rode off into the sunset.

I was a teenager when Derek Jeter started his career and now I’m an adult stuck with responsibilities and other awful things. I’ve grown up watching Jeter play and it’s getting harder and harder to remember the pre-Jeter teams, not that many from my lifetime are worth remembering. It’s sad to see him go. It’s sad because he was such a great player tied to so many great memories. And, despite his production this year, it’s sad to think Jeter won’t be in the lineup and at shortstop next year.

Jeter is going to go down as one of the greatest Yankees to ever live and will possibly be the best player to wear the uniform in my lifetime. He was a great player who was everything a team could have wanted in a franchise player. Great production, no controversy, durable, marketable, the works. I always laugh when fans of other teams call him overrated because the guys running their favorite clubs go to bed each night dreaming about having a Derek Jeter to build around.

The Yankees are moving into a new phase of their history now. And that phase might be ugly, at least in the immediate future. Jeter has retired and every tie to the dynasty years — the teams I spent my formative years watching — is gone. In this age of MLB-created parity and competitive balance, we might never see another run like that again. We definitely one see another Jeter. I know that for sure.

2014 Season Review: Miscellaneous Arms

Claiborne. (Alex Goodlett/Getty)
Claiborne. (Alex Goodlett/Getty)

Thirty-three different players pitched in at least one game for the Yankees this past season — including Dean Anna! — the second most in baseball behind the Rangers, who somehow trotted 40 different players out to the mound. That’s the most pitchers the Yankees have used in a single-season in their history, five more than the previous record set back in 2011. Injuries, ineffectiveness, and more contributed to that.

We’ve already reviewed most of those 33 pitchers, either individually or in groups, but there are still some stray arms running around out there. Here is the final pitching review of the 2014 season. (We still have some other players and personnel to cover, but the season review series will be over soon.)

Preston Claiborne

Remember how bad Claiborne was in Spring Training? He allowed nine runs and 14 hits (!) in only 5.2 Grapefruit League innings and looked as bad as the stats, as hitters where taking very comfortable swings against him. There was some speculation the Yankees would drop Claiborne from the 40-man roster if space was needed, but that never happened. He didn’t win a bullpen job in camp (duh) and opened the season with Triple-A Scranton.

The 26-year-old Claiborne actually threw more innings in the big leagues (21) than he did with the RailRiders (20.1) in 2014. That’s because he missed roughly eight weeks in the middle of the summer after separating his shoulder. Claiborne went up and down a few times and had a perfectly acceptable 3.00 ERA (3.66 FIP) with the MLB club, though he put 34 men on base in those 21 innings and both his strikeout (6.86 K/9 and 16.7 K%) and walk (4.29 BB/9 and 10.4 BB%) rates were underwhelming. There’s also this:

Brooksbaseball-ChartClaiborne’s velocity — on all his pitches, not just the fastball — has been gradually declining since he broke into the big leagues last May. He started his MLB career with those nine scoreless innings and 19.1 walk-less innings last year, but he hasn’t been the same since the middle of last June or so, pitching to a 5.05 ERA (4.61 FIP) with a 17.7% strikeout rate and a 9.7% walk rate in 51.2 innings since that first career walk. Claiborne is firmly in generic up-and-down reliever territory.

Matt Daley

It’s obvious the Yankees liked something about Daley at some point. They first signed him to a minor league contract back during the 2011-12 offseason, when he was recovering from serious shoulder surgery. The Yankees rehabbed him for the entire 2012 season, re-signed him that offseason, then watched him post a 2.02 ERA (1.88 FIP) in 53.1 innings at three minor league levels in 2013 before giving him a September call-up. Daley struck out eight, walked zero, and allowed just two hits in six scoreless innings for the MLB club. He was the pitcher who replaced Mariano Rivera after Mo’s emotional farewell at Yankee Stadium.

The Yankees non-tendered the 32-year-old Daley last offseason only to bring him back on yet another minor league contract. The Queens native spend most of the year with Triple-A Scranton, where he had a 4.54 ERA (3.86 FIP) with excellent strikeout (12.11 K/9 and 30.0 K%) and walk (2.02 BB/9 and 5.0 BB%) numbers in 35.2 innings. The Yankees called him up a few times and he had a 5.02 ERA (6.82 FIP) in 14.1 innings. Daley’s soft-tossing ways resulted in a lot of hard contact, several long homers (2.51 HR/9!), few strikeouts (6.28 K/9 and 15.9 K%), and too many walks (3.77 BB/9 and 9.5 BB%). He allowed six runs in 1.1 innings in his first appearance, threw 10.1 scoreless innings in his next eight appearances, then allowed at least one run in each of his final four appearances. The Yankees released Daley on September 1st to make 40-man roster space for other call-ups. Such is life.

Jose Ramirez

I was very excited about Ramirez coming into the season. The Yankees finally decided to pull the plug on him as a starter due to his ongoing injury problems, and his upper-90s fastball coupled with his knockout changeup and occasionally devastating slider made him an intriguing short reliever. The potential for dominance is there. Maybe not Dellin Betances level dominance, but dominance.

Ramirez. (Presswire)
Ramirez. (Presswire)

Ramirez, 24, missed all of Spring Training with an oblique injury and didn’t make his season debut with Triple-A Scranton until May 7th. He spent a month with the RailRiders before being called up to the big league team in early-June, replacing Claiborne on the roster. Ramirez made eight appearances with the Yankees, allowed runs in five of them, walked a batter in six of them, and took the loss in two of them. He allowed six runs (5.40 ERA) with ten strikeouts (9.00 K/9 and 20.4 K%) and seven walks (7.00 B/9 and 14.3 BB%) in 10 innings before being sent back to Triple-A in early-July.

After returning to the RailRiders, Ramirez made only two appearances before getting hurt and missing the rest of the season. I can’t find any information about the nature of the injury, but he’s dealt with it all over the years. Shoulder, elbow, oblique, you name it. Ramirez had a 1.46 ERA (3.44 FIP) in 12.1 total innings in Triple-A. The 2015 season will be Ramirez’s final minor league option year, so he’ll give it another go and hope to stay healthy so he can prove his worth at the MLB level.

Jim Miller

Like 2013, Miller spent most of 2014 with Triple-A Scranton, where he had a 3.30 ERA (3.10 FIP) in 57.1 innings. The Yankees called him up in early-July, he made two appearances with the team, and allowed six runs on seven hits and two walks in 2.2 innings. Three of those seven hits left the yard. On July 10th, he entered the seventh inning of a game against the Indians with the Yankees down one run. He then allowed five runs in 1.2 innings to put the game out of reach. The Yankees designated Miller for assignment the next day and released him in late-August to clear a roster spot for the RailRiders.

Chaz Roe

The Yankees had a pitcher named Chaz Roe this year. They acquired Chaz Roe on August 31st from the Marlins, where Chaz Roe had spent the season with their Triple-A affiliate. Chaz Roe once had a ridiculous beard:

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Colorado Rockies

Chaz Roe appeared in three games with the Yankees. Chaz Roe allowed two runs in his first appearance, walked the only batter he faced in his second appearance, and allowed one run in his third appearance. The Yankees designated Chaz Roe for assignment to clear a 40-man roster spot when Masahiro Tanaka was activated off the 60-day DL at the end of the season. Chaz Roe’s tenure in pinstripes ended with three runs allowed in two innings. Chaz Roe, y’all.

2014 Season Review: Chris Young and the Extra Outfielders

Oh Eury. (Jim Rogash/Getty)
Oh Eury. (Jim Rogash/Getty)

As is the case every season, the Yankees cycled through several extra players in the outfield in 2014 to help cover for injuries and soak up spare innings in September. There weren’t as many random outfielders as their were random infielders, but there were more than I realized. Here’s the group.

Chris Young

After he was released by the Mets at midseason, the Yankees grabbed Young off the scrap heap, stashed him in Triple-A for a week, then called him up when rosters expanded in September. The idea was to add some depth because Carlos Beltran‘s elbow kept barking, and also potentially add some right-handed pop to a lineup almost devoid of it. I closed the post about the signing with this:

Maybe he’ll hit a random big homer or something.

In his sixth game as a Yankee, Young did this:

Random big homer! That was actually the second homerun in a stretch of three homers in three games for Young, who put his struggles with the Mets behind him and gave the Yankees a very nice month of September. He hit .282/.354/.521 (146 wRC+) with three homeruns and a stolen base in 78 plate appearances. Young was playing left field on an everyday basis by the end of the month due to injuries elsewhere in the outfield. The Yankees hit the scrap heap lottery.

Young credited since-fired hitting coach Kevin Long with helping him break some bad habits — “I’ve been able to find some things here that can carry me for years to come,” he said to Dan Barbarisi in September — so there’s at least some chance the improvement was real and not just a small sample fluke. The Yankees obvious think it’s real — they re-signed Young to a one-year contract earlier this month to serve as the team’s fourth outfielder next year. Brian Cashman said the club’s analytical department pushed to bring Young back.

For the final month of the 2014 season, Young gave the Yankees a nice shot in the arm. He hit some clutch homers — he hit an extra-innings go ahead homer against the Orioles the day after the walk-off shot (video), but the bullpen blew the lead — and played some nice defense as well. It wasn’t enough to get New York into the postseason, but Young as a positive contributor during his brief time in pinstripes.

Zoilo Almonte

Almonte was the team’s classic up-and-down outfielder this summer. He spent most of the year with Triple-A Scranton, where he hit .261/.311/.437 (103 wRC+) with 18 homeruns in 105 games. The Yankees called Zoilo up three different times through the season to help fill in for injuries, though he still only managed to appear in 13 games. He went 5-for-36 (.139) with one very long solo homer (video).

Rather than come back up when rosters expanded in September, the Yankees designated Almonte for assignment to clear a spot on the 40-man roster for Young. Zoilo cleared waivers and became a minor league free agent after the season. He’s since hooked on with the Braves on a Major League contract. Despite all his power production in the minors (74 homers since 2010), Almonte was never going to get much of a chance with the Yankees. He had a 39 wRC+ with the big league team in 149 plate appearances the last two years.

Antoan Richardson

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Man, talk about random. The Yankees signed Richardson as a minor league free agent last winter and he put up a nice .271/.380/.364 (114 wRC+) batting line with three homers and 26 steals in 27 attempts with Triple-A Scranton before being a surprise September call-up. The Yankees called him up to serve as their designated pinch-runner and, sure enough, he went 5-for-5 in steal attempts. He did get picked off first once and was also doubled off first when he put his head down and kept running on a fly ball, perhaps forgetting the number of outs. Richardson did have one nice series in Baltimore by going 4-for-10. His time in pinstripes ended with five hits in 16 at-bats (.313) and those five steals. The team dropped him from the 40-man roster after the season and he’s since become a free agent.

Fun Fact: Richardson scored the run on Derek Jeter‘s walk-off single in his final home game at Yankee Stadium. Jose Pirela led the inning off with a single and Richardson came on to pinch-run. Brett Gardner bunted him up to second and Jeter took care of the rest.

Eury Perez

September acquisitions are rare, but the Yankees claimed Perez off waivers from the Nationals on September 22nd, after Washington designated him for assignment to clear 40-man roster space for a waiver claim of their own (Pedro Florimon from the Twins). Perez hit .311/.372/.406 (119 wRC+) with one homer and 20 steals in 23 attempts for the Nats’ Triple-A affiliate before spending the final few days of the season in New York. He played sparingly, going 2-for-10 with three strikeouts at the plate. Perez saw time in right and center field and remains on the 40-man. Seems like he’ll fill the Almonte role of up-and-down outfielder in 2015.

2014 Season Review: The New Ace

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

I had kinda forgotten just how much Masahiro Tanaka consumed the offseason last year. The Yankees lost Robinson Cano and signed Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran as free agents, yet there were more words written about Tanaka than any other player. Even more than Alex Rodriguez, believe it or not. Here’s a quick timeline of how all this Tanaka stuff went down:

The Yankees had reportedly been scouting Tanaka for years and years, but he didn’t really jump into our consciousness until last May, and it wasn’t until last November that the Tanaka Watch became a day in, day out thing. Those 10-12 weeks or so from November until he signed in January felt a lot longer.

When Tanaka first arrived in Spring Training, it was a total spectacle. There were throngs of Japanese and American media following his every move, watching every pitch as he played catch or threw a bullpen session. Tanaka struggled to keep up with the rest of the pitchers during their early running drills — “Just the running part, that was really hard for me today. I actually didn’t know that I was going to run this much,” said Tanaka to reporters — and it was written about everywhere, mostly because everyone was looking for the first sign of failure from a guy who went 24-0 in Japan last year.

Tanaka made his Grapefruit League debut on March 1st and it was thrilling. He struck out three — one on his fastball, one on his slider, one on his splitter — in two scoreless innings and said afterwards he “was nervous, but it was a good nervous.” Tanaka made five appearances in Spring Training, allowing five runs on 15 hits in 21 innings. He struck out 26 and walked three. It was only Spring Training, yes, but he looked every bit as good as advertised. The splitter was filthy, the slider was underratedly filthy, the fastball was more than  enough, and he threw a ton of strikes. Like, so many strikes.

The Yankees felt it was necessary to lower expectations and take some pressure off Tanaka as he adjusted to a new league and a new country, which is why Brian Cashman said he projected him as a number three starter at the outset of Spring Training. Tanaka opened the season in the fourth spot in the rotation behind stalwarts CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda and perpetual “hey, maybe this will be the year he puts it all together” candidate Ivan Nova. Here is the very first batter Tanaka faced in MLB:

That … didn’t go according to plan. Tanaka settled down though, holding the Blue Jays to three runs (two earned) on six hits in seven innings. He struck out eight and walked zero. Tanaka made his Yankee Stadium debut a few days later and allowed three runs in seven innings against the Orioles. All three runs came on a Jonathan Schoop homer. That guy is really annoying. Tanaka struck out ten and walked one — his first walk came against the 41st batter he faced on the season.

The first two starts were a little up and down but the flashes of excellence were there. Tanaka’s splitter was just ridiculous, one of the most devastating offspeed pitches I’ve ever seen. He was also missing bats with other pitches, pounding the zone, and showing the poise and competitiveness the Yankees raved about after they signed him. Reports compared his makeup to Hideki Matsui and it showed on the mound. Tanaka is a straight up cold-blooded assassin. Never gives off the impression of excitement or disappointment. Stone-faced.

Tanaka’s coming out party, if you want to call it that, was his third start of the season, at home against the Cubs. He struck out ten, walked one, and allowed two infield singles in eight shutout innings. Total domination. Tanaka’s next start came up in Fenway Park — he was originally supposed to miss that series (by the Yankees design) but a rainout forced him to pitch — and he more or less had his way with the defending World Series champs:

From that game against the Cubs until early-July, Tanaka was arguably the best pitcher in baseball. He made 14 starts during that cherry-picked stretch and had a 1.95 ERA (2.98 FIP) with 109 strikeouts and 17 walks in 101.2 innings. Opponents hit only .214/.253/.355 against him during that stretch. Those 14 starts included one shutout and three complete games, one more than countryman Yu Darvish has in his three MLB seasons.

In his first 16 starts of the season, Tanaka struck out double-digit batters five times and walked more than one batter only four times. He completed at least six full innings of work in all 16 of those starts and at least seven full innings ten times. I think my favorite game in that stretch was his four-hit shutout of the Mets in Citi Field, though striking out eleven Mariners in Safeco was pretty awesome as well. Tanaka’s worst of those 16 starts came against the Cubs in Wrigley Field. He allowed four runs (three earned) in six innings through a steady rain and that isn’t even that bad of a start.

On the morning of his July 3rd start against the Twins, Tanaka had a 2.10 ERA (2.94 FIP) in 16 starts and 115.2 innings on the season. He then had what was his worst start of the year at the time, allowing four runs on nine hits in seven innings against Minnesota. Tanaka struck out a career-low three batters while allowing a career-high nine hits. (Career meaning MLB career, obviously). It looked like just a blip on the radar, one of those starts every pitcher goes through, but unfortunately there was a little more going on under the hood, if you will.

Five days later, the Indians pounded Tanaka for five runs on ten hits in 6.2 innings, including a pair of homers. Right after having his worst MLB start against the Twins, Tanaka topped it and had an even worse start. Tanaka complained of discomfort in his right forearm/elbow after the game in Cleveland and was sent for tests. He was placed on the 15-day DL the next day and an MRI showed a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament. Tanaka actually apologized for his injury:

“As recently announced from the team, I will be going through some treatment and rehab on my injured elbow over the next several weeks. I give everything I have every time I take the ball. With that, I also know that there will always be a risk of injury when playing this game that I love. Right now I feel that the most important thing for me is to keep my head up, remain focused on the task at hand and devote all my energy into healing the injury in order to come back strong.

“I want to apologize to the Yankees organization, my teammates and our fans for not being able to help during this time. I accept this injury as a challenge, but I promise to do everything I can to overcome this setback and return to the mound as soon as possible.”

Tanaka was personally examined by three doctors — Yankees team doctor Chris Ahmad, Dodgers team doctor Neil elAttrache, and Mets team doctor David Altchek — and his test results were also sent to Dr. James Andrews for review. All four doctors agreed that because the UCL tear was so small, Tommy John surgery was not necessary and Tanaka should rehab the injury. So, rehab he did. The best case scenario had him back on the mound in six weeks.

After receiving a platelet-rich plasma injection in his elbow, Tanaka rested for three weeks before beginning a throwing program. He started with 25 light tosses on flat ground before stretching it out and throwing off a mound. Eventually he reintroduced breaking balls and splitters. Tanaka faced hitters in live batting practice as part of his rehab for the first time on August 23rd, then he graduated to simulated games. A minor setback — Tanaka hit a wall during his rehab and was fatigued, though tests all came back clean — halted his progress for a week in late-August and early-September before he continued the throwing program.

On September 21st, two and a half months after the start against the Indians, Tanaka returned to the rotation and held the Blue Jays to one run on five hits in 5.1 innings. He struck out four and didn’t walk anyone. The Yankees had him on a strict 70-pitch count but otherwise he could have completed the sixth inning and maybe even the seventh as well. There were some obvious signs of rust, most notably his fastball location, but otherwise Tanaka will pretty damn good for a guy who had partially torn elbow ligament.

(Hannah Foslien/Getty)
(Hannah Foslien/Getty)

Tanaka’s next and final start of the season was a total disaster. The Red Sox B-team clobbered him for seven runs (five earned) on seven hits and two walks in 1.2 innings in the 161st game of the year. It was ugly and no, neither the defense nor the bullpen (both inherited runners scored) helped him any, but Tanaka wasn’t fooling anyone. Boston’s hitters were on everything he threw and it was disconcerting given his elbow. It was definitely not what anyone wanted to see heading into the offseason.

But, most importantly, Tanaka said his elbow felt fine both during and after the start. He chalked it up to being just one of those games. There were more than a few people who questioned the team’s handling of his rehab and letting him come back to make two meaningless starts at the end of the season, but if the doctors signed off and declared him healthy, what are they supposed to do? The extra rest wasn’t going to help him any, the elbow is as healthy as it was going to get. If Tanaka was going to completely blow out his UCL and need Tommy John surgery, the Yankees wanted to see if it would happen in September rather than next April. (It could still happen in April, obviously.)

All told, Tanaka finished the season with a 2.77 ERA (3.04 FIP) with excellent strikeout (9.31 K/9 and 26.0 K%) and walk (1.39 BB/9 and 3.9 BB%) rates in 20 starts and 136.1 innings. His ground ball rate was strong (46.6%) but Tanaka did show he is a little homer prone (0.99 HR/9 and 14.0 HR/FB%), which isn’t surprising given his home ballpark and willingness to pitch up in the zone. Out of the 149 pitchers to throw at least 100 innings in 2014, only Clayton Kershaw (14.1%) and Francisco Liriano (13.6%) had a higher swing-and-miss rate than Tanaka (13.4%).

Tanaka was legitimately ace-like when healthy. Unfortunately, he’s not really healthy now. More than a few pitchers have pitched with a partial UCL for several years, Adam Wainwright and Ervin Santana (still has it!) most notably, but once a ligament starts to tear, it’s only a matter of time before it fully goes. Hopefully the Yankees and Tanaka can avoid the knife for another few years because, as we saw this summer, the guy is a top 20 starter in baseball. Maybe even top ten. He was that good. The injury put a damper on what was otherwise a wildly successful MLB debut for Tanaka, who made the baseball and cultural adjustments looks easy.

Cashman says Yankees will “test the waters” with A-Rod at first base

Alex Rodriguez
(AP/Kathy Willens)

At the GM Meetings last week, Brian Cashman told Ken Davidoff the Yankees plan to “test the waters” with Alex Rodriguez at first base. Cashman mentioned the team spoke to A-Rod about possibly playing first a few weeks ago, and now it seems like something they will try in Spring Training.

“We’re going to get him exposed to [first base]. It doesn’t mean he’ll be a viable option. But we just want to test the waters on it,” said the GM. “I think there was an area of vulnerability for us last year that was really predicated because of the outfield alignment that we had. We had more outfielders than necessary because the guaranteed commitments that we had kicked in, so I couldn’t get a backup first baseman situation. But hopefully we can alleviate that this year.”

A-Rod has never played anywhere other than shortstop and third base in his career, and at this point, with two surgically repaired hips at age 39, there’s little reason to think he has the mobility to play the left side of the infield. Cashman and the Yankees insist they are not counting on Alex to play the field until he proved he can do it, which makes total sense. They re-signed Brendan Ryan to protect against Derek Jeter at short last offseason and I’m sure they’ll bring in a real third baseman this offseason.

Pure backup first basemen don’t really exist these days. It doesn’t make sense to waste one of four bench spots on a guy who can only play first. He has to be able to fill in at third base (like Eric Chavez) or in left field or something. The Yankees are stuck with A-Rod though, and if he’s not going to be able to play third regularly, maybe he can help at first. He’s a very smart and instinctual player. He might pick it up in no time. There’s no reason not to try Alex at first base at this point.

2014 Season Review: The Homegrown Outfielder

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

As bad as the Yankees were in 2013, it was a very good year for Brett Gardner. Curtis Granderson‘s broken forearm and Derek Jeter‘s fractured ankle guaranteed him the everyday center field and leadoff hitter jobs, roles he had filled on an off earlier in his career. For the most part he was a number nine hitting left fielder from 2008-12. Gardner took advantage by hitting a solid .273/.344/.416 (108 wRC+) with a career-high eight homers and 24 stolen bases in 2013.

The Yankees rewarded Gardner’s strong season by … displacing him from center field and the leadoff spot by signing Jacoby Ellsbury to a gargantuan contract. Back to left field and the bottom of the order he went. But! The Yankees actually did reward Gardner’s strong season by giving him a nice four-year contract extension worth $52M in Spring Training, a few months before he was scheduled to hit free agency. Signing Ellsbury was about adding a very good player. Extending Gardner was about keeping a very good player.

Of course, things don’t always go according to plan, and Gardner wound up spending the majority of the 2014 season hitting leadoff anyway. He opened the year hitting seventh or eighth on most nights, but a combination of injuries to middle of the order hitters Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira forced Joe Girardi to bat Ellsbury third, clearing the leadoff spot for Gardner. One hundred and seven of his 141 starts this year came atop the order.

Gardner was New York’s second best player behind Robinson Cano last year, and for a big chunk of the first half, he was the team’s very best player in 2014. He hit .279/.347/.349 (100 wRC+) with a homer and seven steals in April before really hitting his stride in early-May. Starting on May 3rd — arbitrary endpoint alert! — and continuing though August 4th, a span of 82 team games, Gardner hit a stellar .292/.370/.506 (145 wRC+) with 14 homers and eleven stolen bases. Think about that for a second.

Okay, ready to continue? Miguel Cabrera hit .313/.371/.524 (147 wRC+) this past season. Gardner hit approximately that over a stretch of games equal to half a season while hitting homers at a 28-per-162-games pace. That’s a thing that actually happened. Gardner put up middle of the order numbers from the leadoff spot for a three-month chunk of time. During one series against the Rangers at the end of July, he managed to hit four homers in three games:

Date Tm Opp Rslt PA R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS wpa_bat” data-filter=”1″ data-name=”Win Probability Added”>Win Prob. Added
Jul 28 NYY @ TEX L,2-4 5 2 3 0 0 2 2 0 0 0 0 .276 .352 .437 .789 0.224
Jul 29 NYY @ TEX W,12-11 5 3 4 2 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 .283 .357 .455 .812 0.340
Jul 30 NYY @ TEX L,2-3 4 1 1 0 0 1 1 0 2 0 0 .283 .356 .460 .816 0.008
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/16/2014.

Two of those homers — the July 28th game — came off Yu Darvish, who Gardner had taken deep a week earlier as well. That series earned Gardner AL Player of the Week honors. On August 4th, the final day of this cherry-picked swath of games, Gardner’s season batting line sat at .286/.364/.468 (134 wRC+) with 15 homers and 18 steals in 22 attempts.

Did it last? Of course not. Gardner played through some sort of abdominal strain for most of the second half and hit a weak .159/.216/.217 (18 wRC+) in his final 40 games and 78 plate appearances of the season. That uglified his season batting line and dragged it down to .256/.327/.422 (110 wRC+) overall. That’s still pretty darn good, but not nearly as impressive as it was in early-August. The abdominal injury, which apparently was so bad it required offseason surgery, really ruined the final two months of his year.

Obviously, the power numbers were the most surprisingly part of Gardner’s season. His previous career high was eight homeruns set last summer. He more than doubled that and smashed 17 dingers in 2014. Some of them were Yankee Stadium cheapies of course, but Hit Tracker says 13 of the 17 would have been out in at least half the 30 ballparks. Gardner’s average homer distance was 385 feet, on par with Yoenis Cespedes (387.5 feet) and longer than 37-homer man Chris Carter (384.1 feet). He hit the Yankees’ very first homerun of the season — in their sixth game! — and he also hit the 15,000th homer in franchise history on September 21st. (No other team has even 14,000 dingers.)

I don’t think it’s a coincidence six of the 17 homers came within the first two pitches of the at-bat or that 13 of the 17 came on fastballs — Gardner will straight up guess fastball and try to ambush a pitch on occasion, and every so often he runs into one. That hasn’t only resulted in more homers either, this approach has led to more doubles and triples as well. Gardner and hitting coach Kevin Long acknowledged giving the ambush approach a try early last year, and look:


Source: FanGraphsBrett Gardner

Gardner’s power production has jumped noticeable the last two seasons. Don’t get me wrong, he’s still nothing more than a league-average power producer in terms of ISO, but Gardner was a pure singles hitter from 2008-12 who can now go yard if the pitcher makes a mistake or gives him the fastball he’s looking for. That makes him a lot more dangerous at the plate. I have no idea if Gardner will ever hit 17 homers again but that’s a conversation for another time. He hit them in 2014.

In the field, Gardner appeared to be something less than his usually awesome self, both according to the eye test and the various defensive stats. He wasn’t bad by any means in left field, but he went from being truly elite in 2008-12 to being just a tick better than average in 2014. That could be the result of a million things. Gardner could legitimately be losing a step in the field, or it could have been a down year defensively. Those happen just like down years at the plate. Maybe the adjustment he had to making moving back to left after playing center isn’t as easy as we think. Who knows. Either way, Gardner was an asset in the field but not otherworldly.

Overall, Gardner was again one of the team’s best players on both sides of the ball this past season. He led Yankees’ regulars in OPS (.749), OPS+ (111), SLG (!) (.422) and wRC+ (110) while ranking either second or third in homers (17), hits (142), doubles (25), steals (21), walks (56), total bases (234), AVG (.256), and OBP (.327). Had it not been for the abdominal injury, chances are Gardner would have led the team in a bunch of those other categories as well. He’s become a rock solid player for the Yankees and is a key part of the team as they try to get back to the postseason.

2014 Season Review: Brendan Ryan and the Random Infielders

Remember last season, when the Yankees had a revolving door at shortstop just about all summer? They had seven players start at least five games at short at year ago. This summer it was only four players, and two of them made fewer than nine starts. The Yankees still cycled through a healthy collection of random backup infielders in 2014, though thankfully it was not as substantial a group as 2013. Let’s recap their seasons.

Zero on the scoreboard? Shocking. (Jim Rogash/Getty)
Zero on the scoreboard? Shocking. (Jim Rogash/Getty)

Brendan Ryan

Giving Ryan a two-year contract with a player option for a third year definitely flew under the radar as a LOLWTF move last offseason. I mean, I get it, the Yankees had to protect themselves in case Derek Jeter‘s ankle and legs couldn’t hold up, but still. One year in, that’s a weird contract even though it only pays him peanuts. You don’t see players like this get multi-year contracts all that often.

Ryan, 32, actually started this past season on the disabled list after hurting his back in Spring Training — he suffered a pinched nerve in his upper back during drills, then re-aggravated it sitting on the bus during a long Grapefruit League road trip — and he didn’t join the team until early-May. He was a seldom used backup infielder, appearing in only 49 games and starting only 33. Ryan hit a weak .167/.211/.202 (12 wRC+) with no homers, four walks, and 30 strikeouts in 124 plate appearances. He had two (2) multi-hit games.

The Yankees did get their money’s worth out of Ryan defensively by playing him at all four infield spots. Yes, that includes first base. The image of Ryan playing first while Jeter plays short will forever be my lasting memory of the 2014 Yankees. Everything was just so backwards. Ryan is still a quality gloveman but he is clearly no longer elite defensively. That’s sort of the problem. He can’t hit — he’s never hit and never will — and if he’s not going to dominant defensively, then he’s not really worth a roster spot. Of course, if the 2015 season started today, Ryan would be the starting shortstop.

Zelous Wheeler

Because of Jeter’s lost 2013 season, Alex Rodriguez‘s suspension, and Robinson Cano‘s free agency defection, the Yankees hoarded some infielders on minor league contracts last winter. The 27-year-old Wheeler was one of those players, and he put himself on the map with a strong Spring Training and an excellent (132 wRC+) first few weeks with Triple-A Scranton. The Yankees called him up in early-July when Yangervis Solarte played his way down to the minors, and in his very first MLB game, Wheeler did this:

Not a bad way to start your big league career, no? Wheeler swatted another solo homer a week later and didn’t do much else offensively the rest of the season, finishing the year with a .193/.230/.298 (43 wRC+) batting line in 62 plate appearances. He went back down to Triple-A at one point and was recalled in August.

Wheeler is actually still on the 40-man roster, though now that I think about it, it isn’t all that surprising. First off the Yankees have some open 40-man spots, so it’s not like they need to get rid of someone, but also the infield is one giant question mark. They don’t have a second baseman, a third baseman, or a shortstop right now. Wheeler could always go to the minors and I guess he’s worth keeping around as depth for the time being.

Dean Anna

Man, what a season this was. Guys named Dean Anna and Yangervis Solarte actually made the Opening Day roster. The Yankees acquired Anna from the Padres in the offseason — they sent reliever Ben Paulus to San Diego, and he had a 4.65 ERA (4.49 FIP) while repeated High-A this summer — and he beat out Eduardo Nunez for the spare infielder’s job in Spring Training. Both he and Solarte did, fair and square.

Anna, 27, played very sparingly in April, though he did record his first career hit in his first career game, a single off Jeremy Jeffress. Anna took Clay Buchholz deep for his first career homerun a week later, though that wasn’t the highlight of his time in pinstripes. One day after sparing the bullpen and throwing a scoreless inning in a blowout loss (video), Anna drew a bases loaded walk in the 12th inning to give the Yankees a 2-1 lead over the Rays:

I wish there was video of the entire at-bat somewhere. It was great. Anna saw eight pitches, fouled off a few tough sliders, and took some others for balls. You can even see Mark Teixeira say it in the video, “that’s a great at-bat.” Ken Singleton said the same thing.

The Yankees sent Anna to Triple-A when Michael Pineda was suspended for the pine tar incident — the suspension forced them to play with a 24-man roster, so they sent down Anna and called up a pitcher to replace Pineda — and he spent the rest of his time in the organization there before being designated for assignment in early-July to clear a 40-man spot for Wheeler. The Pirates claimed Anna off waivers and he spent the rest of the season with their Triple-A club. Anna hit .136/.200/.318 (38 wRC+) in 25 plate appearances with the Yankees.

Jose Pirela

Unlike everyone else in this post, Pirela is actually homegrown. The 24-year-old spent most of the last three years tearing the cover off the ball in Double-A, and he opened this past season with Triple-A Scranton. Pirela hit .305/.351/.441 (117 wRC+) with ten homers and 15 stolen bases in 130 games with the RailRiders but did not get called up on September 1st. He wasn’t on the 40-man roster but would have been eligible for minor league free agency  after the season (again), and the team opted against adding him to the roster.

This looks like ... not the right way to hit. (Presswire)
This looks like … not the right way to hit. (Presswire)

That all changed when Martin Prado‘s season unexpectedly ended due to an emergency appendectomy in mid-September. The Yankees did indeed call up Pirela after that, though he sat on the bench for about a week before finally getting into a game. He tripled off Wei-Yin Chen in his first career plate appearance — it was a bomb off the wall in left-center, I thought it was gone off the bat — and sliced a single to right next time up. Pirela went 2-for-3 with the triple in his first career game and was a mainstay in the lineup after that, starting six of the team’s final seven games and coming off the bench in the seventh.

All told, Pirela went 8-for-24 (.333) with a double and two triples (149 wRC+) during his brief time in pinstripes at the end of the year. He started three games at DH and the final three games of the seasons at second base, after the Yankees had been eliminated. Pirela is one of those guys who has done nothing but put up great numbers in the minors even though the scouting reports aren’t glowing. The Yankees were able to re-sign him when he became a minor league free agent last winter, but after his strong season in Triple-A, another team might have offered more opportunity this offseason. Adding him to the 40-man will keep him in the organization, and, right now, Pirela has the inside track for a big league job in 2015, either at second base or on the bench.

Scott Sizemore

Sizemore was part of that group of infielders the Yankees brought in as minor league free agents last winter. The 29-year-old spent most of the season with Triple-A Scranton but did get called up to New York a few times, going 5-for-16 (.313) with three doubles and eight strikeouts (107 wRC+). He also drove in four runs in his limited time, which is kinda neat. Sizemore had a 108 wRC+ in Triple-A, was released at the end of July, then re-signed a few days later. He spent a bunch of time on the disabled list with an unknown injury as well as on the restricted list with some kind of off-the-field problem. In a season of mostly forgettable random infielders, Sizemore was the most forgettable.