Archive for Players

(Mike Stobe/Getty)

(Mike Stobe/Getty)

The non-waiver trade deadline is roughly 48 hours away, and based on the way he’s been talking the last few days, it seems likely Brian Cashman will swing another trade or two in an attempt to improve the team. Another starting pitcher feels inevitable, and they’ve been connected to a bunch of right-handed hitting outfielders as well. Those two upgrades are the bare minimum to make a run in the second half, in my opinion.

The Chase Headley trade solidified the infield, at least in the sense that they replaced a collection of bad players at the hot corner with one potentially good one. Headley’s first week in pinstripes has gone very well — 9-for-27 (.333) with two doubles, a homer, and a walk-off single — and hopefully that continues through the end of the season now that he’s out of Petco Park and doesn’t have to be The Man in the lineup. The upgrade on defense has already been noticeable as well.

The Yankees are locked into Derek Jeter at shortstop and Mark Teixeira at first base for a few reasons, and so far they’ve lived with Brian Roberts at second. In fact, I wouldn’t even say they’ve “lived” with him, they seem legitimately happy to have him out there. Roberts has somehow managed to stay healthy and he always puts together a long and quality at-bat, which is not nothing. Given how hacktastic this lineup has become, seeing someone who doesn’t go down on two or three pitches each time out is refreshing.

The problem is that Roberts’ long at-bats have not led to enough production. He is hitting a weak .237/.300/.360 (81 wRC+) in 348 plate appearances this year, including an even weaker .226/.281/.352 (72 wRC+) in 171 plate appearances since June 1st. Roberts was steady in the field earlier this season but has been much worse defensively of late, making three errors in ten games since the All-Star break and bobbling just about everything that isn’t hit right at him. He’s a liability both at the plate and in the field right now.

Remarkably, Roberts have remained pretty healthy this season. He missed a few games with a minor back issue in April but that’s it. His 91 games played are his most since 2009, his last full, healthy season. Given his age and his lengthy injury history, it could be that he is simply wearing down in the second half of the season. That would explain the lack of hitting and reliable fielding. It’s tough to expect a 36-year-old who has averaged 48 games and 202 plate appearances per year over the last four years to be an everyday player across a full season.

Soon after the Headley trade, Brian Cashman told reporters that while he is looking to make big upgrades to the roster at the trade deadline, he is making smaller, incremental upgrades whenever possible. “We have to try to improve, reinforce and upgrade, certainly,” said the GM to Andrew Marchand last week. “We certainly we would love to have some significant upgrades but when you lose four out of five starters, it is hard to re-materialize the same type of abilities with the guys you lost. It is whether you incrementally upgrade.”

(Scranton Times-Tribune)

(Scranton Times-Tribune)

Unlike the rotation and right field, the Yankees may be able to make an incremental upgrade at second base without having to make a trade. Second base prospect Rob Refsnyder — who you have all heard about by now — is stashed in Triple-A, hitting .296/.400/.500 (151 wRC+) with seven homers in 44 games and 190 plate appearances with the RailRiders after dominating with Double-A Trenton early in the season. He has cooled down of late but still has a solid .250/.327/.427 (108 wRC+) batting line this month. When a young player hits like that, you have to take notice, especially when he plays a position of need, both short and long-term.

Despite his Triple-A success, Cashman made it clear he doesn’t believe Refsnyder would be enough of an upgrade to justify calling him up and dropping Roberts. “I don’t think he would be significantly upgrading at second base right now … If you did see [Refsnyder], he would be probably more likely an outfielder for us. It’s a super big jump to the big league level,” said Cashman during a radio interview last week. He also pointed out the 40-man roster issue — Refsnyder won’t be Rule 5 Draft eligible for another year and they don’t want to clog up the 40-man roster, though that seems like a lame excuse more than anything. I don’t think a 40-man spot would stand in the way of helping the MLB club.

Now, here’s the thing: I’m not completely sold on the idea of Refsnyder being an upgrade over Roberts either. The defensive question marks at second are real, and Refsnyder struggled immediately after being promoted to both Double-A and Triple-A this year. That’s not unusual, Brett Gardner had the same problem while he was climbing up the minor league leader, but it is something to consider. The whole “how could he be any worse/what’s the harm?” argument is totally silly because Refsnyder could absolutely be worse than Roberts, just like David Adams was worse than Kevin Youkilis and Austin Romine was worse than Chris Stewart. It could always be worse.

At this point though, I think Roberts has forced the team’s hand and given them every reason to try someone new at second base. He isn’t hitting and he hasn’t been reliable in the field. When a player’s only redeeming quality is the ability to foul off pitches and have long at-bats, it’s time to try someone new. Roberts is about to start making some decent bucks through bonuses — he has already banked $350,000 in incentives and is two plate appearances away from another $250,0000 — so there is a financial incentive to make a change as well. The Yankees would pay Refsnyder through the end of the season less than the bonus they’d owe Roberts if he gets those next two plate appearances.

I would like to think being pulled for a pinch-hitter last night was the team’s way of preventing Roberts from triggering that next bonus under the guise of improving their chances to win, but I’m pretty sure that isn’t the case. The Yankees love their veterans and seem to think Roberts has some very real value to the team, but I don’t see it. Not at this point. He isn’t hitting and he isn’t fielding. When all the GM talks about are incremental upgrades and you’ve got a this sort of second base situation at the MLB and Triple-A levels, I don’t know how they don’t make a move. Refsnyder might not produce when he gets called up. It’s a very real possibility. But we know Roberts isn’t producing. That part isn’t up for debate. If they’re not going to make a change now, when will they?

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Even though it is not really the halfway point of the season, there is no better time to review the first half than the All-Star break. This week we’ll hand out some simple, straightforward, and totally subjective grades, A through F, for the catchers, infielders, outfielders, rotation, and bullpen. We’ve already covered the catchers, infielders, outfielders, and rotation, so now let’s wrap up with the bullpen.

Game over. (Al Bello/Getty)

Game over. (Al Bello/Getty)

David Robertson — Grade A

So maybe replacing Mariano Rivera won’t be so difficult after all. Robertson inherited the closer’s job — to the dismay of more than a few — and has run with it, pitching to a 2.76 ERA (1.73 FIP) in 32 appearances and 32.2 innings. He is 23-for-25 in save chances with a career best strikeout rate (16.26 K/9 and 44.7 K%) and a career best ground rate (51.6%) while keeping his walk rate (2.76 BB/9 and 7.6 BB%) in line with the last two years. Robertson is also holding opponents to a .198 batting average, second lowest of his career (.170 in 2011) despite a career worst .356 BABIP.

Robertson has allowed ten earned runs this year with five coming in one disaster outing against the Twins on June 1st. He has allowed one run while striking out 27 of 56 batters faced since. Overall, 59 of 98 outs this season have been strikeouts, including 58 of 89 (65.2%) since coming off the disabled list (groin) in mid-April. No pitcher who has thrown at least 30 innings this season has a high strikeout rate. It’s not even close, really. Robertson leads in K/9 by more than one full strikeout and in K% by roughly three percentage points. He’s been dominant in every sense of the word.

The Yankees will need Robertson to continue his dominance in the second half for obvious reasons, though his looming free agency will be hanging over everyone’s head. The two sides have not discussed an extension but that could change at any time. Relievers like Robertson — super high strikeout pitchers with proven late-inning/big market chops and no history of arm problems — are rare and the Yankees should make every effort to keep him beyond this season. If his work this year doesn’t convince them he is the man to replace Rivera long-term, then I’m not sure they’ll ever find someone good enough.

Lots of (very) high fives for Dellin this year. (Presswire)

Undisputed best photo of the season. (Presswire)

Dellin Betances — Grade A

Just a few short months ago, Betances had a win a roster spot in Spring Training. Now he’s an All-Star high-leverage reliever who is 1996 Rivera to Robertson’s 1996 John Wetteland. Betances has a 1.46 ERA (1.37 FIP) while ranking third among full-time relievers in innings (55.1) and first in both fWAR (2.1) and bWAR (1.7). His strikeout rate (13.66 K/9 and 40.8 K%) is a bit behind Robertson’s but still among the highest in the league. He’s also stopped walking dudes (2.60 BB/9 and 7.8 BB%) and is getting grounders (50.5%).

Joe Girardi has not been shy about using Betances for multiple innings given his history as a starter — Betances has recorded at least four outs in 25 of his 40 appearances and at least six outs 12 times — though he did take his foot off the gas right before the All-Star break because it did appear the big right-hander was starting to fatigue a bit. His stuff was still electric but not quite as crisp. Hopefully the break recharges his batteries. A little more than a year ago, Betances looked like he may soon be out of baseball. The move into the bullpen has saved his career and given the Yankees a second elite reliever to pair with Robertson in the first season post-Mo.

(Elsa/Getty)

(Elsa/Getty)

Adam Warren — Grade B

From spot starter to swingman to trusted high-leverage reliever. Warren has had his role redefined over the last few seasons and he has now settled in as a quality third option behind Robertson and Betances. His numbers — 2.79 ERA (2.70 FIP) in 42 appearances and 48.1 innings — are not quite as good as those two, but he gets strikeouts (8.57 K/9 and 22.4 K%), gets grounders (46.8%), and is stingy with ball four (2.79 BB/9 and 7.3 BB%). His fastball velocity has also ticked up in short relief, averaging 94.1 mph this year after sitting 93.0 last year.

As with Betances, Girardi has taken advantage of Warren’s history as a starter by using his for multiple innings on several occasions — he’s recorded 4+ outs in 18 of his 42 appearances. The Yankees have said that if the need arises, they would pull Warren out of the bullpen and stick him in the rotation, but starters are dropping like flies and it hasn’t happened yet. Warren seems to have found a niche in short relief and he’s been a very valuable member of the bullpen despite being overshadowed by Robertson and Betances.

(Elsa/Getty)

Kelly and Kelley. (Elsa/Getty)

Shawn Kelley — Grade C

It was a tale of two first halves for Kelley, who opened the season as the regular eighth inning guy and nailed down four saves in four chances while Robertson was on the disabled list in April. He had a 1.88 (1.67 FIP) in his first 14.1 innings of the year before a disaster outing against the Angels on May 5th (two outs, four walks, three runs), after which he was placed on the disabled list with a back injury. It kept him out a month and he has a 4.05 ERA (3.21 FIP) in 13.1 innings since returning.

Kelley didn’t look right when he first returned from the back problem. He wasn’t able to finish his pitches and his trademark slider didn’t have much bite. It just kinda spun and floated. He looked much better in his last few outings before the All-Star break — one run, five hits, no walks, 13 strikeouts in 8.1 innings — and hopefully that’s a sign he’s now 100% and ready to take on some late-inning responsibilities so Girardi can spread the workload around. Definitely a mixed bag for Kelley in the first half.

Matt Thornton — Grade C

The rules of baseball fandom say we must hate the team’s lefty specialist, but Thornton has been solid (3.10 ERA and 3.04 FIP) in his 38 appearances and 20.1 innings. As his innings-to-appearances ratio suggests, Girardi has used him as a true matchup left-hander and not tried to force it against righties whenever possible. Thornton has held same-side hitters to a .229/.319/.244 (.262 wOBA) batting line with a 15.1% strikeout rate, a 3.8% walk rate, and a 50.0% ground ball rate. Solid.

(Stephen Dunn/Getty)

(Stephen Dunn/Getty)

The only real negative about Thornton is he doesn’t miss bats, even against left-handed hitters. That 15.1% strikeout rate is 76th out of the 90 left-handed pitchers who have faced at least 50 left-handed batters this year. Lefties have swung and missed only 20 times at the 220 pitches Thornton has thrown them this year (9.1%). That kinda sucks for a left-on-left reliever. Thornton missed a week with undisclosed soreness right before the break but did return to pitch against the Indians last week. LOOGYs, huh? Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.

Preston Claiborne and David Huff — Grade C

Remember how awful Claiborne looked in Spring Training? We were talking about him as a candidate to be dropped from the 40-man roster if a need arose, but the Yankees kept him around and he pitched to a 3.57 ERA (3.82 FIP) in 17.2 innings while going up and down a few times in the first half. Three of his nine walks were intentional, uglifying his numbers a bit. Claiborne is currently on the Triple-A Scranton disabled list with a shoulder injury of unknown severity, which is not insignificant given his status as the team’s primary up and down depth arm.

The Yankees re-acquired Huff from the Giants in mid-June as part of their continuing efforts to find a not awful long man, and he’s since given the team 16.2 innings of 2.16 ERA (5.18 FIP) ball. Girardi used him as a matchup lefty while Thornton was out with his soreness and that predictably did not go well. Warren was pretty awesome by long man standards last year and that kinda spoiled us. Most long relievers stink. Is Huff keeping runs off the board? His ERA says yes. Has it been pretty? No but who cares. In that role you just want someone who can limited the damage and Huff has done that for the most part.

Alfredo Aceves — Grade F

Did you realize Aceves threw the sixth most innings among the team’s relievers in the first half? I sure didn’t. The Mexican Gangster threw 5.1 scoreless innings in long relief in his first outing back with the team, but it was all downhill from there. He allowed 14 runs on 20 hits (six homers!) and four walks in his next nine games and 14 innings, putting his overall season numbers at 6.52 ERA (6.29 FIP) in 19.1 total innings. The Yankees designated Aceves for assignment in early-June, he accepted the outright assignment to Triple-A Scranton, and he was recently suspended 50 games after a second failed test for a drug of abuse. He will be missed by: no one.

Matt Daley, Jose Ramirez, Bruce Billings, Jim Miller, Chris Leroux, Cesar Cabral, and Wade LeBlanc — Grade F

The combined pitching line of these seven: 33.2 IP, 46 H, 36 R, 33 ER, 19 BB, 33 K, 6 HBP, 6 HR. That’s an 8.82 ERA and a 5.19 FIP in one more inning than Robertson has thrown this year. I didn’t even include Dean Anna. /barfs

* * *

Girardi has had to rely on his bullpen more than I’m sure he would have liked in the first half, mostly because of the rotation injuries. Yankees relievers have thrown 292 innings this season, the 13th most in MLB, though their 264 total pitching changes are only 23rd most. That’s because of guys like Betances, Warren, and Huff being used for multiple innings at a time.

The bullpen has a 3.85 ERA (3.60 FIP) overall, which is bottom third in the league, but they have a top-heavy relief crew with arguably the best setup man/closer tandem in the game. The late innings are no problem at all. The middle innings are where it gets messy. Kelley is the bullpen key to the second half to me — if he gets back to pitching like he did before his back started acting up, Girardi will have another trustworthy high-strikeout arm who could potential solve that middle innings problem.

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Even though it is not really the halfway point of the season, there is no better time to review the first half than the All-Star break. This week we’ll hand out some simple, straightforward, and totally subjective grades, A through F, for the catchers, infielders, outfielders, rotation, and bullpen. We’ve already covered the catchers, infielders, and outfielders, so now let’s move on to the rotation.

(Presswire)

(Presswire)

Masahiro Tanaka — Grade A

I didn’t think it would be possible for Tanaka to meet, nevermind exceed expectations after the Yankees invested $175M in the 25-year-old right-hander this winter. A contract (and release fee) like that comes with ace-sized expectations and given everything he had to adjust to — five-day pitching schedule, new hitters, tougher parks, new culture, etc. — I didn’t think there was any chance he would pitch that well right away. I didn’t think he’d be bad, he’d be really good but there would be an adjustment period, right? How could there not be?

Well, there wasn’t. Tanaka showed up to Spring Training on the first day and looked like he had been wearing pinstripes for years. The transition was seamless, or at least he made it appear that way. He was all business from day one, embracing the five-day schedule and the new workout routines (remember all the running early in camp?). Tanaka was the position player of Hideki Matsui. The guy who fit in so well, so soon that it was like he was born to wear pinstripes.

Tanaka lived up to the hype on the field, of course. That’s most important. He has thrown 129.1 innings in 18 starts, and among the 45 AL pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, Tanaka ranks third with a 2.51 ERA, third with 4.1 bWAR,, fourth with a 3.7% walk rate, fourth with a 7.1 K/BB ratio, fifth with a 26.6% strikeout rate, sixth with 3.2 fWAR, tenth with a 3.07 FIP, and 20th with a 45.9% ground ball rate. The only negative in his game is the long ball; he’ll give up some dingers (1.04 HR/9 and 14.4 HR/FB%). It’s a minor nuisance. Other than that though, Tanaka was one of the five best starting pitchers in the league in the first half.

Unfortunately, Tanaka suffered a partially torn elbow ligament in what was scheduled to be his second to last start before the All-Star break. Three doctors recommended he rehab the injury rather than undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery, so Tanaka received a platelet-rich plasma injection earlier this week and is currently resting before starting a throwing program. The expectation is that he will be able to return to the rotation later in the year, but surgery will remain a possibility if the rehab is less than perfect. It sucks but it is what it is. Tanaka managed to exceed expectations before the injury. What a stud.

(Eric Christian Smith/Getty)

(Eric Christian Smith/Getty)

CC Sabathia — Grade F

I was optimistic about Sabathia’s chances of rebounding this year, though I didn’t have much to base that on other than blind faith and Sabathia’s track record. I’m not even talking about getting back to being an ace. Just being a solid mid-rotation workhorse would have been plenty good enough for me. Instead, Sabathia gave the team a 5.28 ERA (4.79 FIP) in eight starts and 46 innings before going down with a degenerative knee condition. A stem cell procedure apparently did not work and now he’s facing the possibility of microfracture surgery, which could be career-threatening.

Rather than shake off the career worst 2013 season, Sabathia got worse and added in a serious injury this year. Not good. I mean, if you really want to squint your eyes and find a silver lining, know that his strikeout (9.39 K/9 and 23.0 K%) and walk (1.96 BB/9 and 4.8 BB%) rates were outstanding. That … really doesn’t make me feel much better at all. Maybe an incomplete would be a more appropriate grade given the injury (which might have led to the poor performance), but eight starts is one-fourth of the season. That’s not insignificant.

Anyway, Sabathia’s knee injury is very serious and remember, he’s only 33. We’re not talking about some guy approaching 40 here. Sabathia is still relatively young and an ultra-competitive type who leaves everything on the field — remember when he started four games in 12 days for the Brewers on the eve of his free agency? You’re kidding yourself if you think he’s just going to walk away from the game because of the knee injury — and now there’s a chance he may never pitch again. Like, for real.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Hiroki Kuroda — Grade C

There were plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Kuroda coming into the season, specifically his age (39) and brutal finish to the 2013 season. The Yankees re-signed him though, and while he has not pitched as well as he did the last two years, Kuroda has given the team innings every fifth day and is the only Opening Day rotation member not to come down with an injury. His 4.10 ERA (3.91 FIP) can be split up into a 4.62 ERA (3.75 FIP) in his first eight starts and 48.2 innings and a 3.72 ERA (4.02 FIP) in his last eleven starts and 67.2 innings, if you choose.

With Tanaka and everyone else going down with injuries — for weeks too, these aren’t 15 days on the disabled list and you’re good to go type of injuries — the Yankees need Kuroda to remain that reliable innings eater in the second half. Actually, they need him to be better than that, which is a problem because of his late-season fades. The Yankees absolutely can not afford that this year, not if they want to contend. Kuroda is currently the staff ace by default and the team needs him to reverse his recent trends and be better in the second half than he was in the first.

Big Mike

Michael Pineda — Grade D

It was fun while it lasted, wasn’t it? Two years after the trade that brought him to New York, Pineda was finally healthy enough to help the Yankees, and he started the year by pitching to a 1.83 ERA (2.73 FIP) in four starts and 19.2 innings. He was an ace! An ace on a very strict pitch count (no more than 94 pitches or six full innings in his four starts), but an ace nonetheless. The Yankees were finally getting some kind of return on the trade and it was glorious.

Then it all came to a crashing halt in Fenway Park in late-April. Two starts after the internet caught him with a glob of pine tar on his hand, Pineda was caught with an even bigger glob of pine tar on his neck. Red Sox manager John Farrell did not let it slide this time. He alerted the umpires and Pineda was ejected and eventually suspended ten games. While serving the suspension, he suffered a back/shoulder muscle injury and has been sidelined since. He just started throwing off a mound last week (after the #obligatorysetback). Given his recent history, there’s no possible way the Yankees could count on Pineda to return to help the rotation in the second half. If he does come back, it’s a bonus. But man, those 19.2 innings were pretty awesome, weren’t they?

(Brian Blanco/Getty)

(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Ivan Nova — incomplete

I went back and forth between giving Nova an F or an incomplete. He did make four starts this year, after all. Four terrible starts, with 40 base-runners and an 8.27 ERA (6.91 FIP) in 20.2 innings. But he also blew out his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery in late-April. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming the elbow contributed to his poor performance and that he was never really healthy this year. I don’t know, an F just seems too harsh for a guy that barely pitched before his elbow ligament snapped. Maybe I’m being too kind.

The Yankees lost Nova for the season and that’s a pretty significant blow. Not just for this year either, the timing of the injury means he will start next season on the disabled list and the team won’t really know what to expect from him. This is an injury that impacts two seasons, not only one. This was supposed to be the year for Nova to build on his strong second half of 2013 and stop the up and down nonsense, establishing himself as a no-doubt big league starter. That won’t happen.

David Phelps — Grade B

Once the injuries started to strike, Phelps worked his way into the rotation and has remained there ever since. He’s pitched to a 3.94 ERA (4.31 FIP) in 89 total innings, including a 3.96 ERA (4.08 FIP) in 13 starts and 77.1 innings since moving into the rotation. The Yankees have also been able to count on Phelps for innings — he’s thrown at least five full innings in all 13 starts (even before he was fully stretched out) and at least six full innings eight times in his last ten starts. That’s been much-needed.

(Mike Stobe/Getty)

(Mike Stobe/Getty)

There were some questions about Phelps and his ultimate role coming into the season — remember, he missed most of the second half last season with a pair of forearm strains — but things worked themselves out and he’s become one of the team’s three most reliable pitchers in the wake of the injuries. He’s been a godsend. You can’t ask anything more of a sixth starter. Now the Yankees need Phelps to keep it up in the second half. He’s in the rotation for good.

Chase Whitley — Grade C

It was definitely a tale of two first halves for Whitley. He came up following all the injuries and was outstanding in his first seven starts, posting a 2.56 ERA (2.75 FIP) in 28.2 innings. Considering he was a full-time reliever as recently as last July and the rotation was in total disarray, getting that kind of production out of Whitley was a minor miracle. The Yankees needed it desperately.

Then everything came crashing to a halt one night in Toronto last month, when the Blue Jays punished Whitley for eight runs in 3.1 innings. It wasn’t just a bump in the road either. He has a 9.43 ERA (6.14 FIP) in 21 innings since. (That includes two scoreless innings in relief.) After allowing eleven runs on 44 base-runners (one homer) in his first seven starts, Whitley has allowed 20 runs on 40 base-runners (five homers) in his last four starts. Those first seven starts were so good that I’m not going to go any lower than a C, especially since we’re talking about a guy who had never started regularly until this year. All things considered, Whitley’s been a plus even if he’ll only be a reliever going forward. He helped much more than I thought he would as a starter.

Vidal Nuno — Grade D

Nuno was actually the first guy to be pulled out of the bullpen and stuck in the rotation, but that had more to do with timing than anything. He was the only one rested and able to make a spot start because of a doubleheader in April, and he lined up perfectly to replace Nova after he blew out his elbow. That’s all. Nuno had a 5.42 ERA (5.18 FIP) in 78 total innings for the Yankees, including a 4.89 ERA (4.86 FIP) in 14 starts and 73.2 innings before being traded away two weeks ago. There were some good starts mixed in there and more than a few duds as well.

(Patrick McDermott/Getty)

(Patrick McDermott/Getty)

Brandon McCarthy and Shane Greene — incomplete

These two both joined the rotation last week. I mean literally. Greene made his first career start last Monday and McCarthy made his first start in pinstripes on Wednesday. Throw in Greene’s second start last Saturday and they’ve combined to allow six run (three earned) in 20.1 innings. They also have a combined 57.1% ground ball rate, which is pretty awesome even if it is a super small sample. Greene’s mid-90s sinker and upper-80s slider make me think he has more rotation staying power than either Nuno or Whitley, but, either way, we’ll see plenty more of these two in the second half.

* * *

Any time a team loses four of its five Opening Day rotation members, including three within the first six weeks of the season, they’re going to be scrambling for pitching. No team has enough depth to go nine starters deep. The Yankees have been able to tread water thanks to Phelps and some timely outings from Whitley and Nuno, who have since been replaced by McCarthy and Greene. The team clearly needs another starter in the wake of Tanaka’s injury and, frankly, they could have used another starter before that. This is a patchwork staff held together by Kuroda, Phelps, and McCarthy at the moment, and there’s no telling how much longer the duct tape will hold.

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Even though it is not really the halfway point of the season, there is no better time to review the first half than the All-Star break. This week we’ll hand out some simple and straightforward grades, A through F, for the catchers, infielders, outfielders, rotation, and bullpen. These grades are totally subjective. We’ve already covered the catchers and infielders, so now let’s move on to the outfielders.

(Presswire)

(Presswire)

Brett Gardner — Grade A

Through the first 94 games of the 2014 season, Gardner has been the Yankees’ best position player. The team got out ahead of his impending free agency by signing him to a four-year extension worth $52M in Spring Training, a deal that looked sensible at the time and looks like a bargain now given his production and the lack of quality outfielders in the upcoming free agent classes.

Among players with at least 100 plate appearances, Gardner leads the team in one-base percentage (.353) and total bases (146), ranks second in batting average (.279), slugging percentage (.424), stolen bases (15), OPS+ (116), and wRC+ (116), and first in both bWAR (2.9) and fWAR (2.7). He’s already set a career-high with nine homers. Gardner actually started the season in a funk, going 15-for-62 (.242) in the team’s first 18 games, but he’s hit .286/.366/.447 (126 wRC+) in the 76 games since. That’ll do just fine.

Gardner’s defense continues to be excellent as well. He slid back into left field seamlessly and has performed up to his usually defensive standards, which are rather high. Inside Edge data rates his glovework very well. The Yankees tried shuffling things around and actually started Gardner in right field during a game at Fenway Park in April, but that was a disaster. It looked like he had never played the outfield before. Left field is where he remains and whenever the need has arisen for whatever reason, he’s slid over and filled in at center without missing a beat.

The only negatives in Gardner’s game are his career-high 21.7% strikeout rate and career-low 11.6% stolen base attempt rate. The strikeout issue seems to have to do with him being a little more aggressive in certain counts and swinging for a fences, hence the homers. The stolen base this is weird — he ran in 14.3% of his opportunities last year and in 25.0% of his opportunities from 2010-12. Gardner is still on pace for 26 steals (in 33 attempts), but it appears his days of 45+ stolen bases are over. That’s a shame. Either way, he’s having an unreal season.

Jacoby Ellsbury – Grade B

(Elsa/Getty)

(Elsa/Getty)

As the story goes, it became clear to the Yankees they were going to lose Robinson Cano on a Friday, so they acted quickly to sign Ellsbury before a bidding way broke out. The two sides were in agreement the following Tuesday, and the Friday after that, Cano hooked on with the Mariners. The Yankees replaced Cano with the second best free agent in Ellsbury even though he wasn’t a great fit for the roster — they already had a perfectly capable speedy leadoff hitter and strong defensive center fielder in Gardner.

Ellsbury has been very good through his first season in pinstripes, hitting .282/.346/.400 (105 wRC+) with six homers and 24 steals in 29 chances. That’s right in line with the .289/.341/.407 (103 wRC+) batting line he put up from 2012-13 following his outlier 2011 campaign. Ellsbury’s power has not ticked up despite the move into lefty friendly Yankee Stadium and that makes total sense — almost all of his hits are line drives to left and center field. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just not conducive to taking advantage of the short porch.

As expected, Ellsbury has had an impact both on the bases and in the field. He’s on pace for 41 steals with an 82.8% success rate, which would make him the team’s first 40-steal guy since Gardner in 2011. The defensive stats hate Ellsbury this year and I don’t get it — it’s a Gardner thing, it happened with Curtis Granderson too, he must be stealing outs and hurting the center fielder’s defensive numbers — but based on the eye test he’s been phenomenal in center. Better than Gardner last season and Gardner was awesome.

Because of injuries and underperformance and all that, the Yankees and Joe Girardi have had to improvise with their lineup. That means Ellsbury has been miscast as a three-hole hitter for most of the year while Gardner bats leadoff. They really don’t have an alternative at this point. Ellsbury lacks the traditional three-hole hitter skills in that he can’t create a run with one swing, but that’s not his fault. He’s a leadoff hitter the team is asking to hit third. Either way, Ellsbury was pretty awesome in the first half.

(Elsa/Getty)

(Elsa/Getty)

Carlos Beltran — Grade F

Worst case scenario? Possibly. The Yankees signed the 37-year-old Beltran (for three years!) to be the middle of the order hitter they lost in Cano, but so far all they’ve gotten is a broken down former star who has struggled to both be productive and stay on the field. This is the position player version of Randy Johnson — the right player, only nine years too late.

Beltran has hit .216/.271/.401 (78 wRC+) with nine homers in 228 plate appearances this year while missing time with elbow, knee, and concussion problems. He has a bone spur in his elbow that cost him a month and will require offseason surgery. It has relegated him to full-time DH duty because he can’t throw. (He tried a throwing program but had to shut it down due to discomfort.) The concussion was a fluke injury that occurred when he lined a ball off the cage and back into his face during batting practice. It’s that kinda year.

It’s easy to forget Beltran actually mashed at the start of the season. He was hitting .298/.339/.614 (151 wRC+) with four homers through the team’s first 16 games, then he flipped over the short wall in Tropicana Field while trying to catch a foul pop-up, and has hit .189/.249/.331 (56 wRC+) in 193 plate appearances since. I don’t know it it’s just a coincidence or if he hurt himself flipping over the wall, but he hasn’t hit for nearly 200 plate appearances now. Clutch hits? Beltran hit that walk-off homer against Zach Britton but otherwise has a .156/.216/.297 (25 wRC+) batting line with men in scoring position and a .130/.241/.391 (55 wRC+) batting line in high-leverage situations.

Because he’s not hitting and can’t play the field — not that his defense was a positive, he hurts the team less as the DH, to be honest — Beltran has very little value to the Yankees right now. He could start hitting at any moment and it would be a huge help if he did, but the combination of injuries and age are working against him. Beltran’s first three and a half months in pinstripes couldn’t have gone much worse.

(Al Bello/Getty)

(Al Bello/Getty)

Alfonso Soriano — Grade F

Man, this sucks. Soriano was one of the most fun to watch players when he on a roll and having a full season of him was supposed to give the Yankees a big offensive shot in the arm. Instead, he put up a .221/.244/.367 (60 wRC+) line with six homers and an unsightly 71/6 K/BB in 238 plate appearances before being dropped from the roster roughly two weeks ago. He wasn’t even hitting lefties anymore (80 wRC+). That’s it. Without warning he went from 34 homers and a 121 wRC+ in 2013 to being done in 2014. Like done done.

Soriano started the year as the full-time DH in deference to Gardner, Ellsbury, and Beltran in the outfield. He eventually moved to right — he had never played the position before (other than Spring Training) and I thought he did about as well as he could have realistically been expected to perform defensively — once Beltran got hurt, but eventually he lost playing time to Ichiro and was pushed into the light half of a platoon. The Yankees released Soriano earlier this week and he told Marly Rivera he might simply retire rather than continue playing. It was not a pretty end.

Ichiro Suzuki — Grade C

The Yankees relegated Ichiro to fifth outfielder status with their offseason spending spree, and even that was only after they were unable to trade him. And yet, through the traditional first half, he has batted 220 times and appeared in 81 games, the sixth most on the team. He took over as the most of the time right fielder a few weeks ago thanks to both his strong performance and the underwhelming performance of others.

(Presswire)

(Presswire)

Ichiro is hitting .297/.347/.337 (90 wRC+) with six stolen bases on the season, though his bat predictably cooled once pressed into everyday duty. He went 25-for-37 (.373) with a 142 wRC+ as a reserve player during the first 47 team games of the season but has managed only a .259/.308/.289 (63 wRC+) line as a regular in the 47 team games since. Ichiro’s defense has been fine and he’ll still steal the occasional base, but that’s pretty much it. He’s a very good extra outfielder and a pretty terrible regular outfielder at this point of his career.

Zoilo Almonte — incomplete

I get the feeling the Yankees are not going to give Almonte an opportunity to show whether he can be of some use at the MLB level, even as a nothing more than a fourth outfielder. He’s been up and down a few times this year thanks mostly to Beltran’s injuries, getting into ten games and going 4-for-25 (.160) with a homer. Even with Soriano gone, the Yankees have opted to play Ichiro everyday and sub in Zelous Wheeler on occasion. Meh

* * *

Coming into the season, the outfield was expected to be the strength of the team, and it has been. It just hasn’t been as strong as expected due to Beltran’s struggles and Soriano’s brutal ineffectiveness. Gardner and Ellsbury have been the team’s two best players all season and have lived up to expectations in my opinion. Everyone else in the outfield has kinda stunk. Getting Beltran back and producing at an above-average rate will be imperative in the second half. The Yankees will only be able to acquire so much offense in trades.

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Even though it is not really the halfway point of the season, there is no better time to review the first half than the All-Star break. This week we’ll hand out some simple and straightforward grades, A through F, for the catchers, infielders, outfielders, rotation, and bullpen. These grades are totally subjective. We started yesterday with the catchers, now let’s move on to the infielders.

(Presswire)

(Presswire)

Mark Teixeira — Grade B (A+ for Foul Territory)

There were a lot of questions about the infield coming into the season in general, but especially Teixeira. The Yankees’ first baseman missed almost all of last season due to a tendon sheath injury in his wrist that eventually required surgery, and wrist surgery can be very problematic even after the player has been cleared to play. Remember, Teixeira started Spring Training late and has still felt soreness during the season. It has caused him to miss a game or two here and there. (His only DL stint was hamstring related.)

Despite that, Teixeira has been the team’s most consistent and productive power hitter this summer, coming into the All-Star break with a .241/.341/.464 (120 wRC+) batting line with a team-leading 17 homers. His power output (.222 ISO) is right in line with his last full healthy season (.224 ISO in 2012), which is definitely encouraging after the wrist surgery. Most importantly, he’s done most of his damage against right-handed pitchers (130 wRC+), who used to give him the most trouble. Is he Teixeira of old? No, of course not. That guy isn’t coming back. But he’s returned to his pre-surgery ways and been a much-needed force in the middle of the lineup.

Weirdly enough, the biggest issue for Teixeira this season has been his defense. He’s already committed six errors this season, his most since 2004, and while errors are not the best way to evaluate defense, most of them were plays we’re used to seeing Teixeira make. I think his scooping at first has been fine. It’s the hard-hit balls he used to turn into outs that are now eating him up. I think it’s a combination of rust from the lost 2013 season and a decline in his skills. Either way, Teixeira has definitely been a positive for the Yankees this year, especially when you consider he’s coming off major surgery.

(Presswire)

(Presswire)

Brian Roberts — Grade C

There was no way the Yankees were not going to have a massive drop off in production at second base this year. Robinson Cano was the best player at the position last year and has been for several years running, so by definition he is irreplaceable. Roberts was not exactly a popular choice as Cano’s replacement given his long injury history and the fact that he wasn’t all that productive even when healthy ways. The Yankees love veterans though, especially AL East proven guys.

Roberts has remained remarkably healthy so far this year — he missed a handful of games with a back issue in April, but that’s it — while being more than a total zero at the plate. His .241/.306/.376 (87 wRC+) batting line comes with the occasional homer (five), the occasional stolen bases (seven), the occasional walk (8.4%), and always a very long at-bat (4.04 pitches per plate appearance). Roberts has been fine defensively at second if not an asset. He’s a perfectly capable stopgap and No. 9 hitter who has been asked to bear more responsibility. Will Roberts hit a wall later in the year after not playing a full season since 2009? I have a hard time thinking his second half will be better than his first, honestly.

Derek Jeter — Grade C

(Al Bello/Getty)

(Al Bello/Getty)

Like Teixeira, Jeter was coming off a major injury. He missed just about all of last season with a series of leg problems, including a twice-fractured ankle. Add in the fact that he is a 39-year-old shortstop — a demographic that is not well-represented throughout history — and things were definitely stacked against the Cap’n coming into 2014.

Jeter’s season has been underwhelming statistically but I don’t it’s worst case scenario stuff. Like I said, a 39-year-old shortstop coming off a major leg injury could have been really, really ugly. Jeter is hitting .272/.324/.322 (80 wRC+) overall, so his power is non-existent, but he does rank third among qualified AL shortstops in OBP and is only five points away from leading. Is it vintage Jeter? Absolutely not. But relative to the league average shortstop (.308 OBP and 87 wRC+), he’s been passable.

Defensive is another matter. Jeter’s glovework has never been good and at this point he’s barely mobile. The old “he makes the plays on the balls he gets to” rhetoric doesn’t even apply anymore. He’s booted more grounders and made more offline throws this season than I can ever remember. Inside Edge data says he has converted only 46.2% of “likely” plays into outs, which are defined as plays that would be make 60-90% of the time on average. He hasn’t make anything tougher than an “even” play (40-60%) either. It’s been ugly.

The total package, offense plus defense, has not been good for the Yankees this year. At the same time, I’m generously giving Jeter a C instead of a D or F because he has played better than I expected coming off the ankle injury at his age. Maybe I’m just a giant homer. The Cap’n has not been good this season though, certainly not by his standards, but it could have been much worse given everything that happened last year.

(Brian Blanco/Getty)

(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Kelly Johnson — Grade D

The Yankees have put Johnson in a tough spot for most of the year — playing once or twice a week, usually at an unfamiliar position like first or third base — but, at the same time, he knew what he was walking into when he signed as a free agent over the winter. He has hit .214/.299/.380 (87 wRC+) with six homers in 211 plate appearances, including a disappointing 83 wRC+ against righties and an even more disappointing 87 wRC+ at Yankee Stadium. Five of his six long balls have come in the Bronx.

Johnson’s defense has been a problem, though again, he has mostly played out of position — he came into the season with only 18 innings at first base and 118 innings at third base. He has spent 199.2 innings at first and 255.1 innings at third this year, committing nine total errors and not looking particularly graceful either. Johnson was a shrewd signing and a wonderful fit for the roster on paper — left-handed hitter with power who can play the three non-shortstop infield positions as well as left field — but it just hasn’t worked out halfway through the season.

Yangervis Solarte — Grade B

Man those first eight or so weeks were fun, weren’t they? I like to think I’m well-versed in the minor leagues but even I had not heard of Solarte before the Yankees signed him as a minor league free agent over the winter. It goes without saying that no one expected to take over as the starting third baseman for the first eight weeks of the season, during which he hit .299/.368/.458 (128 wRC+) in 229 plate appearances. Solarte was a godsend for a beleaguered offense.

(Al Bello/Getty)

(Al Bello/Getty)

The Solarte Partay came to crashing halt after that, unfortunately. He has hit .111/.238/.130 (10 wRC+!) in 63 plate appearances since, earning him a demotion to Triple-A Scranton. Yangervis has owns a .255/.338/.382 (101 wRC+) line in 288 trips to the plate overall and holy crap, no one expected that. Even if he never hits again, those first eight weeks made the signing more than worth it. That’s even considering Solarte’s occasionally shaky defense. He was a great story and a tremendously productive player into early-June. His days as a useful MLB player may have already come to an end, but boy did Solarte contribute in a big way when given an opportunity early this season.

Brendan Ryan — Grade C

Giving Ryan two years plus a player option this past offseason definitely flies under the radar as a lolwtf offseason move. I mean, yeah, I get it. Jeter was a major question mark, but geez. Ryan spent the first five weeks of the season on the disabled list with a back injury, and he’s nothing more than a no-bat (.235/.273/.255, 43 wRC+ in 55 PA), good but no longer elite glove infielder who plays maybe once a week. It’s far from the best use of the roster spot, but the Yankees are stuck with him. It’s just a weird fit. Even weirder are all those times Ryan played first base while Jeter manned short. He’s fine as the 24th man on the roster. Just a pricey and not at all versatile (in terms of bringing different things to the table) insurance policy for Jeter in his final season.

Zelous Wheeler, Dean Anna, Scott Sizemore — incomplete

These three guys have combined for 61 total plate appearances — Anna has the most at 25 — and have hit a combined .232/.246/.438. Most of the power production comes from Wheeler, who has hit two homers in his 20 plate appearances. He is currently with the team in that revolving door 25th man spot while Sizemore is stashed in Triple-A awaiting an injury. Anna has already been designated for assignment (to make room on the roster for Zelous) and claimed off waivers from the Pirates. I wonder how many more guys will cycle through this role in the second half.

* * *

There were some serious concerns about the infield coming into the season. Teixeira and Jeter were huge question marks following their injuries and the same was true of Roberts given his history. Johnson was the sure thing on the infield at the start of camp. The defense has been hideous — Yankees’ pitchers have a .258 BABIP on ground balls, the seventh highest in baseball (league average is .244), and even more grounders would sneak through for hits if not for the club’s aggressive shifting — and that was fairly predictable.

The infield has, by and large, been more productive than I expected, mostly because Solarte was awesome for a while and Teixeira has shown no lingering issues with the wrist when it comes to raw production. Roberts is the new Lyle Overbay — the best of all the bad players and therefore giving off the appearance of being good — and Jeter’s Jeter. He’s untouchable. The Yankees have some internal options who may improve the infield, namely Triple-A Scranton second baseman Rob Refsnyder, but either way  it’s clear they could use some help in the second half. Beefing up third base is an obvious upgrade area.

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Even though it is not technically the halfway point of the season — the Yankees are 58% of the way through the 2014 season, in case you’re wondering — there is no better time to review the first half than the All-Star break. Over the next few days we’re going to hand out some real simple and straightforward grades, A through F, for the catchers, infielders, outfielders, rotation, and bullpen. These grades are totally subjective. Let’s start with the backstops.

(Al Bello/Getty)

(Al Bello/Getty)

Brian McCann — Grade D

If the Yankees wanted a defensively sound catcher with a .294 OBP and an 83 wRC+, they could have simply played on of their young upper-level guys everyday instead of signing McCann to a five-year, $85M contract. His first half was a colossal disappointment overall, especially offensively. McCann’s glovework and apparent leadership guiding the pitching staff are the reasons I’m giving him a D rather than a straight F.

From 2010-13, McCann posted either a 122 or a 123 wRC+. The one exception was the 2012 season, when he managed an 87 wRC+ while battling a right shoulder labrum injury that required offseason surgery. When healthy, he (very) consistently produced at the plate in recent years. This year though, McCann comes into the break with a .239/.294/.377 (83 wRC+) batting line, which ranks him ninth out of the ten catchers qualified for the batting title (only Dioner Navarro has been worse). Even with his strong first half-ending road trip, he’s been that bad overall.

Unlike offense, catcher defense is a very thing to quantify even with all these fancy stats we have today. StatCorner says McCann has one again been an excellent pitch-framer, and he rates right in the middle of the pack when it comes to allowing wild pitches and passed balls. I don’t think that’s been a problem. I mean, we watched Jorge Posada for a very long time, we know what it looks like when a catcher struggles to keep the ball in front of him. Considering all the nasty breaking and offspeed pitches on the staff — Masahiro Tanaka‘s and Hiroki Kuroda‘s splitters, David Robertson‘s and Dellin Betances‘ curveballs, Shawn Kelley‘s slider, etc. — I have no complaints about McCann’s receiving work at all. He’s been solid, as expected.

One thing we can measure is the rate at which a catcher throws out attempted base-stealers, and McCann has gunned down 21 of 48 runners, or 43.8%. That’s outstanding. It’s fifth among catchers with at least 300 innings behind the plate and second only to (who else?) Yadier Molina among the 16 guys who have caught at least 500 innings. McCann came into the season with a below-average career 23.8% throw-out rate. Is this a fluke? I don’t think so. I think this is Joe Girardi‘s and Tony Pena’s work. They have helped some others improve their throwing in the past (Frankie Cervelli, most notably) and it appears they helped McCann this year. He might not sustain a 43.8% throw-out rate, that’s pretty high, but I don’t think the improvement is dumb luck.

Overall, McCann has undeniably been a disappointment this season. He was expected to provide not just more offense than he’s given, but a lot more. He has not been able to fully take advantage of the short porch in right, perhaps because he’s been focused on hitting to the opposite field to beat the shift — his 20 opposite field hits are already more than his total from 2011 (14), 2012 (15), and 2013 (19). Given his overall lack of production, maybe it’s best for McCann to be himself and focus on ripping the ball to right. Trying to beat the shift seems to be dragging down his offense overall. The Yankees need more from McCann in the second half. There’s zero doubt about it.

(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)

(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)

Francisco Cervelli — Grade C

The first half was a typical first half for Cervelli. He showed enough to keep you interested with the bat, hitting .273/.333/.364 (95 wRC+) in 48 plate appearances. He also threw out some attempted base-stealers, four of twelve (33.3%) to be exact. And he got hurt, missing two months with a Grade II hamstring strain. Cervelli actually played more games before getting hurt last April (17) than he did in the first half this year (16). I can’t possibly go any higher than a C because of the injury and missing so much time. Cervelli is a perfectly cromulent backup catcher for a team with a clear number one (in theory) like McCann. I feel he has performed exactly as expected when healthy.

John Ryan Murphy — Grade C

When Cervelli got hurt, Murphy got the call and showed flashes of why he’s expected to one day be an everyday catcher. He started off very well with that bat before slowing down and finishing his cameo with a .286/.308/.365 (85 wRC+) batting line in 63 plate appearances. Murphy threw out two of ten attempted base-stealers and did allow eight passed pitches in 159.2 defensive innings, so the superficial defensive stats aren’t all that impressive. He looked very much like a young catcher getting his first extended taste of the show. There’s a decent chance Murphy will be traded in the coming weeks, but right now he is a capable backup catcher stashed in Triple-A.

(Presswire)

(Presswire)

Austin Romine — incomplete

Yes, Romine did actually spend some time with the big league team this season. The Yankees called him up and briefly carried three catchers when Mark Teixeira landed on the 15-day disabled list with his hamstring injury in April. Romine spent four days with the team, played two innings behind the plate in a blowout and struck out on seven pitches in his lone plate appearance. That’s it. Romine’s prospect shine has dimmed considerably over the last year or two, and he is currently a part-time first baseman/Murphy’s backup in Triple-A.

* * *

The bar behind the plate is rather low these days, so even with McCann being such a big disappointment, Yankees’ catchers still rank only 19th out of the 30 teams with an 85 wRC+ this year. I thought it would be worse. They have collectively been very good defensively, throwing out 38.6% of attempted base-stealers (third best) while allowed one passed pitch every 22.2 innings (15th). StatCorner says McCann, Cervelli, and Murphy have all been better than average pitch-framers as well and I buy it based on the eye test.

The Yankees just need McCann to hit more, that’s it. Cervelli staying healthy would be nice too, if for no other reason than possibly upping his trade value. On paper, this should be one of the best and most productive two-way catching units in baseball. They’ve gotten the defensive value in the first half. Now they need to offense to catch up in the second half.

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Jun
18

The Ace of Aces

Posted by: | Comments (96)
(Presswire)

(Presswire)

“Overall, I think my stuff wasn’t really there tonight.”

That’s what Masahiro Tanaka told Brian Heyman following last night’s start. A start in which he held the most powerful offense in the league to one run in six innings while striking out ten in the Yankees’ biggest game of the season to date. His stuff “wasn’t really there.”

That’s not the first time Tanaka has been hard on himself following an excellent start — he called the beginning of his first MLB season “okay” a few weeks ago — and it won’t be the last. That’s just who he is. We heard all about Tanaka’s off the charts competitiveness when the Yankees signed him and we’ve seen it firsthand for 14 starts now.

And my gosh, what a collection of 14 starts they’ve been. Tanaka leads the league with a 1.99 ERA and his 2.70 FIP is the sixth best. His 7.06 K/BB ratio would be the fourth best in AL history among qualified starters. Two of the three spots ahead of him are 1999 and 2000 Pedro Martinez, arguably the two greatest pitching seasons in the history of the universe. His 24.5 K-BB% would be the 17th best in history.

By any measure, Tanaka has been one of the best pitchers in baseball this year. Not one of the best rookie pitchers. Not one of the best AL pitchers. Not one of the best Japanese-born pitchers. One of the best pitchers in all of baseball, period. No qualifiers. When friend of RAB Drew Fairservice ranked the best starters in the league recently, he ranked Tanaka first, ahead of the usual suspects. That’s coming from a Blue Jays fan.

The performance has unquestionably put Tanaka among the game’s elite. It’s everything else that puts him over the top. The fact that he’s doing it in a tiny home ballpark. That’s he’s doing it while pitching on a five-day schedule for the first time in his life. That he’s doing it while transitioning to a new league with a tougher travel schedule. And, most impressively, that he’s doing it in a new city with an entirely new culture. Oh, and he has all the pressure of pitching for the New York frickin’ Yankees on his shoulders.

The Yankees paid a handsome price for Tanaka and the contract was heavily criticized because he had never thrown a pitch in MLB. How many times did we hear that? “He’s never thrown a pitch in MLB!” More times than I care to count. Well, now Tanaka has thrown a pitch in MLB. Over 1,400 of them in fact. And at this point he is exceeding even the biggest expectations and hitting on best case scenario stuff. I don’t know how anyone could have possibly predicted he would be this good, this soon.

Tanaka has emerged as not only the team’s ace, but as a rock in the rotation, a stabilizing force that sets everything right every fifth. He has been one of the best pitchers in the game in terms of pure performance, and when you add in all the cultural adjustments he’s had to make, no pitcher has been more impressive. It would have been totally understandable if Tanaka had an inconsistent, up and down rookie year. Most Japanese imports do. He hasn’t though. Instead it looks like he’s been here for years.

The Yankees did years and years worth of homework and they landed themselves a gem in Tanaka. He’s already an elite pitcher and at only 25 years old (!!!), he is a true franchise player the team can build around going forward. Tanaka is their present day ace and will be the cornerstone of the post-Derek Jeter Yankees.

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Solarte Swings

Love Solarte’s full-effort swings. (Al Bello/Getty Images)

We all want to believe his emergence is real. He’s had 200 plate appearances. He has slumped and made us think that the spell was broken. Just when we think it’s over, he comes back and starts hitting again.

Where would the Yankees be without Yangervis Solarte?

Actually, don’t answer that. We read your comments and your tweets. The answer would only depress us.

Much joy as his early season performance has brought, Solarte has a long way to go before he proves he’s for real. History just isn’t on his side. Players typically don’t debut at age 26 and hit like borderline stars.

Hell, players don’t debut at age 26 and even qualify for the batting title. Only 44 have done it since 1901, and three quarters of them did it before 1950. Of those, only seven of them did so in what is termed the Expansion Era (1973 to present).

Even of those seven, two were Cuban defectors: Yoenis Cespedes and Alexei Ramirez. No, they didn’t have MLB experience before their age-26 seasons, but they also weren’t prospects who toiled in mediocrity before suddenly breaking out.

That leaves us with just four decent comparisons to Solarte (Rookie of the Year voting finish in parentheses).

Rk Player OPS+ Year Tm G PA H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB BA OBP SLG
1 Yoenis Cespedes (2nd) 139 2012 OAK 129 540 142 25 5 23 82 43 102 16 .292 .356 .505
2 Yangervis Solarte 129 2014 NYY 53 214 56 12 0 6 26 21 23 0 .298 .366 .457
3 Dan Uggla (3rd) 112 2006 FLA 154 683 172 26 7 27 90 48 123 6 .282 .339 .480
4 Chris Singleton (6th) 105 1999 CHW 133 530 149 31 6 17 72 22 45 20 .300 .328 .490
5 Chris Sabo (1st) 105 1988 CIN 137 582 146 40 2 11 44 29 52 46 .271 .314 .414
6 Alexei Ramirez (2nd) 104 2008 CHW 136 509 139 22 2 21 77 18 61 13 .290 .317 .475
7 David Eckstein (4th) 89 2001 ANA 153 664 166 26 2 4 41 43 60 29 .285 .355 .357
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 6/5/2014.

Dan Uggla

When I thought of players who debuted at 26 and thrived, Uggla immediately came to mind. It wasn’t long ago at all that the Marlins selected him in the Rule 5 draft, inserted him into the starting lineup, and watched him smash 27 home runs.

Uggla didn’t have a terrible minor league career; it just took him three-plus years to get out of A ball. He actually thrived at AA in 2005, but apparently it wasn’t enough for the Diamondbacks to place him on the 40-man roster.

Solarte could do worse than to emulate Uggla’s career. Sure, he’s toast right now, at age 34, but he had a pretty good run for about six years, hitting .258/.343/.482 (116 OPS+).

David Eckstein

Yes, everyone’s favorite scrappy underdog didn’t debut until age 26. He’d actually hit pretty well throughout his minor league career, but struggled a bit upon hitting AA in 2000. The Red Sox placed him on waivers and the Angels claimed him.

In 2001 he debuted and hit not so great, .285/.355/.357. That might be remarkable in today’s game, but back then it was an 89 OPS+. He did go on to have a few decent seasons after that, including a 101 OPS+ in the Angels’ 2002 championship season.

Chris Singleton

A second round pick in 1993, Singleton struggled early in his minor league career. He didn’t flash even half-decent power until age 23, and didn’t have a good season until age 24. After that good season, the Giants traded him to the Yankees for Charlie Hayes. But he proceeded to have a bad season, so the Yankees traded him to the White Sox for some guy you’ve never heard of.

Singleton broke camp with the Sox in 1999 at age 26 and proceeded to hit .300/.328/.490 and finish sixth in the AL Rookie of the Year Award voting. Singleton would never produce even average numbers again (his slash line was good for a 105 OPS+ in 99).

Chris Sabo

Yes, the goggled dude took a while to incubate in the minors. In fact, he spent two full seasons at AAA before making his debut. He certainly hit well enough to earn it. In his first season he hit .271/.314/414, a 105 OPS+ that earned him the NL Rookie of the Year Award. Two years later he won a World Series.

Sabo had a few good seasons, including a pretty monster 1991 season, but he peaked in his late 20s. As did most of these guys. As do most players, really.

The craziest part about this list: Solarte right now has better numbers than all of them. You’d have to count the Cuban players to find one who put up full-season numbers better than Solarte is currently producing. (Cespedes, obviously.)

At the same time, he probably has the least impressive minor league track record among the five drafted players who debuted at age 26. He certainly spent the longest time down there. Sabo, Eckstein, Singleton, and Uggla all got drafted out of college. Solarte was signed as an amateur free agent at age 17 and debuted stateside at age 19.

Given the thin history of players who debuted at 26, it is still difficult to believe that Solarte can keep up his hot hitting. Not only are there few players who debuted at 26 and qualified for the batting title, but none of them, save for Cuban defectors, hit nearly as well as Solarte.

Still, I want to believe. There has to be some magic about this team. Right?

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(Al Bello/Getty)

(Al Bello/Getty)

The 2014 season is now one-third of the way complete. Well, technically it’s one-third plus one game complete for the Yankees. They played their 54th game of the season on Saturday, and through that game they were on pace to go 87-75 with a -30 run differential. There is still a pretty big disconnect between the win-loss record and run differential this time of year. The relationship usually doesn’t start to stabilize until the All-Star break or so, according to Russell Carleton.

Anyway, as is the case every year, the Yankees have had some players or parts of their game be a pleasant surprise this season. There have also been some disappointments as well. That’s just baseball. Things don’t always go according to plan, both for better and worse. So, with all that in mind, let’s review the Yankees’ biggest surprises and disappointments at the one-third (plus one game) point of the 2014 season.

Surprise: Yangervis Solarte
I can’t imagine anyone doesn’t consider Solarte a massive surprise this year. Even if you totally bought into his excellent Spring Training, I still don’t think you could have reasonably expected a .294/.363/.458 (127 wRC+) batting line through the first third of the season. How could you? This is best case scenario stuff. Solarte is not a total fluke either — he has a not outrageous .305 BABIP and is a high contact switch-hitter hitter with a solid approach (23/20 K/BB). That’s a good recipe for success. The infield was pretty unsettled coming into the season, but Solarte has emerged as a legitimate everyday player and a much-needed above-average bat to lengthen the lineup.

Disappointment: Hiroki Kuroda
Maybe Kuroda’s shaky start to the season shouldn’t be much of a surprise given his age (39) and the way he closed out last season (terribly). His 4.57 ERA is by far a career-high — he’s also allowed seven unearned runs because of the lol defense — yet his peripheral stats are right in line with recent years. Check it out:

K% BB% GB% HR/FB Whiff% Zone% BABIP
2014 17.3% 3.9% 47.2% 12.3% 9.8% 42.9% 0.311
2013 18.2% 5.2% 46.6% 10.3% 9.9% 38.8% 0.282
2012 18.7% 5.7% 52.3% 13.0% 9.6% 38.7% 0.281

There’s nothing really crazy going on there. The biggest difference between Kuroda this year and Kuroda the last two years might be that he is throwing too many pitches in the strike zone, which would explain the jump in BABIP. More balls in the zone means more strikes to hit. (The shaky infield defense would explain that too.) Anecdotally, Kuroda has really struggled with his slider and to a lesser extent his splitter. When he misses, he’s missed out over the plate and the ball gets hit hard. When he’s going well, Kuroda lives on the edges and manages contact, meaning lots of weak pop-ups and grounders. Now he’s missing his spots and those pop-ups are line drives. I don’t know if it’s an age thing or a mechanical thing or something else entirely. Whatever it is, it’s made Kuroda part of the problem for the first third of the season.

Surprise: Masahiro Tanaka
Man, how great has Tanaka been? He has taken over as the undisputed staff ace and has legitimately been one of the very best starters in all of baseball. I mean, the Yankees didn’t invest $175M in him because they thought he would be a solid mid-rotation workhorse, they expected him to be an ace. But this good, this soon? An adjustment period to life in the big leagues (and a new country) would have been totally normal.

Instead, Tanaka has been elite (2.06 ERA and 2.52 FIP), with excellent strikeout (10.07 K/9 and 28.7 K%), walk (1.37 BB/9 and 3.9 BB%), and ground ball (48.0%) rates. After allowing seven homers in his first six starts, he’s allowed zero long balls in his last five starts. Tanaka’s splitter has been as advertised (49.2% whiff rate!), ditto his toughness and poise. Dude is a stone cold killer on the mound. I expected Tanaka to be very good this year, but not this good.

Disappointment: Brian McCann
Yeah, he’s been much better over the last three weeks or so, but the Yankees absolutely did not expect a .229/.292/.380 (84 wRC+) batting line out of McCann when they agreed to give him $85M over five years. The homers have been there (seven so far), the other base hits (career-low .233 BABIP) and walks (6.7%, worst in seven years) have not. I’ve thought McCann was pressing more than anything — he is hitting .269/.363/.434 with an 11/9 K/BB in 21 games dating back to the start of the Brewers series, for what it’s worth — and it really isn’t ridiculous to think a guy who changed leagues and had to learn a new pitching staff needed a few weeks to adjust. McCann is trending in the right direction, but he was a negative in the first third of the season, there’s no doubt about it.

Surprise: Dominant Setup Crew
I had no concerns about David Robertson taking over the ninth inning, and yesterday’s total meltdown notwithstanding, he’s been pretty awesome as the closer. Getting the ball from the starters to Robertson looked like it might be something of a challenge when Spring Training opened, but, as has been the case the last few seasons under Joe Girardi‘s watch, setup men have stepped forward.

(Elsa/Getty)

(Elsa/Getty)

Dellin Betances has been unreal, with a 1.38 ERA (0.86 FIP) and a 46.7% strikeout rate in 32.2 innings. I love that Girardi has been using him as a multi-inning setup man (I just wish it wasn’t every other day, fatigue in the second half could be a problem) and effectively turning it into a six or sometimes even five-inning game. Adam Warren has not been quite as dominant as Betances, but a 1.71 ERA (2.34 FIP) with a 23.8% strikeout rate in 31.2 innings plays just fine. Shawn Kelley had 3.52 ERA (2.35 FIP) and a 25.0% strikeout rate in 15.1 innings before hurting his back as well.

Given the lack of offense and generally short outings from the non-Tanaka starters, the setup crew has been super important this season and they have been dynamite. Getting Kelley back will allow Girardi to spread the workload around a little more, which should make them even more effective.

Disappointment: Injuries, Again
The Yankees, once again, dealt with several injuries to key players. Some of them, like Michael Pineda going down with a shoulder issue and Mark Teixeira dealing with nagging wrist soreness, should not be surprising at all. They’re coming off surgery and complications come with the territory. Others, like Ivan Nova blowing out his elbow or Carlos Beltran developing (or, really, aggravating an existing) bone spur in his elbow, kinda popped up out of nowhere.

The injuries have stretched the Yankees thin and exposed their lack of offensive depth — they had four guys (Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian Roberts, Ichiro Suzuki) in the lineup yesterday who have spent the majority of their careers as leadoff hitters, and that doesn’t include long-time number two hitter Derek Jeter either — as well as forced them to play guys out of position. I mean, 21 games at first base for Kelly Johnson? Really? Injuries are part of the game and no one is going to feel bad for the Yankees. But these are real problems they have to overcome. Again.

Surprise: The AL East Sucks
Overall, the Yankees have been pretty mediocre this season. Let’s call a spade a spade here. At the same time, the AL East as a whole has been mediocre as well. The Blue Jays have been the best team in the division by a decent margin with a 34-24 record and a +34 run differential. The other four teams are 107-116 with a -65 run differential combined. The Rays are especially terrible. They’re a half-game worse than the Astros (!) at 23-34 with a -38 run differential. Can you believe that?

The Yankees are only 3.5 games back of Toronto, which is nothing with two-thirds of the season to go. They still have five head-to-head series to play. There does not appear to be that one great team that will run away with the division, which means New York’s general mediocrity will not sink them over the summer. This division could be decided by which team gets the most impact from a call-up or makes the best (not necessarily the biggest or the most) moves at the trade deadline.

* * *

Some aspects of the Yankees are not surprising and have played out exactly as expected. The bad infield defense and general lack of power, for example. Gardner again being totally awesome and one of the most unheralded players in the league is another one. The Yankees are a flawed team and there is no argument to be made against that. They are also a flawed team in an eminently winnable division full of flawed teams. The first third of the season revealed some very real cracks in the dam. The second third is for fixing those cracks and putting the club in the best position to make a run at a postseason berth, AL East title or otherwise.

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May
15

Chase Whitley’s Big Chance

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(Ken Inness/MiLB.com)

(Ken Inness/MiLB.com)

It’s only Mid-May, but the Yankees have already used seven different starters — all of them have made multiple starts too — this season. They will use their eighth starter tonight, when right-hander Chase Whitley makes his big league debut in the Subway Series finale. It remains to be seen how the Yankees will make room for him on the 40-man roster (Bruce Billings to the 60-day DL?), but Joe Girardi already confirmed he will get the start. It’ll happen somehow.

If you had told me about a year ago the 24-year-old Whitley would make his Major League debut as a starting pitching pitcher, I would have thought you were nuts. He was a reliever all through college — Whitley was actually more highly regarded as a hitter at Southern Union State Community College before focusing on pitching full-time during his junior season at Troy — and 135 of his first 138 pro appearances came as a reliever. The three starts were just spot starts in doubleheaders, nothing fancy.

Whitley made five starts for Triple-A Scranton at the end of last season out of necessity; they simply had no one else to start due to injuries and call-ups late in the year. He managed a 1.64 ERA with 18 strikeouts and five walks in 22 innings in those five starts, and impressed enough that the Yankees gave him another chance to start in 2014. In six starts this year, Whitley has a 1.61 ERA with 28 strikeouts and six walks in 22.1 innings. That put him on the map for a call up.

The move into the rotation worked (at least so far) because Whitley was not your typical bullpen prospect. Guys like Mark Montgomery and Danny Burawa are two-pitch pitchers with nasty breaking balls. That’s not Whitley. I ranked him as the team’s 25th best prospect before last season and here’s part of what I wrote:

A three-pitch reliever who isn’t a blow-you-away type, Whitley lives in the low-90s with his fastball and backs it up with both a slider and changeup. His control is fine and his delivery creates some deception. He doesn’t offer the same kind of exciting, shutdown reliever potential as some other players on this list, but Whitley is a big and physical — listed at 6-foot-3 and 215 lbs. — right-hander who throws strikes  and works both sides of the plate. He’ll pitch in the big leagues at some point as long as he stays healthy, possibly before the All-Star break.

My timetable was off, but hey, Whitley is a big leaguer. Baseball America ranked him as the club’s 29th best prospect before the 2012 season and said “both his changeup and slider are plus pitches at their best” in their Prospect Handbook. Whitley has a weapon for righties (slider) and a weapon for lefties (changeup), plus there’s a little funk in his delivery. (He pitches from the stretch exclusively from what I understand.) Here’s some video from earlier this month in which you can see all three pitches in action:

Because he’s only been a starter for a few months, it’s really tough to know what to expect out of Whitley tonight. There’s no track record. I thought he was going to be a good middle reliever and now he’s in the rotation. It’s weird. Whitley was passed over in the Rule 5 Draft this past offseason, which is an indication of how the rest of the league views him. If he succeeds as a starter, even temporarily, it will be quite an accomplishment on his part and a big developmental win for the Yankees. We’re talking about a former 15th round pick here.

Yesterday we learned CC Sabathia has a “degenerative change” in his twice surgically repaired right knee and I don’t know what that means, but I know it sounds scary. He could be out longer than the minimum 15 days. Vidal Nuno has gotten roughed up in three of his five starts (and four of his last six appearances overall) and David Phelps has had one good start and one bad start so far. Hiroki Kuroda‘s been inconsistent at best and very ineffective at worst. The non-Masahiro Tanaka portion of the rotation is a mess right now.

That mess of a rotation is the opportunity of a lifetime for Whitley. The bar has been set quite low and he won’t have to do much to stick with the big league team. A good start tonight means he’ll get another one, almost guaranteed, and stringing a few good starts together means he’ll stick around for a while, even if it is only as a long reliever. The pitching staff is the land of opportunity right now. Whitley was in his third straight year at Triple-A and facing a stalled out career a few days ago. Now he has a change to help the Yankees win games and help himself secure a big league roster spot.

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