Archive for 2014 Season Preview
Over the last 15-20 years or so, no division has been as consistently tough as the AL East. The Yankees and Red Sox have dominated the top two spots, and in recent years both the Rays and Orioles have become more serious threats. The AL East has produced 15 of the 21 AL wildcard teams since the system was introduced in 1995, giving you an idea of how many great teams it’s housed. How is the division competition looking heading into 2014? Here’s a breakdown.
Notable Additions: RHP Ubaldo Jimenez, OF Nelson Cruz, RHP Ryan Webb, RHP Suk-Min Yoon, OF/DH Delmon Young
Notable Losses: RHP Scott Feldman, RHP Jason Hammel, RHP Jim Johnson, OF Nate McLouth
This isn’t a loss in the sense that he was on the team and now he’s not, but it’s certainly worth mentioning that third baseman Manny Machado will start the season on the DL following offseason knee surgery. He should return sometime in April.
The Orioles played the market well and landed both Jimenez and Cruz on favorable contracts. They sorely lacked an ace and while Ubaldo might be the most unpredictable pitcher in the game, he can be absolutely dominant for long stretches of time. Baltimore got a weak .245/.293/.405 (87 wRC+) batting line out of their DHs last season, so Cruz and even Young should help correct that problem. Between Cruz, Chris Davis, and Adam Jones, the O’s have three guys who could legitimately hit 30+ homers. They hit 24 more homeruns than any other team last season and added yet another power hitter this winter.
Even though Johnson always seems to blow games against the Yankees — he blew four of his last nine save chances against them and also took a loss after entering a tie game — the Orioles are worse off in the late innings without him. Webb is underrated and I’m sure Tommy Hunter will be fine in the ninth inning, but Johnson was a very good workhorse reliever and that will be missed. Baltimore is better than they were last season because of Jimenez and Cruz, though I’m not sure if they’re good enough to make a serious run at a wildcard spot. I guess it depends on how long Machado is out, which Jimenez shows up, and how the bullpen shakes out without Johnson.
BOSTON RED SOX
Notable Additions: RHP Burke Badenhop, LHP Chris Capuano, RHP Edward Mujica, C A.J. Pierzynski
Notable Losses: RHP Ryan Dempster, SS Stephen Drew, OF Jacoby Ellsbury, C Jarrod Saltalamacchia
I assume the Red Sox will not re-sign Drew at this point, which means they lost three key up-the-middle position players this winter. Grady Sizemore has had a great spring, but replacing Ellsbury with him is the poor man’s version of replacing Robinson Cano with Brian Roberts. Jackie Bradley Jr., last spring’s MVP, is the backup plan there. Pierzynski takes over for Salty, and rookie Xander Bogaerts will replace Drew. He’s a stud and appears poised to be a force for years to come.
Boston has earned some leeway after winning the World Series, but they lost a lot of good players this winter and are counting mostly on internal solutions to replace the lost production. That’s dicey, especially when talking about prospects. If Bogaerts or either of the center fielders don’t produce, the Sox will be left scrambling. Luckily for them, the pitching staff is deep and stalwarts like Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz are still around to anchor the lineup. The Red Sox have a great farm system and a ton of money, so they have the wherewithal to address any needs at midseason. That said, they won the division by 5.5 games last year and the gap appears to have closed a bit.
TAMPA BAY RAYS
Notable Additions: RHP Grant Balfour, RHP Heath Bell, C Ryan Hanigan
Notable Losses: RHP Roberto Hernandez, RHP Fernando Rodney, DH Luke Scott, RHP Jamey Wright
The Rays will be without Jeremy Hellickson for a few weeks following offseason elbow surgery. They still have David Price and Alex Cobb to front the rotation, but Matt Moore is having a real problem throwing strikes this spring. Like 15 walks in 14.1 innings problem. Chris Archer had a strong rookie season and rookie Jake Odorizzi will replace Hellickson for the time being. Tampa always seems to crank out quality young starters, but with Moore struggling and Odorizzi projecting as more of a back-end arm than anything else, their staff seems more vulnerable than it has been at any point in the last five of six years.
After getting great production from one-year gems like Casey Kotchman and Jeff Keppinger, the Rays doubled down on James Loney and re-signed him to a three-year, $21M contract this offseason. That is the largest free agent contract the team had handed out since the current ownership group took over in 2005. Full seasons of Wil Myers and David DeJesus should boost an offense — DeJesus isn’t great, but remember, he’s replacing Sam Fuld — that ranked third in baseball with a 108 wRC+ last summer. Going from Rodney and Wright to Balfour and Bell is probably an upgrade, especially in terms in 2014 performance. Rodney and Wright are 37 and 39, after all. Tampa improved this winter after winning 92 games a wildcard spot a year ago, so of course they’ll be right back in the thick of the race this year.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Notable Additions: C Dioner Navarro
Notable Losses: C J.P. Arencibia, OF Rajai Davis, RHP Josh Johnson
It’s unbelievable the Blue Jays did nothing this winter, isn’t it? They made all those moves last offseason and were such a colossal disappointment in 2013, yet nothing. They signed Navarro, who was nearly out of baseball three years ago. GM Alex Anthopoulos appeared to be playing the board a bit with the pitching market, presumably hoping to grab Jimenez or Ervin Santana on a cheap contract, but instead came up empty. The rotation includes the reliable Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey, the unpredictable Brandon Morrow, J.A. Happ, and righty Drew Hutchison fresh off Tommy John surgery.
I guess the good news for Toronto is that their offense is dynamite, at least when healthy. Edwin Encarnacion might be the most unheralded great hitter in the game (82 BB, 66 XBH, 62 K in 2013) and Jose Bautista is still a force, so the middle of the order is set. Colby Rasmus has a ton of power and others like Melky Cabrera, Adam Lind, and Brett Lawrie will contribute from time to time. Jose Reyes is dynamic but also prone to injury, and sure enough an MRI revealed a minor hamstring strain just yesterday. He might not be ready for the start of the season. Ryan Goins, who is slated to be the regular second baseman, will move over to replace Reyes to short if need be. He might be the worst everyday player in baseball. In the conversation, at least. The Blue Jays are banking on health and steps forward from guys like Hutchison and Rasmus to improve the team, and even if they get that, they still might only be the fourth or fifth best team in the division.
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On paper, I think you can argue the Yankees are anywhere from the best to fourth best team in the division. They’ve obviously upgraded but so have the Rays and Orioles, all while the Red Sox lost some key pieces. The top four teams in the division are more scrunched together this season, which means the race will be more tougher and more exciting deep into the season. Injuries and unexpected performances, both good and bad, will play an even bigger role in determining the AL East this summer. The division is again very good and there are four teams to be reckoned with. (Sorry, Blue Jays.)
I’ve been watching baseball pretty much my entire life, but I think the first season I can actually remember was 1992. Before that I just watched baseball. The 1992 season when I really started following the game on a day-to-day basis, if that makes sense. That’s when I started paying attention to statistics (wins and RBI, baby) and understood the pitching rotation, things like that. I certainly remember watching a ton of baseball before 1992, but that was the year it went from an interest to an obsession.
One of the things I remember most about that 1992 season was thinking the Yankees had a gem of a young shortstop in Andy Stankiewicz. He carried like a .310 batting average into July and it bothered me whenever he sat for Randy Velarde. I remember being bummed when Stankiewicz didn’t win the Rookie of the Year award, even. I didn’t understand what it meant that he was a 27-year-old rookie. The Yankees were bad and he was a new face, a symbol of hope going forward.
Stankiewicz obviously was far from the shortstop of the future. He didn’t even make the team in 1993, and by 1994 he was playing for the Astros. Guys like Spike Owen and Mike Gallego came and went at shortstop, then in 1995 the Yankees had whatever was left of Tony Fernandez’s career. Similar to how Kenny Rogers was an awesome pickup because he once threw a perfect game, I remember being glad the Yankees signed Fernandez because I had heard his name in an All-Star Game or two along the way.
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The 1995 ALDS loss to the Mariners was devastating to a teenaged Mike Axisa. It was one thing to root for a bad 1992 team or a good but not good enough 1993 team — the 1994 strike sucked, but, looking back on it, I wasn’t as upset as I probably should have been — but rooting for that 1995 squad was something different. I thought the season was over after a long losing streak in August, but the club reeled me back in with that insane finish (26-7!) to win the wildcard spot.
I can’t really explain how I felt watching Edgar Martinez’s double roll to the wall in Game Five, but I remember it. Helpless, I guess. Watching that ball roll and knowing the Yankees’ season was about to end is something I’m never going to forget. The 1995 Yankees were the first postseason team of my lifetime and that series, that double, was the first time baseball ripped my heart out. I was crushed. I didn’t know baseball could make me feel like that.
The relay throw on Edgar’s double was the last play Tony Fernandez ever made for the Yankees. He dove for a ball in Spring Training the following year and shattered his elbow, paving the way for Derek Jeter to become the everyday shortstop. I knew nothing of prospects at the time and I remembered Jeter from his cup of coffee the year before, but nothing more. I expected the Yankees to go out and make a trade, not go with the kid. That was crazy to me.
Unlike Stankiewicz, I didn’t get that “shortstop of the future” vibe from Jeter, at least not right away. He hit the homer on Opening Day and had a nice two weeks to start 1996, but Jeter was pretty mediocre from mid-April through the end of May (proof!), and it was kind of a blah first impression. He tore the cover off the ball from June through the end of the season and that’s when it hit me and I think a bunch of other people that hey, this kid was pretty good. The Yankees might have something here.
With Jeter’s help, the Yankees went on to win the World Series that October and to this day, that is my favorite sports memory and favorite Yankees team. I think everyone feels the same way about the first championship team they witness, regardless of sport. It’s a great feeling, that first title. And, to be honest, I don’t think the 1996 World Series would be nearly as memorable for me had Edgar Martinez not ripped my heart out the year before. As much as it sucked, Fernandez’s no-chance relay throw and the heartbreak of 1995 made 1996 that much sweeter.
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Jeter was outstanding throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, though he was never my favorite player. I’ve always gravitated towards pitchers for whatever reason, so I enjoyed watching Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte more than Jeter. David Wells was a fave too. I was pretty upset when they traded him for Roger Clemens. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t dislike Jeter, but he was never my favorite player the way he is for so many others. That doesn’t make me weird or anything. It’s just my opinion.
For a big chunk of his career, I think I took Jeter for granted. I knew I was watching a great player, but it wasn’t until … I dunno … 2002? that it dawned on me I was watching a historically great player. Maybe it was because he came up at the same time as Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra in an age of super shortstops. I hadn’t suffered through enough Stankiewiczes and Gallegos to grasp how special Jeter was. There was not enough of a scar to make me fully appreciate his greatness, no Edgar Martinez double of shortstops to better put things into perspective.
Year after year, Jeter put up great seasons and the Yankees won, but not like they won when he first came up. The roster had turned over as it tends to do, but Jeter was the mainstay. Pettitte only pitched once every five days. Rivera only pitched when the game was close in the ninth inning. Jeter played everyday, batted in every first inning. There was comfort in that. The Yankees had changed over the years but they were still Derek Jeter’s Yankees. To borrow a phrase, he was the straw that stirred the drink.
Jeter has been a constant for so long, putting up the same great numbers every year and playing every day. Looking back, it’s really remarkable he stayed so healthy for as long as he did. His only significant injury from 1996-2010 was a fluke play, when he slid into Ken Huckaby at third base in 2003. Other than that, he was out there every game. These last four years have been rockier though, both with injuries and poor performance. Seeing Jeter battle baseball mortality has been … weird. Not sure how else to describe it.
I wasn’t terribly surprised when Jeter announced his plan to retire a few weeks ago. The announcement itself was surprising, but the idea that he would soon walk away was not exactly unexpected. At age 39 and after what he called a “nightmare” injury-plagued season in 2013, retirement had to cross his mind. How could it not? This is a guy who has accomplished everything imaginable in baseball and the game wasn’t coming as easily as it once did.
In a weird way, I think last season helped me prepare for life with Jeter. The same was true with Mariano Rivera when he got hurt in 2012. He was not around on a daily basis anymore, which was a new experience. This year, not seeing Rivera come out of the bullpen will be different but not unfamiliar. That same will be true at shortstop next season. Last year did a good job of showing everyone how the Yankees will look without Jeter.
We watched Don Mattingly walk away back in the day, and more recently we’ve watched guys like Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada and Pettitte (twice) and Rivera retire. All were great and beloved but none were as great and beloved as Jeter. Only Rivera is close. Jeter is on another level in every way, both on the field and off the field. It’s possible if not likely he will be the greatest Yankee of my lifetime, which is amazing to sit back and think about. You and I may never see another player of this caliber in pinstripes again. It’s cliche, but you know we’ll all be sitting around as grumpy old people in 50 years saying “yeah he’s good, but he’s no Jeter.”
I have absolutely no idea what to expect out of the Captain in his final season. I thought 2008 was a sign he was slipping, then he was an MVP candidate in 2009. I thought he was done after 2010-11, then he rebounded to hit like his old self in 2012. What happens after all the leg injuries? Who knows. He’s an important part of the team and the Yankees need him to produce, but at his age and after what amount to a year away from the game, he’s a real question mark. Maybe his body will be refreshed following the year off. Maybe his bat speed is beyond the point of return. We’ll find out soon enough.
All I know is that I plan to make an extra effort to sit back and appreciate Jeter this year, something I did not do enough over the years. Appreciate him for the player he’s been, for the leader and ambassador he is and has been, and for being the final tie to that 1996 club. Jeter is last remnant of this remarkable stretch in franchise history; the Yankees didn’t feel the same without him in 2013 and once he retires after the season, they won’t ever feel the same to me again.
The more deeply you examine the 2013 New York Yankees, the more unbelievable their win total seems. On the whole they did nothing well. The putrid offense, which ranked 28th in wRC+, was on display daily. Pitching? They ranked 18th in the league in ERA.
You’d think that if they couldn’t put together a decent offense that they’d compensate with a solid defense. You’d be wrong. They ranked 24th in team defensive efficiency. The guys who couldn’t hit apparently also couldn’t field well.
The 2014 Yankees figure to perform a bit better on defense. They not only brought in an upgrade in Jacoby Ellsbury, but they get back Mark Teixeira. There are a couple of other subtle upgrades, too, that could add up to at least an average defense.
Derek Jeter as a defensive upgrade? Surely I’m just pulling your chain. Sadly, I’m not. Jeter did improve his defense for a few years starting in 2008, but by 2012 it had again declined. How can we expect he’ll provide any value in 2014, at age 40?
Defensive statistics have enough shortcomings that they’re hardly worth bringing into serious discussions. In fact, once the new fielding system becomes public, I think we’ll look back at UZR and laugh. Yet it’s troubling when not just UZR, but essentially every publicly available defensive metric says that Eduardo Nunez absolutely killed the Yankees at SS.
UZR: -20.6 (-40.7/150!)
* This includes all defense, while the others are at SS only
Given Nunez’s deficiencies, Jeter could actually be an upgrade. Furthering the upgrade is a full year of Brendan Ryan on the bench. He’ll provide value as a late-inning defensive replacement and as an occasional starter when Jeter needs a day off. His high level of play could even offset Jeter’s to an extent, even in a fraction of the time.
There is little doubt that the 2014 Yankees will provide better defense at short than the 2013 Yankees. It’s no wonder the Yankees moved quickly to get Ryan into the fold.
To be fair, the Yankees did find an adequate defensive first baseman in Lyle Overbay. He came nowhere near Teixeira’s offensive production, even if you erase his late-season slump. But on defense he held his own.
At the same time, Mark Teixeira is on another level. If we could precisely quantify everything a first baseman does on defense, I have to imagine Teixeira would consistently rank among the league’s top five. He might not be the quickest or most athletic guy on the diamond, but his instincts and reflexes at first more than compensate.
Just because first base is all the way at the end of the defensive spectrum does not mean it lacks importance. Sure, plenty of big lumbering power hitters can stand at first base, but few play the position well. As Ron Washington so aptly put it, “It’s incredibly hard.”
Teixeira handles it with agility and grace. It’s easy to forget the days of Jason Giambi playing first.
Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner
In the last few years Ellsbury has improved his game in center field. A few years ago the Red Sox signed Mike Cameron and moved Ellsbury to left. Perhaps that was the kick in the ass he needed. Whatever the case, he tracks balls well and has plenty of speed, making him a high quality center fielder.
The Yankees had a very good center fielder last year in Brett Gardner. Speed takes center stage in Gardner’s game. He doesn’t always get the best read, nor does he always take the best route. But he makes a lot of plays, because he can compensate with his legs. This year he’ll play center a bit, but not on a day-to-day basis. This helps the Yankees outfield tremendously.
Again taking defensive metrics with a grain of salt (to the point where I won’t quote actual numbers), Gardner produced insane numbers playing left field in 2010 and 2011. Yes, he’s good, but multiple wins good? Here’s the thing with defensive numbers: they compare players at the same position. Since left field is reserved for those lumbering sluggers who don’t have much of an arm, they typically don’t play high-caliber defense. Gardner runs laps around them.
So the Yankees marginally upgrade in center, going from Gardner to Ellsbury. But they upgrade insanely in left field, relative to the league, because Gardner will track down so many more fly balls than his peers.
His bat might not have much left in it, but Ichiro can still run down balls in the outfield. This will come in handy at various points during the 2014 season. He’s the obvious defensive replacement on the bench, giving the Yankees a lockdown outfield in later innings. But that’s not his only role.
If everyone stays healthy – and given Ellsbury’s current injury that’s far from a given – Ichiro wouldn’t get many starts. But guys get bumps and bruises. Carlos Beltran could need days off to rest his knees. Ellsbury and Gardner will need days off here and there even if they do stay healthy. In each instance, playing Ichiro in right makes a degree of sense.
In the the case of longer-term injuries I’d like to see them call up Zoilo Almonte to take more reps, since he still has at least a modicum of big league potential. Ichiro is almost certainly gone after this season, and could be gone before that under the right circumstances. But as long as he’s on the roster, he’ll provide a good defensive option in right field when the Yankees need it.
Over the last few years, as sabermetrics and all that stuff has become more popular, batting average has become underrated. It used to be overrated — not making outs and having a high on-base percentage is still the single most important aspect of hitting — but the art of getting a base hit is definitely underappreciated these days. There is more to life than that of course, but getting a hit is a big piece of the offensive pie.
Last season, the Yankees hit a collective .242 with a team .285 BABIP, rates that ranked 24th and 26th among the 30 teams, respectively. Injuries have a little something to do with the team’s low average, but remember, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira aren’t exactly high-average hitters. Derek Jeter and the out of sight, out of mind Alex Rodriguez are, however. Well, kinda. A perfectly healthy Yankees squad might have hit a few points higher as a team, but not much. The team’s .307 OBP (23rd overall) would have quite a bit higher with good health, I’m sure of that.
The Yankees rebuilt their offense over the winter and back in January I explained how the new-look lineup will bring more a patient approach and, theoretically, a higher team OBP. That’s pretty important. The Yankees didn’t just make too many outs last season, they made too many quick outs. It’s not much of a coincidence that two pitchers (Derek Holland and Chris Archer) threw sub-100 pitch nine-inning complete games against New York last season after only one pitcher (Roy Halladay, surprise surprise) did in the previous ten seasons. The makeshift offense was an impatient lot last summer.
Along with a more patient and disciplined offense should come a group that hits for a higher average. How much higher? I don’t think we could say with any degree of certainty. As underrated as batting average has become, it is still tough to predict because it fluctuates so much from year to year. Robinson Cano is my go-to example: he’s a career .309 hitter who hit .342 in 2006 and .271 in 2008. Did his talent level change in those years? No, it’s just baseball. Weird stuff happens in a game built around hitting a round ball with a cylindrical bat onto a 2+ acre swath of grass. Here’s a look at the Yankees’ lineup and its batting average potential.
Likely to hit .290+
With Cano gone, I don’t think the Yankees have a single player you can comfortably expect to hit .300 or better in 2014. I mean, how many players around the entire league would you safely expect to hit .300+ this year? Cano, Joe Mauer, Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Andrew McCutchen, Joey Votto … that’s probably it. Hitting .300 is hard and few guys can do it year after year, especially in age of declining offense. That’s not to say others won’t hit .300, we all know those guys won’t be alone. Like I said before, weird stuff happens.
The Yankees have two players who are safe bets for a .290+ average this summer and both were acquired in the offseason. Jacoby Ellsbury hit .298 last season (.341 BABIP) and is a career .297 hitter (.326 BABIP) , so he seems to be the team’s best hope for a .300+ hitter. I do think Yankee Stadium will work against him though. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great place to hit, but Yankee Stadium is a homerun park. Fenway Park is more conducive to a high batting average with the Green Monster and weird angles. The park factors at FanGraphs bear that out.
Carlos Beltran hit .296 (.314 BABIP) last season and .288 (.313 BABIP) over the last three years, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he hit .300 or better this summer. Derek Jeter hit .316 (.347 BABIP) in his last healthy season and the guy used to fall out of bed and hit .300, but he’s coming off a series of leg injuries and a lost season at age 40. He hasn’t looked particularly good in camp either, though I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt after missing almost all of last season. So much rust to shake off. Tough to know what to expect from him, but I don’t think many would be surprised if the Cap’n had a big going away year.
As for an out of nowhere .290+ hitter, I’d put my money on Eduardo Nunez, who seems like a lock to make the roster and play more than expected at this point. Nunez makes a ton of contact (career 92.8% contact rate) and he’s fast, two skills that lend themselves to hitting for average, especially in small-ish (~300 plate appearances) samples. I’m not saying he’ll do it, but if you’re looking for a Yankee to come out of nowhere to hit for a high average, Nunez is a good guess. For now, I’ll take Ellsbury and Beltran as the team’s best chances for a .290+ hitter with Jeter an honorable mention.
Likely to hit sub-.250
On the other end of the spectrum, there are a few Yankees we can count on for a low-ish batting average. Kelly Johnson hit .235 (.276 BABIP) last season and .226 (.284 BABIP) over the last three seasons. He’s the safe bet to finish with the lowest average among the regulars. Johnson’s offensive game is built around hitting for power, stealing bases, and drawing walks. I have no reason to believe 2014 will be any different.
Alfonso Soriano hit .255 (.289 BABIP) last season, including .256 (.286 BABIP) with the Yankees. Over the last three seasons it’s a .254 average (.289 BABIP). He’s right on that .250 bubble at age 38. Brian McCann (.256 AVG/.251 BABIP in 2013 and .252/.263 from 2011-12) and Mark Teixeira (.251/.250 in 2012 and .252/.258 from 2010-12) are right there with Soriano. Brian Roberts managed to hit .249 (.267 BABIP) in 296 plate appearances last season and has a .246 average (.275 BABIP) while batting injuries over the last four years. He’s probably the second safest bet for a sub-.250 average this season behind Johnson.
Likely to hit somewhere in the middle
This is a bit of a cop-out, because the vast majority of players hit somewhere in that .251-.289 range. Or at least most regulars do. Bench players and pitchers are another matter entirely. Soriano, McCann, and Teixeira will probably be on the low-end of this range, Ellsbury and Beltran will probably be at the high-end (if not over), and Brett Gardner (.273/.342 in 2013 and .268/.325 career) will be right smack in the middle somewhere. There’s really nothing sexy about hitting somewhere in the .251-.289 neighborhood. The extremes are far more interesting.
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Last season, American League non-pitchers hit .256 with a .298 BABIP as the league average continues to drop. It was as high as .275 (.305 BABIP) as recently as 2006 and .267 (.300 BABIP) as recently as 2009, but down it goes. Ellsbury, Beltran, and Gardner give the team three regulars who you can pencil in for a better than average batting average with Jeter a possibility for a fourth. Others like McCann, Teixeira, and Soriano will be right around the average. Batting average is tough to predict, but based on their current talent levels and the last few seasons, the Yankees have six and possibly seven regulars likely to match or exceed the league average. Compared to last year, that’s pretty darn good.
Outside of last season’s injury wrecked nightmare, the Yankees have done a good job of fielding quality benches in recent years. Guys like Marcus Thames, Andruw Jones, and Eric Chavez provided some offensive pop while others like Jayson Nix were more about versatility. It’s tough for the Yankees to sign quality bench players as free agents — who wants to sit on the bench behind the guys making huge money? — but they’ve had some pretty good backups the last four or five seasons. Let’s run down the 2014 bench.
C Francisco Cervelli
Based on Spring Training, Brian McCann is going to be a great backup for Cervelli this year. Frankie has hit the snot out of the ball these last few weeks, going 14-for-25 with three homers in camp. He’s picked up right where he left off last April before getting hurt, which is good to see. Between this offensive spike — he won’t hit this well all year, but you know what I mean — and his strong defense (particularly his throwing arm), Cervelli would be one of the two or three best backup catchers in baseball, if not the best.
Unsurprisingly, a number of clubs have been scouting Frankie these last few weeks. Quality catching is hard to find and the Yankees have some upper level depth, so it makes sense teams are honing in on him. It would surprise me if Cervelli was traded before Opening Day but I don’t think it’s completely off the table. That’s the only way he wouldn’t make the team. Any idea of a backup catcher competition with John Ryan Murphy and Austin Romine was silly to start with, but if it was a real thing, Cervelli has won. Competition’s over. I think we’ll see him quite a bit against left-handers this season too. It’s not a bad way to give McCann his necessary days off.
IF Eduardo Nunez
I am convinced that Nunez will not only make the Opening Day roster at this point, but he’ll also wind up playing quite a bit, likely in a third base platoon with Kelly Johnson. The writing is on the wall. Scott Sizemore has not played much this spring and is currently dealing with a quad problem, so he hasn’t had a chance to show what he can do this spring. Dean Anna has been solid but unspectacular in camp and Yangervis Solarte feels like a long shot for the roster even though he’s been crushing the ball these last few weeks.
Nunez, 26, now seems to have everything going his way after the Yankees spent most of the winter looking for players to compete against him. He’s hit well this spring (8-for-29 with a homer) and he’s played all three non-first base infield positions, plus he’s already on the 40-man roster. We can’t discount that the club really seems to like him and is willing to give him chance after chance either. The competition for the final bench spot is still technically ongoing, but barring injury, I think the job is Nunez’s to lose. (Keep in mind that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll keep it all season.)
IF Brendan Ryan
Early in the offseason, when Derek Jeter was still a major question mark and guys like Anna and Sizemore had not yet been acquired, the Yankees gave Ryan a two-year contract (with a player option!) to serve as their backup infielder. I can’t help but wonder if they wish they had a do-over right about now. The 31-year-old Ryan is essentially the 13th position player, whose only real job will be giving Derek Jeter and maybe Brian Roberts the occasional day off. He sure as heck won’t be a pinch-hitter and there will be better pinch-running candidates on the bench.
Ryan’s contract is cheap ($6M across three years max) but more well-rounded players like Anna, Sizemore, or even Zoilo Almonte might make more sense for this bench spot. It’ll be interesting to see how Ryan is used this year because right now his role is way more specific thank the typical bench player’s. As good as his defense is, Ryan is a very limited player.
OF Ichiro Suzuki
The Yankees shopped Ichiro all offseason and they continue to showcase him in Spring Training — you don’t think it was an accident he started in center while Brett Gardner played left yesterday, did you? — but no one is biting and it appears he will be on the roster come the start of the regular season. Going from an everyday player, something Ichiro has been since he was 20-year-old, to a bench player is a tough transition to make, but he can be an obvious asset as a pinch-runner/defensive replacement. I suspect we’ll see Ichiro more than we think this season thanks to injuries and days off and whatever.
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If the Yankees do find a taker for Ichiro at some point in the next two weeks, Almonte is the obvious candidate to step right into the extra outfielder’s role. He can do the pinch-runner/defensive replacement thing, but all provide a little offense from both sides of the plate as a switch-hitter. Cervelli and Ryan are locked into their spots right now and I think Nunez has a firm hold on a bench job as well.
This isn’t the most usable group of reserve players in the world — Cervelli is the big bat off the bench right now — but the Yankees are going to live and die with their starters anyway. They don’t have many, if any platoon situations, so the lineup isn’t going to change much day to day. At least in theory. Jeter and Roberts will need days off their feet while both Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Beltran go back and forth between right field and DH, but that’s it. This bench is there for emergencies, not regular use.
I suppose the silver lining of last season’s terrible offense was a strong team defense. The Yankees employed guys like Ichiro Suzuki, Chris Stewart, Lyle Overbay, Luis Cruz, Alberto Gonzalez, Reid Brignac, and Brendan Ryan as regulars at various points of the year, guys who can’t hit but can play some solid defense. The club sported a collective +12.5 UZR and +21 DRS in 2013, rates that are only slightly above-average (13th and 10th in MLB, respectively) on a team-wide scale.
The roster has turned over substantially this past offseason, especially on the position player side. That should greatly improve the lineup, but it will also impact the team defense. Some of the players the Yankees acquired over the winter are very good defenders but others simply are not. Not every player the team added is a two-way threat. Far from it. Let’s look at where the Yankees are vulnerable in the field thanks to subpar defenders.
Last month I detailed how the team’s ground ball heavy pitching staff is not a good mix for their generally shaky infield defense, particularly at the non-first base spots. Mark Teixeira is a stud in the field and I have no reason to think a wrist injury will severely compromise his glovework. Maybe he’ll lose a step or two or some hand-eye coordination with age, but I don’t think the injury will have a huge factor on his defense.
Derek Jeter has moved around well in the field and on the bases this spring following all the leg injuries, but he’s still a negative on defense. We all know that. Brian Roberts has looked surprisingly agile during Grapefruit League play, so maybe he’ll be a positive in the field, at least while he’s healthy. Kelly Johnson comes into the season with only 118 career innings at third base and only 18 innings at first base, where he’s expected to be the starter and backup, respectively. He’s muffed a few hard-hit balls in camp so far, the kind that earned the position the nickname the “hot corner.”
The backup plans aren’t much better. Eduardo Nunez is inconsistent at best and an unmitigated disaster at worst defensively, and Scott Sizemore is coming off back-to-back left ACL surgeries. He hasn’t played enough in camp for us to get an idea of how he’s moving in the field. The various scouting reports indicate Dean Anna is an adequate to solid defender. Teixeira should be fine at first but all of the other infield spots come with defensive questions. I think the Yankees would be pretty happy if the infield graded out as a league average unit come the end of the season.
As of right now, it seems like the plan is to have Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Beltran split right field and DH duties most of the time in 2014. There have been some rumblings Brett Gardner could wind up in right with Soriano in left, but that seems unlikely to happen. The Soriano/Beltran timeshare in right field appears to be the way things are heading.
Aside from one defensive inning in right field during Game Five of the 2003 World Series, Soriano has never played the position. Moving over there at 38 years old may not be an easy transition, and that doesn’t even consider his weak throwing arm. Runners will be going first-to-third on him all day. Beltran was once a top flight defender but he has slowed down considerably with age and injury, to the point where he’s graded out as a below-average defender over the last few years by the various defensive stats. Regardless of whether Soriano or Beltran starts, the Yankees will have a subpar gloveman in right.
It’s not all bad though. First and foremost, right field in Yankee Stadium is pretty small, so there’s isn’t much ground to cover in the first place. Two, with Gardner in left and Jacoby Ellsbury in center, Ellsbury figures to shade towards right to help cover the gaps. Three, Ichiro will almost certainly come off the bench as a defensive replacement for right field whenever the game is close. Even if Ichiro is traded or released or whatever, Zoilo Almonte can do the same job. Whenever they’re in right though, both Soriano and Beltran will be liabilities.
I mentioned this with Soriano in right, but it’s worth pointing out the Yankees have some weak outfield arms in general. Beltran’s is by far the best and might be the team’s best right field arm since Raul Mondesi way back in the day. Ellsbury’s arm is laughably weak and downright Damon-esque while Gardner’s is solid at best. Not particularly strong but accurate. Soriano’s arm is both weak and not accurate while Ichiro’s strong arm plays down because he takes forever to get rid of the ball. Gardner and Ellsbury more than make up for their arms with their range, but don’t expect to see many plays at the plate this summer. Beltran’s the only regular with a quality arm.
Brian McCann‘s Arm
McCann does a lot of things well, specifically hit and frame pitches. He is also said to be very good at blocking balls in the dirt and working with pitchers. The one thing McCann does not do well is throw. Last season he threw out only 24 of 100 attempted base-stealers, below the 27% league average. The year before it was 22%, and in case you’re thinking this might be related to his October 2012 labrum surgery, McCann threw out only 24% of base-stealers from 2006-11. He’s simply not good at shutting down the running game.
In order to compensate for McCann’s arm, the pitcher will have to make sure to pay attention to runners on first base. CC Sabathia should have it the easiest as a left-hander, but runners have been successful in 70% of their stolen base attempts the last three years. Hiroki Kuroda has held runners to a 62% success rate since coming to New York and Ivan Nova has held them to a 63% success rate in his relatively short big league career. Masahiro Tanaka … who in the world knows. Frankie Cervelli has an excellent arm (after some mechanical tinkering last spring) but McCann is going to be the starter because he does so many things well. One of those things is not throwing and it’s something the Yankees will have to deal with this summer. It’s the essence of taking the bad with the good.
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The Yankees have premium defenders at first base and in both left and center fields. The rest of the team will probably be net negative in the field, which is not ideal in an offensive ballpark in a tough division with a sketchy middle relief crew. This club is going to have to out-hit and out-pitch their defensive shortcomings in 2014.
It wasn’t all that long ago that it felt like a miracle whenever a Yankees’ starter completed six full innings of work. At least it felt like a miracle to me. In fact, from 2006-08, the team’s starters completed six full innings only 284 times out of 486 regular season games, or 58%. Over the last three seasons, that number is 67%. Doesn’t seem like a big difference, but it is one extra start of 6+ innings out of every ten games.
Thankfully things have changed in recent years and I think the reasons are obvious. The Yankees haven’t only added better starters over the last few seasons, but they’ve added more durable starters as well. They’ve been getting not just more innings, but more quality innings, and in turn the workload on the bullpen has been reduced. It makes the entire staff better when the starter can go deep into the game.
This coming season, the Yankees again figure to have a few starters who can be counted on to soak up innings and complete those six innings of every five days. Given the questionable state of the middle of the bullpen, having the starter take the ball deep into the game will be more important to the club in 2014 than it was at any point in the last few years. Who is going to eat up those innings? Let’s preview.
Let’s get this out of the way early: Sabathia was terrible last year. The reasons are whatever the reasons are, but the bottom line is that he ranked 76th with a 4.78 ERA and 72nd with 0.3 bWAR out of 81 qualified starters. Terrible. From 2009-12, even bad Sabathia starts were hardly disasters, usually something like four runs in six innings than six innings in four innings. That wasn’t always the case last summer.
And yet, despite all his struggles, Sabathia still managed to throw 200+ innings for the seventh straight year. Mark Buehrle, James Shields, and Justin Verlander are the only pitchers who can make that claim. Sabathia’s 211 innings were the 16th most in baseball, and he completed six full innings in 24 of his 32 starts. He completed seven full innings 17 times, the 12th most in baseball. CC’s effectiveness is waning but he remains a workhorse of the first order, someone the Yankees can rely on to spare the bullpen every five days. I have very little doubt he will continue to eat innings in 2014.
An oblique strain and a concussion caused Kuroda to miss nearly three full months in 2009, but he’s thrown at least 196 innings in the four seasons since. He’s also thrown at least 200 innings in each of the last three seasons. Kuroda, true to his workhorse form, completed six innings 24 times and seven innings 14 times in his 32 starts last season. Remember when I said the Yankees were not just getting more innings, but more quality innings out of their starters in recent years? That describes Kuroda perfectly.
Both the Yankees and Kuroda have indicated they will look for ways to lighten the load on their top right-hander this summer, mostly because he’s 39 years old and has faded late in each of the last two regular seasons. How will they accomplish that? I have no idea. Maybe they won’t send him out for that one extra inning, maybe they’ll use off-days to give him extra rest, maybe they’ll do that and more. Kuroda may intentionally be turned into a 180-inning starter this year, which is still a ton of innings even if it falls short of the hallowed 200-inning plateau.
After three televised Grapefruit League outings, we still don’t really know what to expect out of Tanaka this coming season. We know the scouting report and all that, but until he gets on a big league mound and pitches every fifth day in the regular season, there’s just no way to know what he can give the Yankees in 2014. He could be great, he could be awful, he could be something in between.
What we do know is that Tanaka was pretty durable during his time with the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan, missing a little bit of time with shoulder inflammation in 2008, 2009, and 2012. Tanaka threw 212 innings last season and has averaged 203.2 innings per season over the last three years, which works out to 7.9 innings per start. That was pitching ever seventh day and not a pace he will maintain in MLB, but it shows Tanaka is used to pitching deep into the game.
The Yankees have indicated they will try to work some extra rest in for Tanaka throughout the season, and may start him in the fourth game of the season rather than the third for that very reason — an off-day means his second start would come with an extra day of rest as the number four starter rather than regular rest as the number three. Can he give the team six or so innings every time out? I hope so, but he have to see how efficient he is first. The club will try to give their new starter some extra rest here and there, but make no mistake, he’s being counting on for lots of high-end innings right away.
It wasn’t until his sixth professional season, when he took a comebacker to the ankle in July 2011, that Nova missed a scheduled start. He was insanely durable throughout his minor league career, and he’s thrown at least 140 innings every season since 2008. Nova did miss three weeks with shoulder inflammation in 2012 and four weeks with triceps inflammation in 2013, so he’s not an ironman, but by and large he’s been an innings guy throughout his career.
The question now is whether Nova can be counted on an innings eater in 2014. It’s not just the two relatively minor arm problems the last two seasons, it’s the unpredictability of his performance as well. He’s been very up and down over the last three seasons, not an uncommon problem for a young starting pitcher. Nova’s a big guy (listed at 6-foot-4 and 225 lbs.) and his delivery seems to be pretty smooth, two traits that portend workhorseishness. Can he make the jump to become a consistent 180+ or even 200+ innings guy this season? I hope so. Nova’s is a pretty important piece of the franchise going forward and taking that next step would be a nice development.
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The Yankees have said Michael Pineda will have an innings limit because, well, duh. Of course he will. The kid threw 171 innings for the Mariners a few years ago but it’s hard to think that number means anything after a major shoulder surgery and two lost years. They have to be careful and build Pineda back up slowly. In no way should he be counted on to chew up innings, even if the bullpen was taxed the night before.
David Phelps (94.1 IP), Adam Warren (77 IP), and Vidal Nuno (45 IP) all threw fewer than a hundred innings in 2013, but none of them are particularly young (Nuno is the youngest at 26) and they all have multiple 100+ inning seasons to their credit (Phelps and Warren have multiple 150+ inning seasons). I think the Yankees would let all three throw upwards of 150 innings this season, maybe more depending on how they’re performing.
Sabathia (performance), Kuroda (age), Tanaka (transition), and Nova (unpredictable) all come into the season with questions but they all have the ability to be top-notch innings guys. This isn’t some far-fetched idea either, we’re asking these guys to do something they did just last year and over the last several years as well (aside from Nova). The benefits of having durable starting pitchers is obvious and the Yankees are in line to have several of them in 2014.
I can’t think of another high-profile trade that went as bad as quickly as the Jesus Montero-Michael Pineda blockbuster two years ago. Both teams have gotten nothing from the deal — an especially painful nothing considering the opportunity cost of trading a top prospect or then-23-year-old starter — as all four players involved have either disappointed or gotten hurt. Some have done both. The trade has gone so wrong for both sides that it’s actually kinda fascinating.
That is all about to change, knock on wood. Michael Pineda, who showed up to his first camp with the Yankees overweight and was arrested to DUI soon thereafter, is finally healthy following a May 2012 procedure to repair a torn labrum, the kind of injury that can derail a promising career. The now-25-year-old made his first Spring Training start of 2014 yesterday and looked very much like an effective pitcher, striking out five of eleven batters faced in 2.2 scoreless innings. He also looked pretty rusty, but that is to be expected after such a long layoff.
“The best thing is, my shoulder is feeling great. When my shoulder is feeling good, I can pitch, I can compete. I’m happy with that,” said Pineda to Mark Didtler following yesterday’s start. His fastball velocity is more upper-80s/low-90s right now, a far cry from the mid-to-high-90s he showed with the Mariners three years ago, but it is only March and he should add a few ticks as the season progresses. That he is already touching 93 is promising. As a fastball-slider pitcher, velocity is pretty important to Pineda.
Now for the kicker: we have no idea what to expect out of Pineda this summer. He looks good now, but how will he look facing actual big leaguers every fifth day? What happens once he get 50 or 100 or 150 innings under his belt? Can he hold his stuff for 100+ pitches per start? These are all questions we can’t answer. Remember, the Yankees said they expected Pineda back last June. That didn’t work out. They can’t count on him for anything. Whatever he provides has to be treated as gravy.
And yet, if the season started today, I’m pretty sure Pineda would be the fifth starter. He’d have to be, right? He’s healthy and throwing well enough, plus he has the highest ceiling of the fifth starter candidates by frickin’ far. Actually, forget about ceiling. Pineda might be the best pitcher for the 2014 season out of the lot, nevermind 2015 and beyond. I also think there’s a “let’s finally get something out of this trade” line of thinking as well. That’s not necessarily a good thing, but I do think that mentality exists.
Even though he’s on a staff with an unknown in Masahiro Tanaka and the enigmatic Ivan Nova, Pineda is the biggest wildcard in the rotation heading into 2014. Probably on the entire roster, really. He could be a non-factor like the last two seasons or he could be their best pitcher. Well, maybe not. That’s probably a stretch. Pineda could wind up being their second best starter though, legitimately too. Not in a “everyone else fell apart so he’s number two by default” way. That ability is there. It’s just unclear if we will actually see it this summer.
The Yankees sunk a ton of money into Tanaka this winter to be the future of their rotation, but that does not lessen Pineda’s importance to the franchise going forward. It would be a big blow to the organization if he is unable to re-establish himself this season. The farm system doesn’t have much impact pitching on the immediate horizon and free agency is becoming a less effective to build a roster with each passing year. Pineda can still be rotation solution in both the short and long-term, but until he shows he’s up to the task, the Yankees can’t count on him.
Last season was not a good one for the Yankees’ farm system, and the team has admitted as much in recent weeks. That doesn’t happen often. Usually clubs will say their system is underrated and all that stuff. The Yankees made some non-personnel changes to their player development system over the winter in an effort to get things back on track, though we’re going to have to wait to if those changes actually work.
That said, the Yankees’ system is unique because it has the potential to get a lot better in 2014. The team is adding what amounts to five first round talents to the organization in 3B Eric Jagielo, OF Aaron Judge, LHP Ian Clarkin (2013′s three first rounders), RHP Ty Hensley (2012′s first rounder), and LHP Manny Banuelos. The first three guys are entering their first full year of professional baseball while Hensley (hip) and Banuelos (elbow) are returning from injury. That’s a lot of talent that was not available for most of last summer.
I think we all know who the obvious breakout prospects are. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if Judge or OF Mason Williams or C Gary Sanchez took big steps forward and became top 100 type of prospects. The smaller, unexpected breakouts are the ones that will really help the farm system going forward. Think RHP Shane Greene and C John Ryan Murphy, for example. They were interesting guys who improved and took that big step forward last summer. Who will be this year’s Greene or Murphy? Here are some candidates.
OF Jake Cave
Cave, 21, was the team’s sixth round pick in the 2011 draft, though he missed all of 2012 with a fractured kneecap. He joined Low-A Charleston in mid-April last year and was the team’s best non-1B Greg Bird player, hitting .282/.347/.401 (117 wRC+) with two homers, 18 steals, and a whopping 37 doubles in a tough hitter’s park. The knee, obviously, is fine.
Cave’s breakout potential is built on his all-around game and innate ability to barrel up the ball with his left-handed swing. He’s cut from the OF Slade Heathcott cloth in that he plays very hard — he hurt his knee in a home plate collision — though he is not out of control, and his makeup and work ethic are considered pluses. Cave is really starting to fill out his 6-foot-0 and 180 lb. frame, so some of those doubles could start clearing the fence for homers. I wouldn’t necessarily say he has a chance to become a top prospect, but a strong year at High-A and continued improvement will definitely get him a prominent place on the map.
SS Cito Culver
The Yankees caught a lot of heat for making Culver their first round pick in 2010 and he really hasn’t done anything to justify the selection yet. He struggled so much with the River Dogs in 2012 (75 wRC+) that he decided to stop switch-hitting — Culver made the decision himself and the team went along — sticking to the right side of the plate even though his numbers were better as a left-handed hitter (.642 OPS vs. .508 OPS in 2012). The result: an improved though still not great .248/.322/.362 (100 wRC+) batting line split between Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa in 2013.
So why is Culver a breakout candidate despite three years of impressive performance? Two reasons. One, he now has a full year of being a right-handed hitter exclusively under his belt. Dropping switch-hitting is easier said than done. Remember, he’d never seen a breaking ball that moves away from him until last season. Two, his age. Culver was drafted at 17 and he will spend almost the entire 2014 minor league season at age 21. He’s several months younger than Jagielo and Judge even though he’s about to entire his fifth pro season and fourth full season.
Is Culver ever going to live up being the 32nd overall pick in the country? Almost certainly not. Is there some hope he may not be a total lost cause? Yes. His defense at shortstop is still solid and that’s pretty big. Scrapping switch-hitting and focusing on the stronger side has already helped his offense and could help even more as he gets comfortable. The bar at shortstop is so impossibly low these days that, even with an 80-85 wRC+, Culver can be league average at the position because of his defense. The decision to stop switch-hitting has kept his career alive.
RHP Brady Lail
I did not rank Lail as one of the organization’s top 30 prospects last month, but he was among the final cuts. I think he might be the most unheralded potentially great prospect in the system. The 20-year-old from Utah was the team’s 18th round pick in 2012, and last year he pitched to a 2.33 ERA (1.64 FIP) with 51 strikeouts, five walks, and zero homers allowed in 54 innings down in the Rookie Gulf Coast League. He was even trusted to make two emergency appearances for High-A Tampa (that were disasters).
Lail’s fastball sat in the upper-80s when he was drafted but that has ticked up into the low-90s thanks to pro instruction and workouts, and his changeup is improved as well. The pitch was already advanced for a high schooler when he was drafted. His go-to pitch is bat-missing curveball with big break. At 6-foot-2 and 175 lbs., Lail was a classic projection pick who the team hopes will get better and better and he fills out and gains more experience. What sets him apart is his three-pitch mix and his ability to throw strikes, a combination that a) overwhelmed rookie ball hitters, and b) isn’t all that common among pitchers from cold weather states.
RHP Bryan Mitchell
I’m pretty sure I’m going to continue listing Mitchell as a possible breakout prospect every year until he either breaks out or flames out. It feels like the 22-year-old has had the same statistical season every year since being drafted in 16th round of the 2009 draft, but he did cut his walk rate from 13.6% in 2012 to 9.0% in 2013. It’s a sign of progress and I’ll take it.
Mitchell’s breakout potential stems from his fastball-curveball combination, which might be the best two-pitch mix in the organization. His heater sits in the mid-90s and will touch 97 while the curveball is a low-80s hammer, rivaled only by David Robertson‘s in the entire organization. Can he ever put it all together by throwing strikes with his fastball and getting the curveball down and out of the zone for consistent swings and misses? I hope so. As I said earlier, Mitchell is a breakout candidate until either breaks out of flames out. The stuff is simply too good.
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More than anything, the Yankees need their current top prospects to perform like top prospects. Heathcott, Banuelos, Hensley, and OF Tyler Austin have to stay healthy. Jagielo, Clarkin, Judge, 2B Gosuke Katoh, SS Abi Avelino, RHP Luis Severino, and 3B Miguel Andujar have to have strong years in their first full pro season this summer. Will all of that happen? No, of course not. Most of those guys will flame out. But if a few of them can make some progress in 2014 while someone like Cave and/or Lail breaks out, the system will be much better off next spring than it is right now.
In more ways than one, the Masahiro Tanaka signing was the Yankees’ biggest move of the offseason. They ventured back into the big name international market for the first time since the Kei Igawa disaster and they landed a premium, 25-year-old starting pitcher. Someone who has been a workhorse and played on winning teams throughout his career. The kind of player who rarely becomes available for nothing but money, basically.
The Yankees committed a total of $175M to Tanaka back in January, giving him a seven-year contract worth $155M on top of the $20M release fee they will pay his former team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles. That contract includes an opt-out after the fourth year, but that isn’t worth worrying about or discussing right now. We’re hear to discuss what Tanaka can do right now, for the 2014 Yankees.
So far this spring we’ve had two chances to see Tanaka in action, and he was impressive both times. He threw two scoreless innings against the Phillies the weekend before last, and then last week he held that same Phillies squad to one solo homer in three innings. Tanaka has allowed just the one run on four hits and no walks in his five innings so far, striking out four and getting seven ground ball outs compared to four in the air. His third outing of the spring was a simulated game against some minor leaguers yesterday.
By all accounts, Tanaka has handled the transition well so far. He threw the first simulated game of his life yesterday, just to give you an idea of how new this all is to him. Tanaka has handled the baseball part of it well and seemingly the cultural change just fine too, though we can’t know that for sure from where we sit. I think the best thing I can say about him right now is that he’s looked very much like a veteran pitcher going about his business and getting ready for the season. He’s not trying to light up the radar gun or impress onlooker with nasty breaking balls. Tanaka has been doing what he needs to do to prepare, nothing else.
Before the Yankees landed Tanaka, I compiled this post with everything I could find on the guy. Scouting reports, statistical evaluations, video, workload questions, the whole nine. If I thought it was reliable, I put it in there. It’s everything we knew about the guy coming into Spring Training and right now we don’t know much more. The whole “number two starter pretty much right away” expectation still exists. For a jumping off point about his possible performance, here are the various projections from FanGraphs:
Right away you see how little value the projections provide thanks to Oliver, which has Tanaka starting 39 games in 2014. I’ll bet the under on that. If he had been playing in the big leagues for a few years now, projections would have a bit more value. Because he’s coming over from Japan and changing leagues, these numbers don’t help us much. It’s pretty great to see that all of them expect him to a +3.5 WAR pitcher right away, I’d rather see than +1.0 WAR or something, but ultimately it means nothing.
There are three reasons why I think Tanaka can pretty damn successful right away for the Yankees. One, he pounds the zone. The scouting reports indicated as much and we’ve seen it so far in his two outings. Tanaka’s shown a very no nonsense approach, getting ahead in the count and not nibbling. He controls the at-bats when he’s on the mound. Two, Tanaka has two above-average offspeed pitches. We all know about the splitter …
… but he also throws a very good slider. It’s not as good as the splitter, but it’s not a show-me pitch either. Tanaka isn’t some two-pitch pitcher. Far from it.
And the third reason why I think he can be successful right away is his makeup and competitiveness, which people smarter than I have rated as through the roof. The grind of a baseball season is tough enough, but going through that grind for the first time in a new country with a new team in a new league against new batters in a new ballpark and yadda yadda yadda can be overwhelming. Does his makeup and competitive guarantee he will be successful? Of course not. But they do make me feel better about his chances.
On the other hand, there are some reasons to think Tanaka might not be so successful this season. First and foremost is the the five-day schedule rather than a seven-day setup. Tanaka had some big individual game workloads with Rakuten over the years but he also had two extra days of rest between each start. The Yankees won’t ask him to throw 130+ pitches each time out, but how will he adjust to pitching every fifth day instead of every seventh? Seems like everything is going well so far, but what happens in a few months when it’s 90 degrees with 90% humidity every start? It’s something to watch, no doubt about it.
Secondly, Tanaka likes to pitch up in the zone. That was the report coming over from Japan and he’s done it in his two spring starts so far. He had one high pitch smashed into the right-center field gap for a double and another hit out to deep right for a fly out in his last start, a ball that might have been gone in Yankee Stadium. Pitching up in the zone is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself — it’s a great way to get swings and misses — but in the Bronx more fly balls mean more homers. I don’t think Tanaka will be Phil Hughes when it comes to fly balls and dingers or anything, but the potential for the ill-timed gopher ball is there.
I don’t think there is any way we can reasonably estimate what Tanaka will do this season. Can he give the team 180 innings of 3.50 ERA ball? I’d love that in his first year in the show. The first year has typically been a transition year for recent Japanese imports with the second year being the big breakout, so I’d take that 180/3.50 performance no questions asked. Based on everything we’ve heard and the little bit we’ve seen, Tanaka has the tools to be an excellent starting pitcher in MLB. Not just good, but one of the top 20-25 pitchers in the game. There are more factors at play here than stuff and command though. The new culture and routine will affect his performance.
Given his age — Tanaka turned 25 in November, so he’ll spend the entire season at that age — the amount of money the team sunk into him, and the rest of the roster (both MLB and MiLB), I think Tanaka is the single most important player in the organization. Not necessarily for 2014, but going forward. He’s not the only one trying to make a transition, you know. The Yankees themselves are transitioning out of the dynasty years with Mariano Rivera retired and Derek Jeter following him after the season. Tanaka is the key player going forward, the young cornerstone player they can build around in the future. That’s a lot of responsibility and his first step towards becoming the next great Yankees begins this year.