Finding a second gear after a sizzling first act

(Elsa/Getty Images)
(Elsa/Getty Images)

There are always certain phases of the major league season. The highs and lows, the streaks and skids, fluctuating from month to month and week to week.

Unlike last season, the Yankees began 2017 on fire. The start seemed reminiscent of 2010, when the team got off to a roaring start coming off a championship. The funny thing about that 2010 team is they didn’t soar to a division title. They struggled. They blew their early division lead, gained it back and then lost it in the final weeks of the season, settling for a wild card.

I don’t mean to make a straight side-by-side comparison between the 2010 Yankees and the current squad, but the lesson is important: There are going to be lulls in the season and the team can’t let up, allowing a division rival to sneak ahead. This year, the Yankees likely won’t be overcome by a pesky Rays squad, but the Orioles and Red Sox are enough to handle.

And in April, the Yankees handled them well enough. They split their six games with the O’s and took both contests with the Sox. Considering they had to face AL Cy Young favorite Chris Sale and started 0-2 against the O’s, that’s a strong result.

It was all part of a magical month where everything seemed to go right. Aaron Judge, Starlin Castro, Chase Headley, among others, put up surprising numbers en route to a 15-8 record. The only thing perhaps more eye-catching was the rotation, which consistently worked deep into games despite most assuming it would be a liability going into the season.

That’s the catch: It wasn’t supposed to go that way. One would have assumed coming out of the spring that if the team caught fire early, it’d be on the backs of Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird and a knockout bullpen alongside Masahiro Tanaka as the ace. Well, Sanchez and Bird got hurt. Tanaka was off on Opening Day and despite a 5-3 record, hasn’t looked quite right since. The bullpen was quite good, perhaps even better than expected, but it was overshadowed and not asked to perform many herculean tasks.

And now that we’re late in May, phase two is well underway. The team is 6-8 in their last 14 dating back to May 8 and have seen some stinkers out of the rotation. Castro and Judge have looked more Earth-bound recently and Headley has crash landed. Early expectations have proved more prescient with the bullpen carrying a bigger load, Tuesday’s blown lead notwithstanding. Sanchez has taken off and so has Brett Gardner, who seems to have found the hitting stroke that earned him an All-Star appearance just a few seasons to go.

Despite this sub-par stretch, the Yankees still hold a 2.5 game lead in the division over the Orioles, 3.5 on the Red Sox. That lead is actually their largest this season.

But the team has an upcoming stretch that could help define them. After this homestand with the Royals and Athletics wraps up, they play 13 straight games in division, including six with the O’s and three with the Red Sox, all condensed into two weeks. You’re not going to win the division with a good two weeks, nor are you going to lose it with a lousy fortnight.

(David Banks/Getty Images)
(David Banks/Getty Images)

Yet this is the time when the Yankees need to begin figuring out who they are long-term, finding that second gear that can help carry them throughout the summer. The 11 wins by five or more runs have been nice and so have the standout starts from guys like Luis Severino and Michael Pineda, who would have castoffs this offseason if certain sections of the fan base had their way. But is this young crew really going to dominate all season? Is this team actually arrived ahead of schedule and not just showing glimpses of 2018 and beyond?

The team’s diverse set of skills in the lineup serves them well if sustained success is indeed in the cards. If, let’s say, Matt Holliday and Judge going into month-long slumps, the team can rely on hitters like Gardner or Didi Gregorius to carry them in a different way, not needing to pound home runs game-by-game.

It doesn’t hurt to have that sturdy backbone of a bullpen, which may end up as the defining positive for this team. Even with Aroldis Chapman out, Dellin Betances, Tyler Clippard and co. are a force that can hold down most leads. With a few quality long relievers, the team can withstand a few 4-5 inning outings and keep the team within striking distance.

Or maybe the rotation with a rejuvenated Tanaka can lead the way. With Jordan Montgomery and CC Sabathia as strong back-end starters, perhaps Tanaka, Severino and Pineda can carry the team every five days and enable more winning streaks.

So that second gear doesn’t necessarily have to look all that different from the first one. It can be a continuation. But in order for the Yankees to sustain their early success, they’ll need to figure out just what makes this team special and utilize those defining characteristics in the crucial weeks ahead.

Yankeemetrics: Roughed up in Tampa (May 19-21)

(AP)
(AP)

No relief
In a season defined by so many improbable wins and stunning comebacks, the Yankees fell just short of adding another one on Friday night, falling 5-4 to the Rays. It was just the Yankees’ fifth loss this season when holding a lead at any point in the game, the fewest in the AL and second-fewest in the majors behind the Rockies (3) after Friday’s slate.

Luis Severino struggled early but gave the Yankees five solid innings and a chance to win the game, exiting with a 2-1 lead. He threw 30 pitches in the first inning and 59 in the next four frames, allowing just one run on five hits while striking out seven.

Severino’s slider was in peak form, generating a career-high 11 whiffs on 24 swings (45.8%) among the 42 sliders he threw. The pitch netted him four of his seven strikeouts and four of his five groundball outs, as he mostly buried it at the knees while also mixing in a few swing-and-miss sliders up in the zone:

luis-severino

His slider has emerged as one of the nastiest in baseball this season. The pitch has been responsible for a total of 36 strikeouts and 25 groundball outs in 2017; both of those numbers were the second-most among all pitchers through Friday, trailing only Chris Archer (48 strikeouts, 36 groundball outs).

Severino’s gutsy performance was wasted, though, as the bullpen imploded and blew the lead late. The Rays’ rally was capped by a tie-breaking RBI single in the eighth inning off the bat of notable Yankee killer, Evan Longoria. Friend of Yankeemetrics, Mark Simon, tells us that it was Longoria’s 13th career game-winning RBI against the Yankees, which is the most among active players.

Before Longoria’s hit, it looked like Matt Holliday might wear the hero’s cape. His two-run homer in the top of the eighth knotted the game at 4-4, and was his first game-tying homer in the eighth inning or later in more than seven years (April 11, 2010 vs. Brewers).

Even more impressive is that the pitch he crushed was a 100-mph fastball from Ryan Stanek, the fastest pitch hit out of the ballpark by any player this season. Prior to the at-bat, Holliday was just 2-for-10 (.200) with three strikeouts in at-bats ending in a 100-plus-mph pitch dating back to 2008.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Tanaka The Terrible
There is no sugarcoating the fact that Saturday’s loss might have been the ugliest of the season. The numerous ejections, the beanball war that erupted in the late innings and the glacial pace of the game were mere footnotes in what has easily become the Yankees biggest worry of the season:

Tanaka was clobbered yet again, giving up three homers and six runs before getting pulled with no outs in the fourth inning. This disaster performance somehow was an improvement statistically on his last start a week ago against the Astros, when he gave up even more runs (8) and homers (4) and pitched fewer innings (1 2/3).

That string of back-to-back train wreck outings put him in ignominious company: he is the only pitcher in Yankee history to allow at least six earned runs and three homers in consecutive games while getting fewer than 10 outs in each game. In fact the only other player in major-league history to do that was Mike Lincoln for the Twins in 2000.

Any way you slice it, his recent numbers are awful:

  • Dating back to the fifth inning of his May 2 start vs the Blue Jays, Tanaka has coughed up 10 homers and 22 runs in his last 14 innings pitched.
  • Dating back to the seventh inning of his May 8 start at Cincinnati, he’s surrendered 16 (!) runs and eight (!) homers in his last 5 2/3 innings pitched.

One of the few highlights was yet another dinger by Aaron Judge, his league-leading 15th of the season. He is one of five Yankees to hit at least 15 homers in the team’s first 40 games, joining this exclusive group of sluggers: A-Rod (2007), Tino Martinez (1997), Mickey Mantle (1956) and Babe Ruth (four times).

Super-Judge (AP)
Super-Judge (AP)

Strikeouts are overrated
The Yankees avoided the sweep and snapped their three-game losing streak with a 3-2 win on Sunday. Despite the Yankee victory, the Rays remain the only AL team with a winning record against the Yankees since 2010 (71-68).

Brett Gardner delivered the game-clinching blast with his tie-breaking two-run homer in the second inning. It was his eighth longball of the season, surpassing the number he put over the fence all of last year (in 148 games and 634 plate appearances). All eight of his homers have come since April 29; the only player with homers in that span is Dodgers rookie Cody Bellinger (9).

They overcame a whopping 17 strikeouts, tying the franchise record for a nine-inning game, done three times previously, including once already this season (3-2 win over St. Louis on April 15). They are the only team in major-league history to win two nine-inning games when striking out at least 17 times in a single season.

The heart of the order — 3-4-5 batters — were the biggest culprits, fanning 11 times in 12 at-bats. Matt Holliday and Aaron Judge were both 0-for-4 with four Ks, becoming the first set of Yankee teammates to whiff four-plus times in a non-extra-inning game. This was also the first time in any game (regardless of innings) that the Yankees had two players go hitless and strike out at least four times.

Judge redeemed himself in the field, with a spectacular game-saving catch and double play, robbing Evan Longoria of extra bases with a man on in the sixth inning.

Entering the day, Judge ranked second in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved (6) among rightfielders behind the Cubs’ Jason Heyward (7).

Yankeemetrics: Post-Chicago hangover (May 8-9)

Gardy goes yardy. (AP)
Gardy goes yardy. (AP)

No sleep, no problem
The Yankees arrived bleary-eyed in Cincinnati just as the sun was rising on Monday morning, but there was no hangover from Sunday’s epic marathon game when they took the field against the Reds later that night.

They put up a three-spot on the Reds in the top of the first inning and cruised to a 10-4 win, giving them a remarkable 21-9 record. There is obviously a ton of baseball to be played, but it’s still worth putting their win total in perspective at this point in the season.

This is the 17th time in franchise history the Yankees have won at least 21 of their first 30 games. Here’s the breakdown of how the previous 16 seasons ended up:

  • Won division/league – 15 (all except 2010)
  • Made World Series – 15
  • Won World Series – 12

A look at their run differential (currently +58) through 30 games tells a similar story. This is 15th time in franchise history the Yankees have outscored their opponents by at least 58 runs through 30 games. Here’s the breakdown of how the previous 14 seasons ended up:

  • Won division/league – 12 (all except 2010 and 1931)
  • Made World Series – 12
  • Won World Series – 11

Back to Monday’s game … the Bronx Bombers continued to do Bronx Bomber things, belting two more homers to give them 50 on the season. This is the second-fastest the Yankees have reached the 50-homer milestone, behind only the 2003 team that that hit their 50th longball in their 28th game.

Masahiro Tanaka was good but not great, though the most important number he tallied was seven – his innings pitched – ensuring that Joe Girardi wouldn’t have to dig deep into his very tired bullpen. Since Tanaka’s debut in 2014, he has 39 outings of seven innings or more. That nearly three times as many as any other Yankee has produced in that span (CC Sabathia is second with 15).

Gary Sanchez was the most consistent offensive threat for the team in this game, getting on base all five times he came to plate, as went 3-for-3 with a walk and hit-by-pitch while driving in two runs. It had been more than five years since a Yankee catcher reached base five times in a game: the last guy to do it was Jesus Montero on September 22, 2011 against the Rays.

The first inning was fun. (AP)
The first inning was fun. (AP)

Zero heroes
The Yankees six-game win streak came to an end on Tuesday night in a 5-3 loss to the Reds, as they capped off their five-game road trip on a disappointing note.

You can’t win ’em all, especially when you’re starting pitcher gives up five runs in the second inning to cough up a 2-0 lead. Aside from that horrible inning, CC Sabathia held the Reds scoreless, but the damage was done. He’s now allowed at least five earned runs in three consecutive starts, matching the second-longest streak of his career, and his ERA has ballooned to a rotation-worst 5.77.

Gary Sanchez put the Yankees on the board first, launching a 448-foot homer in the first inning, the longest home run of his career. He bookended that blast with a game-ending double-play in the ninth inning, drilling a 110.2 mph line drive into the glove of Reds third baseman Eugenio Suarez.

He’s now just 2-for-6 (.333) when hitting a ball with an exit velocity of at least 110 mph (league batting average is .743). His four outs on batted balls with an exit velocity of 110-plus mph match the total number that the rest of the Yankees have produced this season.

Brett Gardner extended his hit streak to a career-best 12 games with a fifth-inning single. That’s the second-longest hit streak by a Yankee left fielder over the past decade, behind only a 13-gamer by Ichiro in 2012.

Dellin Betances walked the first two guys he faced in the seventh inning but then — unsurprisingly — recovered to strike out the side and end the threat. His third strikeout lowered his career batting average allowed with runners in scoring position (RISP) and two outs to .137 (21-for-153), breaking a tie with Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen for the lowest mark among active pitchers (min. 100 at-bats).

Yankeemetrics: Bronx Bombers invade Wrigley (May 5-7)

Air Gardy. (Presswire)
Air Gardy. (Presswire)

It Ain’t Over ‘Til Its Over
The Comeback Kings struck again as the Yankees pulled off yet another stunning late-game come-from-behind victory on Friday afternoon against the Cubs.

Trailing 2-0 in the top of the ninth with two men on base and two outs, Brett Gardner drilled a 2-2 slider into the right field bleachers to give the Yankees the lead; Aroldis Chapman got the final three outs to secure the most improbable win.

How unlikely was this rally? The last time the Cubs lost a game in this scenario – protecting a two-or-more-run lead in the ninth – was nearly three years ago, on May 21, 2014 at Wrigley Field … against the Yankees.

Or maybe it wasn’t so unlikely, given the refuse-to-lose mojo of the 2017 Yankees. Entering Saturday’s slate, they were one of just three teams this season with multiple wins when trailing by at least two runs entering the ninth inning (Padres and Angels were the others).

Before Gardner went deep, he was a pathetic 3-for-20 (.150) with zero extra-base hits after the sixth inning, and hitless in five at-bats in the ninth inning this season.

Gardner’s home run was not just shocking, it was one for the record books. Only six other times since 1930 has a Yankee hit a go-ahead homer in the ninth inning with two outs and trailing by at least two runs. That list includes: Mark Teixeira (2016), Alex Rodriguez (2010), Don Mattingly (1985), Chris Chambliss (1976), Bobby Murcer (1969) and Bobby Richardson (1962).

A-Rod‘s three-run homer in the top of the ninth on Sept. 17, 2010 in Baltimore is the only other instance in the last quarter-century that a Yankee pulled off that feat when down to their final strike, like Gardner.

And, finally, this was the third time in the last 75 years that the Yankees were one out away from being shut out, and then hit a go-ahead home run. Incredibly, the hero in the two previous games was the same guy – Bobby Murcer – who erased a 1-0 deficit on June 14, 1980 in Oakland and a 2-0 deficit on August 5, 1969 against the Angels with ninth-inning, game-changing homers.

Hot hot Hicksy. (EPA)
Hot hot Hicksy. (EPA)

No comeback needed
One night after perhaps the most dramatic win of the season, the Yankees authored one of their least dramatic wins of the season, taking a 5-0 lead in the top of the first inning en route to an 11-6 victory on Saturday. The win gave them their fourth straight series victory, something they never did last year.

Sure, the Yankees and Cubs don’t match up often, but it’s still fun to note that the last time the Yankees scored 11-or-more runs against the Cubs was in Game 4 of the 1932 World Series, a 13-6 series-clinching win at Wrigley Field. The 3-4 hitters in that lineup were Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig; for Ruth, it was the last World Series game of his Hall-of-Fame career (h/t Mark Simon, friend of Yankeemetrics).

The offensive explosion on Saturday was led by the top of the order as Aaron Hicks and Starlin Castro combined to go 7-for-9 with five runs and six RBIs. Castro was 3-of-4, notching his AL-best 15th multi-hit game of the season. In the last 40 years, only two other Yankees produced that many multi-hit games within the team’s first 28 contests: Derek Jeter (2012) and Alfonso Soriano (2002, 2003).

Hicks’ performance was the statistical highlight of the night, as he went 4-of-5, including a homer, while driving in three runs and scoring three runs. The last Yankee center fielder to put up those numbers in any game – at least four hits, a home run, three RBIs, three runs – was Mickey Mantle on Aug. 6, 1961 against the Twins.

Yes, miracles do happen. (Getty)
Yes, miracles do happen. (Getty)

It’s over, finally
After way too many innings, way too many hours, way too many pitches, way too many strikeouts … the Yankees finished off the sweep of the Cubs on Sunday night (actually Monday morning).

It marked their first sweep of the defending World Series champs since July 14-16, 2006 against the White Sox, and the first time they’ve done that on the road since July 29-31, 2003 in Anaheim against the Angels.

The 18-inning affair was the longest game in Interleague history, longest game ever on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball (which began in 1990), and the longest in the majors this season.

It is the sixth time in franchise history the Yankees won a game of at least 18 innings and the first time since September 11, 1988 vs. the Tigers. The only other time they won a game this long on the road was a 22-inning marathon on June 24, 1962 in Detroit.

With the game going 18 innings, you’d think there would be a few more records set … and you would be correct.

  • The Yankee batters struck out 22 times, breaking the previous single-game franchise record of 17. And the Yankee pitchers struck out 26 Cubs, also obliterating the previous single-game franchise record of 19. Hooray!
  • The 26 strikeouts by Yankee pitchers matched a major-league record, set by the 1971 A’s vs. the Angels and the 2004 Angels vs. the Brewers.
  • This is the first game in MLB history where both teams each whiffed at least 21 times.
  • The 48 combined strikeouts by both teams is also a new single-game major-league record.
  • Yankees are the first team in major-league history to have four players (Castro, Didi Gregorius, Austin Romine, Chase Headley) go 0-for-7 or worse at the plate. Yes, they still won the game.

So how did we get there?

Luis Severino delivered an absolute gem, allowing one run in seven stellar innings. Twenty of his 21 outs came either groundballs (11) or strikeouts (9), and the one out he got in the air was a liner by Cubs starter Jon Lester. His final pitching line (4 hits, 1 walk, 9 strikeouts, 1 run, 7 innings) gives us our #FunFact Yankeemetric of the Week:

Only one other visiting pitcher as young Severino (23 years, 76 days) struck out at least nine batters, gave up no more than one run and allowed five or fewer baserunners in a game at Wrigley Field: Reds right-hander Jim Maloney, who delivered two such outings on August 21, 1962 and July 23, 1963.

Aaron Judge broke out of his mini-slump and gave the Yankees a 2-1 lead in the seventh with a tie-breaking RBI triple. It was the first go-ahead triple by any Yankee in nearly four years, when Travis Hafner hit one on April 27, 2013 to break a 4-4 tie in the seventh against the Blue Jays. Of course it was Pronk, just as we all predicted.

Aroldis Chapman came on in the ninth to protect a three-run lead, but eventually blew the save when he hit Anthony Rizzo with the bases loaded to even the score at 4-4. Chapman is the only Yankee pitcher since at least 1930 to give up the game-tying run in the ninth inning via a bases-loaded hit by pitch.

Finally, Castro reached on a fielder’s choice groundout, scoring Aaron Hicks from third. So the guy who went 0-for-8 was the hero of the night with the game-winning RBI.

Yankeemetrics: Rising Legend of Aaron Judge (May 1-3)

(AP)
(AP)

Blue Jays at home in the Bronx
Looking to get back on track after dropping the final game of their weekend set against Baltimore, the Yankees were hardly thrilled to see the Blue Jays as the next opponent on their homestand this week.

After beating the Yankees 7-1 on Monday night, Toronto improved to 13-7 in the Bronx since the start of the 2015 season, the only visiting team with double-digit wins at Yankee Stadium over the last three years.

Luis Severino was coming off the finest performance of his career — seven shutout innings vs. Boston last week – but he produced his worst outing of the season on Tuesday, an unsurprising result given the opponent. Severino entered the game with a 5.89 ERA vs. the Blue Jays, his highest against any team he’d faced more than once, and that mark grew to 6.38 after he allowed five runs in 5 2/3 innings.

The Yankees were down only a run through five frames, but the Blue Jays broke the game open with a three-run sixth inning that included the rare 2-RBI sacrifice fly, on an acrobatic catch by Jacoby Ellsbury near the wall.

This was just the fifth time since the statistic was first tracked in 1954 that the Yankees had surrendered a multi-RBI sac fly in a game. The others: Sept. 16, 2014 vs Rays (also the last time it happened in MLB and also involving Ellsbury); July 24, 1990 vs Rangers; May 15, 1983 vs White Sox; July 9, 1961 vs Red Sox.

(AP)
(AP)

Aaron Judge, probably human?
The Yankees first losing streak since the opening week of the season ended nearly as quickly as it began thanks to an easy 11-5 win on Tuesday night, snapping their mini-two-game skid.

The Bronx Bombers lived up to their famous nickname, scoring those 11 runs on 16 hits, including five homers. This was their second five-homer game in 2017 (also on April 28 against Baltimore), making it the first season in franchise history that the Yankees produced multiple five-homer games within the team’s first 25 contests.

The homer barrage was led by the starting outfielders, with Aaron Hicks contributing a solo shot while Aaron Judge and Brett Gardner belted two homers each. It was just the second time in the last 50 years that two Yankee flycatchers each hit multiple homers in the same game. The only other instance was when Mel Hall and Jesse Barfield went deep twice on May 27, 1991 against the Red Sox.

(Newsday)
(Newsday)

It was Gardner’s second multi-homer game in the past four games, a notable feat considering that Gardner had only two multi-homer performances on his ledger in his first 1,085 career games.

Even more improbable is the fact that G.G.B.G. had yet to record his first RBI this season prior to the start of this power outburst on April 29 – in fact, his 76 plate appearances through April 28 were the most by any zero-RBI player in MLB.

Despite the huge contributions up and down the lineup in this game – six players had multiple hits and five players drove in at least one run – of course it was Judge that stole the show with his 11th and 12th home runs of the season.

Judge’s first one in the third inning was a 337-foot wall-scraper that just made it over the fence in right field, the shortest home run he’s hit so far in his career. The second one was a moonshot with a launch angle of 38.7 degrees, the highest for any home run he’s hit so far in his career.

After Tuesday’s two-homer, four-RBI night, Judge’s numbers reached historical proportions for a player this early into the season. He is the:

  • Third Yankee ever to hit at least 12 homers in the team’s first 25 contests, joining A-Rod (14 in 2007) and Babe Ruth (12 in 1921). Notably, A-Rod finished that 2007 MVP season with an MLB-best 54 homers while the Great Bambino led the majors with 59 homers in 1921.
  • Second player in MLB history at the age of 25 or younger to compile at least 12 homers and 25 RBI within the team’s first 25 games of the season. The other was Eric Davis in 1987, who went on to have an All-Star campaign with 37 homers and 100 RBI for the Reds.

Judge also etched his name in the record books with his singular performance at the plate on Tuesday night. He is the:

  • Third Yankee right fielder to have at least two homers, two walks and four RBIs in a game, a list that also includes a couple franchise legends in Dave Winfield (1985) and Joe DiMaggio (1936).
  • Youngest Yankee (at the age of 25 years, 6 days) with a multi-home run, multi-walk game since a 24-year-old Mickey Mantle in 1956.
(USA Today Sports)
(USA Today Sports)

Judge re-writes record books, again
No deficit is too big for this team, which celebrated yet another improbable come-from-behind victory on Wednesday night. Down 4-0 before they came to bat in the first inning and 6-3 after two frames, the Yankees rallied to win 8-6 and reclaim sole possession of first place in the AL East. This was their fifth comeback win when trailing by at least three runs this season, matching the Cubs and Astros for the most in the majors.

Matt Holliday got the scoring started early, crushing a three-run, 446-foot bomb in the first inning. It was the 300th career home run for the 37-year-old veteran, a milestone blast that confirms Holliday as one of the game’s rare sluggers with an elite hit tool: He is one of three active players to have at least 300 homers and a .300 career batting average, along with Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera.

Aaron Judge added to his ever-growing legend with his 13th dinger of the season in the third inning. The unprecedented 435-foot blast to dead-center made the 25-year-old power-hitting cyborg the youngest player in major-league history to hit at least 13 homers within the team’s first 26 games.

Looking for another impressive #AaronJudgeFact? Here’s the short list of right-handed batters since 1950 to match Judge’s 13 homers within the season’s first 26 games: Nelson Cruz (2015), A-Rod (2007), Pujols (2006), Mark McGwire (1992), Mike Schmidt (1976) and Willie Mays (1964).

Adam Eaton’s injury creates a possible trade partner for Brett Gardner

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Over the weekend the World Series hopeful Washington Nationals suffered a devastating loss, and I don’t mean dropping two of three to the Mets. Prized offseason pickup Adam Eaton suffered a season-ending injury legging out an infield single Friday night. The official diagnosis: a torn ACL, a torn meniscus, and a high-ankle sprain. Yikes. His recovery timetable is 6-9 months.

Here’s video of the play, if you haven’t seen it:

The Nationals traded basically their three best pitching prospects (Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Dane Dunning) to get the 28-year-old Eaton from the White Sox back in December. He was hitting .297/.393/.462 (128 wRC+) at the time of the injury and was a huge reason why Washington is averaging an MLB best 6.65 runs per game in the early going. (The Yankees are a distant second at 5.60 runs per game.)

As expected, Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said they will stay in house to replace Eaton. They like their organizational depth in center field. Blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda. That’s what every GM says after losing a core player to a long-term injury. They don’t want to sound desperate. You can be sure Rizzo will keep an eye on potential trade options, however. He wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t.

Brett Gardner has been on the trade market for well over a year now and the Yankees have fielded offers for him the last two offseasons. Obviously Brian Cashman hasn’t received an offer to his liking, which is why Gardner remains in pinstripes. There didn’t seem to be many trade partners for Gardner over the winter. The Eaton injury may have just created one. Let’s break down the merits of a potential Gardner-Nationals deal, shall we?

1. The Nationals are a win now team. In the two games since Eaton’s injury, 26-year-old Michael A. Taylor has stepped into the lineup as the center fielder. This is the same Michael A. Taylor who hit .228/.281/.363 (71 wRC+) with a 31.9% strikeout rate in 791 plate appearances from 2014-16. The same Michael A. Taylor who prompted the Nationals to go out and get Eaton because they were tired of waiting for him to figure things out.

The Nationals have a very clearly defined window of contention with this core: 2017 and 2018. That’s basically it. Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy will both be free agents following next season. Furthermore, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg are in their primes right now and probably won’t be by time 2019 rolls around. Rizzo knows he has to do whatever he can to maximize his team’s chances of winning before Harper can leave. That’s why he traded for Eaton in the first place and also pursued Chris Sale and various free agent relievers.

Gardner fits the two-year window perfectly since the guaranteed portion of his contract runs through 2018. More than anything though, he’s a better player than Taylor, and it’s not particularly close either. Gardner is not as good as Eaton — he’s basically the poor man’s version of Eaton — but he’s better than Taylor and acquiring him would improve Washington’s chances quite a bit from their current situation. Extreme win now teams like the Nationals shouldn’t cut corners.

2. Gardner and Eaton have similar skill sets. Like I said, Eaton is a better player than Gardner and by a not small margin either. They do bring similar things to the table, however. Speed, the ability to grind out at-bats and get on base, and quality outfield defense. Gardner hasn’t played center field regularly since 2013 but that’s due to Jacoby Ellsbury and not his defensive shortcomings. I don’t think too many folks believe Gardner can’t play center right now. He’d step right in to replace Eaton as the lefty hitting center fielder and leadoff hitter. A seamless transition.

3. The Nationals need a left fielder for 2018. Remember that massive seven-year, $126M contract Jayson Werth signed way back when? That deal expires this year. Werth will be a free agent this offseason. Gardner could step in to replace Eaton in center field this season before sliding over to replace Werth in left next year, once Eaton is healthy. And, if the Nationals decide the injury has sapped Eaton’s range, they could put him in a corner and keep Gardner in center. Point is, Washington has an open outfield spot next season, and Gardner would help fill it.

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

4. So what do the Nationals have to offer? My guess is if the Yankees do decide to trade Gardner, they’ll seek the best possible talent in return regardless of position, rather than try to fill specific needs. That’s what they did last year at the trade deadline. Just get the best possible talent and sort it out later. Obviously Gardner doesn’t have as much trade value as Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller, but the thinking remains the same. Acquire as much talent as possible.

Here is MLB.com’s top 30 Nationals prospects list. Washington is not trading Victor Robles or Juan Soto or Erick Fedde for Brett Gardner, so stop thinking about that right now. I’d focus on the lower half of the top 30 list. I suppose maybe the Yankees could pry a higher ranked prospect by eating some of Gardner’s salary, like they did with Brian McCann, but even then I don’t expect a huge return. This isn’t one of those “we need two top prospects to trade him” situations like it was with Miller. I’m sure the Nationals have the pieces to get a Gardner deal done if they choose to go in that direction.

5. Other teams are going to be involved too. The Yankees are not the only team with an extra outfielder to trade! The Royals are awful and could make impending free agent Lorenzo Cain available. He’d be a great Eaton replacement, no? The Nationals have interest in Royals closer Kelvin Herrera according to Ken Rosenthal (video link), so how about a Herrera/Cain package deal? Doesn’t seem unrealistic.

Washington has also been said to have interest in David Robertson dating back to the offseason, and the White Sox could offer Melky Cabrera as well. Bryce Harper in center, Werth in right, and Melky in lefty? Seems doable. What if the Blue Jays sell and put Jose Bautista on the market? Or the Braves make Nick Markakis available? Heck, the Nationals could always revisit Andrew McCutchen with the Pirates. They also have the option of putting Trea Turner in center field and acquiring a shortstop (Zack Cozart?).

The point is there are other teams with outfielders out there, meaning the Nationals have some options. They might be willing to pay big for Cain since they’re all-in right now. Perhaps they go for a cheap alternative. If the Yankees hope to move Gardner to Washington in the wake of the Eaton injury, they’re going to have some competition. There doesn’t figure to be any shortage of available outfielders in the coming weeks.

6. Are the Yankees still open to selling? The million dollar question. The Yankees are currently tied for first place in the AL East at 16-9, and their +43 run differential is second best in baseball. (The Nationals are at +45 thanks to Sunday’s 23-5 bludgeoning of the Mets.) They could very well be in the race come July! And if that is the case, would they still be open to moving Gardner?

Keep in mind Hal Steinbrenner did not want to sell last season. It reportedly took Cashman weeks to convince Hal to okay a trade deadline sell-off, and even then it only happened after Chapman declined a contract extension. If the Yankees are in the race, will Steinbrenner really okay trading away an everyday player? It seems like they might be more inclined to add pieces at that point. I don’t think selling is a given at all.

Perhaps being in a race — which would be very awesome, by the way! — means any Gardner trade would have to involve a big league player coming back to the Yankees. Someone who can help them win right away. I have no idea who that player could be with Washington. They’re not trading one of their starting pitchers, not even the lefty Michael Pineda Gio Gonzalez, so forget that. I’m not sure I see a fit in this case.

* * *

The Yankees have the outfield depth to trade Gardner — once Ellsbury’s elbow is healthy, trading Gardner likely means Aaron Hicks in left field and either Mason Williams or Rob Refsnyder as the fourth outfielder until the Yankees deem Clint Frazier or Dustin Fowler ready — so the only real question is whether they can find a trade partner. Options are limited right now. (I still think the Giants are a best fit.)

Eaton’s injury could open the door for the Nationals to get involved, though it’s a bit too early in the season for trades involving notable players. Everyone would know Rizzo is desperate and jack up the price if he were to go out on the trade market and ask about center fielders this week. Odds are the Nationals will spend the next few weeks sorting through their internal options before pursuing a trade because that’s what teams in their situation almost always do.

On paper though, Gardner does appear to be a fit to the Nationals. He could step in to replace Eaton as their speedy leadoff hitter and center fielder, then slide over to left field once Werth’s contract expires. Other teams, like the Royals and White Sox, have outfielders to offer too though, so the Yankees hardly control the market right now, like they did when they controlled the bullpen market with Chapman and Miller last summer.

Game Nine: Sevy for the Sweep

Changeup! (Patrick Smith/Getty)
Changeup! (Patrick Smith/Getty)

For the first time this season, the Yankees are playing a night game at Yankee Stadium. I love day baseball as much as the next guy, but I’m looking forward to seeing a game under the lights in the Bronx for the first time this year. Now that all the home openers and early season off-days and all that are over, we’re getting into the daily grind of the 162-game series. A night game just feels … normal. I guess that’s the best word.

Anyway, the Yankees have won the first two games of this three-game series against the Rays, and tonight Luis Severino will take the mound with a chance to finish the sweep. Severino had his moments last time out and he seemed to throw a lot of changeups — I’d tell you how many exactly if, you know, Trackman had been working — so I’m curious to see if he does it again. Here is the Rays’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Aaron Hicks
  3. DH Matt Holliday
  4. 2B Starlin Castro
  5. 3B Chase Headley
  6. 1B Greg Bird
  7. RF Aaron Judge
  8. C Austin Romine
  9. SS Ronald Torreyes
    RHP Luis Severino

The weather has been pretty much perfect in New York all day today, though it’s gotten cloudy tonight. There’s no rain in the forecast though. It’ll just be on the cool side. Tonight’s game will begin a little after 7pm ET. You can watch on YES locally and MLB Network nationally. Enjoy the game.

Injury Update: Brett Gardner (neck, chin) is available tonight and is doing much better following yesterday’s collision. Joe Girardi said Gardner could have started today, but he decided to give him the extra day.