After a tedious month filled with plenty of patience and very little news, Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka finally broke the freeze, signing a 7 year/$155 million dollar deal with the New York Yankees. If you’ve been paying any attention at all this offseason, the Tanaka signing should come as no surprise. That much discussed luxury tax number, $189 million, they Yankees were hoping avoid was always a pipe dream and after the big money signings of Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran, New York almost had to sign Tanaka to upgrade what appeared to be a league average pitching staff.
With division and wild card rival Tampa Bay coming into town for a 3 game set, the Yankees were in dire need of a dominate performance from their $182 million dollar staff ace. New York entered play on Friday just 2.5 games behind Baltimore in the chase for the 2nd Wild Card and with the newly re-acquired Alfonso Soriano en tow, the deficit was looking a little more manageable. Unfortunately for New York CC Sabathia may no longer be the ace he once was. Heck, right now he isn’t even the ace of his own staff. That designation belongs to Hiroki Kuroda and his shiny 2.51 ERA.
After Friday night’s shellacking , CC Sabathia now has an ERA of 4.65. That mark stands as the highest of his career. It’s worse than the 4.38 ERA he posted as a rookie in 2001 when hitters were pummeling pitchers into submission night after night. And his ERA isn’t the only problem. The big lug is allowing more hits and homers than at any point in his career and more disturbingly, his fastball velocity is sitting 2 mph below his career norm.
Each year baseball fans everywhere mark a random day in mid-February down on their calenders as one of the best days of the year: the day pitchers and catchers report, aka, the unofficial start of the Major League season. For many players, particularly veterans and All-Stars, Spring Training offers a chance to reconnect with old teammates while meeting new ones and to work the body into shape for the long grind of 162 games. But for many other players, rookies, guys on the fringe, or the 40-year-old looking for one last shot at glory, the start of spring represents the start of the season. These players are fighting for their big league lives, the last spot on the roster, or maybe even a starting position.
One of the most important positions on any baseball team, whether it be Little League, legion ball, or the bigs, is catcher. He’s the backbone of so much of what any baseball team does. There are so many responsibilities behind the plate that it can be difficult for any player to keep track of what to do. A catcher has to manage a pitching staff, call the game, receive pitches, frame pitches, block balls in the dirt, contain the opponent’s running game, and we haven’t even gotten to hitting.
A little age can be a wonderful thing. Take a fine bottle of scotch for example, perhaps a bottle of Lagavulin, aged 16 years. The aging process allows the liquor to mature, thus giving it a mellow, oak-like flavor. It’s warm, delicious and all that tasty flavor is possible because of the oak-barreled aging process.
The New York Yankees are hoping this whole aging thing works just as well for them as it does for that bottle of Lagavulin. Their roster had an average age around 32 or 33 a year ago, which was the oldest in the American League although that didn’t stop them from winning 95 games. GM Brian Cashman has basically doubled down on age for the 2013 season, scooping up all the affordable mid-30’s veterans that he can get his hands on. 40-somethings Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte are back for one more go-around. So are 38-year-old Hiroki Kuroda and 39-year-old Ichiro Suzuki, two important vets from last year’s squad. 36-year-old Travis Hafner and 34-year-old Kevin Youkilis have been added to the fray to provide power.
All these maneuverings have everybody asking basically the same question: is this finally the year Father Time catches up with the Yankees? Or will they come together much more like a fine scotch on the way to another 90+ win season? Here’s some of the thoughts rattling around my brain:
After yesterday’s late-game heroics in Washington and New York, the first round of the 2012 playoffs has been deemed a rousing success. Thanks to Jason Werth, Manny Machado, and JJ Hardy we were guaranteed to have all four Divisional Series end with game 5’s. The first two game 5’s were full of excitement as well. In the National League, the Giants completed their comeback from 2-0 down thanks to some nifty bullpen work and a Buster Posey moonshot grand slam, while over in the AL, Justin Verlander struck out 11 A’s en route to a 6-0 win. Tonight we have another pair of fantastic looking pitching match-ups on our hands. In New York, the Orioles nominal ace Jason Hammel takes the mound against former Cy Young winner CC Sabathia in a series that’s featured surprisingly little offense thus far. In the nation’s capital, Cy Young candidate Gio Gonzalez looks to give Washington its first playoff series since the 1924 World Series. He faces Adam Wainwright, who was one of the top-3 pitchers in the National League in 2009 and 2010 before having Tommy John surgery a year-and-a-half ago. San Francisco and Detroit await in the League Championship Series. Let’s take a look at which aces are best suited to punch their team’s ticket to the next round.
As we head into the final two days of the regular season every playoff spot in the
American League has been claimed and still the playoff possibilities remain endless. The dogfight in the AL Central has a victor, with Detroit going all Red Baron on Chicago’s playoff chances, leaving the Sox dead in the water. But in the other two divisions, the fight to stay out of the coin-flip game rages on. New York and Texas are were many prognosticators felt they would be come October, but lurking just a game back in their respective divisions are Baltimore and Oakland, the season’s two biggest surprises. The AL West will have a winner one way or another.
Oakland still has hopes for the biggest division surprise win all time. All the upstart A’s need to do is sweep the two-time defending AL champs in Arlington otherwise the Rangers claim a 3rd straight title. Things are a little more complicated in the AL East, where a combination of either two Yankee wins or Oriole losses will hand the title to the pinstripes. In the event of a tie, both teams will play a game 163, with the winner claiming the division and the loser entering into the coin-flip game. The playoff possibilities are all over the place, with all four of the teams above still in contention for the AL’s best record. In fact, all we know for certain is that Detroit, the AL team with the 7th best record in the league, has the least to sweat out, knowing it will host somebody at Comerica this weekend.
All of which leads us to Friday, October 5th, the date the Wild Card game is scheduled to take place. Baltimore, New York, Oakland, and Texas would all prefer to avoid playing that day, but two of those teams will be left holding the short straws. At that point they will have a decision to make. Who do we start with everything on the line? Let’s take a look at the best option for each franchise.
The New York Yankees, losers of 6 of their last 7 games, currently have some major issues right now. The team has fallen in to a last place tie with the Boston Red Sox at 21-21, 5.5 games behind the Baltimore Orioles. The Yankees have had a rough season on the injury front as well, losing many expected key contributors for the remainder of the season. During their recent losing streak the Yankees have been outscored 34-15 and have been unwatchable when hitting with runners in scoring position, batting 6-73, for a .083 batting average. At some point the law of averages says New York will have to start hitting with runners on so what are the team’s real issues? And is any of this fixable for a ballclub that many, myself included, thought would be a World Series contender at best and a playoff team at worst? Let’s break down some of the issues in the Bronx:
The most impactful injury to date for the Yankees hasn’t been the loss of Mariano Rivera, it’s been the loss of Brett Gardner for the past month. Gardner hasn’t played since April 17th and was off to a fantastic start. He was hitting .321/.424/.393 with 2 steals while playing his trademark excellent defense. Gardner’s defense rated by most defensive metrics to be the best in baseball during the 2011 season, and without the speedster, the Yankees have been forced to choose between Raul Ibanez terrible glove and Dewayne Wise’s all-around useless game. The sooner Gardner gets back in the lineup and starts stealing bases and taking away hits the better for New York.
The Yankees are one of the many teams that have been cruelly bitten by the injury bug. The pitching staff has seen more quality arms go on the disabled list than any other franchise in the league. Michael Pineda and Joba Chamberlain, who the Yankees were counting on to throw around 240-260 combined innings in 2012, probably won’t throw a pitch this season. The greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera, was horrifyingly lost for the year after slipping on the warning track in Kansas City. Rivera had thrown at least 60 innings for 9 consecutive seasons, a streak that will come to an end this year. David Robertson will be out for at least another week after straining his oblique against the Mariners on May 11th. All of those injuries will cost the Yankees 300+ combined innings, which is tough for any team, even the wealthiest, to overcome.
The good news is that the Yankees bullpen has still been strong despite missing 3 of its 4 best arms. David Phelps has thrown 29.1 innings of quality baseball, allowing only 9 earned runs. Cory Wade has given the Yankees 20 quality innings as well, and has a 190 ERA+ with a WHIP below 1. The highly paid Rafael Soriano has been worth some of his contract this season, throwing for a 172 ERA+ in 14.1 innings and earning 2 saves.
The Yankees probably won’t have the top rated bullpen in baseball like they did in 2011, but the team still has plenty of talented fireman, and will probably rank as one of the best in the American League again. The bigger problem will be overcoming the loss of Michael Pineda, which will thrust Andy Pettitte into a larger role, and forces Phil Hughes to step up.
The Yankees pitching has been downright abysmal this season, after ranking 10th in baseball in 2011. The Yankees currently rank 23rd in baseball in run prevention, and have given up the 2nd most long balls. The entire rotation of CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, and Phil Hughes has been homer-happy, allowing 38 of the 54 total. The Yankees tiny ballpark has something to do with those homeruns, but as Hiroki Kuroda said a few days ago “The homeruns I’ve been giving up are homeruns everywhere.” That, more than anything else, has been the Yankees biggest problem this season. Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes, and Hiroki Kuroda all have allowed more than 10 hits per 9 innings, which means their all being hit like piñatas at a birthday party. Each pitcher has had issues locating the ball over the plate up in the zone, which are correctable going forward and could lead to some big improvement.
In better news, the Yankees rank 3rd in baseball in strikeouts, behind only the hard-throwing pitching staffs of the Nationals and Tigers. New York also has the 5th best strikeout-to-walk rate in the Majors, tied with the Cincinnati Reds. If Yankees pitchers can cut down on the homeruns allowed, their ability to strike hitters out should begin to result in quality starts, which lead to victories.
Currently every major team defensive metric available rates the Yankees defense as terrible. The outfield has been absolutely porous when Raul Ibanez plays. This issue will be alleviated by the return of Brett Gardner, the best defensive player in baseball, but only he can do so much for the team as a whole.
Derek Jeter’s bat may be looking spry, but his range in the field is certainly showing signs of age. Jeter has never been very good going to field balls hit up the middle, but this season he is reaching fewer of those than ever. Alex Rodriguez rates among the worst 3rd basemen in the American League on defense, leading to a very leaky left side of the infield, and a lot of seeing-eye singles. Eric Chavez has been valuable off the bench, but is injury-prone and should only be counted on in a limited role. Eduardo Nunez, another alternative on the left side of the infield, is even worse defensively, requiring a demotion to work on his defense. This is the risk you take when your long-term left side of the infield is over 35 years old, and there is no real solution this season.
The Yankees have tried to remedy some of the problem by playing the 5th most shifts in baseball. The Yankees have historically only shifted on big left-handed sluggers like David Ortiz, but Joe Girardi is showing some fortitude and shifting more frequently. As of May 11 the Yankees had shifted 55 times, just 15 short of last season’s total. Its difficult to say whether this is working, because the Yankees rank 26th in baseball in defensive efficiency (which measures the percentage of balls put into play that are turned into outs), tied with the Detroit Tigers, who play two poor-fielding 1st basemen in their infield.
Before the season I thought the Yankees had one of the deepest roster’s in baseball, which would serve them well over the long, arduous season. The Yankees’ depth has been severely tested this season, and outside of Raul Ibanez’s hitting and the bullpen, they have come up short. The offense has been elite so far and ranks 3rd in the majors in all 3 triple slash categories. Once they start hitting with runners on base, the runs will start flowing again. The Yankees have one of the elite offenses in baseball, which will keep them around .500, the bigger, more pressing issue is if the pitching that New York currently has is good enough to capture a playoff spot in the ferocious AL East. I’m not quite sure the Yankees have the caliber of pitching to make the postseason, and I fully expect Brian Cashman, annually one of the most active GMs in baseball, to make some sort of play to add a few wins to the overall total.