This wasn’t how things were supposed to be for the New York Yankees. The All-Star cavalry was supposed to return to buoy what is an otherwise uninspiring roster of 30-something misfits. Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira were supposed to return to spell the likes of Vernon Wells and Lyle Overbay in a spirited 2nd half sprint to the playoffs. But that’s not exactly how things have worked out in the Bronx. Teixeira’s now done for the year thanks to surgery, Granderson played in 8 whole games before hitting the DL again, and the entire left side of the infield has fewer at-bats than All-Star appearances.
From this day forward I think we can all agree to never, under any circumstance, question what Brian Cashman is doing again. The Yankees general manager took a verbal beating from almost every sports writer this winter over the moves, or lack thereof, that he was making. Signing Travis Hafner? Nah, he’s too old and brittle. Kevin Youkilis? No way jose, he’s a one of those Red Sox, plus he can’t hit anymore. How about swapping for Vernon Wells? Ha, don’t make me laugh.
These lackluster acquisitions, plus numerous injuries to the roster, were supposed to finally sink a Yankee ship that appeared to be too battered from years of battles to stay afloat. Yes, Robinson Cano and CC Sabathia were still aboard, but they weren’t going to be able to make up for the loss of Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, and Curtis Granderson, among others. The hope was that the replacements would hold the fort until the cavalry made their way back. But that hasn’t been the case this season. Buoyed by an excellent pitching staff, a deep bullpen, and some surprise offensive breakouts from Cashman’s reserves, the Yankees have gotten off to a rousing 19-13 start that has defied even the biggest optimists expectations.
For the majority of the past four seasons the Yankees have had the luxury of putting a top notch defense on the field anchored by former Gold Glove award winners at almost every position. The fact remains that many of those players were a bit past their prime but for the most part the defense the Yankees have put on the field these past four years has been solid. They didn’t make many mistakes, they hit they cutoff man, and they generally played smart baseball.
Well, during the first five games of this young season, the 2013 Yankees have looked nothing like their predecessors. The infield defense has been sloppy, teams are going 1st-to-3rd on every outfield single, and I don’t think a single New York outfielder has hit a cutoff man to date. And I haven’t even touched the surface on the defense behind the plate, where both Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart appear to be overexposed in full-time duty. Let’s break down some of New York’s issues on defense:
If the rumors do indeed come to pass (and it looks like they are going to), Vernon Wells will be moving across country to join the New York Yankees. The Yankees have been searching for an outfield bat with some pop throughout the Spring and apparently GM Brian Cashman. The Angels have been trying to dump Wells since they decided to shoot themselves in the foot, acquiring the outfielder at the steep cost of Mike Napoli, which meant the gears for a deal where properly greased. But the big question is why would the Yankees want a player the Angels are so desperate to get rid of?
The dreaded injury bug scurried into the Yankees-Blue Jays scrimmage yesterday when one of Toronto’s candidates for their last rotation spot, JA Happ, plunked outfielder Curtis Granderson on the arm. Granderson’s arm broke, thanks to the impact, and now the Yankees are going to be robbed of one of the Majors most prolific long ballers for an estimated 10 weeks. Luckily for the Yankees, if Granderson can make it back to full strength on that sort of timetable he should only miss 30-40 games, a sizeable amount no doubt but at least it’s not season-killing. The injury does bring up a series of interesting questions though. What are the Yankees going to do in left field? Should they look to the minors and give one of the youngsters a chance? Or should they swing a trade and potentially bring back a veteran with some pop?
The Los Angeles Angels are finally climbed above .500 for the first time since Opening Day, and have won 8 straight games, outscoring their opposition 40-19 over the hot stretch. The solution to their woes was fairly straightforward as well–play the youngsters in the outfield, and get the big money 1st baseman going.
- The Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers currently have the best record in all of baseball at 9-2. Don Mattingly is pushing all the right buttons, Dee Gordon has provided excitement, the clubhouse is loose, and every bounce is going right. (Did you see that triple play on Sunday???!??) Matt Kemp is mashing the ball, hitting .465/.500/.977 with 6 homers and 16 RBI. These are video game numbers and this is the kind of production the Dodgers envisioned when they extended his contract until 2019.Kemp also leads the NL in runs scored, runs created, total bases, and hits. Andre Ethier is also hitting well, with 4 homers and 17 RBI. The schedule has been home heavy, playing the short-handed Padres, and underwhelming Pirates, so LA’s hot start could be a mirage. The schedule gets tougher, as the Dodgers hit the road for 2 more after dropping the opener in Milwaukee, but they follow that series with another easy one against Houston. If Matt Kemp keeps hitting, and the pitching staff stays in the top half of the National League, the Dodgers are a legitimate contender.
- Justin Verlander. The Cy Young/MVP winner threw his 1st complete game of the year on Monday in a 3-2 win over the Royals. Verlander used an astounding 131 pitches to dispatch the Royals and his last 3 all clocked in at 100 mph. He dominated the Royals last night with a steady diet of fastballs offset by a fantastic changeup, which he was locating beautifully, throwing it for a strike 74% of the time. As you can see from the chart, JV got better as the game progressed, gaining velocity thus becoming more difficult to hit. Verlander has picked right back up from his torrid pace a season ago. He already leads the league in innings pitched, strikeouts, has allowed 0 homers, and has the lowest WHIP in baseball. All of the teams he was facing have offenses that will probably rank in the top half of baseball as well, so its not like he was piling up big numbers against banjo hitters either. Verlander has earned the right to be called the best pitcher in baseball, over other worthy contenders like Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, and Clayton Kershaw.
- Highlights from Around the League. Josh Reddick, the new right fielder in Oakland, has a rocket launcher for an arm. He’s already gunned down two different runners at 3rd and has 4 assists total. Impressive. Congrats are due to Jaime Moyer, who at 49 became the oldest pitcher ever to get a major league win, going 7 innings and only allowing 2 unearned runs in Colorado’s 5-3 win. Derek Jeter’s early season surge continued, as he picked up another 2 RBI last night out of the leadoff spot. He’s now hitting .367/.385/.633 with 3 homers, 9 RBI, and 18 hits total. He also has 2 leadoff home runs on the season. Josh Willingham is also off to an excellent start this season, hitting in all 11 games with 5 total home runs. He has been carrying Minnesota’s offense during the early season. Gio Gonzalez seems to be enjoying life in Washington, picking up his 1st win in a 1-0 victory over Houston. Gonzalez has struck out 21 batters in 17.2 innings over his first 3 starts, and has a 2.04 ERA.
- LA’s other team. The LA Angels easily have one of the most talented rosters in baseball. The rotation is stacked, with 2 aces and 2 other plus arms, the lineup is full of powerful bats, and they have young talent oozing through the minors. So what is wrong with the Angels so far? They are 4-7 and no one on the team looks to be comfortable. Albert Pujols is homerless so far, a streak that is 48 at-bats long and counting. The combination of Vernon Wells and Torii Hunter is keeping the powerful Mark Trumbo planted on the bench, because he is a liability at 3rd base. The #1 prospect in baseball Mike Trout is sitting in Triple-A because of the outfield problems. If the Angels really want to win, they need to plant Wells on the bench or trade Hunter, in order to free up playing time for the younger players. Or they should try and build a time machine to go back in time and undo the Vernon Wells-Mike Napoli swap. They butchered that trade about as badly as an franchise has in the past decade, losing a powerful catcher and taking on a bad contract in one foul swoop.
- Baseball’s Closer Problem. Tom Verducci wrote an in-depth article yesterday on SI.com detailing the issue. Closers are breaking down at higher rates than ever before, despite the advances in modern medicine, and teams are spending a combined $487 million last year on injured relievers. “Fifty percent of all starting pitchers will go on the DL every year, as well as 34 percent of all relievers, according to research by Stan Conte, director of medical services for the Los Angeles Dodgers. That bears repeating: half of all starting pitchers will break down this year. ‘When I did the research,’ Conte said, ‘I was so surprised I figured I must have done the math wrong.'” This is an astounding issue, especially with season-ending injuries already to Joakim Soria, Ryan Madsen, and Brian Wilson. And many teams that aren’t having injury issues with their closers are, instead, having performance issues. Jose Valverde has already blown 2 saves, Boston can’t find a closer, Heath Bell has blown a couple, and the list goes on. Teams need to think outside the box a little more with relief pitching, because the uber-defined roles and the one-inning or one-batter appearances are leading to injury, as well as poor performance.
- Struggles from Around the League. Albert Pujols’ base running has been abysmal so far. He’s the runner in the clip posted above, being gunned down at 3rd. This is already the 3rd time in the young season he has been thrown out being too aggressive on the base paths. Pujols doesn’t quite have the speed he possessed earlier in his career and the league knows it. Tim Lincecum had another iffy start against the Phillies on Monday giving up 4 runs in the 1st. He settled down nicely after that inning, throwing nearly all breaking balls and using his slider 30 times, allowing only 1 run. He had previously said he was scrapping the pitch, but it appears to be vital to his success, so he brought it back after the 1st and proceeded to look like the Timmy of old. If he continues to use the pitch, it will be interesting to see going forward if it has any negative effects on his arm, or if it was just a case of Lincecum being a little too cautious.