They trot out an infield with Lyle Overbay, Chris Nelson and Jayson Nix. Their disabled list could field most of an All-Star team. But in spite of it all, the New York Yankees are still in first place. Coming into Tuesday’s games, the Yanks were 24-14, a game up on Baltimore in the AL East and tied with Texas for the best record in the American League. How the Pinstripes keep doing it is the focus of today’s MLB coverage.
We can summarize New York’s success in three points
- Very good starting pitching
- Even better relief pitching
- Two successful reclamation projects in the everyday lineup
Pitching is what’s driving this team right now and the health of the rotation, along with the return of Mariano Rivera were the two factors that made all the burials that were heaped on this team premature to begin with. When you send C.C. Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettite to the mound every fifth day, you’re going to be competitive.
Sabathia and Pettite have been solid and Kuroda has been amazing. A 2.31 ERA in a hitter’s haven like Yankee Stadium is Cy Young-caliber. Phil Hughes and David Phelps have been serviceable at the back end, and the Yanks might have caught a break when Ian Nova had to go to the disabled list and Phelps was moved up to take his place.
Then we come to the pen. Rivera is looking as good as new in his announced final season. He’s closed all 15 of his save chances, has a 1.65 ERA and the setup team in front of him has been outstanding. Joe Girardi has always done an underrated job of piecing together the bridge to the ninth inning, and he’s again got a good righty/lefty combo in David Robertson and Boone Logan, with Adam Warren and his buck-45 ERA being a rising star.
It adds up to a pitching staff that’s fourth in the American League in ERA in spite of the hitter-friendly dimensions and 17 of 19 save opportunities successfully closed. It’s again worth noting that the success most of the pitchers are having is hardly out of the blue, which is why—as an avowed Yankee-hater—it frustrates me that the media buried this team and allowed them to claim an underdog role.
Now if the Yanks were winning games with their bats, that would be in the spirit of the underdog. For the most part, the replacements for Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter and Curtis Granderson have not produced. Kevin Youkilis was having a respectable—albeit not great—year as he stood in for Alex Rodriguez. Now both Youk and A-Rod are on the disabled list. What the Yanks have gotten is big years out of one-time stars in Vernon Wells and Travis Hafner.
When Wells was in centerfield in Toronto and Hafner a DH in Cleveland in the late ‘00s, these were two of the game’s great young players. Things went off-kilter for both of them, but the good working conditions that Yankee Stadium offers hitters has been the tonic both have needed. Wells has a stat line of .349 on-base percentage/.526 slugging percentage, with Hafner at .383/.510. They join holdover Robinson Cano, at .341/.554, in scoring just enough runs to keeping winning games.
The injury situation started to get better this week with the return of Granderson, who likely displaces Brett Gardner in centerfield, though Gardner could also get time in right, where Ichiro Suzuki has not swung the bat well. Teixeira has been moved to the 60-day disabled list and his return put off until June at the earliest. Youkilis will likely be back this month, with Jeter and A-Rod gone until at least the All-Star break.
I think the biggest question mark New York has to deal with is whether the pitching staff can stay healthy. These arms, as presently constituted, can pitch well enough to carry the offense, even in its meager condition—the Yanks are ninth in the AL in runs scored. If Wells and Hafner cool down, it’s likely Granderson will step up, and you might get better play from Gardner and Suzuki as well. Either way, New York can continue to win with pitching.
But is it realistic to think Andy Pettite will make 30-32 starts this year? Will Sabathia continue to hold up? And even giving Kuroda his due credit, a 2.31 ERA in this park isn’t sustainable success for the long haul. It’s really asking Girardi and his pitchers to thread the needle with their health and effectiveness if this success is going to continue.
I think New York can win 87-90 games, and have felt so from the outset. I think it’s further likely that the top of the AL East will be won in that window. But short of a mass return by a lot of players, and those players then enjoying immediate success, I can’t see the Yankees continuing to run with the best teams in baseball.
AROUND THE AMERICAN LEAGUE
Cleveland has taken off in the AL Central, moved past Kansas City and only trails Detroit by a half-game. The Indians are doing it thanks to a league-best slugging percentage. Mark Reynolds has 11 home runs, Carlos Santana is having a dominant year at the plate and Nick Swisher is producing at his usual consistent levels–.376/.466—that leave me continuing to wonder why Yankee fans had it in for him so much.
Oakland is playing .500 ball, and is hanging with five games of Texas in the AL West. The A’s will get reinforcements this week, when Coco Crisp and Chris Young come off the disabled list and Josh Reddick won’t be far behind. Even better for A’s fans, Brett Anderson has started his rehab stint in the minors. Anderson will soon be back in the rotation, and Oakland can’t continue to pitch as bad as they have—12th in the American League in ERA. It’s a nervous time, because you don’t want to let Texas get too far in front, but as long as Oakland lurks, they can make another summer surge.