Monday, March 24, 2014

New York Yankees: Pitching is key to start of season

As the New York Yankees approach the beginning of the 2014 regular season it’s looking more and more clear that at the start of the season the Bombers might need to rely on their pitching staff to carry the load.

The Yankees have received very good pitching up and down staff this spring; rotation members, guys fighting for a rotation spot and many of the bullpen candidates. As spring training winds down the Yankees are living the old cliché that pitching is ahead of hitting early on in the season.

Of the anticipated Yankee regulars, only Brett Gardner is hitting above .270 this spring through Sunday's games. Brian Roberts, Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Beltran are hitting in the .260s. None of the regulars has an OPS above .800.

Yes, watching Francisco Cervelli, Yangervis Solarte and Zoilo Almonte rake has been great. But when the season starts, barring injury, these guys are riding the pine and in Solarte’s and Almonte’s case not assured of a big league roster spot yet.

Derek Jeter (5-for-44), Mark Teixeira (3-for-26) and Jacoby Ellsbury (4-for-23) are not exactly boosting confidence that a great offensive barrage is approaching when the team heads north. Jeter and Teixeira are surely rusty from a lack of reps in 2013, while Ellsbury has now been dealing with a sore right calf which has stunted his work for over a week.

Sure, they could each find their stride in the next few days or simply begin to click as they play games that matter. Yankees manager Joe Girardi indicated to the media Sunday that he is not “too concerned.”

He knows as well as you and I know that what happens in spring is not a certain precursor to the regular season as a whole. But I think it could be for April.

I believe Jeter, Teixeira and Ellsbury will continue to struggle early on and it’s not like any of the other regulars are tearing the cover off the ball right now where I can say I see a change on the horizon. This puts the onus on the pitching staff which fortunately has a multitude of ready arms.

CC Sabathia is still working on his alternate pitches to balance his not-so-fast fastball and has shown nice progress in his last two outings (zero runs in 12 innings). Masahiro Tanaka and Ivan Nova have pitched well this spring (3.00 and 3.66 ERA respectively). Michael Pineda, the assumed fifth starter, has been a welcome surprise (allowed first runs of spring Sunday; 16 Ks in 15 IP). Hiroki Kuroda has endured one bad outing which has inflated his numbers.

The bullpen, beginning with closer David Robertson (0 ER, 1 H in 5.0 IP), has been superb this spring. While Girardi has yet to make final cuts or announce his intentions, there are several players who have stood out this spring -- David Phelps, Dellin Betances, Adam Warren, Vidal Nuno, Cesar Cabral, Matt Daley and Fred Lewis included. Shawn Kelley and Matt Thornton have not been lights out, but will be late game options for the Yanks.

So, when the Yankees leave Tampa, they’ll likely need to rely on the arms to get them through the first couple of weeks. While I admire Girardi’s confidence in his players, the reality is he’s got some guys who he might not receive any offensive support from early on. It puts the pressure on a pitching staff which has endured its own consistency issues in the past.

The Yankees play in one of the toughest divisions in baseball so getting out of the blocks quickly can go a long way. After three games to start the season in Houston, the Bombers jump straight into the American League East race against the Blue Jays in Toronto and then home for the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox. In all, the Yankees face an AL East opponent 17 times in April.

If you don’t think it’s important the Yankees get out a hot start in April, then you’re sadly mistaken. Will the bats all of the sudden come alive? In my view it’s not likely against some teams with good/excellent pitching of their own. The offense will have to muster some runs when they can, but in the end April is in the hands of the pitching staff.

Photo courtesy of Keith Allison via Flickr.

Christopher Carelli is a freelance sports writer/editor and the Director of Content Strategy for Sportsideo.