Tuesday, April 22, 2014

New York Yankees looking to build on fine start

The New York Yankees began the season with several question marks. Some have been answered and others are still unknown. There have been pleasant surprises and some not-so-pleasant results. Most importantly, as the Yankees enter their first series against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park this season, the club sits all alone in first place.

Masahiro Tanaka gets the start against Jon Lester Tuesday night in what looks like a fantastic matchup on paper. Tanaka has yet to see the Red Sox from the mound, giving the 25-year-old hurler a slight advantage.

Tanaka has managed to produce results potentially above some expectations despite his lofty resume from his playing days in Japan. Tanaka owns a 2-0 record with a 2.05 ERA, 0.77 WHIP and has struck out 28 batters in 22 innings. He has allowed just two walks.

Tanaka has seemed unfazed by Major League hitters thus far. When he has made a mistake, he looks to be able to brush it off rather quickly and get back to work. He’ll have some games eventually where he’ll look overmatched. Potentially the second time he sees teams, hitters will adjust to his expansive repertoire of pitches, but Tanaka has the ability to adjust as well and I’d venture to guess that he’ll do exactly that.

I’m not sure Tanaka’s success can be considered a surprise, but one of his rotation mates’ early performance has been. Michael Pineda had not been on a Major League mound since 2011. He’s worked his way back from injuries and has been great thus far, sporting a 2-1 record and a minuscule 1.00 ERA and 0.89 WHIP.

The rest of the rotation has had mixed results. CC Sabathia (2-2, 5.19 ERA) is still trying to find his groove and Hiroki Kuroda (2-1, 4.07 ERA) continues to hold up considering his age. The Yankees lost Ivan Nova (2-2, 8.27 ERA, .372 BAA) for the immediate future and potentially the season after it was revealed that he has a partial tear in the UCL of his pitching arm.

On offense the Yankees lost Mark Teixeira early on to a strained right hamstring. The issue with Teixeira heading into the season was whether his surgically repaired wrist would be a hindrance to his power. He returned to the lineup Sunday, rapping out two hits, but has only played in five games thus far so the jury is still out on Teixeira’s ability to fill a middle of the lineup spot.

The biggest surprise out of the gate has been infielder Yangervis Solarte. With Teixeira’s injury, Solarte was thrust into a full-time role at third base as the Yankees shifted Kelly Johnson to first. Solarte had an amazing spring which catapulted him onto the 25-man roster. He continued his hot hitting and fairly consistent fielding straight into the beginning of the season. He’s managed a .326 batting average with a .906 OPS overall, but he’s slowed down over the last 10 games, hitting .242.

I don’t suspect Solarte can keep up this pace through the season, but the Yankees must be happy with the revelation. He’ll likely split time with Johnson and Brian Roberts since Teixeira is back in the fold.

Roberts has been a disappointment thus far stroking a .156/.278/.222 line. He’s been just OK in the field but has yet to succumb to what many think will be an inevitable injury. Expect Roberts to come around, but the days of getting superior offensive and defensive production out of the keystone went away as soon as Robinson Cano signed with the Seattle Mariners.

The other mysteries of the season on offense have begun to show their hand as well. Derek Jeter has gone about business and has shown no ill effects from his lost 2013 season. The Captain, in his farewell tour, is hitting .283/.367/.340.

The big three newcomers to the Bombers lineup have had different starts. Jacoby Ellsbury, who will face his former team for the first time in their building, has been everything the Yankees hoped for. He’s gotten off to a fantastic start, even hitting in the third spot with authority while Teixeira was on the disabled list. Ellsbury’s .338/.395/.441 line with eight stolen bases has quieted concerns from a slow start.

Carlos Beltran is beginning to warm up (.288/.324/.561 with four home runs) and catcher Brian McCann has shown glimpses of coming out of his early season slump (8-for-24 with three homers over last seven games) with the bat. McCann has been fantastic behind the plate however as he learns his pitching staff.

The Yankees were also been able to overcome the loss of their appointed closer, David Robertson, who was reinstated earlier Tuesday. The bullpen as a whole has been a bright spot for the club. With Mariano Rivera departing, this was a key area for the Yankees and their chances for success in 2014.

With Robertson on the shelf, Shawn Kelley took over the closer role and has been superb, building on a quality 2013 campaign. Adam Warren, while having a blip or two along the way has emerged as a legitimate seventh/eighth inning arm. Dellin Betances has shown electric abilities (14 strikeouts in eight innings) while trying to harness his control (6 walks).

I mentioned before the season began that the Yankees would need to get solid pitching to get through the first part of the season because I felt their offense would be slow out of the gate. I was correct in part.

The Yanks have scored just 75 runs (T-22nd in MLB) and own a team OPS of .731 (11th in MLB). The pitching had been the key to their first-place ascent in the standings until the drubbing they received at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rays this past Friday and Saturday (25 ER in 16 innings combined).

The Yankees should be happy with their start considering more of the questions coming into the season have been answered with positive responses and the items still unknown have a glimmer of hope behind them.

The Bombers will need to continue to grow offensively and find more consistency throughout the rotation and bullpen in order to maintain pace in the American League East. They’ve shown early they can pull together to overcome injury, but health will remain the Yankees’ biggest obstacle this season. If the club can minimize trips to the disabled list from this point on they have the tools to stay near the top of the division throughout the season.

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