Over the first three weeks of the 2014 MLB season, it looked as if starting pitching would carry the New York Yankees in the AL East. Since then, the team has lost 60 percent of its Opening Day rotation and faces the reality of pitching without both Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia through the end of May.
New York's rotation, once the strength of the team, has become a major concern. With David Phelps, Vidal Nuno and Alfredo Aceves taking or scheduled to take turns against AL offenses in an offense-friendly park like Yankee Stadium, there's reason to worry.
CC Sabathia is going on the DL with fluid in his knee. Matt Daley has been called up. Alfredo Aceves likely going into rotation.— Bryan Hoch (@BryanHoch) May 11, 2014
In a perfect world, both Pineda and Sabathia would return from their injuries—strained lat and knee inflammation, respectively—immediately following 15-day stints on the disabled list. This, of course, isn't a perfect world, causing the Yankees to find contingency plans beyond that timetable.
Joe Girardi recently told reporters that it's hard to imagine Pineda back before June 1.
"We have a plan," Girardi said. "As long as he makes every step along the way, I don't know if it's quite six weeks (until he returns)."
As for Sabathia, the Yankees were vague about just how much time he would need to rest a knee that has fluid in it and has been bothering the highly paid lefty during starts this season, per Wallace Matthews of ESPN New York.
"As of right now there's no meniscal tears. He's just got some fluid and he needs a little time off," said Girardi.
In sports—especially the long, grinding 162-game baseball season—teams employ the "next man up" mantra to survive injury issues and long-term losses of important players. For the Yankees, it's not constructive to wonder about the day-to-day status of key rotation members.
Instead, focusing on surviving during their absence is crucial. To do that, the Yankees will need continued brilliance from Masahiro Tanaka, continued parity across the AL and big production from veteran offensive players signed to provide runs.
Let's start with Tanaka.
The 25-year-old Japanese sensation has been as great as advertised—and more. Through seven starts, the $175 million free agent owns a 2.57 ERA across 49.0 innings pitched. Those marks, along with a sterling 160 ERA+, has made Tanaka worth 1.2 fWAR.
When looking at where Yankees starters rank across major statistical categories, the importance of Tanaka is highlighted. With him, New York's rotation has been worth 3.3 fWAR entering play on May 12, good for ninth in the sport. Without his contributions, that number falls to 23rd and on the same path as the other underwhelming ranks.
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Although poor outings and long, arduous treks to the pitchers mound likely await Girardi over the next month, Tanaka's brilliance can bridge the gap until reinforcements arrive. No, the Yankees can't pitch their most important starter every single day. But they can count on bulk innings, high-end work and many scoreless frames.
While Tanaka's brilliance is evident, the same can't be said for an even, parity-filled American League in 2014. Outside of the Detroit Tigers and Oakland Athletics, no teams look to have the 25-man rosters to dominant all season long.
In a different year, perhaps a full month with a battered and beaten rotation would sink an AL East team in either the division or wild-card race. Thus far, 2014 doesn't look like the type of season that features many 95-plus-win teams.
Heading into play on May 12, just four AL teams—Toronto, Detroit, Oakland and Los Angeles—owned run differentials of better than plus-one. In fact, the current AL East-leading Baltimore Orioles have been outscored by their opponents thus far. There's never a good time to lose starters or face a month of uncertainty, but it's a break likely welcomed in New York.
Finally, the Yankees should hit enough to survive without key rotation members. If, say, Pineda and Sabathia—along with Ivan Nova's lost season—disappear beyond the All-Star break, offense won't be enough to stay afloat. But for a short period, the Yankees have a lineup built to carry a winning team.
From Jacoby Ellsbury (.369 OBP), Mark Teixeira (.557 SLG) and Brian McCann (63 OPS+) to Carlos Beltran (5 HR) and Alfonso Soriano (5 HR), the Yankees boast a lineup with five hitters making at least $15 million this season. Money doesn't necessarily equal production, but general manager Brian Cashman didn't put this group together to play small ball.
Can the Yankees survive without key rotation members?
In order to carry a short-handed pitching staff, the offense needs to be better than the average outfit it has been through 36 games this season. Entering the 2014 Subway Series, the Yankees team OPS+ was at 101, barely above the league average.
When looking ahead to the next month, it's impossible to say that the Yankees can't survive in an evenly matched division and league of parity if buoyed by a good offense. Even if the team dips below .500 or falls close to the bottom of the division, no team looks capable of burying New York right now.
With Tanaka in tow and an offense that should, in theory, break out and post double-digit runs on a fairly regular basis, the Yankees can navigate a difficult period. However, the idea of New York thriving and reeling off a 95-win season is hard to believe. The team may survive, but losing important pieces in the rotation eliminates the prospect of dominating early in 2014.