Forty-three games into the 2014 season, and the New York Yankees are sitting just above mediocrity with a 23-20 record, giving analysts and fans alike a big enough sample to be able to draw some takeaways from the first quarter of the season.
Surprisingly, the Yanks' middling results are good enough for first place in the American League East, a highly competitive division with all five of its teams within just five games of each other. In an effort to recap the early weeks of the Yankees' season while also looking toward the team's future this season, I present to you the five biggest takeaways from the New York Yankees' early-season returns.
1. Big Injuries to Important Starting Pitchers
The most frustrating part of the Yankees' first quarter of the season has been the depletion of what was supposed to be the team's biggest strength, starting pitching. Heading into the spring, the Yanks were looking at an admirable rotation of ace CC Sabathia, veteran Hiroki Kuroda, emerging young star Ivan Nova, big bucks Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka and a wild card in Michael Pineda.
Less than two months into the 2014 season, the rotation is down to just two of those pitchers.
Nova, who had struggled in his first few starts, went under the knife for Tommy John surgery—unfortunately now all the rage in MLB. Pineda has been out with a strained back since injuring the muscle in a simulated game during his suspension for using pine tar to doctor baseballs against the Boston Red Sox in late April.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Sabathia will not pitch for another six weeks because of a knee injury that general manager Brian Cashman describes as "degenerative," per Newsday's David Lennon. Sabathia has been the team's rock since he came to the Bronx, but it seems that the pitches and innings have added up for the veteran, who will probably remain brittle and ineffective for the rest of his career.
These injuries put pressure on the remaining starters and the bullpen to hold down the fort while also demanding much more production from New York's hitters.
2. The Rise of Yanks' New Ace Masahiro Tanaka
The Yankees' $155 million man has held up his end of the lucrative contract bestowed upon him this past offseason in an attempt to redeem New York's banged-up pitching staff.
Tanaka leads the team in wins, ERA, WAR and innings pitched in his rookie campaign according to Baseball-Reference.com. He's also the second-ever Yankees rookie to start 6-0 after Whitey Ford more than six decades ago. His first eight starts have been worthy of Cy Young Award consideration, and without his surprising success adjusting to MLB hitters and the bright lights of the Big Apple, the Bronx Bombers would probably be looking up from the basement of the AL East.
Looking forward, it should be paramount for the Yankees to continue to let Tanaka adjust slowly. Back in Japan, Tanaka was used to pitching approximately once a week rather than the five-day rotation in MLB. The Yankees cannot afford to let their highly paid Japanese import slow down or get nicked up, so they must not shorten their rotation in the face of their many injuries.
Hopefully, while MLB hitters watch film of Tanaka to get a better sense of what is coming, Tanaka will have the chance to adjust along with them.
3. No Safety Net from the Bullpen
It would be nice, given the dearth of healthy starters at the moment, for the Yankees to have consistency and dominance from their bullpen. Instead, the team has only managed inconsistency in the face of increased pressure from a weakened starting pitching staff. While the bullpen crew is second in the majors in strikeouts, it is just 20th in ERA and is responsible for eight losses against just five wins, 22nd in the majors.
It is obvious that the team misses the lockdown closing talents of recently retired, Hall of Fame-bound Mariano Rivera. David Robertson has done well as a young replacement for Rivera, but bringing his knee-high socks to the ninth inning has had ripple effects on the eighth, seventh and sixth innings, depending on how quickly that particular game's starter is bounced out by the opposing team.
Next to Robertson, reliever Dellin Betances has been one of the other bright spots in the bullpen, with 42 strikeouts to only nine walks. Unfortunately, because of some early-season injuries in their starting pitching staff, the Yankees will need a lot of mid-season improvement from their bullpen and, potentially, a late-season trade for more talented bullpen arms.
4. Yangervis Solarte Makes a Name for Himself
Offensively, the Yankees have been one of the most high-powered teams in the league, ranking third in batting average, ninth in on-base percentage, seventh in slugging and 10th in runs scored. Who can you credit for that output? None other than Yangervis Solarte.
Solarte, a 26-year-old Venezuelan third baseman, has been a minor league journeyman in his young career, spending six years with the Minnesota Twins and two years with the Texas Rangers before beating out other utility infielders like Eduardo Nunez, Dean Anna and Scott Sizemore in the Yankees' spring training camp for a spot on the team's roster.
Solarte immediately made an impact, hitting in 12 of his first 15 games, and he currently leads the star-studded lineup in batting average (.313), on-base percentage (.387) and runs batted in (24). What an impressive start to his Yankees career, making fans forget about the Alex Rodriguez drama and take in a breath of fresh air about the state of their infield after the departure of star second baseman Robinson Cano (who, it should be noted, has just one home run and the same number of doubles as Solarte himself).
5. Struggles from New Offensive Acquisitions
Solarte's rise has not only made fans forget about departed Yankees infielders like Rodriguez and Cano, but it has also covered for some early struggles from the veteran talent brought in by the Yankees brass.
Catcher Brian McCann was supposed to take advantage of the short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium, going ballistic as an offensive weapon at the catcher position after a season of Chris Stewart and Austin Romine. Instead, McCann has hit just .225—despite his career average of .275—with a limp slugging percentage of .373—as opposed to a career mark of .470.
The plight of new right fielder Carlos Beltran, whose savvy hitting led the St. Louis Cardinals to multiple deep postseason runs, has been perhaps even more drastic. This season, Beltran hit just .234 before going down with an elbow injury.
Manager Joe Girardi has said that Beltran may be able to return after just a few weeks of rest, but Beltran may also miss multiple months if he decides to go under the knife and have surgery. Beltran adds a diverse offensive skill set and above-average defense to the Yanks' outfield, and a return to his 2013 form could lead the Bronx Bombers to a division title.
These are just five of the biggest storylines from the Yankees' first quarter of the season, which has seen perceived strengths and weaknesses flip on themselves and expectations both exceeded and not. What takeaways have I overemphasized? What have I missed? Comment below and answer the poll question in the sidebar to join the discussion!