New York Yankees: Grading the Team Through the 1st Quarter of the Season
At the outset of the 2013 regular season, the New York Yankees' playoff chances looked slim. They would begin the season without Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira and Michael Pineda.
Furthermore, before any of those players returned (Granderson is the only one to have returned so far, making his first start on May 14), they would also lose Kevin Youkilis, Joba Chamberlain, Eduardo Nunez, Ivan Nova and Francisco Cervelli to injury for an extended period of time, while Travis Hafner is also injured but not yet on the disabled list.
So, how is it possible that the Yankees, without four of their starters in the field from last season, four additional players who were starters on Opening Day, two starting pitchers and a major bullpen arm, are sitting comfortably atop the American League East and hold the best record in the American League?
Ahead are grades for the Yankees through the season's first quarter.
The Yankees' regular lineup has included names such as Lyle Overbay, Travis Hafner, Vernon Wells, Jayson Nix, Brennan Boesch, Chris Stewart and Chris Nelson, many of whom may not have made the Yankees' 25-man roster last season when their players were fully healthy.
However, coming into Tuesday's game, Wells is hitting .300 with nine home runs (fifth in the American League) and 22 RBI, Lyle Overbay has six home runs and 24 RBI, and Travis Hafner had six home runs and 18 RBI before his injury. Those three players, comprising the middle of the Yankees lineup along with their star second baseman Robinson Cano, have produced much more than anyone expected.
The Yankees rank seventh in the AL in OPS and fourth in the AL in home runs, all without the combined 154 home runs vacated by Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Russell Martin, Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson, Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones.
Additionally, none of the Yankees starters (including Eduardo Nunez) has proved to be a defensive liability.
The Yankees offense was expected to tread water until its stars returned. Although it isn't atop the league in runs scored, it has done enough to lead the Yankees to the top of the AL.
Unexpectedly, the brightest spot in the Yankees rotation has been Hiroki Kuroda, who has gone seven or more innings in five of his eight starts and has a 2.31 ERA. CC Sabathia, while starting the season inconsistently and with missing velocity, seems to have found a rhythm and, along with Kuroda, gives the Yankees a formidable duo atop their rotation.
Andy Pettitte has continued to turn the clock back and has a sub-4.00 ERA, recording five quality starts in his seven starts this season.
Phil Hughes, once deemed the ace of the future for the Yankees, has settled nicely into the back of the rotation. He has shown flashes of brilliance while using his slider more extensively this season, but after six years of being an enigma at the major league level, consistent success from Hughes cannot be expected.
David Phelps hasn't really been a full-time starter all season, throwing under five innings in five of his eight appearances, but has been more than good enough to hold down the fifth spot in the rotation.
Before his injury, Ivan Nova was awful, logging and ERA over 6.00.
All in all, the Yankees returned six starters from the team that led the American League in wins in 2012. They currently rank eighth in MLB in starting pitcher ERA as a team and fourth in wins. Although they have been good as a group, there have been inconsistencies individually that could cause problems down the road.
Almost any bullpen anchored by Mariano Rivera will find success. Rivera has been anointed the greatest closer to ever throw a pitch by just about everyone in the baseball universe, including those who have and have not seen his vicious cutter. His success has been evident in each of his MLB-leading 16 saves.
However, Rivera is not the only success story coming out of the Yankees bullpen. His heir apparent, setup man David Robertson, has continued his consistent year-to-year success, striking out 19 in 15.1 innings and posting a sub-3.00 ERA.
Boone Logan and Shawn Kelly have also provided quality innings this season. Overall, the bullpen ranks 14th in ERA, fourth in walks and eighth in strikeouts in MLB.
Adam Warren has also been solid in a long-relief role, having only allowed three earned runs in his 18.1 innings.
The lone negative that sticks out has been former phenom Joba Chamberlain. Aside from posting a 1.71 WHIP in his 9.1 innings, Chamberlain recently got into a verbal spat with Mariano Rivera as reported by the New York Daily News. He continues his fall from grace into what seems to be an everlasting abyss.
The Yankees bullpen has gotten the job done night in and night out, and it has only blown two saves all season in 19 opportunities, good for an 89 percent save conversion percentage, third in MLB. The two teams ahead of the Yanks 'pen, Seattle and Texas, have had 11 and 12 save opportunities, respectively.
It is hard to define who exactly is part of the Yankees bench and who is a starter given all of their injuries. Since almost every player has been thrust into the lineup for at least semi-regular duty, the Yankees don't have a traditional bench at this point in the season.
Given the difficulty in distinguishing a clearly defined bench and players who fill bench roles, their bench cannot be accurately graded.
Joe Girardi is used to plugging in multimillion dollar names and All-Stars into his everyday lineup in defined spots. That's how he has done it for the past four seasons, and that's how he expected to keep doing his job.
When faced with the prospect of managing the "island of misfit toys" that comprises the current Yankees clubhouse, Girardi didn't panic. Instead, he has had his players come prepared to play every day and has shuffled the lineup around along with starter/bench roles.
Managers often get blamed for losses but rarely get credit for winning. Whatever Girardi has said to motivate his players or done to revitalize the likes of Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner and Lyle Overbay while putting everyone in the lineup in a position to succeed, it has worked.
Given a team that many projected to finish at the bottom of the American League East, Joe Girardi's Yankees sit atop the American League.
Hal Steinbrenner set a strict $189 million payroll limit for the 2014 season so that the Yankees would not have to pay an absurd amount extra in luxury tax.
Given a team with aging stars, most of whom have long-term and very expensive contracts, and a $197 million payroll in 2012, Cashman was tasked with restocking the Yankees for a World Series run while setting the team up to be under $189 million in 2014.
In essence, he was banned from negotiating with the big free agents. Josh Hamilton, Kyle Lohse, Mike Napoli, Zack Greinke and others were all too expensive for Cashman to go out and sign.
Instead, Cashman looked for low-risk, high-reward type of deals. He took other teams' castoffs in hopes of finding a diamond in the rough. He traded for Vernon Wells and even offered to pay a percentage of his enormous salary.
He signed Travis Hafner and Lyle Overbay to one-year deals. He re-signed Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda to one-year deals. He even got Kevin Youkilis to take a one-year contract.
With the success of nearly every deal he's signed and his ability to keep the Yankees on track to get under the $189 million mark by next season, Cashman has done as well as he possibly could given his circumstances.