What's going on with the Yankees?
After going 4-5 in their last three series (versus Tampa Bay, at Angels, at Milwaukee), the Yankees find themselves in second place in the American League East, one-and-a-half games behind the Orioles. You can call it a good sign or a bad sign that the two teams expected to dominate the division this season -- the Rays and the Red Sox -- are currently behind the Yanks. On one hand, those teams aren't playing as well as analysts expected them too. On the other hand, both sides are deeper than the veteran-laden Yankees and could surpass them as the season wears on.
With a lineup built around so many veterans, the Yankees are depending on steady production and health from guys like Mark Teixeira, Alfonso Soriano, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran. The results so far have been a mixed bag. Soriano, McCann, and Beltran are all struggling to get on base even 30 percent of the time, but they are at least providing the kind of power that has been the Yankees' trademark since they moved into their new building in 2009.
Teixeira, though, has been a revelation. He says he's still feeling the effects of a right wrist injury that limited him to 15 games last season, but on the field, he looks like his old self. Teixeira is hitting .266/.383/.557 with seven home runs, and that's a big boost for a club that was worried about its first baseman's healthy coming into the season.
The Yankee pitching staff has started out pretty well, but it's beginning to crumble under the weight of injuries. High profile winter acquisition Masahiro Tanaka has been nothing short of excellent with 58 strikeouts, just seven walks, and a 2.57 ERA in 49 innings. Michael Pineda was off to a great start as well before he got busted for pine tar and then sprained his back. Also recently landing in the disabled list is CC Sabathia, who was actually pitching pretty well this season when you take into account a ridiculous BABIP and home-run-to-fly-ball rate.
So that's the Yankees in the nutshell. They have a chance to reach the playoffs this season if their veterans stay healthy, if they can continue to get great play from Tanaka and Jacoby Ellsbury, and if they just write Stephen Drew a check to fix that big hole at shortstop.
Who are these guys?
Yangervis Solarte is an international man of mystery who has rescued Yankees fans from having to watch Kelly Johnson play third base every day. Before the 2014 season, Solarte was a 26-year-old career minor league player who had just finished hitting .276/.323/.403 for the Pacific Coast League's Round Rock Express (Texas). The year before that, in another full season of Triple-A, he hit .288/.340/.405 with 11 home runs and three stolen bases. These are numbers that are good enough to stick around with, but they don't scream "major league third baseman" very loudly. Nevertheless, Solarte is batting .315/.394/.463 with the Yankees in 2014 for a 137 wRC+. His strikeout rate is actually down to 11.8 percent from 12 percent last year, and his walk rate is also 11.8 percent: his best since rookie ball in 2009. We don't know yet if Solarte is truly a late bloomer or just a flash in the pan. The Yankees would probably like to ride him for as long as they can.
Previously known as "J.R.," John Ryan Murphy finally realized that two first names are better than none, and now he's the Yankees' backup catcher. Coincidence? Probably. Murphy is only on the roster because Francisco Cervelli suffered a severe hamstring strain, but he's making the most of it. The second round pick in the 2009 draft has 10 hits in his last six games played, including his first MLB home run on April 26 against the Angels. Murphy's minor league track record shows that he'll probably be more of a walks and line drives guy than the power hitting starter McCann. If Murphy's defense holds up, he can be a solid catcher in the league for a long time.
Who's on the mound?
Monday: Bartolo Colon vs. Hiroki Kuroda
Kuroda flies under the radar because he's been such an understated, consistent player since he entered the majors with the Dodgers in 2008. In fact, if Kuroda had pitched anywhere other than New York and Los Angeles, he may have fallen off the cliff entirely. He's sort of like Bronson Arroyo, but without the personality. Since 2008, Kuroda has just one season with less than 30 starts, and his ERA tends to hover around the 3.40 mark while he strikes out around 150 batters per season and walks around a third of that. Although he has struggled with a 4.43 ERA so far in 2014, all of Kuroda's important stats appear right where they should be. Once his incredibly low 58-percent strand rate approaches normal, Kuroda should go back to having another Kuroda season.
Because he's been in the league forever, it's hard to believe that Colon is just a year older than Kuroda, but indeed, tonight's pitching match-up will be a clash of the elderly titans. Like Kuroda, Colon is posting solid strikeout and walk rates this season that betray his putrid ERA. While Colon's strand rate isn't as low as Kuroda's, he has been hurt by a .336 BABIP and a home-run-to-fly-ball rate that is the highest it's been since 2009. Given those weaknesses, the Mets would probably rather Colon start one of the Citi Field games instead of this one.
Tuesday: Zack Wheeler vs. Vidal Nuno
Who is Vidal Nuno? I seem to ask myself that question every time I see him on the mound for the Yankees, and yet I never seem to remember to look up the answer. Turns out he's a left-handed swingman who has been moving up the Yankees system since he was released by the Indians in 2011. It's been hard to judge Nuno because he only has seven big-league starts under his belt, and they're spread over this season and last. In 2013, he was very contact-oriented and held a 2.25 ERA that was based on a very low BABIP and a very high strand rate. This season, he's missing more bats, but also giving up more walks, and the normalization of his batted ball stats has led to a 5.47 ERA. If Nuno can just get his walks down, his fly ball game should be able to find some success in front of a Yankees outfield that isn't bad defensively.
Wheeler is a pitcher with a much higher upside that Nuno, but he might not realize it soon if he doesn't get his walks under control. Even as he was mastering the Marlins last week with seven strikeouts in six innings, Wheeler's five walks drove up his pitch count and prevented him from working deeper into the game. With the Mets' bullpen in its current state, Wheeler has got to find a way to pitch into the seventh inning more often. He's only done that once this season.
Wednesday: Rafael Montero vs. Masahiro Tanaka
News broke on Monday afternoon that Rafael Montero is being called up from Triple-A Las Vegas to make his major league debut on Wednesday. That's surprising, but not too much of shock considering that there have been rumblings that the Mets' front office was considering bringing Montero into the rotation and sending Jenrry Mejia, who was originally penciled into this spot, to the bullpen. While Mejia's performance has been troubling recently, there's no guarantee that Montero will be better. While Mejia might have been destined for the bullpen in the long run either way, some will argue that the 24-year-old needed more starts to determine if he's worthy of a starting job or not.
In 41.2 innings spread over eight starts in Las Vegas this season, Montero has 41 strikeouts, 18 walks, a 3.67 ERA, and a 1.15 WHIP.
Montero will have an uphill battle to climb on Wednesday because of the opponent. Tanaka has been consistently great this season with at least six-and-one-third innings pitched and less than four runs allowed in each of his seven starts. His splitter has been just as devastating as advertised, as he uses to to strike out more than one batter per inning, and he's got considerable control as well. Tanaka's only weakness right now is the home run ball. He's allowed seven so far despite a 49-percent ground ball rate.
Thursday: Alfredo Aceves vs. Dillon Gee
For a player who has spent time in the majors only with the Red Sox and Yankees, you'd think Aceves would command a higher salary. Instead, he's just an affordable swigman who had one really nice season in 2011, but really just sticks around because of his versatility. Aceves was in camp with the Orioles this spring after spending 2011 to 2013 with Boston, but Baltimore cut him loose right before the start of the regular season. The Yankees were quick to snatch him up, and it's a good thing they did, because they now find themselves with three starters on the DL. Aceves was surprisingly effective as a spot starter for the Red Sox last season, but he hasn't started an MLB game yet in 2014. However, he did shutout the Rays for five-and-one-third innings on May 4 after Sabathia left the game.
For a guy who wasn't supposed to be the Mets' Opening Day starter this season, Gee sure has pitched like one. On Saturday night, he ran into a bit of a speed bump when he gave up three quick runs to the Phillies, but Gee managed to hang in there and get through six innings to give the team a chance to pull through. The Mets lost that game, but it doesn't change the confidence that the team has in its unlikely ace right now.
Prediction: The Mets get a split thanks to an inconsistent Yankees rotation.