With spring training in their rear-view mirror and the 2015 season about to start, the question is where will the New York Yankees finish in the American League East. The Yankees have failed to make the playoffs the past two seasons and many experts believe it will be three. But with the additions the Yankees made could they possibly have a surprise in store. Here is how I project it.
NEW YORK YANKEES
First of all, let’s admit that this is not your father’s A.L. East. There is NO dominant team in the division and there is not much separation between any of the five teams in terms of talent.
That said, the Yankees come into 2015 building around the foundation they began with their half-billion dollar investment last winter with the signings of outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, catcher Brian McCann and right-handed pitcher Masahiro Tanaka.
Those free agents were added to the holdovers in shortstop Derek Jeter, first baseman Mark Teixeira, outfielder Brett Gardner and left-hander CC Sabathia.
General manager Brian Cashman actually started the rebuilding process for 2015 last summer by retaining a number of players they acquired around the trade deadline or later such as third baseman Chase Headley, second baseman Stephen Drew, outfielder Chris Young and left-hander Chris Capuano.
With the retirement of Jeter, the loss of free-agent closer David Robertson and right-hander’s Hiroki Kuroda’s decision to end his career pitching in his native Japan, Cashman was forced to shuffle the deck by using young pitchers like right-handers David Phelps and Shane Greene and left-hander Manny Banuelos to bring in right-hander Nathan Eovaldi, backup first baseman and outfielder Garrett Jones, starting shortstop Didi Gregorius and relievers David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve.
Cashman also used cash to lure free-agent left-hander Andrew Miller to bolster the bullpen around rookie sensation Dellin Betances.
The result is a team that features a starting lineup of eight players ranging in age from 31 to Alex Rodriguez at 39. The former starting third baseman is returning from a year-long performance-enhancing drug suspension to become the team’s designated hitter.
Only Gregarious at age 25 is considered young.
However, the rotation features a 26-year-old in Tanaka, a 26-year-old in Michael Pineda and a 25-year-old in Eovaldi. A spring injury to 36-year-old Capuano has thrust 27-year-old Adam Warren into the No. 5 slot. So the only pitcher over 27 in the Yankees rotation is Sabathia, who is 34. When is the last time you could say that about the Yankees’ rotation?
The bullpen will center around Betances, 26, and Miller, 28, who are – at least for now – going share the closing duties. If both pitch as they have up to now, it will be a very good shutdown pair because neither have been hit hard by righties or lefties.
The concern will be with the setup spots. Warren is in the rotation so the Yankees will be counting on the right-handed Carpenter, 29, and left-handed Justin Wilson, 27, who was acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates with Cashman using the team’s catching surplus to deal away Francisco Cervelli.
If Carpenter and Wilson are successful, the bullpen will have a chance to be very good. If they fail, it could be a long season. Warren’s shift back to the bullpen with the return of both Capuano and right-hander Ivan Nova from Tommy John surgery in June can only be a big plus for the group.
Esmil Rogers, 29, will handle long relief. Shreve, 24, gives Girardi a third left-hander and 6-foot-8 right-hander Chris Martin has 95-mile-per-hour stuff that moves on an extreme downward plane. This trio looks solid and give Girardi credit for being a master of managing bullpens.
All spring long the Yankees struggled to score runs. It was not too much different from the way the offense struggled last season.
A pair of speed demons – Ellsbury and Gardner – are stacked on top of the lineup. The idea is to get them on base as much as possible and let them use their speed to get into scoring position for the middle of the lineup.
Both combined to steal 60 bases in what both players admittedly could call an off year. So they hope they can top 80 this season.
The whole strategy rests upon the middle of the order bouncing back from injuries and off years in 2015.
The third batter, Beltran, incurred painful bone chips in his right elbow and ended up posting the worst numbers of his career.
The cleanup hitter, Teixiera, was still limited by a sore right wrist and other injuries and posted only 22 home runs.
Although the fifth hitter, McCann, did crack 23 home runs and drive 78 runs, he only batted .232. So the Yankees would like him to hit closer to his career .272 average this season.
That is plenty of firepower but it seems like a fragile situation counting on Beltran, who will be 38 on April 24 and Teixeira, who will be 35 on April 11.
Behind McCann may be the one diamond-in-the-rough player who is primed for huge season in Headley, 30, who hit 31 homers and drove in 115 runs for the San Diego Padres in 2012. Back issues have hampered him for the past two seasons but he seems healthy now.
He batted .305 with three homers and eight RBIs this spring and the former Gold Glove winner has been flashing some serious leather at third base.
It is unclear how much A-Rod will contribute from the DH spot. Rodriguez has not played more than 138 games since his Most Valuable Player season in 2007. Hip surgeries, nagging other ailments and the drug suspension have teamed with Father Time to make him an unknown quantity.
This spring, Rodriguez batted .267 with three homers and four RBIs and he did not look overmatched at the plate. But it is hard to know what A-Rod will provide until the bells rings on the regular season.
Nowhere did the Yankees look more vulnerable last season than at second base. After Robinson Cano took his power, his .300 average and his Gold Glove defensive skills to Seattle, the Yankees tried veteran Brian Roberts at the position.
But his batting and fielding skills eroded over four seasons of injuries and the Yankees cut him loose in July in favor of Drew, who had never played second base in the pro baseball. Drew also was dealing with a season-long hitting slump that saw him bat only .162 between the Boston Red Sox and the Yankees.
Drew started this spring very slowly but emerged to bat over .470 in the final three weeks with three home runs. Drew has been working with the Yankees’ new hitting coach Jeff Petland and it seems to have been paying some dividends. The Yankees would settle for Drew batting .250 or so with 15 homers and 65 RBIs this season. Those had been norms for Drew in his previous seasons.
Though it was sad to see the 20-year era of Jeter’s career at shortstop come to an end, the Yankees are very hopeful they have an emerging star in the making in Gregorius.
What fans immediately saw this spring is that Gregorius has outstanding range, great hands and an powerful and accurate arm. The Yankees believe his defense will be upgrade since Jeter’s range had been so limited the past several years.
Jeter batted .256 in his final season and the Yankees hope that Gregorius can possibly top that average this season largely batting ninth. When Gregorius was in Arizona, manager Kirk Gibson benched him against left-handers because he has batted only .150 in his career against them.
But the Yankees allowed him to hit against left-handers this spring and Gregorius did not seem to look bad against them. So, for now, Girardi is content with playing his young shortstop every day.
The bench is solid and features power-hitting right-hander Young and power-hitting left-hander Jones. Young, 31, had an exceptional spring and he brings athleticism to all three outfield spots he plays and a potential deadly bat against left-handed pitching.
Jones, 33, hit 15 homers for the Miami Marlins last season and he seems to have the perfect swing for Yankee Stadium. Jones will primarily back up Teixeira at first and he can also play the corner outfield spots, if needed.
Backup infielder Brendan Ryan, 33, had a spring he would rather forget. First, he was delayed at the start with a back injury he sustained lifting weights. After he returned, Ryan ended up pulling a right calf muscle last week and he will start the season on the disabled list.
Ryan brings a slick glove to second, shortstop and third base – although short is where he really shines in the field. But he can’t hit a lick. He has no power and he is a career .234 hitter.
The Yankees obtained infielder Gregorio Petit from the Houston Astros in exchange for cash in the last week of the spring. So Petit, 30, will assume Ryan’s role despite having played on only 62 major-league games with the Oakland Athletics and the Astros. He has batted .278 in just 151 at-bats. He will be a stopgap until Ryan is healthy again.
John Ryan Murphy, 23, managed to hold off a challenge from veteran Austin Romine this spring to remain the backup to McCann. Murphy batted .284 with a homer and nine RBIs in 32 games last season and the Yankees rave about his defense behind the plate.
But the biggest secret the Yankees are carrying with them now lies in the young players they were able to showcase this spring. For the first time in a very long time the Yankees have a number of very good prospects and some positional depth at the minor-league level that could be factors this season.
But the promise is even brighter longer term.
Right-handed starters Luis Severino and Domingo German (obtained in the trade for Phelps and Martin Prado) and left-handed starter Ian Clarkin along with left-handed reliever Jacob Lindgren and right-handed relievers Nick Rumbelow and Jose Ramirez are in the pipeline and moving quickly to the majors.
Second basemen Rob Refsnyder and Jose Pirela tore the cover off the ball this spring and their presence at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre is just a taste of what is the horizon with outfielders Slade Heathcott and Ramon Flores also knocking on the door.
Right-hander Chase Whitley, 25, had a 1.17 ERA this spring and he still not crack the bullpen. You have to figure he is going to get a call-up to the 25-man roster at some point. Keep an eye also on Bryan Mitchell, who will be 24 this month. Mitchell drew rave reviews when he fanned Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez back-to-back in a five-inning effort in a split-squad game in Lakeland, FL, on April 2.
At Double-A Trenton will be prospects such as outfielder Aaron Judge and first baseman Greg Bird, both of whom looked undaunted by major-league pitching this spring.
Catching prospect Gary Sanchez, 23, is also not too far away from contributing in the major leagues.
Though Yankee fans and the Yankee front office never has shown much patience with its young prospects in the past, this group might just force the front office to use them and perhaps the revolving door of signing aging free agents will finally end.
Should the Yankees falter as what so many experts are predicting this season. The young players who are on the way could be a foundation to build around, It is there to see. It is just up to Cashman and the Yankee front office not to screw it up.
Here now is my brief assessment of the other four teams in the division and my prediction for the order of finish in 2015.
This is a team that ran away with this division last season. But it is hard to see them as a “great” team.
Their ace is a very pedestrian Chris Tillman. Their offense lost outfielders Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis. They also are likely to be without Matt Wieters to start the season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. Ditto for shortstop J.J. Hardy, who has left shoulder injury.
With all that they still have Adam Jones, Manny Machado and they are really hoping that Chris Davis recovers his home-run stroke.
Though Tillman is not a true ace they do have Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzales and Bud Norris to form a solid foursome. The bullpen with closer Zach Britton and setup guys Darren O’Day and Tommy Hunter is top notch.
They also have one of the best managers in baseball in Buck Showalter. So in Baltimore there is hope the O’s can repeat.
A lot depends on how new outfielders Alejandro De Aza and Travis Snider do to make up for the losses of Cruz and Markakis.
BOSTON RED SOX
This team flopped in 2014 and yet many are picking them to win the title in 2015.
Most of that is based on their offense. To Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Mike Napoli, the Red Sox have added Hanley Ramirez, Mookie Betts and Pablo Sandoval.
They are also hoping for better seasons and health from Xander Bogaerts and Shane Victorino.
However, it is hard to look at the rotation and see anything but potential disaster.
Clay Buchholz was 8-11 with a 6.34 ERA and is considered the ace. Rick Porcello did have a 15-13 record and a 3.43 ERA with the Tigers. But Justin Masterson was 7-9 with a 5.88 with the Cleveland Indians and the St. Louis Cardinals.
Lefty Wade Miley was 8-12 with a 4.34 ERA for the Arizona Diamondbacks. A better offense will help him but he is not anything close to Jon Lester, who the Red Sox traded last season and were unable to re-sign as a free agent.
No. 5 starter Joe Kelly (6-4, 4.20 ERA with the Cardinals) starts the season on the disabled list with right bicep injury. In addition, closer Koji Uehara, who just turned 40, is also on the disabled list with a hamstring injury so Edward Mujica and his 49 career saves are it for now.
There is no doubt that the Red Sox will be capable of scoring runs. The question is will it be enough runs to cover a pitching staff and an underbelly of a bullpen that could really exploited?
Add that up to the fact that catcher Christian Vazquez is out for the season to undergo Tommy John surgery on his right elbow and you have enough doubts about the Red Sox to make it unlikely they are a good choice to win this division.
The Toronto Blue Jays tried this approach last season and it did not work.
TAMPA BAY RAYS
This team seemingly lost everything so quickly that their home radio station, WDAE, is not very enthusiastic about them.
Manager Joe Maddon and his screwy ideas that seem to work on shifting is gone. General manager Andrew Friedman, who introduced sabermetrics and advanced scouting techniques to the organization that built this team, is also gone.
The team’s best pitcher in David Price was traded last season and now is pitching for the Detroit Tigers. Their second-best pitcher, Matt Moore, is not expected back until June because he is recovering from Tommy John surgery.
This spring they incurred injuries to their best remaining pitcher Alex Cobb. Their closer, Jake McGee, will miss the first month.
They also traded away offensive contributors such as Wil Myers, Ben Zobrist, Yunel Escobar and Matt Joyce.
The team’s offense can be wrapped up in third baseman Evan Longoria and a lot of hope and praying.
They are counting on production out of rookie outfielder Steven Souza Jr., who batted .130 this spring and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who the Indians discarded saying he could not play shortstop and he was not the hitter he was in 2011 (25 home runs and 92 RBIs).
They are still hoping that Desmond Jennings just shows one little spark of the long-departed Carl Crawford. But it is not looking like it will happen.
This could amount to one of the weakest hitting teams in baseball in 2015 and it could be worse without Maddon running the show.
Granted, Cobb, Moore, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi could form a solid rotation when they are all healthy. The question is can the Rays tread water long enough to see that happen?
Though McGee, Grant Balfour and Brad Boxberger form a solid trio at the back of the bullpen, the Rays are counting on a pair of former failed relievers in Kevin Jepsen and Ernesto Frieri to help out in the middle innings.
They also do not have a decent lefty beyond McGee. Ouch!
After many years of dealing with their obnoxious cowbell-ringing fans – all of about 7,000 of them a game – it appears that the bloom is off the rose and the cowbells will eventually fall silent this season unless there is some sort of miracle new manager Kevin Cash can create.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS
This was the sexy choice to win the division in 2014. Funny thing is, I would have selected them to win this season if young right-hander Marcus Stroman did suffer knee injury that will force him to miss the entire season.
Stroman would have formed a nice 1-2 punch with right-hander Drew Hutchison, who at 24 has progressed so much as a pitcher he is starting on Opening Day ahead of Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey and veteran Mark Buehrle.
To that they have added a pair of young pitchers in left-hander Daniel Norris and right-hander Aaron Sanchez, who looked to be the team’s closer in waiting until the team opted to use him as a starter instead.
The bullpen is untested but it has closer Brett Cecil. There is a lot untested pitchers in the mix behind him but 20-year-old Miguel Castro may end being something special as he gets his feet wet in the majors.
Like the Red Sox, the Blue Jays never have to worry about scoring runs. Add to the thundering power of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion the bat of third baseman Josh Donaldson, who hit 29 home runs and drove in 98 runs for the Athletics in their cavernous ballpark.
You would think Donaldson will love the Rogers Centre.
Though the Jays will miss line-drive machine Melky Cabrera, they still have Jose Reyes and they have also added catcher Russell Martin, who can hit 20 homers and run a pitching staff like a pitching coach.
So there is a lot to like.
The question is after losing Adam Lind and Colby Rasmus the Blue Jays are trotting a pair of young outfielders in Dalton Pompey (center) and Kevin Pillar (left). Much of what the Blue Jays do will revolve around what they do.
They also have a new second baseman in Devon Travis.
It is hard to pick a team to win with so many new players in the lineup like Pillar, Pompey and Travis. This team is carrying six rookies!
But the real test of how the Blue Jays do in 2015 will hinge on its pitching staff. Stroman was a much bigger loss than I think the Blue Jays can overcome.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
1) BALTIMORE ORIOLES (92-70)
2) TORONTO BLUE JAYS (86-76)
3) NEW YORK YANKEES (84-78)
4) BOSTON RED SOX (80-82)
5) TAMPA BAY RAYS (76-86) Hello Montreal!
The Orioles will fall back to the pack but not enough to make much difference. The Blue Jays actually could have won it with Stroman, but now they will fall short and they will not win the wildcard either. I was tempted to pick the Yankees for second because Tanaka, Pineda and Eovaldi are all primed for excellent seasons. But the offense this spring was woefully lacking and it looks as if they will lose a lot of 4-3 and 3-2 games unless make a deal for a young slugger like Giancarlo Stanton. The Yankees just do not have that stud in the middle of the order and it will hurt. The Red Sox will be the Red Flops mainly because their pitching is not as good as people believe it is. Their bullpen also is much weaker without Miller. About all that the “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval is good for is twining with Ortiz to advertise for a doughnut shop. Ramirez is talented but he also is moody and can give up when things are not going well. Ask the Marlins and Dodgers. As for the Rays, their collapse could not have come at a worse time for them when attendance and TV viewership is dropping. The owner wants to have a new stadium built despite the fact that they are tied to dumpy and ugly Tropicana Field for many more years. That is why it is inevitable that the team will be sold and shifted to another city like Montreal soon. Tre bien!
YANKEES 9, ASTROS 4
“It’s never over until it’s over.”
– Yogi Berra
KISSIMMEE, FL – This wise old saying should be on the lips of every young prospect in Major League Baseball. It certainly rang true for the young Yankee prospects on Saturday
Fueled by home runs Jake Cave and Greg Bird, New York scored two runs in the eighth inning and six runs in the ninth as New York rallied from a 4-1 deficit to stun Houston at Osceola County Stadium.
Through the first seven innings, Astros pitchers held the Yankees to one run (a Ramon Flores home run to lead of the sixth) and three hits but Cave started the rally with his solo home run to lead off the eighth off left-hander Darin Downs.
Nick Noonan then chased Downs by following Cave’s homer with a double. Then Jose Pirela greeted reliever Jordan Jankowski with an RBI triple to bring the Yankees to within 4-3. However, Pirela later in the inning was thrown out at home plate by first baseman Matt Duffy on a fielder’s choice off the bat of Bird to preserve the Astros’ 4-3 lead.
The Yankees then loaded the bases with one out in the ninth off Jankowski when Cave hit an infield roller for a single. Noonan drew a bases-loaded walk to tie the game and Pirela, one out later, gave the Yankees their first lead with a two-run single to left.
Jankowski was replaced on the mound by left-hander Kent Emanuel, who then balked to allow Noonan to score and Bird – later in the same at-bat – cracked a 410-foot home run to right-center that closed the scoring.
Chris Cotham (1-0) escaped a one-out jam with runners at second and third in the bottom of the eighth to get credit for the victory. Jankowski (0-1) took the loss.
The Yankees are 3-2 in the first week of Grapefruit League action.
Much has been said about how dysfunctional the Yankee’s minor-league system has been over the years. This spring maybe marks a stark change to the idea that the Yankees do not have much talent in their system.
Cave, Bird, Flores, Refsnyder and Pirela are prime examples the Yankees do have young position players who soon will be knocking on the door to get opportunities to play at Yankee Stadium.
As this blog pointed out in earlier posts, the Yankees have legitimately talented young players at every position:
CATCHER – Gary Sanchez, FIRST BASE – Bird, SECOND BASE – Pirela and Refsnyder, THIRD BASE – Eric Jagielo, OUTFIELDERS – Cave, Flores, Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin among others. The shortstop position has 25-year-old Didi Gregorius, who was acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks.
If you add in young starting pitchers like Luis Severino (the team’s No. 1 prospect), Ian Clarkin and Domingo German and up-and-coming relievers such as Branden Pinder, Jacob Lindgren, Danny Burawa and Tyler Webb it becomes clear the Yankees might have a strong corps of young players who can contribute.
So while the 2015 season might hold a lot of dark clouds on how the Yankees will do with so many questions surrounding veterans like Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia. There is just a bit of hope for the near future.
Seeing it all play out with an eight-run rally in the final two innings in Kissimmee on Saturday was pretty fun to watch.
- Bird, 22, is batting a red-hot .444 in the early going and it is no accident. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound first baseman was named the Most Valuable Player in the Arizona Fall League for Scottsdale this winter and he has just picked up where he left off there. Bird likely will open the season at Double-A Trenton but he could possibly move up to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
- Refsnyder, 23, may have to work on his fielding at second since he is a converted outfielder but he can flat-out hit. After going 1-for-2 on Saturday he is batting an even .500 on the spring. He is a career .297 hitter in the minors and hit .318 in 137 games in two minor-league stops in 2014. He is ticketed for Scranton but he could advance to the major leagues should Stephen Drew get injured or fail to succeed in his switch to second base.
- Cave, 23, was 2-for-2 including his home run and now is hitting a scorching .571 early. Cave only has nine career minor-league home runs so power is not really his thing. Cave is more of line-drive gap hitter with some speed. The 6-foot, 180-pound Cave hit a combined .294 in two minor-league stops in 2014. He likely will start off in Trenton.
- Scott Baker, a 33-year-old former Minnesota Twins ace, started for the Yankees and was tagged for three runs on six hits as the Astros batted around in the first inning. Chris Carter smacked a two-run double and Luis Valbuena followed with an RBI single. Baker is a non-roster invitee trying to make the team as a spot starter and long reliever. Unfortunately, the Astros jumped on Baker’s fastball early in the count and did some damage because Baker’s fastball had very little movement. Baker was 3-4 with a 5.37 ERA in 25 games with the Texas Rangers last season and was rewarded with his release.
- The Yankees started their starting infield of Teixeira, Drew, Gregorius and Chase Headley. After leaving in the sixth inning they were a combined 2-for-11 with a walk. The exception was Teixeira, who smacked an opposite-field single in the second and lined out in the fourth. Teixeira is showing signs of recovering fully from his wrist surgery in 2013 and he also is sporting a trimmer look due to a new diet.
Masahiro Tanaka threw 29 pitches in a simulated game in Tampa, FL, on Saturday and told reporters later that he feels he is ready to pitch in exhibition games. “He’s exactly where you want him to be at this point in spring training,” Rothschild told reporters. . . . Rodriguez, 39, will play third base in one of the next two home games on Sunday or Monday, manager Joe Girardi told reporters on Saturday. In two previous spring games Rodriguez has been the designated hitter. Rodriguez is 1-for-4 with two walks and single in the early going.
The Yankees will play host to the Washington Nationals today at George M. Steinbrenner Field.
Right-hander Adam Warren will make his second start of the spring. Warren looked sharp in his first outing on Tuesday against the Phillies at Bright House Field In Clearwater, FL, giving up just one hit in two innings of work.
The Nationals will counter with veteran right-hander Doug Fister, who led the Nationals in 2014 with 16 victories and a 2.41 ERA.
Game-time will be 1:05 p.m. and the game will be broadcast on a delayed basis at 8 p.m. by the MLB Network and live by the YES Network. It also will be available on a live broadcast by WFAN in New York via MLB Radio.
With the opening of the New York Yankees spring training camp in Tampa, FL, we will now look at each position on the team to assess their chances in 2015. After a disappointing 2014 season with a roster riddled with significant injuries the Yankees have reshuffled the deck with a lot of fresh faces to join some old ones. Let’s look at them.
No. 1 – Masahiro Tanaka, 26 (13-5, 2.77 ERA in 20 starts)
No. 2 – Michael Pineda, 26 (5-5, 1.89 ERA in 13 starts)
No. 3 – CC Sabathia, 34 (3-4, 5.28 ERA in 8 starts)
No. 4 – Nathan Eovaldi, 25 (6-14, 4.37 ERA in 33 starts)
No. 5 – Chris Capuano, 36 (2-3, 4.25 in 12 starts)
The Yankees began the 2014 season with a rotation of Tanaka, Pineda, Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova. At one point last season, Kuroda was the only one of the five still pitching.
In fact, the then-39-year-old veteran made 32 starts and was 11-9 with a 3.71 ERA for a team that struggled to finish six games over .500. Unfortunately, after pitching three seasons with the Yankees, Kuroda elected to exit Major League Baseball and go back to his native Japan to finish up his career.
That leaves a 2015 rotation steeped in talent and great possibilities. However, it also is a quintet laden with big question marks.
The Yankees made quite a splash last season with the signing of the Japanese star right-hander Tanaka to a seven-year, $155-million contract on Jan. 23. Tanaka was coming off a dream season in Japan where he was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA for the Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2013.
The Yankees saw Tanaka as a potential ace and they were hoping that his eight-pitch assortment including a world-class strikeout pitch in his split-finger fastball would translate to the American game.
After a spring training in which he was 2-0 with a 2.14 ERA in five games, Tanaka hit the ground running and never really stopped. On June 17, Tanaka was 11-1 with a sparkling 1.99 ERA.
Ther was talk of a Cy Young Award and a Rookie of the Year Award buzzing around him until . . .
After losing three of his next three starts, Tanaka complained of pain in his valuable right elbow. Because Tanaka came to the United States after logging 1,315 innings since the age of 18 in Japan, he did come to the Yankees with some very inherent risks.
The Yankees discovered he had a partial tear in ulnar collateral ligament and left the choice to Tanaka whether to have surgery to repair it and likely miss two full seasons or rehab the small tear and hope that it healed on its own.
Tanaka chose the latter and came back to make two starts in September. Despite the fact he was shelled for seven runs (five earned) in 1 2/3 innings in his final start, Tanaka and the Yankees were encouraged enough to stay committed on not having Tommy John surgery.
So with two spring bullpen sessions under his belt, Tanaka has assured the Yankees and the media that his elbow is fine and he expects no further problems. To outside observers, however, Tanaka’s elbow is a ticking time bomb that can explode at any moment, especially for a pitcher who throws a splitter with so much torque on his elbow.
But the Yankees are willing to take that chance so that they can have their ace on the mound for 2015.
If he is right and he remains healthy the Yankees will have one of the best pitchers in the major leagues. Tanaka has proven to be the consummate pitcher capable of even changing his game plan if pitches are not working or batters change their approach.
Last season, pitching against the Twins at Target Field, Tanaka noticed that the Twins were laying off his split-finger pitch and it was causing him to get into some deep counts. So Tanaka switched gears and went to his slider, a pitch that he could throw for strikes. Tanaka ended up winning the game.
So Tanaka is far from just a thrower and his cerebral approach along with his stuff make him a very formidable foe for hitters. If the Yankees are to make any noise in the American League East they will need Tanaka at the top of the rotation pitching just as he did in 2014.
If patience is a virtue than the Yankees have it spades when it comes to Pineda.
The 6-foot-7, 290-pound right-hander was obtained in a much ballyhooed deal between the Yankees and Seattle in 2012 that sent the Yankees No. 1 prospect, catcher Jesus Montero, to the Mariners.
However, in his final start of the spring in 2012, Pineda complained of shoulder pain. He ended up undergoing season-ending surgery on the shoulder and he was only was able to make 10 minor-league rehab starts in 2013.
So the Yankees wanted to see what a healthy Pineda could do in 2014. Very quickly they learned he could do quite a lot. In spring training, Pineda was 2-1 with a 1.20 ERA in four games with 16 Ks in 15 innings.
The Yankees could not wait to see what he could do with a full season. However, after going 2-1 with a 1.00 ERA in his first three starts, Pineda decided to tempt fate once too many times by placing a glob of pine tar on his neck in a game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on April 23.
He was ejected from the game in the second inning and he was suspended for 10 days by Major League Baseball. In what only could be called “Pineda Luck,” while preparing for his first start after the suspension, Pineda strained the teres major muscle behind his right shoulder and he was placed on the 60-day disabled list. He would not return to the Yankees until Sept. 5.
In his final five starts, Pineda was 2-2 with an even more sparkling 1.62 ERA. So the Yankees open spring camp thinking they have a second top-drawer starter in Pineda IF ONLY he can stay healthy and off suspension.
It is obvious the talent is there. Pineda exhibits absolutely spotless control: He walked only seven batters in 76 1/3 innings and he only gave up 56 hits. How he lost five games is amazing but very understandable considering how weak the Yankees offense was last season.
With a full season under his belt in 2015, Pineda may take the next step into the elite class of pitchers and he forms a very tough one-two pitching punch with Tanaka.
At this point, the rest of the rotation takes a decided turn to the worse.
Sabathia, the team’s former ace, is coming off two consecutive very bad seasons.
In 2013, Sabathia saw his record slip from 15-6 in 2012 to 14-13 and his ERA exploded from 3.28 to 4.78. After pitching 200-plus innings for six consecutive seasons since 2007, Sabathia discovered he was losing velocity, which negated the effectiveness of his change-up.
He vowed to be better in 2014. He would somehow transition into a finesse pitcher capable of winning on guile instead on pure power as he had throughout his career.
He was 3-1 with 1.29 ERA in five spring starts so the early results looked encouraging. But when the regular season started the whole thing came crashing down on Sabathia.
He was 3-3 with a 5.11 ERA in April. He then made two very poor starts in May and that was all for Sabathia for the rest of the season. Swelling in his right knee forced him to the disabled list and after breaking down in a second rehab start on July 2, Sabathia finally called 2014 quits.
Yankee team doctors discovered that Sabathia had a degenerative condition in his right knee and underwent arthroscopic debridement surgery in July. Doctors also shaved out a bone spur.
Though Sabathia dodged a more invasive and career-threatening microfracture surgery, he will always have some pain in the knee because he has no cartilage between the bones. So Sabathia enters 2015 as one big fat question mark, literally.
Sabathia, claiming that he was too light the past two seasons, elected to come to camp 10 pounds heavier this spring. Sabathia said he expects to pitch this season between 295 and 305 pounds. Last season, he reported weighing 275 pounds.
It would seem to be counterintuitive for a pitcher coming off knee surgery with no cartilage in his knee would add weight. But Dr. Christopher Ahmad, the Yankees’ team physician, cleared him for the weight and manager Joe Girardi said it will not be an issue in camp.
Sabathia vows he wants to make at least 30 starts in 2015 and after his first bullpen session he said he already feels stronger than he has the past two seasons. But the jury on Sabathia remains out.
Just two seasons ago the Yankees provided Sabathia a six-year, $142 million deal. In retrospect, that deal is looking pretty disastrous now because it is doubtful that Sabathia will ever reclaim his status as the team’s ace.
The even larger question is can he adapt and become a the finesse pitcher he thinks he can? The left-hander sounds all the right chords but the results so far have be awful. So no one on the Yankees’ staff has more to prove that Sabathia in 2015.
With Kuroda unavailable the Yankees could have gone in a lot of different directions to replace him in 2015.
After all they did have young pitchers such as David Phelps, Adam Warren and Shane Greene on the roster. In addition, Brandon McCarthy pitched well for the team after he was acquired from the Diamondbacks last July.
However, the Yankees did not opt for Plan A, Plan B, Plan C or Plan D. They dealt Phelps and Greene away in separate trades and they allowed McCarthy to sign a four-year, $48 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
They are now on Plan E as in Eovaldi, who the Yankees obtained along with infielder/outfielder Garrett Jones for infielder Martin Prado and Phelps.
The right-hander features a sizzling fastball that averages 95.7 mph. However, even with that hard fastball Eovaldi led the National League in hits allowed (223) and he recorded only 142 strikeouts.
The problem according to the Yankees: He needs to develop his secondary pitches – his splitter, slider and change-up. The thought is that if Eovaldi does that the sky is the limit for him as a pitcher.
“We’ve talked about developing his repertoire and having him establish confidence in all his pitches in all the counts,” Girardi told reporters. “It’s one thing to have three or four pitches, but it’s another thing to have the confidence to throw them at any time.”
So spring training will be an opportunity for pitching coach Larry Rothschild to refine the diamond in the ruff in Eovaldi and 2015 will be a proving ground to see how the pupil progresses with the lessons he is taught.
Eovaldi did throw 199 2/3 innings last season for a very weak Marlins team. Perhaps some improved offense from the Yankees combined with the refinements Eovaldi is making will translate into success for him in 2015.
The Yankees opted to bring back the veteran left-hander Capuano after he made 12 starts with the team last season.
Capuano was designated for assignment by the Boston Red Sox on July 25 and he was signed to a minor-league contract on July 4 by the Colorado Rockies. After making two minor-league starts, the Yankees acquired him from the Rockies in exchange for cash considerations.
Capuano debuted on July 28 and he finished with a 2-3 mark with a 4.25 ERA.
Having a second left-hander in the rotation is advantageous for the Yankees, particularly at home with so many teams wanting to load up on left-handed batters to exploit the short right-field porch in Yankee Stadium.
The problem is left-handers hit .321 with a .942 OPS against Capuano last season. So he is going to have to work on that this spring.
Capuano has not started 33 games in a season since 2012, But if he can keep his ERA to his career mark of 4.28 the Yankees will be satisfied.
The Yankees also enter 2015 with a bit of a problem. The Yankees have a stretch at the end of April and the beginning of May where they are scheduled to play 30 games in 31 days.
In addition, they have Tanaka, Pineda and Sabathia coming off injury-shortened seasons n 2014. So Giradi and Rothschild are planning to use a six-man rotation this spring and they may extend it into the regular season to ease the strain on their staff through that 30-game stretch in May.
As a result right-hander Warren, 27, looks to be in the best position to fill that role for the Yankees. Warren was 3-6 with a 2.97 ERA in 69 games last season, all of them in relief.
But Warren has been a starter throughout his minor-league career and he is well-suited to slip back into the bullpen when he is no longer needed.
Warren was one of the strengths of the bullpen last season and he seems to have settled into the role Phelps once held.
It would not be the Yankees unless they entered a season with one of their starting pitchers rehabbing something and that is the case with the 28-year-old right-hander Nova, who ended up on the disabled list after four starts after he suffered a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament on his right elbow.
After undergoing Tommy John surgery on April 29 last year, Nova will be unavailable to the Yankees until late May or early June, barring any unforeseen setbacks. However, it is unclear how effective Nova can be.
The Merriam-Webster definition of the word nova is “a star that suddenly increases its light output tremendously and then fades away to its former obscurity in a few months or years.” That could apply to the veteran from the Dominican Republic.
Nova burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2011 with a 16-4 record and a 3.70 ERA. However, in 2012, Nova regressed and finished 12-8 with a 5.02 ERA with 28 home runs allowed in 170 1/3 innings.
He then bounced back from an injury in 2013 to become the Yankees’ best pitcher down the stretch. He ended the season 9-6 with an excellent 3.10 ERA.
So 2014 was supposed to be Nova’s chance to build as a starter. But it ended early after the elbow flared up with a 2-2 record and a 8.27 ERA.
The Yankees are hopeful that Nova will be able to step into the rotation in late May or so. The reality is that it usually takes pitchers some time to find the feel for the pitches and trust that the repaired elbow will hold up.
Nova had developed a devastating curveball that just had batters shaking their heads. He also was able to throw his fastball in the mid-90s with good control. If that Nova is able to contribute to the Yankees in 2015 they may be able to shift Capuano to the bullpen and the rotation will look a lot better.
But Nova remains a big question mark for now.
The Yankees have options beyond these seven starters but there is a huge drop in quality also.
Chase Whitley, 25, made 12 starts for the Yankees last season. After going 3-0 with a 2.56 ERA in his first seven starts he collapsed. He was 0-2 with a 9.00 ERA in his last five starts.
However, he did pitch six innings of shutout baseball on seven hits on July 22 at home against Texas in his final start but still was shifted to the bullpen, where he ended the season.
It is unlikely that Whitley will start once the season opens but he could be a valuable swing man in the bullpen who is available to make a spot start if needed. Whitley has very good numbers as a reliever in the minors and the Yankees feel he is going to be an integral part of their revamped bullpen.
There also is Esmil Rogers, a 29-year-old right-hander signed as a free agent after he was designated for assignment by the Toronto Blue Jays on July 27. He made his debut with the Yankees on Aug. 4 and finished 2-0 with a 4.66 ERA.
Rogers was a failed starter with the Blue Jays before being shifted to the bullpen in 2014 and he seems more suited for that role. But he struggled with the Yankees in September with a 7.84 ERA.
Blessed with immense talent, Rogers just has not been able to put it all together yet at the major-league level and time is beginning to run out.
Another starter candidate is right-hander Bryan Mitchell, 23, who came up from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in August and pitched in three games, one of them as a starter.
Mitchell was 0-1 with a 2.45 ERA in 11 innings. He was a combined 6-7 with a 4.37 ERA at Double-A Trenton and Scranton.
Yankee insiders compare Mitchell’s build and stuff to that of A.J. Burnett because he possesses a power fastball that reaches the mid-90s and a power curveball that hits at 84 mph. Mitchell has also added a cutter but his change-up needs work.
If Mitchell can harness the command of his pitches he could be something special. He is ranked as the team’s No. 20 prospect.
If the Yankees have one pitcher coming to camp as a non-roster player that I can’t wait to see it is 21-year-old right-hander Luis Severino, the team’s top rated prospect in 2015.
Signed out of the Dominican Republic in July 2012, Severino began 2013 as a complete unknown quantity and finished it as the top right-handed pitching prospect in the system.
Though only 6-feet and 195 pounds, Severino showed uncommon strength to post a 4-2 record with a 2.45 ERA and 53 Ks in 44 innings between two rookie league teams.
He topped that in 2014 by sailing through three different teams, making it all the way to Trenton and he did not look overmatched at any of those stops.
After posting a 3-2 record with a 2.79 ERA at Class-A Charleston (SC) in 14 starts, Severino was promoted to Class-A Tampa. All he did there was go 1-1 with a sparkling 1.31 ERA in four starts.
So the Yankees sent him on to Trenton, where he was 2-2 with a 2.52 ERA in six starts. Over the course of 113 1/3 innings in his three stops, Severino punched out 127 batters.
To say he looks like the real deal is putting it mildly. He was chosen to participate in the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game and he has become the organization’s No. 1 prospect, period.
Severino’s fastball reaches up to 98 mph and has a natural sink at the low end of his velocity (94 mph). Severino also features a hard slider and a change-up that both have the potential to be big weapons for him.
The Yankees would love to see what he can do this spring but they are going to be deliberate and cautious with his development. But there is no doubt that Severino is on a fast-track to the major leagues and he could be in the rotation as regularly as soon as 2016.
Book it: Severino is a star in the making!
Just behind Severino is left-hander Ian Clarkin, 20, who was selected in the first round (33rd pick) by the Yankees in 2013 First-Year Player Draft.
Clarkin recorded a 4-3 mark with a 3.13 ERA in stops at Charleston and Tampa using his 90-94 mph fastball mixed in with a 12-to-6 curveball and a change-up. The youngster also shows a lot of polish for a prep pitcher and the Yankees hope to have him ready for the majors by 2017.
He is ranked as the team’s fourth best prospect.
The Yankees also have very high hopes for No. 7 prospect Domingo German, 22, another player signed out of the Dominican Republic by the Miami Marlins in 2009.
The 6-foot-2, 175-pound right-hander posted a breakout season in 2014 at Class-A Greensboro, going 9-3 with a 2.48 ERA in 25 starts. He also was selected to pitch in the SiriusXM Futures Game and then the Marlins packaged him with Eovaldi and Jones in the deal for Prado and Phelps.
German excels at command and scouts rave about his touch already on his breaking pitches. He features a power sinking fastball along with a above-average change-up. Right now his slider needs more break but he is developing it.
The Yankees also expect to see him around 2017.
These three gems have Yankee fans very excited and with good reason.
OVERALL POSITION ANALYSIS: AVERAGE
Though I truly believe that Tanaka and Pineda will not only be healthy all season but they will actually be among the best starters in the American League, the other three spots in the rotation have some question marks.
Even after surgery, Sabathia’s right knee could be a recurring problem for him and I fail to see the added weight will help it. But if Sabathia can remain healthy all season, eat innings and keep his ERA in 4.25 area the Yankees could settle for that.
Eovaldi was a real gamble. His arm, no doubt, is a good one. The question is can he finally put it all together to become a winning pitcher? Rothschild has had some success grooming young pitchers and if he gets Eovaldi untracked he should have his salary doubled.
The veteran left-hander Capuano is up there in age and he obviously is a placeholder while Nova rehabs his surgically repaired elbow. The problem with Capuano is can he pitch well enough to keep the Yankees in games.
Years ago the Yankees scoured the scrap heap for Freddy Garcia. Now it is Capuano in the same role. Let’s hope it works out.
The Yankees also have Warren if they need a sixth starter in the early part of the season. Warren has been excellent as a reliever so there is no reason to believe he can’t be successful as a starter.
The Yankees hope to get Nova back and they also have Whitley, Rogers and Mitchell who are capable of starting. Mitchell has the most upside of the bunch because Whitley is more suited to relief and Rogers has been too inconsistent to be considered much of a help at this point.
The future of the Yankees’ starting rotation is looking quite bright with Severino, Clarkin and German coming off sparkling 2014 campaigns. This is one area the team that looks much stronger.
The temptation is for Yankee fans to want Severino on the roster this season. But the Yankees are taking a very careful approach with him and it is going to pay off of them next season.
The key to winning baseball has always been pitching and the New York Yankees solidified their 2014 starting rotation by agreeing to terms with Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka on Thursday.
After a disastrous season in which the Yankees failed to make the playoffs for only the second time in 19 seasons, their stated “goal” of remaining under the $189 million payroll limit and the loss of Robinson Cano to free agency, managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner fought back by loosening the pursestrings for general manager Brian Cashman.
The result was a dizzying array of signings that included All-Star catcher Brian McCann, outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, the additions of key pieces like infielders Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson and left-handed reliever Matt Thornton and the re-signing of right-handed starter Hiroki Kuroda.
But none of those signings would have mattered much at all unless the Yankees landed Tanaka.
Tanaka, 25, came off a season with Rakuten Golden Eagles with a 24-0 record and a 1.27 ERA in leading his team to the Japanese championship. In his seven seasons he was 99-35 with a 2.30 ERA, striking out 1,238 batters in 1,315 innings.
The right-hander possesses a 94-mile-per-hour fastball along with a world-class splitter and a slider. More importantly, Tanaka is not a nibbler in the tradition of Daisuke Matsuzaka. Last season he struck out 183 batters while walking 32 in 212 innings.
Those eye-popping stats led the Yankees front office to offer a seven-year contract worth $155 million plus the $20 million posting fee that will have to be paid to the Golden Eagles. The signing also proved pundits wrong for predicting that the Los Angeles Dodgers had the inside track in signing Tanaka because his wife, a singing star of some note, preferred to be on the West Coast and craved the glitter of Hollywood.
Tanaka will receive $22 million in each of the first six seasons and $23 million in 2020. The deal also allows the contract to be terminated after four seasons to permit Tanaka to seek free agency. He also has a full no-trade clause.
He also was allotted a $35,000 moving allowance and annual payments of $100,000 per season for housing for the New York metropolitan area or Tampa, FL. The Yankees threw in $85,000 in annual salary for an interpreter and four annual first-class flights from the United States to Japan.
Doubters will question this largesse heaped upon a pitcher who has yet to throw a pitch in the major leagues. But the Yankees’ front office and scouts were convinced that Tanaka has the potential to be even better than countryman Yu Darvish, 27, who is 29-18 with a 3.34 ERA in his first two seasons as the ace of the Texas Rangers.
Tanaka will slide into the No. 2 spot behind CC Sabathia and join fellow Japanese right-hander Kuroda and 27-year-old right-hander Ivan Nova in a revamped Yankee rotation in 2014.
The Yankees believed they needed to upgrade the rotation this season after the retirement of left-hander Andy Pettitte and the loss of right-hander Phil Hughes to the Minnesota Twins.
There also are questions swirling around Sabathia, 33, after his disappointing 2013 campaign in which he slipped to 14-13 with a 4.78 ERA. The ace left-hander had to adjust with a huge drop in velocity on his fastball and his record shows there are more adjustments necessary.
But Sabathia vows that he will show up this spring ready to prove he is still the same pitcher who was 74-29 in his previous four seasons in pinstripes.
That would be a good thing because Sabathia never found his groove after posting a 4-2 record with a 3.35 ERA in April. His ERAs in succeeding months were 4.14, 5.11, 6.60 and 5.94. Yankee fans can take some comfort in the fact Sabathia was 2-2 with a 3.90 ERA in September.
That could indicate he will indeed adjust as Pettitte and Mike Mussina did when they lost velocity.
The odd thing is that after four seasons of being accused of not paying attention to his weight as the season progressed, many of those same “so-called experts” thought Sabathia lost velocity last season because he was too thin. Well, who really knows? But it is ironic those “experts” would mention it.
The Yankees will settle for Sabathia arriving in Tampa in shape and they believe he has enough weapons to remain effective as a starting pitcher because he never really has been a pitcher totally dependent on his fastball to get by.
He will remain atop the rotation in 2014 with the help of the infusion of a young Tanaka behind him.
Strangely, the Yankees’ No. 3 starter was their best pitcher in 2013 despite making only 20 starts.
Nova began the season pitching horribly in spring training and in his first four starts of 2013 before succumbing to a inflammation in right triceps. After spending time on the disabled list, a rehab stint in the minors and pitching briefly out of the bullpen, Nova returned to the rotation on June 23.
From that point on, Nova was absolutely brilliant. He was 7-4 with a 2.59 in his last 15 starts beginning on July 5. This came after a season in which Nova’s game flew off the rails and he ended up 12-8 with a 5.02 ERA in 2012.
So the Yankees believe that Nova’s second half is more indicative of what he is as a pitcher after he was 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA in 2011.
Nova decided not to use his slider very much last season in order to concentrate on his mid-90s fastball and devastating curveball. The result was 79 strikeouts in those 15 starts. The fact that he still just 27 makes him an excellent No. 3 starter in this bolstered rotation.
Before Nova came on, Kuroda, who will be 39 on Feb. 10, was the Yankees’ most consistent pitcher. In fact, on Aug. 12, Kuroda was sporting a 11-7 mark with a 2.33 ERA on one of the weakest hitting Yankee teams in generations.
But a heavy workload of 154 2/3 innings began to take a toll on the veteran. In his last eight starts, Kuroda was 0-6 with a awful 6.56 ERA. It is clear that Kuroda was overtaxed into pitching past six innings too early in the season because he was not getting adequate offensive support.
Manager Joe Girardi was forced to keep him in a lot of close games and Kuroda paid a heavy price down the stretch. Even still, Kuroda finished the season 11-13 with a 3.31 ERA and he will certainly benefit from an improved offense in 2014.
The Yankees are impressed with the way Kuroda is able to adjust midstream in games by dipping into his arsenal of fastballs, sliders, splitters and curves to find the pitches that are working best for him that night, That is why they chose to re-sign him to a third one-year contract for $16 million.
Kuroda and outfielder Ichiro Suzuki should also help make Tanaka feel at home in the Yankees’ clubhouse.
The big concern for the Yankees now is who will claim the No. 5 spot in the rotation. Fortunately, they have some options to fill the spot.
The “dream scenario” for the Yankees would have 25-year-old right-hander Michael Pineda ready to take the ball this spring and run with it. Pineda, after all, was obtained in a 2012 trade with the Seattle Mariners along with right-hander Jose Campos, 21, for catcher Jesus Montero and right-hander Hector Noesi.
However, after a 2011 rookie season in which Pineda made the American League All-Star team and was 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA for a weak-hitting Seattle team, Pineda ended up having to undergo surgery for a torn labrum in his right shoulder after his last spring training start in 2012.
He missed the entire season and pitched only 40 2/3 innings in the minors last season until he was shut down in August after experiencing some minor shoulder soreness.
The Yankees still have high hopes for Pineda, who boasted a mid-90s fastball, an above average change-up and a slider before his injury. The Yankees took a lot of heat from their fans when they traded away their No. 1 prospect in Montero and allowed the Mariners to deal Pineda instead of parting with ace right-hander Felix Hernandez.
So there is some pressure on Pineda as he enters spring training having not thrown a single pitch for the Yankees in two seasons. It will be interesting to see how much Pineda has lost off his heater and if he still can be effective for the Yankees.
But the Yankees claim he is healthy and should be ready to go.
Another option for the No. 5 spot is right-hander David Phelps.
Phelps, 27, started his second major-league season in his usual role as a long man in the bullpen until he was thrust into the rotation on May 1 to replace the injured Nova.
Phelps showed great promise by going 2-2 with a 4.32 in six starts in May. But he stumbled to a 3-2 record with a 5.57 ERA in his next six starts before he landed on the disabled list in July with a strained right forearm.
Phelps did not return to the roster until Sept. 15 and was 0-0 with a 4.50 ERA in four relief appearances.
The Yankees see Phelps as a solid Plan B if Pineda is not quite ready to pitch or he suffers a setback in his rehab. But the Yankees clearly see Phelps more valuable in the bullpen, as his numbers in 2012 indicate. Phelps was 4-4 with a 4.34 ERA in his rookie season.
Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild admire Phelps fearlessness in attacking hitters though he owns only a pedestrian fastball.
Phelps makes up for a lack of velocity with good command of the strike zone and he can ring up a lot of strikeouts with his breaking stuff and pitching smarts.
The Yankees also have right-hander Adam Warren, 26, who was 2-2 with a 3.39 ERA in a long relief role for the Yankees in his rookie season in 2013.
Warren did make two late-season spot starts and was 1-0 with a 2.25 ERA in those starts. Unlike Phelps, Warren has above-average velocity on his fastball. But the Yankees are not sure how high Warren’s ceiling extends as a starter. They would prefer to keep him as a long reliever if they could.
The Yankees got an unexpected boost with a reclamation project in left-hander David Huff last season. Huff, 29, who was former starter with the Cleveland Indians, was signed after his release from the Indians and recalled from Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre in mid-August.
He was 3-1 with a 4.67 ERA. But that does not tell the whole story. Huff was tagged for nine runs in 3 1/3 innings against the Boston Red Sox on Sept. 7. Without that disastrous appearance Huff had a 2.37 ERA in his other nine appearances.
Huff also seemed comfortable in a long relief role as well as in his two spot starts in September. He also brings some value as a left-hander.
However, because the Yankees have to make room on the 40-man roster for Tanaka, Huff was designated for assignment. He will only return to the Yankees as a free agent if he is unable to find work elsewhere, which is unlikely considering he is left-handed and he pitched so well in 2013 for the Yankees.
There has been an ongoing rumor this winter that the Yankees might be interested in signing former two-time American League Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana.
Santana, 34, became a free agent when the New York Mets declined to pick up his option for 2014. Santana did not pitch in 2013 after suffering a second tear of his anterior left shoulder capsule. Santana was 46-34 with a 3.18 ERA over parts of four seasons with the Mets.
The signing of Tanaka makes Santana’s signing less likely. Santana was scheduled to make $25 million before the Mets bought out his option for $5.5 million. If the Yankees can get him for less than $10 million they might take a shot. But Santana also has to prove he is healthy.
The Twins, the team with whom he won those two Cy Young awards, are among the teams interested in Santana when he is given the go-ahead to throw from a mound for scouts at his Fort Myers, FL, home in February.
The Yankees do have some good young pitchers in the minors but none of them look ready to break camp with the team. A few could be called up during the season if they progress well.
At the top of the list is left-hander Vidal Nuno, 26, who was the Yankees top rookie of spring training in 2013.
Nuno was 2-0 with a 1.44 ERA at Scranton and he received a midseason call-up to the Yankees. In five appearances, including three starts, Nuno was 1-2 with a 2.25 ERA. He missed most of the remainder of the season with a strained left groin.
For some reason Nuno is able to keep batters off-balance with a mix of breaking stuff that he features with a very lackluster upper 80s fastball. The reason is he has pinpoint control. He walked only eight batters in his combined 45 minor- and major-league innings in 2013.
If he has another strong showing this spring, Nuno could certainly leapfrog Phelps or Warren for the No. 5 spot. In addition, he could also make the squad as a long reliever and spot starter. Girardi loves pitchers who challenge hitters and don’t issue walks.
This spring all eyes will be on 22-year-old left-hander Manny Banuelos, who missed the entire 2013 season recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Banuelos was considered the team’s No. 1 prospect at the time he was injured in 2012. In 2011, Banuelos was 1-1 with 2.13 ERA in 12 2/3 innings in spring training, earning him the James P. Dawson Award as the Yankees’ top rookie.
However, the young Mexican lefty struggled with his control in 2011, walking 71 batters in a cobined 129 2/3 innings between Double-A Trenton and Scranton. He was 6-7 with a 3.45 ERA that season.
In 2012, he made only six starts before being shelved with elbow soreness and he ended up having to undergo surgery to repair a ligament in his left elbow in October.
The Yankees love his low-90s fastball and change-up combination that saw him strike out 125 batters in 2011. He is still young and talented enough to progress quickly if he puts it all together. But the Yankees would like to see him do that at Scranton before they bring him up to the big club.
He remains the team’s No. 8 prospect. He just has to prove he is healthy and regain his control.
The Yankees are also very high on 24-year-old right-hander Jose Ramirez, who was 1-3 with a 2.76 ERA in eight starts at Trenton before going 1-3 with a 4.88 ERA in eight starts at Scranton. Ramirez struck out 78 batters in 73 2/3 innings and the Yankees believe he has a very high ceiling.
But he likely needs a full season at Scranton before he makes a bid for the big club.
The same can be said for left-hander Nik Turley, 24.
Turley, a relative of former Yankees right-hander Bob Turley, was 11-8 with a 3.88 ERA in 26 starts at Trenton last season. Compared to Pettitte in style, teammates call him “Little Andy” and he backed that up by fanning 137 batters in 139 innings last season.
Below Banuelos, Ramirez and Turley the Yankees have a nice corps of young starters who are a few years away from making it to the majors.
The biggest buzz is surrounding the team’s No. 4 prospect Rafael De Paula, 22.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound right-hander hits up to 99-mph on his fastball and he has a hard curve and a change-up. He was a combined 7-5 with a 4.29 ERA at High-A Tampa and Charleston last season. More impressive was his 146 punch-outs in only 113 1/3 innings.
DePaula enters the 2014 season as the team’s best young arm and deservedly so. This young Dominican has quality starter written all over him.
Don’t forget about the right-handed Campos, either. Campos, 21, was obtained along with Pineda in the Montero deal and he may have even an higher ceiling than Pineda.
Campos suffered an elbow injury that did not require surgery in 2012, In 2013, he was 4-2 with a 3.41 ERA in 26 games (19 starts) at Charleston. He has an above-average fastball to go along with very good control of two secondary pitches.
That mix will take him far as long he can prove he can stay healthy in 2014.
The Yankees also have high hopes for 22-year-old right-handed flamethrower Bryan Mitchell, who likely will be at Trenton this season. Mitchell was 4-11 with a 4.71 ERA at Tampa and Trenton last season. The Yankees need only to see him command his 96-mph fastball and nearly unhittable curve to make a giant leap this season.
Two others to watch are 2013 first-round draft pick Ian Clarkin, a left-hander, and 20-year-old right-hander Ty Hensley, who was picked in the first round in 2012.
Unlike the position players, the Yankees are pretty rich in young starters at the minor-league level. It is quite possible that three or four of them could be strong contributors with the big club very soon.
In the meantime, the signing of Tanaka has given the Yankees a major shot in the arm. Just ask the rival Boston Red Sox. They see that the $471 million the team has spent on free agents has thrust them back among the top tier teams in the American League East.
Without pitching it is hard to compete in such a tough division. It appears now the Yankees will have a starting staff that can get them back to the playoffs.
That would require one huge “arigato” (thank you in Japanese) to the signing of Tanaka.
YANKEES 6, MARINERS 1
The last time Phil Hughes faced the Seattle Mariners at Yankee Stadium on May 15 he gave up seven runs, six hits and two walks in just two-thirds of an inning. He was in the clubhouse before some fans had returned to their seats with their hot dogs and popcorn.
But Hughes got a huge measure of revenge against the Mariners on Thursday at Safeco Field in Seattle.
Hughes pitched seven-plus innings of dominant baseball while the Yankees sent 11 men to the plate and strung seven consecutive hits together against veteran right-hander Aaron Harang to score six runs as New York cruised past Seattle in front of paid crowd of 18,776.
Hughes (3-4) held the Mariners to just three hits and a walk while he struck out seven heading into the eighth inning. But Hughes opened the frame by walking Kelly Shoppach and Yankees manager Joe Girardi replaced him with Preston Claiborne.
After a fielder’s choice grounder off the bat of Brendan Ryan erased Shoppach, Jason Bay slashed a one-hopper that skipped between Kevin Youkilis’ legs for an error. Boone Logan replaced Claiborne and was greeted by an RBI double by Kyle Seager that scored Ryan with Seattle’s only run, albeit an unearned one.
Meanwhile, the Yankees staked Hughes with all the runs he really needed in the third inning off Harang (2-6).
Jayson Nix opened the frame with a single to left, the Yankees first hit of the game. One out later, Brett Gardner executed a perfect hit-and-run singe to right to advance Nix to third. Then Robinson Cano lined his 15th home run of the season deep into the bleachers in right-field.
Mark Teixeira followed two pitches later with his third home run in only his seventh game of the season.
Travis Hafner singled and Youkilis doubled him to third before Vernon Wells blooped an RBI single over the head of second baseman Nick Franklin to score Hafner. Ichiro Suzuki closed out the scoring and ended Harang’s evening with a lined single to left that scored Youkilis.
Harang was tagged for six runs on eights hits and he struck out three in 2 1/3 innings. The pounding raised his season ERA to 6.70.
Mariners manager Eric Wedge replaced Harang with Blake Beavan, who was recalled from Triple-A Tacoma earlier in the day. The right-hander shut down the Yankees over the final 6 2/3 innings on a single hit, a leadoff single by Hafner in the eighth inning.
With the victory, the team’s fourth straight, the Yankees are now 35-25 and they remain in second place in the American League East, 1 1/2 games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox. The Mariners dropped to 26-35.
- This was the fewest hits Hughes has allowed in a start since he limited the Minnesota Twins to only two hits on Aug. 11, 2011. Though Hughes has been wildly inconsistent this season, he looked dominant in this start because he kept his pitches out of the middle of the plate and he did not get bogged down in deep counts. Hughes lowered his season ERA to 4.80.
- Cano’s home run was his first since one he hit against the New York Mets at Yankee Stadium on May 30. Cano entered the game mired in a 2-for-20 (.100) skid dating back to May 31. Despite the slump, Cano still leads the Yankees in home runs (15), RBIs (39) and batting average (.280).
- Teixeira is off to a great start from a power standpoint. He has three homers and eight RBIs in his first seven games. Of course, he also has struck out 10 times in his first 22 at-bats and his season average is .227. But the Yankees will overlook the punchouts and low average because they certainly need his power.
- The only hitter in the lineup who did not record a hit in the game was Austin Romine, who was 0-for-4 with a strikeout and he did not get a ball out of the infield. The Yankees knew when they recalled Romine from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre they were getting a good defensive catcher with limited offensive skills. Romine is confirming that assessment because he is hitting an anemic .146. He had the distinction of making the first and third outs in the Yankee’s six-run third inning.
- Youkilis’ third error of the season in the eighth inning ended up costing Hughes a potential shutout. If Youkilis had stopped Seager’s grounder it would have resulted in an inning-ending double play.
The Yankees selected left-hand-hitting third baseman Eric Jagielo, a junior at Notre Dame, with the 26th pick in the first round of the amateur player draft on Thursday. Jagielo, 21, was named the Big East Player of the Year in 2013 and he hit 13 home runs in the Cape Cod League last summer. With the 32nd pick in the first round, the Yankees selected 6-foot-7, 255-pound outfielder Aaron Judge out of Fresno State. Judge, 21, batted .369 with 12 home runs and 36 RBIs for Fresno State this season. With their final choice of the first round at No. 33 the Yankees selected left-hander Ian Clarkin from James Madison High School in San Diego. Clarkin, 18, was 9-2 with a 0.35 ERA this season.
The Yankees will continue their four-game series with the Mariners on Friday.
Right-hander Hiroki Kuroda (6-4, 2.59 ERA) will start for the Yankees. Kuroda is coming off a rain-shortened 3-0 loss against the Red Sox on Sunday. He is 2-2 with a 2.70 ERA lifetime against the Mariners.
The Mariners will counter with journeyman right-hander Jeremy Bonderman (0-1, 13.50 ERA). Bonderman yielded seven runs on nine hits, three of them home runs, in 4 2/3 innings against the Twins on Sunday. He is 3-9 with a 5.62 ERA against the Yankees in his career.
Game-time will be 10:10 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast by the YES Network.