I’ve always said that being a fan is one of the most bizarre practices in human society. Think about it: something you have no control over whatsoever has the power to make you ecstatic or devastated. And that “something” is whether or not a bunch of grown men making millions win a game.
As baseball fans, we’re in even deeper since we experience this roller coaster nearly every day for six months. As modern Yankee fans, the wounds cut even deeper for a loss; we’re not supposed to lose!
This season thus far, Brian Cashman and the rest of the Yankee organization have managed to do something few others could accomplish or would even attempt: “refresh” while staying relevant and competitive. No one ever called it a rebuild, and it isn’t; there’s a healthy mix of Baby Bombers, veterans, and pros in their prime.
It’s only two weeks into the season, and so far the Yankees (9-4 as of Tuesday morning) are exceeding expectations. Veterans Chase Headley and Starlin Castro are among the league leaders in hits, average, and on-base percentage, while highly-touted youngsters like Aaron Judge and Aaron Hicks are contributing handsomely. But realistically, how long can they keep pace in the American League East with the likes of the Red Sox and Orioles, both built to win now? How long can they keep fans fantasizing of Core Four 2.0?
If the Yankees want to remain competitive in 2017, the following must happen:
- Girardi must continue to strategize bullpen use.
A popular fan complaint in Yankee-land is that Joe Girardi over-manages, especially when it comes to the bullpen. In a save situation in the eighth and ninth, we expect to see Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman. But what happens when you have save situations three or four nights in a row? Betances showed signs of enormous fatigue last September when he took on the job of everyday closer once Andrew Miller and Chapman were traded. Additionally, Cubs manager Joe Maddon didn’t exactly ration out Chapman’s appearances en route to a World Series win, and rightfully so.
So the same people complaining should also be interested to know that the Yanks’ pen is currently ranked second in the majors, with a 1.36 ERA and a .188 BAA. If this young season isn’t enough of a sample size for you, consider last year’s reliever stats: 36-19, 3.67 ERA, and .224 BAA, and the third-lowest WHIP in the majors (1.19). 2015 numbers were similar. Plus, when you think about the embarrassment of riches Girardi has at his disposal in the bullpen–Adam Warren, Bryan Mitchell, Tyler Clippard, Tommy Layne–there’s no reason why Betances/Chapman needs to be a foregone conclusion every day.
I’d also like to ask the Monday-morning managers how confident they are in their starting rotation. Masahiro Tanaka has been anything but an ace (more on that in a minute). Michael Pineda has had one bad start and two stellar starts, and until we see more of the latter, I would still label him as unpredictable. In this era of pitch counts and role pitchers, a fresh and effective bullpen is essential to a playoff run. These days, you’re going to get five innings out of a starter way more often than you’re going to get eight.
Hey, Yankee fans–when it comes to the bullpen, Girardi has proven over and over again that he knows what he’s doing. Leave him alone and let him manage.
- The young starters must step up.
It’s pretty safe to say that the Yankees and their fans have to be more than satisfied with what CC Sabathia has contributed in the span of a year. Last season he was easily the second-best starter in the rotation, and this year he’s been the best, posting a 2-0 record with a 1.47 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in three starts. Over the course of his career, he’s established a reputation as an innings-eater and a workhorse, and re-invented himself last year as a master of pitching mixology.
Sabathia’s doing his job; now it’s time for the youngins to step up and prove they’re ready to round out the rotation. Luis Severino twirled a masterful performance last time out (seven innings of two-run ball), but it’s too early to tell if he is going to channel his 2015 or 2016 self as a starter. Sure, he was virtually unhittable as a reliever late last season, but you can’t just keep throwing every failed starter into the bullpen; eventually you’re going to have to find someone to throw out the first pitch. Yankee brass, along with pitching coach Larry Rothschild, still believe the 23-year-old has good enough stuff to start; he simply needs to learn how to harness it.
During spring training, it was unclear who was going to win the spot as the fifth starter. Some speculated Mitchell, who was poised to win it in 2016 before having season-ending foot surgery, and Warren can always be seen as an option to slip into the rotation. Eventually the decision was made to keep both of them in the bullpen as middle relief, and Jordan Montgomery was called up and given the chance to start. In his first two major league starts, he has been more than adequate, surrendering five earned runs in 10.2 innings pitched, leading the Yankees to victories in both contests. Girardi believes he can be an integral piece in the rotation if he can continue to work on his fastball command.
I would be remiss if I moved on to the next point without mentioning perhaps the most important young pitcher on this team–Masahiro Tanaka. Amid the Yankees’ surprise 8-game winning streak, Tanaka’s underachieving has more or less flown under the radar, but make no mistake–if he can’t get it together, it’s going to be tough for this rotation to piece together any kind of consistency. His third and most recent start was serviceable (7.1 innings, 3 runs), but the stink of the first two still lingers in the form of his unsightly 8.36 ERA, a far cry from his career numbers (40-17, 3.27). The Yankees have already announced that they would hesitate to re-sign him if he opts out of his contract at the end of the season, so if for nothing else, Tanaka needs to step up to prove his own marketability.
- First base must yield consistent offensive production.
I attended Saturday’s game at Yankee Stadium, which happened to be Jackie Robinson Day across the league. At one point, while #42 struck out #42, and #42 made a great diving stab and scrambled to his feet to throw out #42, I looked up at the scoreboard and noticed Greg Bird’s batting average (.042) was inadvertently presenting its own homage to the celebrated Dodger. Bird looked awful at the plate that day, easily overmatched and swinging through pitches, leaving several men on base.
Things seemed to turn around for Bird on Sunday. He hit a home run in his first at-bat, and subsequently went 3-for-3 with a walk. His perfect day has at least gotten him off the batting average interstate, but his paltry .133 average thus far is not what fans were expecting coming off an explosive spring that secured the 24-year-old as Mark Teixeira’s everyday successor. Chris Carter–whom Bird was benched for on Monday in true Girardi fashion due to Carter’s success against the White Sox–has not been much better offensively. Last year’s National League home run leader is hitting .160 with zero homers and three RBIs.
Girardi and Cashman have repeatedly said that Bird is here to stay, that he needs to play through the slump in order to achieve consistency, and I agree with them. Right now the rest of the offense is picking up the slack; the hope is that good hitting is contagious and he’ll come around. And let’s not forget about that other notorious slow starter at first base–Teixeira. He turned out okay, didn’t he?
The Yankees’ auspicious start has gotten the talking heads on SportsCenter buzzing, but as fans, we can’t help but remember that just a week ago we were lamenting their unimpressive 1-4 start. Baseball is all about consistency. All the cliches about it being a marathon and not a sprint are true, but the Yankees have a chance to do something special if they can achieve that elusive consistency: vie for a championship while securing their future.