Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Yankees Ship Exited April in 1st Place, But Not Without Some Leaks

Masahiro Tanaka was better than advertisted in April.

It wasn't a perfect first month of the season for the New York Yankees, but after April 30's scheduled game with the Seattle Mariners was rained out, they ended the month with a 15-11 record and a 2.5 game lead over Baltimore for first place in the AL East.

The month did not come without its bumps and bruises, and unfortunately for the Yankees, they've hit where they could hurt the most. The first blow came when Ivan Nova had three bad starts in his four appearances. While everyone wondered if it was mechanics, velocity, or just a slow start, the truth was much worse. Nova had torn the Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) in his right elbow and had season-ending Tommy John surgery.

For the moment, second year pitcher Vidal Nuno has taken Nova's spot in the rotation. Nuno was solid in threes starts last season and the Yankees are going to need him to be as good this year. The rotation took a another hit when Michael Pineda was caught cheating and suspended for 10 days, and then strained his back. Pineda was seen with pine tar on his right hand in a start against Boston on April 10. He explained afterwards that it was dirt, which everyone knew it wasn't.

It was clear that Pineda was trying to get a better grip on the ball, but the Red Sox didn't complain because they know how prevalent cheating is among the pitchers in Major League Baseball. On top of that, the Red Sox starter that night, Clay Buchholz, is one of the pitchers that is rumored to be a walking medicine cabinet of salves and ointments.

To the untrained eye, it didn't appear that Pineda used any aids whe he threw six shutout innings to beat the Chicago Cubs in his next start. But on a chilly night in Boston on April 23, Pineda went to the well, or pine tar, once too often. To make matters worse, he made no effort to hide what he had done. Red Sox manager John Farrell sad after the game that he didn't want to say anything to the umpires, but it was so blatant he really had no choice. A big smear of pine tar shone on the side of  Pineda's neck. An ejection and a 10-game suspension followed, but Pineda's tale of woe was not complete.

During a simulated game, Pineda felt pain in his lat muscle and went for an MRI. It turned out to be a Grade 1 strain of the teres major muscle, an injury with much more potential danger than a strained lat. It's part of a group of muscles that supports the shoulder. That's not good news for a pitcher who missed all of the 2012 and 2013 seasons after undergoing surgery for a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Pineda, off to a 2-2, 1.83 start, will be out for 3-4 weeks. Considering his past shoulder issues, that could be a conservative estimate. David Phelps will take his first turn in the rotation and could move into the spot until Pineda gets back.

With CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda struggling to find consistency, Masahiro Tanaka has been a Godsend. The Japanese star has been nothing less than outstanding in his first month in the big leagues. His final start of the month, against the Los Angeles Angeles, was probably the best proof of what Tanaka is made of. After four starts, in which he had 35 strikeouts and two walks in 29.1 innings, the right-hander struggled with his control against the Halos. He walked four and allowed five hits in 6.1 innings, but a double play and 11 strikeouts helped keep the Angels to two runs. Though he didn't figure in the decision, the Yankees eventually won 3-2. Tanaka finished the month 3-0, 2.26 with 11 K's per nine innings pitched.

The other big free agent signings had mixed results in their first season in the Bronx. Jacoby Ellsbury was oustanding. The former Red Sox center fielder put together a .312/.369/.452 line with eight stolen bases in 10 attempts. He also scored 14 runs and had nine multi-hit games, including four games with three hits.

Carlos Beltran slugged five home runs, drove in 13 runs, scored 11, and finished with an .826 OPS.

The transition at the plate wasn't as smooth for new catcher Brian McCann. He exited April with a .620 OPS, that included a month-ending 2-20 slide.

Rookie utility infield Yangervis Solarte was the surprise of the month after winning the final spot out of Spring Training. Solarte posted a 1.007 OPS after 15 games and drove in 13 runs.

The Yankees bullpen did an outstanding job for much of the month, which included filling in for an injured David Robertson. Shawn Kelley, David Phelps, and Adam Warren combined for six saves.