John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
It seems hard to believe now, with the Yankees on a pace to win 105 games, that they lost series to the Orioles, Tigers, and White Sox in getting off to a 6-9 start amidst fears that injuries might wreck their season before Memorial Day.
Since then they've gone a mere 51-22 to establish themselves as the best team in the American League, getting unexpected contributions from the Urshelas, Tauchmans and Maybins of the baseball world that have made this more of a feel-good season than seemed possible with such huge expectations.
As such, any midterm review has to start with GM Brian Cashman, who created all this depth and versatility, as well as the most formidable bullpen in baseball, partly by spreading the Yankee money around on the likes of D.J. Lemahieu, Adam Ottavino, Zack Britton and others, rather than going all-in on Bryce Harper or Manny Machado.
For that matter, Cashman has made all the right moves in recent years in rebuilding on the fly, and even his only glaring mistake -- the decision to pass on trading for Justin Verlander in August of 2017 -- wasn't his call as Hal Steinbrenner wouldn't take on such a huge salary at a time he was determined to get under the luxury-tax threshold.
In any case, the Yankees' front office has leaned heavily on analytics to find value in unproven players such as Luke Voit, Gio Urshela, and others. And while the jury is still out somewhat on the big pitching moves of James Paxton and J.A. Happ, the team's success this season in spite of all the injures fully warrants a mid-term grade of "A."
Considering that Luis Severino hasn't pitched at all this season, the Yankee starters have been solid, pitching to a 4.22 ERA, which ranks sixth in the American League. And that's with Happ unable to keep the ball in the ballpark, pitching to a 5.04 ERA. With Paxton's knee problem a lingering concern, however, the Yankees' chances of winning it all will increase significantly if Cashman can pull off a trade for Madison Bumgarner or another front-of-the-rotation starter.
With a 4.05 ERA, it hasn't quite been the best bullpen in baseball history, as it was billed when all the pieces were put in place during the offseason. It's still very strong, and Tommy Kahnle's rebound season has softened the blow of missing Dellin Betances. Ottavino has been about as good as advertised, and Britton has mostly done the job in the eighth inning, even if walks remain a concern at times. Aroldis Chapman has been impressive but he's leaning on his slider more as he gets older.
Grade: B +
Once Troy Tulowtizki got hurt early, which was no surprise, it was up to Gleyber Torres to be the glue until Didi Gregorius returned from Tommy John surgery. And he did a great job with the glove at shortstop while putting up All-Star numbers at the plate. Urshela's stunning play meant the Yanks didn't miss the injured Miguel Andujar. And while Voit has proven to be the real thing with the bat, the Yanks can field perhaps the best defensive infield in the majors when they play LeMahieu at first base, Torres at second base, Gregorius at shortstop, and Urshela at third base.
If you knew Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton would have 10 home runs combined at the break, you might think the Yankees would be struggling to stay over .500. Yet they've survived injuries to their sluggers, and Aaron Hicks as well, thanks to contributions from Brett Gardner, Mike Tauchman, Cameron Maybin, and Clint Frazier.
Gary Sanchez has rebounded as Cashman predicted, to the point where the GM called his catcher "a unicorn" in a conversation with me a couple of weeks ago, mostly referring to his power that no other catcher in baseball can match. Indeed, His 24 home runs are proof, and scouts say he's more mobile and better defensively this season.
And now for some individual highs and lows...
Team MVP: D.J. LeMahieu
As a high-contract, use-the-whole-field hitter, he's been the perfect addition to the Yankees' lineup of sluggers. His crazy clutch stats, starting with a .474 average with runners in scoring position, make him a candidate for league MVP as well. And he figures to be a difference-maker in October.
Most Surprising: Gio Urshela
Always a great glove, but the Indians and Blue Jays were so convinced he wouldn't hit that they each traded Urshela in cash transactions. Yet somehow he's hitting .304 in 72 games with seven home runs and an .824 OPS.
Most Disappointing: J.A. Happ
At $17 million a year, much more was expected than a 5.02 ERA, which is mostly due to the 20 home runs he's surrendered.
Most Predictable: Troy Tulowitzki
I had a hard time buying this move from the start. Cashman said his double-heel surgery would make him less susceptible to the other leg injuries that have plagued Tulo in recent years, but, sure enough, he pulled a calf muscle in early April and hasn't been heard from since.
Most Unsung: Gleyber Torres
It's hard to believe it took two injuries to second basemen to get him on the All-Star team. Proved to be something of a savior after Tulowitzki went down by moving over from second and playing a very good shortstop, in addition to his 19 home runs and .888 OPS.
Most Dazzling: Adam Ottavino
Nobody buckles more knees with that Bugs Bunny slider than he does. With 55 strikeouts in 40 innings and a 1.80 ERA, he's the best sixth-inning reliever -- at times -- in baseball history.
Most Tantalizing: James Paxton
There are nights when he's that overpowering lefty they envisioned as their Game 1 starter in October, but there are also nights when he's far more hittable than expected. And you can't help but think that knee injury is a factor, preventing him from driving and finishing at times. The Yanks pray it won't be an issue come October.