Despite injuries, Yankees' sights set on postseason
Although Tanaka, others on disabled list, team's expectations remain unchanged
NEW YORK -- With the All-Star Game now in the rearview mirror, the Yankees will return to the office feeling fortunate to still be within striking distance in the American League East race, while also recognizing that they have plenty of work to do.
It has been a rough summer thus far for the Yankees, who head into the unofficial second half of the season lacking 80 percent of their Opening Day rotation -- most prominently, Masahiro Tanaka, who was enjoying a terrific first act to a big league career that is now clouded by uncertainty.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi has made it clear that despite a changing cast of characters, the expectations have not changed. They need to get to the postseason, and after being unable to achieve that goal in 2013, it is even more urgent now to find a way into October.
"They know what they have to do, and they know where they want to go," Girardi said. "That's very, very clear from Day 1 in Spring Training, and nothing has changed."
Five key developments so far
1. Rotation injuries
The Yankees haven't had Ivan Nova or Michael Pineda on the mound since April, CC Sabathia has been out since May, and now Tanaka is trying to avoid Tommy John surgery. No one could have expected that Hiroki Kuroda would be the last man standing from the starting five, and they're in full-on patch-the-ship mode.
2. Captain's last ride
Derek Jeter announced in February that this would be his final season, and accordingly, his career has been celebrated at several road stops. An All-Star for the last time, Jeter's stats may not be where they were in 2012, but he has been healthy and on the field regularly. He has given the Yankees all they could have reasonably expected.
|MVP: Masahiro Tanaka
The $155 million right-hander was 12-4 with a 2.51 ERA in 18 starts, recording 135 strikeouts with just 19 walks in 129 1/3 innings. He was sensational.
|Cy Young: Tanaka
Who else could we pick? The Yankees were 13-5 when Tanaka started, and he gave them quality starts in 16 of his 18 outings.
|Top rookie: Tanaka
Yep, same guy. Not bad for someone whom Brian Cashman was talking about this spring as a "really solid, consistent No. 3 starter."
|Top reliever: Dellin Betances
He has recorded 84 strikeouts in 55 1/3 innings, translating to 13.66 per nine innings. That's the best such mark in the Majors this season.
3. Bullpen emergences
The strengths of the Yankees' 2014 season thus far have been Tanaka and a lock-down bullpen. David Robertson has taken over nicely in Mariano Rivera's shoes, and Dellin Betances exploded on the scene to snatch his first All-Star selection. Adam Warren has also been a trusted arm.
4. Unexpected contributions
Yangervis Solarte wasn't even on the Yankees' 40-man roster this spring, yet he was one of the league's top hitters over the first couple of months of the season. Ichiro Suzuki was a fifth outfielder and now plays regularly. Pitchers like Chase Whitley and Shane Greene have also been given opportunities to strut their stuff.
5. Rough beginnings
Brian McCann called his first 81 games "horrible" but has been swinging better of late, and Carlos Beltran has been frustrated by an injury-marred year, including a broken nose in a freak batting practice injury. At least Jacoby Ellsbury has played well in many respects, despite having to hit third because of the Yanks' decimated lineup.
Five storylines to watch in the second half
1. Buyers or sellers?
OK, no one expects a fire sale in the Bronx, and general manager Brian Cashman has said that he is "ready to rock and roll" in trade talks. So far, those moves have been of the smaller Brandon McCarthy and Jeff Francis variety, but ownership seems willing to pick up salary -- as it did last summer with Alfonso Soriano. Pitching is the Yanks' focus, but do they believe in this roster enough to cash in their most appealing trade chips for upgrades?
Second-half players to watch
The only man to play for the Yankees before his 21st birthday and after his 40th, Jeter is doing his best to go out in style. He is hitting .304 (38-for-125) over his last 30 games.
You can make a case that Gardner has been the Yanks' most valuable non-pitcher, serving as a sparkplug at the plate while playing excellent defense. He has reached base in 25 of his last 26 games.
The Yanks are taking their time on this, but the 23-year-old could force his way up if he keeps hitting at Triple-A. They've recently had him start playing some outfield.
2. Jeter's last games
It'll be all Derek Jeter, all the time in September and -- the Yankees hope -- October. Will he be uncomfortable with the added attention, or can Jeter take a step back and enjoy it? In the meantime, Jeter has been clipping away at Carl Yastrzemski (3,419) and Honus Wagner (3,430, according to MLB.com's stats), and has a good chance of passing both Hall of Famers on the all-time hits list.
3. Prognosis of Tanaka, others
The next six weeks will determine whether the Yankees can expect Tanaka back on the mound this year or if he's headed for a much longer layoff. The saving grace is that the Yankees say Tanaka's UCL tear is "small," but still, many similar injuries lead to the knife. The Yanks also believe they'll get Pineda back at some point; they're less bullish on Sabathia, who may need microfracture surgery on his injured knee.
4. Newcomers coming around?
McCann eliminated a toe-tap from his swing on July 2 and hit over .300 in the games that followed; the Yankees need him to keep that up and start taking better advantage of the short right-field porch at home. Beltran has to get healthy, Kelly Johnson is trying to shake off a rough year at the plate and in the field and Matt Thornton has been up-and-down as the lefty specialist.
5. Bullpen burnout
Robertson, Betances and Warren have been excellent, but all of that use comes at a price; Warren recently described the relievers as "not fresh." If Shawn Kelley truly has returned to form, it'd help. Girardi takes great care not to abuse his relievers, but the lack of distance from the second wave of starters has been an issue that ensures. The phone is never very far from Larry Rothschild's reach.