In the sea of big names and expensive free agents that have played for the Yankees over the past half-decade, it's easy to forget that Brett Gardner is often flying under the radar and providing the Bronx Bombers with plenty of quiet value. Gardner doesn't blast the ball out of the park with great regularity, but his good defense in the outfield coupled with a offensive skillset based on walks and speed makes him a great guy to have around, particularly on a roster typically replete with older players. He has one of the highest BABIPs in the league at the moment, but Gardner will still be very good even if he doesn't hit close to .300 all season.
If you are a baseball fan, you know all about Derek Jeter already. This weekend, the farewell tour stops in Chicago for the future first-ballot Hall of Famer. Mr. Calm Eyes has numbers that compare pretty similarly to those of Omar Vizquel's 2010 season in Chicago, with decent on-base ability but a pretty glaring absence of power. That would be pretty good for a shortstop if Derek Jeter was, you know, a shortstop. One scout said that he still maintains his 80-grade intangibles, so don't look for the Yankees to move him off of short or demote him in the batting order anytime soon.
Anyone who assumed Jacoby Ellsbury would regain the power numbers from his magical 2011 by taking advantage of Yankee Stadium's short porch in right has been sorely disappointed. Those 32 home runs he hit that year will probably go down as one of baseball's most extreme outliers, as Ellsbury hasn't cracked ten homers in any other season. The speed demon joins fellow teammates Mark Teixeira and (technically) Masahiro Tanaka as owners of three richest free agent contracts in baseball history given to players that had played in no more than one All-Star Game at the time of the signing.
Speaking of Mark Teixeira, he's been playing baseball on occasion this season after missing most of last year with a wrist issue. When his groin and hamstring haven't been acting up, Teixeira has been quite productive. He's no longer the .300 hitter he once was, but he has a great walk rate and is well on his way to 30 home runs. Injuries seem like the most likely obstacle for him to achieve that mark this year.
The Yankees brought in Brian McCann to give them some extra oomph behind the plate. McCann is on track for his usual home run total near 20, but the homers have come alongside a career low walk rate and a poor BABIP due to plenty of infield flies. Defensively, he excels at framing and pitch-blocking and has thrown out more base thieves than usual this season. McCann generally takes exception to showboating and was involved in a couple of high-profile on-field confrontations last year with Carlos Gomez and Jose Fernandez, not that it's particularly shocking anyone would have a problem with the former.
With Carlos Beltran on the disabled list, Alfonso Soriano has moved from designated hitter to right field. Most people immediately think of a bloated contract when Soriano comes to mind. This often obscures the fact that Soriano has been a pretty useful player the past few years. His current .276 OBP, however, is not useful. Soriano has been somehow taking fewer walks than usual, and it's because he's swinging at loads of pitches out of the zone. He can hurt the ball if you throw him strikes, but there's really not much need to do so.
When you pay your players as much as the Yankees do, it's simply not fair to acquire free talent like Yangervis Solarte and get great performance. Solarte is a 26-year old infielder who's never played in the majors and was completely off the prospect radar after having been released by the Twins and Rangers. The Yankees brought him to spring training and he hit the ball very well. He was rewarded with the team's second backup infielder spot. Solarte started the third game of the season for the Yankees and seized everyday duties by hitting .313/.387/.500. See? Not fair.
After playing only second base for years, the Rays converted Kelly Johnson into a utility player last season, and he now logs time in left field and all infield positions except short. Johnson's bat was valuable as a second baseman because it's tough to find middle infielders capable of belting out 20 home runs in a season. Because he primarily plays the corner infield positions these days and his batting average has plummeted since his great 2010, Johnson is no longer an average player. He contributes some walks and pop, but little else.
Brian Roberts combines with Derek Jeter to give the Yankees what is probably the most porous middle infield in baseball. Roberts used to be a very good player in his heyday with the Orioles as a spark plug that stole plenty of bases and hit lots of doubles. This past offseason, there were rumors of the Yankees being interested in trading for Gordon Beckham because of Roberts' place at the top of the depth chart at second. Presumably, the Yankees were concerned because Roberts doesn't steal many bases anymore and his batting line closely resembles that of, well, Gordon Beckham.
Though Teixeira and Ellsbury might not add to that All-Star Game total, Tanaka looks like he could be a perpetual participant in the Midsummer classic. He leads all of baseball in strikeout-to-walk ratio and is currently the American League leader in WHIP. It's no fluke, either. When you allow this little contact and walk so few hitters, it's like facing the 2013 White Sox every start. Tanaka doesn't throw particularly hard, but his slider and splitter are deadly. PITCHf/x shows that Tanaka only throws his standard fastball about 26 percent of the time. That tells you that not only does he mix his pitches exceptionally well, he can throw most of his offerings consistently for strikes. The Yankees gambled on Tanaka, and they hit blackjack, a natural 9, a Fire Bet, and a royal flush all at once.
Hiroki Kuroda is 39 years old, making it a huge surprise that he's been one of the 20 or so most valuable starters in the game over the past six seasons. Kuroda has run into some problems this season, but the underlying numbers suggest that he's still better than his ERA. His strikeouts are in line with his best years and his walks are lower than they've ever been. Kuroda has been a victim of a poor strand rate and more fly balls leaving the yard than usual. His velocity is down a bit, but he'll likely get better results than what he's shown thus far.
David Phelps is one of three pitchers that's been forced into the Yankees' rotation after injuries to CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, and Michael Pineda. He's not your typical swingman, as opposing hitters have had a progressively tougher time with him the deeper he goes into games that he starts. Control is a problem for Phelps, as he allows plenty of free passes and doesn't get very many ground balls to erase the walks via the double play. Still, there's worse beeswax floating around the league for when injuries poke a hole in a team's rotation, and pretty much every team in the league would be better with Phelps on its roster.
Speaking of worse beeswax, Vidal Nuno is cut from the Dylan Axelrod cloth when it comes to seventh (or worse) starters. Nuno is a 48th-round pick that dominated the minor leagues but doesn't have the stuff to succeed in the majors. He's a left-handed nibbler that allows plenty of free passes not from a lack of control, but rather from fear of getting bludgeoned by advanced major league hitters. Nuno is the pitcher equivalent of a Quad-A slugger, but every team needs warm bodies at some point.
Chase Whitley, too, is a warm body. The Yankees have kept him warm for two seasons at Triple-A before calling up the soon-to-be 25 year-old when CC Sabathia went down. He survived his first two major league starts against the Cubs and Mets (a kind transition to the major leagues, to be sure), though he didn't make it out of the fifth inning in either start despite only allowing one run between them. Girardi clearly doesn't trust the results, because he hasn't let Whitley go beyond the 80-pitch mark just yet. We'll miss Whitley in this series.
Nobody makes anybody forget Mariano Rivera, but David Robertson has kept the transition smooth for the Yankees by being lights-out in the ninth. Robertson's fastball sits around 93 mph with movement, and it's accompanied by a very good curve and slider. He's only given up two runs on the season and has yet to blow a save opportunity. Robertson has always been able to punch out hitters, but his improved control has been what's enabled him to earn, and succeed in, high-leverage situations.
Outlook & Prediction: The AL East has been a hotly contested battle thus far this season and the Yankees have earned a leg up on my two preseason frontrunners: the Red Sox and Rays. It's unclear whether those two teams will turn it around, but I don't think New York is the best team in the division and I think they will suffer over the next couple of months as their rotation gets pieced back together. Predicted record and finish: 85-77, third place, AL East