Carl Johnson

Carl Johnson

Just about a year ago, on May 22, 2016, the New York Yankees were tied for third place in the American League East with the Tampa Bay Rays, 5 games behind the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles, who were tied for first place. They finished the season in fourth place, with a record of 84-78, nine games behind the division-winning Red Sox.

As the 2016 season progressed, the Yankees obviously looking to the future, began to make deals with two objectives: to build their farm system for the future and to cut payroll to allow them to be competitive in the free agent market. In July, they unloaded Aroldis Chapman, perhaps the hardest-throwing closer in baseball, and his salary, to the Chicago Cubs for several young prospects and right handed reliever Adam Warren, who had previously been with the Yankees before being traded to the Cubs in 2015, in the deal that brought infielder Starlin Castro to the Yankees.

Right at the trading deadline, they unloaded Andrew Miller to the Cleveland Indians for four young prospects and then traded Carlos Beltran to the Texas Rangers for three prospects.  

In August, the Yankees released Alex Rodriguez in their continuing move to become a younger, deeper organization while reducing costs. Surprisingly, while all this was going on, the Yankees stayed in the pennant race for most of the season. Over the winter, they continued their efforts to improve the organization by unloading salary and building their young talent base.  

On Nov. 17, 2016, the Yankees unloaded veteran catcher Brian McCann and $23 million of his salary to the Houston Astros for two young pitching prospects, leaving the catching position to young Gary Sanchez who had hit 20 homers and driven in 42 runs in just 53 games in 2016.

On Dec. 15 they spent some of that money they had saved and resigned Aroldis Chapman, this time to a five-year contract for $86 million, the largest salary ever paid to a reliever. They then added Matt Holliday, a 37-year-old veteran with a .302 career average and 303 home runs to be their designated hitter.

All the experts praised the Yankees for rebuilding their farm system and planning for the long term. It looked like the Yankees were sacrificing the present for the future.

Why then, 43 games into the 2017 season, were the Yankees in first place, one game ahead of the Baltimore Orioles in the American League East? Why then, after 43 games, were the Yankees leading the American League in batting average, home runs, on base percentage, slugging percentage and runs scored?  (I didn’t mention that they also led the league in OPS, that ridiculous stat that combines on base percentage with slugging percentage, that was dreamed up by some accountant who never saw a baseball game).

Their five man starting pitching staff, made up of the aging C. C. Sabathia, 4-2, with a 4.62 ERA, Masahiro Tanaka, injured elbow and all, 5-3 with a 6.52 ERA, Luis Severino, 2-2, with a 3.64 ERA, Michael Pineda, finally looking like the prospect he was before he had TJ surgery, 5-2, with a 3.35 ERA and rookie Jordan Montgomery, 2-3 with a 4.30 ERA, have started every game of the first 43 and been the beneficiaries of the surprisingly potent offense. The five have a combined record of 18-12. By contrast, the Red Sox and Orioles have each already used eight different starting pitchers, the Rays seven and the Blue Jays nine.   

The back of the bullpen, with Dellin Betances as set up man for Chapman, have saved10 of 12 attempts and struck out 47 batters in 27 innings between them. The rest of the bullpen is led by Chasen Shreve, 1-0 in 11 1/3 innings without allowing a run, right handed rookie Jonathan Holder, 1-0 in 19 games with a 2.84 ERA, veteran Tyler Clippard, with a 1.37 ERA in 21 games and 27 strikeouts in 20 innings and Warren who has been in 15 games with a 2.25 ERA in 24 innings.

The entire pitching staff’s ERA of 3.86 ranks them 23rd in all of baseball but, when you are averaging 5.53 runs per game scored, you can get by with that high an ERA.

Where are all these runs coming from? Second baseman Starlin Castro, who came up with the Cubs as a highly touted rookie short stop in 2010 but fell out of favor with them, has found his bat and was hitting .335 with seven homers and 27 RBI’s, while his middle infield partner, Didi Gregorius, Derek Jeter’s replacement is back from a spell on the disabled list and hitting .319. The veteran Chase Headley, at third, is playing a solid defensive game and hitting .237 while Chris Carter, who has been filling in for the injured Greg Bird at first base is hitting a weak .213.

The outfield has been doing it’s part to manufacture runs. Brett Gardner, in left, was hitting .281 and has nine homers and 19 RBI’s while Jacoby Ellsbury, in center, was also hitting .281. The big surprise has been Aaron Judge, the 6-foot-7, 270 pound, right field rookie, was hitting .315 with 15 homers and 30 RBI’s and may be on his way to Rookie of he Year. Aaron Hicks, reserve outfielder, has also chipped in with a .293 average, eight homers and 20 RBI’s and has been in 33 games.

Catcher, Gary Sanchez, who missed a month on the disabled list, came back on May 5 and was hitting .267 with four homers and 11 RBI’s in 20 games. Matt Holliday was hitting .274 with eight homers and 27 RBI’s as the DH.

Joe Girardi is one of the best managers in baseball and looks like he has brought the Yankees along quicker than anyone expected. Can they keep up the pace and win the American League East?

As anyone who reads this column regularly or reads my books knows, I am and have been a Yankee fan since my childhood in Connecticut, although I have to admit I root for the Red Sox, except when they play the Yankees.  Unfortunately, it’s a 162 game season and the Yankee starting pitching, in my opinion, does not have the ability to continue to get by.

Tanaka has been battered his last two starts, Sabathia is always on the verge of injury, loss of control or slump and it doesn’t seem possible that the Yankee offense can continue to put up the numbers they have. Yankee General Manager, Brian Cashman, is looking for additional starting pitching help and, despite the large contracts the Yankees have, there is always more money there to go out and get it.

If they don’t add at least one top of the line starter, I don’t see the Yankees being there in October but watch out for the future, the nucleus is there for long term success, not only at the Major League level but in the farm system.

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