With no AL East team breaking away from the pack, the New York Yankees and their 19-18 record (as of May 13) are good enough to hold second place in the division. But can a roster made up almost entirely of older veterans hold together over 162 games? Six weeks in, the Yanks are showing their age and you have to wonder if the team might crumble by midseason.
During Monday’s 9-7 loss to the Mets, the crumbling already seemed to be in full effect. First baseman Mark Teixeira, 34, didn’t start because of a groin issue (though pinch-hit later in the game). Carlos Beltran, 37, took himself out during the seventh inning with what was later diagnosed as a hyperextended right elbow. And Ichiro Suzuki, 40, couldn’t fill in because of a sore back and knee.
These injuries followed news earlier in the day that CC Sabathia, 33, was going to the disabled list with inflammation in his right knee. Starting pitching was already a problem for the Yankees through the first six weeks of the season. The rotation’s 4.28 ERA ranks 11th among the 15 AL teams.
The starting staff was already thin, due to Ivan Nova’s season-ending elbow injury and an upper back strain that’s expected to keep Michael Pineda sidelined for more than a month. (Consider that Clayton Kershaw missed six weeks with a similar injury.) The rotation has had to get by with Vidal Nuno and David Phelps taking those spots, but both have pitched relatively well as starters thus far. In his four starts, Nuno has a 3.54 ERA with 15 strikeouts in 20.1 innings. Phelps has allowed five runs and 11 hits in 10.1 innings.
But now, the Yanks have to dig even deeper to fill the hole created by Sabathia’s absence. The current plan appears to be moving Alfredo Aceves into the rotation. In 15 career starts, the right-hander has a 4.29 ERA and 6-2 record. He was pitching well with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, compiling a 1.98 ERA with 14 strikeouts in 13.2 innings. But really, Aceves has been more effective as a reliever throughout his career.
Aceves should be a decent placeholder if Sabathia only misses a couple of weeks. The left-hander wants a second opinion on his right knee from Dr. James Andrews, but an exam by Yankees team doctors revealed no structural damage and hopefully means that Sabathia will recover after fluid is drained from the knee and rests for a few days.
But if Sabathia is out for longer than his 15-day DL stint, the Yankees could really be in some trouble.
Chase Whitley was held out of his scheduled start on Sunday in Triple-A and is expected to take Sabathia’s turn in the rotation on Thursday. In seven appearances (six starts) this year, the 24-year-old has a 2.39 ERA with 32 strikeouts in 26.1 innings. Whitley isn’t considered a top prospect, but was viewed as a young pitcher that could make the Yankees bullpen out of spring training.
This is why signing Masahiro Tanaka was so important for the Yankees during the offseason. The rotation desperately needed a young top starter with Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda looking increasingly creaky.
Seven starts into his debut MLB season, the 25-year-old appears to be worth every penny of the seven-year, $155 million investment the Yankees made in him, compiling a 5-0 record, 2.57 ERA and 58 strikeouts in 49 innings. At least the rotation now has someone to take the ace baton from Sabathia as he pitches through the final three years of his contract (with a vesting option for 2017).
If only the lineup had a young star to provide an immediate contribution. Does the surprising Yangervis Solarte count? The infielder is batting .330 with an .878 OPS, but will he maintain that level of production? The Yankees obviously need him to.
As the major league roster is currently constructed, 30-year-olds Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann are the youngest impact everyday players. Both should be productive for the next three years or so, perhaps even longer if McCann transitions to a DH or first base role and Ellsbury moves to a corner outfield spot. By then, the hope is that prospects like catcher Gary Sanchez and outfielders Slade Heathcott and Mason Williams are ready.
That may project a brighter future for the Yankees lineup than their pitching staff, but it doesn’t help the team right now as it attempts to say competitive in the AL East and wild-card races.
Of course, the Yankees can get healthier as the season progresses. Sabathia should eventually return, followed by Pineda. With proper rest, Teixeira and Beltran will presumably avoid extended injuries (though that’s obviously no guarantee) and stay in the lineup relatively regularly. That approach actually extends to most of the roster.
Manager Joe Girardi will have to shuffle players in and out of the lineup, or skip someone’s turn in the starting rotation, making sure his aging veterans don’t break down long-term. While just about every major league skipper has similar concerns, the advanced age of the Yankees roster (with the highest average age in MLB) requires more careful monitoring by Girardi and his staff.
The question is whether or not that will be enough to keep the Yankees in contention throughout this season. This team certainly isn’t getting any younger.