The Tigers and Yankees will square off for the second time this month, but this time more is at stake. Both teams are currently in the hunt for the second AL Wild Card, with the Tigers also looking to catch the Kansas City Royals at the top of the AL Central. In order to get a bit of inside info for this week's pivotal series, we asked Andrew Mearns of Pinstripe Alley a few questions. You can read my responses to his queries over here.
1. Masahiro Tanaka is beginning to throw again after partially tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow earlier this season. Do you think that the Yankees should shut him down in the interest of keeping him healthy for the future, or is this year's playoff push more important?
I don't think it's particularly harmful that the Yankees are taking baby steps with Tanaka in the oft-chance that he could contribute later in the season. They are still within a few games of a playoff spot, and having the opportunity to use a guy like Tanaka instead of Chris Capuano would be huge. They have a respected team of trainers and medical professionals keeping an eye on Tanaka's elbow, and given their seven-year, $155 million investment in him, I doubt that they would be trying to get him back later this year if it was a serious risk.
I trust their judgment. I'm sure that if he even suffers the slightest setback, he would just be shut down for the season. I would respect either decision because I know how much is it at stake with Tanaka's future.
2. The Yankees didn't make a big splash at the non-waiver trade deadline, instead opting to fill several holes with low profile moves. What was the team's best move at the trade deadline, and what grade would you give them overall?
It wasn't exactly at the trade deadline, but the Yankees' best midseason move was trading Vidal Nuno to the Diamondbacks for Brandon McCarthy. That trade has been an absolute steal, as the Yankees instantly improved their rotation from a replacement level (or worse) starter in Nuno to a much higher ceiling guy whose statistics beyond basic won/loss record and ERA screamed "bounce-back candidate." Nuno is off to a decent start in Arizona, but he's unlikely to maintain that going forward given his unimpressive repertoire. McCarthy however brought the cutter back into his pitch options after the Diamondbacks advised him against throwing it too much, and he has been brilliant for the Yankees. (The Diamondbacks also gave the Yankees $2 million just for the privilege of acquiring Nuno. I don't understand the Diamondbacks.)
McCarthy's ERA and FIP in eight starts with the Yankees are a minuscule 1.90 and 2.33, respectively, and his overall season home run rate has returned closer to career norms after an unusually high 1.23 HR/9 in Arizona. Even if McCarthy regresses to the stats that he maintained while pitching with Oakland in 2011 and 2012, he will still be a valuable starter down the stretch for the Yankees.
Overall, I'd give the Yankees a B+ at the deadline. They made incremental improvements to this year's team while not giving up anyone crucial to their future. That's just fine with me.
3. Derek Jeter will play his last game at Comerica Park this week, and Tigers fans are already thinking of gifts to give him. How has this year's farewell tour compared to Mariano Rivera's last season? And what is your favorite Jeter memory?
I actually wrote a bit about the difference between Rivera's farewell tour and Jeter's a week or so ago. As a full-time regular position player, Jeter was more important overall to those championship teams' success, but unlike Rivera, he has actually declined in his older age. While Rivera was still a deserving All-Star in his final season with numbers that compared favorably to just about any elite closer in baseball, Jeter has struggled in his last hurrah. No one expected his defense to be good, but his power has just vanished. In his last healthy year, Jeter slugged .429. Even in 2010, his career-low over a full season, he slugged .370. This year, his slugging percentage sits at a measly .317, just three percentage points higher than his .314 OBP. His 77 wRC+ is worse than all but three regular shortstops in baseball. It's been rough to watch. (Not #Season2Watch, as YES Network says.)
As far as the actual tour goes, I don't mind it, but I can understand why some fans around the game are a bit weary with the whole farewell tour concept. It doesn't help that this is the third year of farewell tours in a row after Chipper Jones in 2012 and Mo last year. That being said, the average fan has been turning out in bulk on the road for Jeter's last stops in each city, and there's something to be said for that. The average Internet baseball fan might be exhausted by the concept, but the average baseball fan in general seems to love it.
My favorite Jeter memory is probably the "Mr. November" homer in Game 4 of the 2001 World Series. It's very close between that and the "Flip Play" (I'm also partial to his 3,000th hit since I was actually there), but man, that series was just what New York City needed at the time. That happened while I was growing up in North Jersey, and it seemed like everyone, even some Mets fans, felt partial to the Yankees that year. The fact that the World Series was one of the greatest of all-time made it better despite Luis Gonzalez and his damn blooper. That particular game was just crazy with the late two-run homer by Tino Martinez in the ninth, then the Jeter first-row short porch against the very same pitcher! To this day, I still have no idea why Bob Brenly left Byung-Hyun Kim out there for his third inning, but I'm obviously not complaining. Prime Jeter was just a tremendous thrill to watch.
4. Speaking of Rivera, David Robertson seems to have filled his shoes without missing a beat, with 34 saves in 37 chances. Obviously, Robertson hasn't earned the same trust that Mo had with the Yankees fanbase, but do you think that he deserves to be re-signed at the end of the season? Or should the Yankees go with someone else in the ninth inning in 2015?
I would re-sign Robertson as long as he isn't demanding a crazy closer contract like the one Jonathan Papelbon received a few years ago. He's been one of baseball's most reliable relievers over the past four seasons, a feat not easily achieved by the common relief arm. Such assets are difficult to come by, and I hope the Yankees are serious about trying to bring him back. I love me some Dellin Betances, but I also remember just last April when he was a mere failed pitching prospect. I also remember how many relievers have popped up for one memorable year, then faded into oblivion. I'm relatively confident that Dellin has the ability to not end up like them, but I wouldn't ditch D-Rob just yet.
It's nice to say Dellin can take Robertson's role, but then the Yankees are locking Dellin into the ninth inning and perhaps making him less valuable since in his current role, he can still sometimes come in whenever the Yankees need him most, be it the eighth or not. Additionally, it's unclear who would take Dellin's role in the bullpen. There are some intriguing relief prospects in the likes of Jacob Lindgren ("the Strikeout Factory" just drafted this year already in Double-A), Tyler Webb, and Mark Montgomery, but the Yankees have the financial flexibility to bring a guy like Robertson back. He'd be my 2015 closer.
5. As good as their bullpen has been in 2014, the Yankees rotation has been decimated by injuries. What do you think the team's plan will be for 2015 and beyond?
I think the Yankees are going to make a play for one of the big starters hitting the free agent market. They'll probably target Jon Lester in particular since he wouldn't cost a draft pick and lefties in Yankee Stadium often go well together (see Andy Pettitte, Ron Guidry, Whitey Ford, etc.) To stay in contention, they're going to need a rotation boost, as right now, the only starters under contract for next year are Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, Michael Pineda, Shane Greene, and David Phelps.
All of them carry significant question marks due to either injury or inexperience, and they could definitely use the shot in the arm that one of those free agent starters could bring. McCarthy should be brought back at the very least, and he's said that he would be open to returning. Although I suspect he will either retire or go back to Japan, if Hiroki Kuroda wanted to come back to fill one of those spots, I wouldn't be opposed to it, though maybe not at the $16 million price tag he came with this year. Nonetheless, I would expect quite a different rotation on Opening Day 2015 than what was there on Opening Day 2014.
6. The Yankees spent a ton of money last offseason, but that hasn't translated into a huge improvement in the team's win-loss record in 2014. Given the relative age of the roster and the dearth of top-end talent in the farm system (we know exactly what that feels like), are you worried about the team's ability to compete over the next 3-5 years?
Concerns over the Yankees' immediate future are quite valid. There isn't much talent in Triple-A right now aside from maybe second baseman Rob Refsnyder. There is a bit more talent as you go down the levels (Double-A: righty starter Luis Severino [BP/BA Midseason Top 50], catcher Gary Sanchez [preseason Top 100 Prospect], first baseman Greg Bird, High-A: outfielder Aaron Judge [Keith Law's Midseason Top 50 prospect], third baseman Eric Jagielo, and lefty starter Ian Clarkin).
However, while I like all of these prospects, I understand how often prospects turn into nothing, and the Yankees haven't produced a quality position player since Brett Gardner. These players have a lot to prove, and the Yankees really need an infusion of young talent to contend over the next few years as declining stars like Sabathia, Alex Rodriguez, and Mark Teixeira play out their hefty contracts. Maybe Severino becomes the next great Yankees starter and maybe Judge becomes a dangerous power threat in the lineup--we just don't know yet. The future freaks me out, especially since I have been lucky enough to live almost my entire life without seeing the Yankees fall under .500.
Once again, a big thanks to Andrew and the rest of the staff at Pinstripe Alley. You can read my responses to his questions here. Be sure to check out Pinstripe Alley all season long for more news and analysis on the Yankees.