Yankees in first place despite small payroll (sort of), injuries (lots of)
It is now safe to say that we at Sports Illustrated were wrong about the Yankees. We picked them to miss the playoffs and we were not alone. Most of the rest of the national and local media were wrong about them, too. Their blood-smelling AL East rivals were wrong. Their caterwauling fans were wrong. The Yankees, in fact, were wrong about themselves.
There was no panicking among the players during spring training -- Yankees don't panic -- but their clubhouse in Tampa wasn't permeated with unbridled optimism, particularly regarding their ability to seamlessly overcome the rash of injuries that led most observers to write off their 2013 season even before it began. "We're definitely counting the days 'til they come back, trying to win as many games as we can 'til they get here," said pitcher David Phelps, to SI.com.
"Baseball's not how you start, it's how you finish," said manager Joe Girardi.
They were speaking on March 13, which was before anyone knew that Derek Jeter would suffer a setback in his recovery from his broken ankle that would land him on the disabled list with Curtis Granderson, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, and well before their starting catcher, Francisco Cervelli, starting pitcher Ivan Nova and the third baseman they signed to replace Rodriguez, Kevin Youkilis, would join the rest of them there in the span of two April days.
Nobody could yet imagine how bad it would get. The nine position players who started their April 30 game against the Astros combined for just $31 million in salary, virtually half of which came from $15 million man Robinson Cano. As of Monday they would have $100.6 million worth of players -- representing more than 44% of their payroll, and a sum that exceeds the total salary expenditures of more than half the teams in the league -- on the DL. Still, the message was already clear: the Yankees would eventually be fine, but it was likely that they would not be fine early.
Early has come and gone -- the Yankees are scheduled to play their 40th game on Wednesday night, reaching, more or less, the season's quarter-pole -- and they have been significantly better than fine. They are 25-14, the best record in the American League. They are on pace for 103 wins, and for their 18th playoff berth in the last 19 years. How have they managed to surprise everyone, themselves included?
A central portion of the answer is that they have been able to count on the parts of their team on which they thought they'd be able to count. There is, first, a pitching staff that was thought to be, and has been, strong from top to bottom. The rotation, led by CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte, has been very good -- its ERA of 3.54 ranks it sixth in the AL -- and the bullpen, led by Mariano Rivera, who might be a benevolent vampire, has kept pace (its ERA is 3.41). Cano, the only one of New York's top 10 home-run hitters from 2012 to have played for the team so far this season, has been nothing short of the middle-of-the order linchpin that he was expected to be. Cano is batting .306, with an OPS of .913, and his 10 home runs have him on pace for a career-high 42.
Most everything else, though, has been unexpected. There have been minor contributions from unknown players like Preston Claiborne, Corban Joseph and Vidal Nuno. And there have been major contributions from well known, if long ago written off, players like Travis Hafner, Lyle Overbay and Vernon Wells. That aging trio (they are 36, 36 and 34) has already combined to hit 21 homers, drive in 64 runs and bat .274. Overbay is on pace to post his best OPS since 2009, Wells and Hafner their best since 2006.
Their lockstep resurgences have been particularly unsettling to opponents not just because they are coming with the Yankees, but because basically any other team could have had them a few months ago. Overbay, who was cut by Boston in late March, is on a one-year, $1.25 million deal. Hafner is making $2 million. Wells, acquired in a trade with the Angels, is making $21 million, and will earn that again next year. More than $28 million of that sum will be paid by his former team, which was desperate to be done with him and has had to watch as he has posted a better offensive WAR than any Angels save Mike Trout. Yes, for context, the $7 million or so that New York will on average shell out for Wells this year and next is still more than the Tampa Bay Rays will pay any of their players except for David Price, but still.
Not all of the band-aids general manager Brian Cashman has applied to his club's open wounds have stuck: Brennan Boesch, a Tigers cast-off, was sent down on Monday after batting .209. Ben Francisco is hitting .128. Overall, though, the Yankees' offense has been able to maximize what it does well (which is hit righthanded pitching, to the tune of a fourth-ranked .782 OPS) and minimize what it doesn't (which is hit southpaws, against whom their OPS of .646 is last in the AL).
After a spring in which they were so unfortunate that even Cashman broke his leg -- perhaps not such a terrible outcome when the term "charity skydiving accident" is involved -- they have also benefited from a bit of luck. The have that AL-best record despite a run differential, +26, that is only baseball's seventh highest. They are 8-2 in one-run games. Some regression is in order there, as well as with the production of their early-season heroes Hafner, Overbay and Wells.
Soon enough, though, the Yankees will look much more like the team that Cashman designed, as opposed to the one that he slapped together, however successfully. Granderson, his fractured arm healed, returned to the lineup on Tuesday. Teixeira is taking batting practice and could be back in June. Michael Pineda, the former Mariners rookie sensation who has yet to pitch for New York, is reportedly hitting 95 mph in extended spring training. Jeter and Rodriguez -- who should still be good for an OPS of around .800 -- could retake their rightful places around the All-Star break.
All of this is to say that, despite the dire prognostications that were even, on some level, shared by those in the Yankees' clubhouse, it now appears likely that the AL East will end up looking very much like it usually does: with New York at the top of it.