The Oakland Athletics are back on top of the American League after sweeping the Angels last weekend. It was Oakland's sixth series sweep of the young season. The A's now take their 35-22 record on the road for nine games, starting with three in New York against the Yankees. Don't worry, though, the A's have an MLB-best 18-10 record on the road because if you can think of a stat then the 2014 A's probably lead baseball in it. They've actually been slightly better on the road than at home (17-12), which I think is better stated by saying that playing away from home hasn't been a hindrance to this group. They'll beat you anywhere, anytime (except Toronto, apparently).
Tue: Scott Kazmir vs. Hiroki Kuroda
Wed: Jesse Chavez vs. Vidal Nuno
Thu: Drew Pomeranz vs. Masahiro Tanaka
The A's will face two Japanese starters in this series, though they are on opposite ends of their respective careers. Hiroki Kuroda is the 39-year-old who is starting to get hit hard as he squeezes the last ounces of baseball out of his right arm, whereas Masahiro Tanaka is the 25-year-old rookie sensation who is already pitching like a Cy Young contender. Make sure you set your DVR for the Tanaka game (Thu., 10:05 a.m.), because this is the kind of baseball player who you should go out of your way to watch when you get the chance. Nuno is a left-hander who has allowed nine home runs in 47⅔ innings, so that should be fun. The ERA's of Oakland's three starters are 2.36, 2.78, and 2.37, which is just absurd.
1. When the Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury last winter, I thought he was an odd target since he is such a similar player to Brett Gardner -- the ace center fielder with great speed who can get on base a lot. Is that a fair comparison, or is there more to these guys than I'm giving credit for? And which one has performed better so far this season?
TB: I think that is a pretty fair comparison for both of them, but having them both roaming the same outfield has been such a treat. Both of them are total nuisances on the bases and find ways to make highlight reel plays on defense nearly every game. I was skeptical about the Ellsbury deal but he has already totally won me over. As for how they have performed this season, Ellsbury got off to a blistering start before slumping for nearly the entire month of May. Their numbers are pretty similar to this point, but Gardner has been just a little better to this point. Still, I am overjoyed to have both of them.
2. Yangervis Solarte sounds more like a Game of Thrones character than a baseball player. Who is he, why is he good, and will it continue?
TB: Solarte is amazing! The Yankees picked him up this offseason after he spent time in the Texas Rangers organization and invited him to spring training as a non-roster invitee. The final spot on the roster came down to Solarte and Eduardo Nunez (who Yankee fans have long been sick of) and Solarte got the nod. An early injury opened the door for him to play every day and he hasn't looked back since. His success has come because he is patient at the plate and doesn't try to expand the zone. It seems like he is able to quickly adjust and make good contact. Every time it seems like Solarte hits a skid I hold my breath a little that it's all going to crumble down, but he's managed to turn it around every time to this point. There are a lot of reasons to think (and hope) that he can be a productive major leaguer long term, even if he can't keep up the torrid pace he's on. He's been absolutely fantastic.
Photographic proof that Yangervis Solarte is a real person who exists. Apparently Billy Beane isn't the only one who can uncover unknown players. -- Photo credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
3. Can't do this without asking about Derek Jeter. On a scale of Yuniesky to Honus, how has the soon-to-be 40-year-old Captain performed this year, both on offense and defense? Is there any chance that the Yankees might try to supplant him at short this season, or will they let him play out his final campaign? What would you do with him if you were in charge?
TB: Jeter has been closer to Yuni than Honus defensively this year, but we are used to questionable defense from him that we knew would not be improved by a surgically-repaired ankle. Anything hit more than a step or two to either side is probably getting through and I think most of us are at peace with that at this point. Jeter's sub-90 wRC+ is not what Yankee fans are used to seeing out of him, but he hasn't been embarrassing at the plate. That's the one thing I was really afraid of. If Jeter is healthy, he's going to be the Yankees' shortstop. There's just no doubt about that. Further, he's probably going to bat second as long as he is in the lineup. More things that we've just had to accept as reality. I'd definitely bat him lower in the lineup if I were Joe Girardi, and I'd probably try to give him more days at DH than shortstop. The people demand a farewell tour and I know that Girardi has felt a lot of pressure to get him in the lineup nearly every day, particularly when visiting a road city for the final time. I don't envy him that job.
4. The disabled list has been filling up quickly in New York. What are the injury statuses of Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, and set-up man Shawn Kelley? Will we be seeing any of them this week, and if not, who will replace Tex and Beltran in the lineup?
TB: Teixeira had a cortisone shot in his right wrist during Saturday's game that he hopes will take away the discomfort he is feeling. Girardi is going to give him two days off at least before seeing if he can go on Tuesday. Tex has been huge for the team offensively since returning from the disabled list, so losing his bat in the lineup long-term would be a huge blow.
Beltran hopes to avoid surgery on the bone spur in his elbow until the offseason, and some batting practice this weekend went well without pain for him. He could be sent on a minor league rehab assignment this week if everything goes well. Shawn Kelley, like Beltran, is probably destined for a rehab assignment this week. He's throwing bullpen sessions without pain now, which he hadn't been able to do before Friday. Teixeira is the only one that I think has any chance of making it into this series, and even that is far from a guarantee.
Ichiro Suzuki and Alfonso Soriano have been filling in for Beltran in the outfield. Ichiro, combined with Gardner and Ellsbury, makes it one of the better defensive outfields in baseball. Soriano, less so! Brian McCann got some reps at first base while Teixeira was out last week, which had the added benefit of letting John Ryan Murphy get into the lineup. He's been swinging extremely well as the backup catcher, so the more of him we see the better.
5. With C.C. Sabathia, Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda on the DL, Vidal Nuno (Wed starter) has been pressed into starting duty. Has his performance been good, bad, or ugly? And does the 26-year-old have any room to improve?
TB: Nuno's results are typical of junk-balling left-handers. The smoke and mirrors act is going to be working some nights and be a complete disaster on other nights. Recently, it's been a little rough. I never feel good heading into a Nuno start and sometimes that leaves me pleasantly surprised. Expect nothing and you can't be disappointed, I guess. I think that Nuno is what he is at this point. His craftiness will be on some nights and he'll do enough to keep the team in the game and other nights he'll get lit up. He's basically a coin flip.
6. Can you give us a scouting report on Masahiro Tanaka (Thu starter), who has been absolutely dominant in his first MLB season?
TB: There are not enough superlatives to adequately express and praise how fantastic Masahiro Tanaka has been. He is an absolute joy to watch and I look forward to his starts more than I have any pitcher since Mike Mussina. Tanaka is also one of those pitchers who is never fully satisfied with his results. He seems to always be working to get better and improve on any mistakes he made, which is very endearing. The splitter is as good as advertised, and he can throw it in the dirt or throw it for a strike. Once he gets two strikes on a batter, he's incredibly tough to beat. Somehow, Tanaka gets even better when he allows a runner to get on base. He kicks it up to another level. Tanaka has been worth every penny so far. If there is one place where he is vulnerable, it seems to be on the first pitch. Swinging early has yielded the best results for batters so far, which makes sense when you consider how many ways Tanaka can get a batter out after he's gotten ahead in the count.
7. Mariano Rivera is gone, but his spirit is living on in the Yankees' bullpen in the form of closer David Robertson and set-up man Dellin Betances. The two relievers have combined for 78 strikeouts and only 13 walks in 47 innings, which is just ludicrous. Robertson has a long track record, but how is he adapting to being the full-time closer? And is Betances really this good?
TB: Robertson has been excelling in the closer role so far, which most of us had no doubt he would be able to do. His curveball is devastating when it's on. Robertson got the nickname Houdini for working himself into and out of trouble in seasons past, but he's really done a good job of limiting his base runners this season while striking out pretty much everyone.
Betances has been such a revelation after failing as a starter. The Yankees moved him to the bullpen in pretty much desperation and it has proved to be a tremendous move for his career. He's always had dominant stuff that made him a top prospect but he could never quite repeat his delivery enough to not be all over the place mechanically as a starter. Taking away some of his pitches and having him pitch solely out of the stretch has worked wonders.
8. Hiroki Kuroda (Tues starter) is posting a career-worst ERA (4.57) after six straight above-average seasons, but he's also putting up a career-best strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.45). Which of these career extremes do you think better represents how well the 39-year-old has pitched this year? In other words, has he been hit-unlucky or simply hittable?
TB: Kuroda has been victimized a bit by the Yankees learning to shift. He'll get his customary ground balls that will be hit to a vacated spot, which led the Yankees to consider not shifting behind him anymore. First-half Kuroda last year was nearly unhittable, but the wheels sort of came off a bit in the second half. The 2014 version of Kuroda is somewhere in between, but closer to the very hittable Kuroda that we saw in the second half of last year. It seems like there are games where very few of his weapons seem to be working the way he wants them to and those outings get ugly in a hurry. Kuroda's moments of real dominance have been much fewer and farther between this year.
9. Can you please write me a haiku about Alex Rodriguez?
Thank you, Tanya, for participating in the Q&A!
The series starts this afternoon. First pitch is scheduled for 4:05 p.m., Kazmir vs. Kuroda. The Yankees got thumped on Monday by Felix and the Mariners (great band name). After Yangervis Solarte (.830), the higest OPS in their starting lineup was the .731 mark of Brett Gardner. Granted, the imminent return of Teixeira will help, but this isn't the Murderer's Row of years past.