This week's schedule and probable starters:
Sunday, May 25 - @ Chicago White Sox - Masahiro Tanaka vs. Andre Rienzo (3-0, 4.20 ERA)
The opponents: Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox
Neither Chicago team has played especially well in 2014, although, of the two, the White Sox have certainly outplayed the Cubs. Still, by virtue of being in the same division as the Detroit Tigers (a league best .684 winning percentage), the White Sox already find themselves 8.5 games out in the AL Central (going 3-7 over their last ten hasn't helped). The Sox have hovered around .500 due entirely to their offense, which is third in the league in runs scored. This is of course mostly due to Jose Abreu, who has taken the league by storm and currently sports a 142 wRC+, leads the league in homers (15), and is second in RBI (42, one behind Giancarlo Stanton's 43). The Yankees will miss Abreu in this series due to an ankle injury, but the offense is not all him - Alexei Ramirez (127 wRC+) and Dayan Viciedo (122 wRC+) have also started strong. Without this strong offensive showing, the White Sox would be completely inept, as their pitching staff sports the third worst ERA in the league. Their staff will no doubt improve with the return of ace Chris Sale, but it won't help that much; outside of Sale and Jose Quintana, the White Sox staff lacks any real talent, and will be a liability all season long.
While the White Sox have struggled a bit, the Cubs have been completely hopeless almost all season long. They're currently 15-27, 11 games back in the NL Central, and don't have an elite offense or elite pitching staff, sporting the 22nd worst offense (in terms of runs scored) and the 12th best staff ERA. Outside of youngsters Anthony Rizzo (135 wRC+) and Starlin Castro (who, with a 126 wRC+, is having a resurgent 2014 after a woeful 2013), their offense lacks any punch whatsoever. And while their pitching staff is decent (Samardzija and Hammel are both skilled, and Travis Wood can be productive), the lack of offensive production makes it hard to take advantage of the quality starts these arms are producing (as evidenced by Samardzjia's great ERA but winless record). Their two losses this season against the Yankees epitomize this (two scoreless games for the Cubs), although great performances from Tanaka and Michael Pineda didn't help the Cubs offensive issues either.
Pitching matchup highlight: Tanaka vs. Hammel
Starting off the week will be Masahiro Tanaka, who, even though he's still technically just a rookie, is just about the only reliable starting pitcher the Yankees have left. While fill-ins like David Phelps (4.51 xFIP) and Vidal Nuno (4.89 xFIP) have done okay, the Yankees would be in deep trouble regarding their pitching if Tanaka wasn't pitching like an ace in his first season since coming over from Japan. Entering this week, Tanaka is 6-0 with a 2.16 xFIP, a 9.43 K/BB, and just a 1.09 HR/9. Tanaka has held this staff together, and the Yankees desperately need him to keep it up until Michael Pineda (and perhaps) CC Sabathia return. Starting twice this week will go a long way towards making this a successful road trip for the Yankees.
Since the Yankees pitching staff has imploded, trade rumors have naturally already begun to swirl. One pitcher that has been mentioned is the Cubs' Jason Hammel. While Jeff Samardzija is a more appealing - although more costly (in terms of prospects it would take to get him) option - Hammel hasn't been bad this year, posting a 3.58 xFIP, a 3.58 K/BB, and a 0.85 HR/9. He's never been spectacular in his career, but he's a solid starter, and who knows, Tuesday's start could be something of an audition, if the Yankees ever do decide that a trade is the key to contention this year.
Who's hot and who's not:
Hot: Brett Gardner - Avoiding some obvious answers (Dellin Betances, Mark Teixeira, Yangervis Solarte, the aforementioned Tanaka), Brett Gardner has turned it on in the month of May. Gardner has hit .309/.377/.473 with a 137 wRC+ in May, hitting two home runs, knocking in 9 runs, and stealing 3 bases. He had an eight-game hitting streak this month, and has reached base safely in 15 out of the 17 games the Yankees have played this month. He's certainly looked like the player the Yankees expect him to be after handing him that big extension during the offseason this month.
Not: Jacoby Ellsbury - The player most similar to Gardner on the Yankees roster hasn't shared in his success in May. Ellsbury has only hit .236/.344/.345 in May, stealing just three bases, hitting one home run, and managing just 3 RBI and a 92 wRC+. While his power numbers are down slightly, his dip in batting average has limited his ability to wreak havoc on the base paths. All players go through slumps, so no doubt this will end soon (hopefully). Perhaps facing off against two of the lesser teams in the majors in the Cubs and White Sox is just what the doctor ordered for the Yankee centerfielder.
Final notes and predictions: 5-1 (2-0 against the Cubs, 3-1 against the White Sox)
This should be a great week for the Yankees, who have a terrific chance to put some distance between them and most of the AL East. While 2nd place Baltimore will face a relatively easy schedule of Pittsburgh and Cleveland, Toronto will play Boston and the Oakland Athletics, Boston will play the Blue Jays and the Tampa Bay Rays, and Tampa will play Oakland and Boston. The Yankee offense has been rolling in May (9th in runs scored, 3rd in homers, 6th in average, and 8th in OPS), and this should continue against the two Chicago teams. Tanaka should handle Hammel and, while the rookie Whitley will face Samardzija, Whitley pitched will enough his last time out and is still so new, he should be able to keep the Yankees within striking distance so that their superior offense can carry the day. Against the White Sox, Chris Sale should return strong (I mean, he's Chris Sale, c'mon), but other than that, look for the Yankees to handle Noesi and Danks before handing Tanaka the ball on Sunday (and no, I'm not betting against Tanaka). Should be a great week for Yankee fans.