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NEW YORK, NY - MAY 15: Masahiro Tanaka #19 of the New York Yankees delivers a pitch in the fourth inning against the Chicago White Sox at Yankee Stadium on May 15, 2016 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Yankees 1st qtr grades a mixed bag

It’s hard to believe, but a quarter of the Major League Baseball season is over, which means it’s time to hand out individual grades for the Yankees’ performance. Principal owner Hal Steinbrenner recently gave a thumbs up to manager Joe Girardi and the coaching staff and placed the blame for the sluggish first month-and-a-half of the season squarely on the shoulders of the players. He’ll get no argument from anyone who watched the first 40 games of the season. But, going into this past Monday’s day off, the Yankees had to feel better about themselves. They avenged an earlier sweep at the hands of the Oakland A’s with a four-game sweep in Oakland and an overall five-game winning streak. They also moved into a tie with Tampa Bay for third place in the AL East.

But while the four-game sweep was great, the A’s helped the Yankees out with shoddy play throughout the series, and problems still exist. With the exception of the bullpen, the Yankees have played inconsistently all year. The starting pitching, defense and hitting have struggled, and resulted in a below .500 record for most of the season. Injuries have not helped matters, either.

Grading the skipper: Joe Girardi gets an ‘A‘. Yes, he still over- or under-manages at times, relies too much on pitch counts, and there is his binder, but look at what he has had to work with for most of this season. The team still hit the .500 mark after 44 games, a pretty good achievement considering how difficult it has been for the Yankees to score runs.

Now, it’s time to look at the first-quarter report card for the players.

Head of the Class

Andrew Miller was flat-out outstanding in his first season with the Yankees last year. The 6’7″ left-hander converted 36 of 38 save opportunities (95%) and averaged 14.6 K/9 innings. Despite the success, the Yankees acquired the hardest thrower in baseball, closer Aroldis Chapman from Cincinnati, and made Miller the 8th-inning setup man. Miller said all the right things and then continued his outstanding pitching. While Chapman’s off-the-field behavior resulted in a 30-game suspension to start the year, Miller was perfect in six save chances and has averaged a remarkable 16.7 K/9 innings through his first 17 appearances.

Grade: A+

Imagine if Masahiro Tanaka’s right elbow had been completely healthy  for the last three seasons. While he has not been lights out as he was for his first 14 starts in 2014, he’s clearly the ace of the staff. It’s a status that Tanaka has earned, and not by default. Though he’s only 2-0, the Yankees are 6-3 in his nine starts. Tanaka has kept the Yankees in the games he starts, having allowed two or less runs in seven of his starts. The home run continues to be the bane of Tanaka’s existence – he allowed four in his two worst starts combined – but so far he has allowed just six home runs this season after having surrendered 25 of them last year. Tanaka is 15th in the AL in ERA (3.15), in the top 20 in strikeouts (20), sixth in WHIP (1.046), and tied with the 9th lowest OPS allowed (.622).

Grade: A

Because of his suspension, Aroldis Chapman has appeared in just seven games, but he’s been as good as advertised. With his triple-digit fastball, the left-hander picked up saves in six straight appearances and allowed one hit, one walk, and struck out seven in that stretch. Despite the small sample size, his grade is clear.

Grade: A

Dellin Betances is the first to enter a game among the big three relievers, and is likely to become a closer some day. For now though, he’s dominating the 7th inning as he did the 8th inning last year. Other than a hiccup at the end of April/start of May, when he allowed home runs in three straight appearances, Betances has been pretty much lights-out. He’s struck out batters at a ridiculous rate of 17.7 K/9 innings.

Grade: A-

Carlos Beltran looked like a 90-year old man the first month of the 2015 season. But, from that time on through the rest of the season, he’s looked like a completely different player. This wasn’t the 20-something Beltran with fast legs and tremendous power, but it was a solid year from a then-38-year old outfielder. A year later, Beltran was quick out of the gate, but went into a slump from mid-April on…until Alex Rodriguez’s DL stint made him the full-time DH. As of play through May 24, Beltran had 17 RBI in his last 15 games and was on an 11-22 streak with 10 RBI in his last five games.

Grade: A-

Kirby Yates has been a very pleasant surprise out of the pen. The middle reliever/mop-up man has appeared in 18 games and produced a 1.96 ERA, a 1.145 WHIP and better than 9K/9 innings. On the down side, a lead or deficit has changed in four of those appearances, though that has been the case only once in his last 10 appearances.

Grade A-

Keep Up the Good Work

A Star(lin) is reborn: Starlin Castro was a bona fide star early in his career with the Chicago Cubs. He was a Top-5 finisher in the NL Rookie of the Year ballot and a two-time All-Star, but Castro had down years in 2013 and 2015. The Cubs made him available and the Yankees pounced.  So far, GM Brian Cashman’s faith has been rewarded.

Though he’s come back down to Earth in May, Castro tore up the baseball in the first month of the season (.833 OPS, 12 RBI in 22 games), and meshed well with shortstop Didi Gregorius on the double play. It’s a duo that could be in pinstripes for years to come.

Grade: B+ (His rough May kept this from being an ‘A’)

It’s best not to look at Brett Gardner‘s batting average (.246). It’s pretty ugly as is his 1.0 WAR. However, Gardner is in the Top-20 in the AL in on-base percentage (.370), is running again (his eight steals in nine attempts is 10th best in the Major Leagues), and he has done a very good job of setting the table at the top of the order. It’s especially impressive since he started the season with a bad wrist.

Gardner has had bad second halves for the past two seasons, so it’s important for his stock to rise the rest of the season rather than sink again.

Grade: B

Brian McCann struggled in his initial season in New York, but last year won the Silver Slugger Award for catchers. McCann continues to be a top-of-the-line catcher this season. As of this writing, he’s among the Top-5 AL catchers in home runs, RBI, walks, OBP, and slugging pct., and leads the league in runs scored. His weakness with the bat is the same as many of his teammates, a lack of hitting with runners in scoring position (RISP). He continues to call a solid game behind the plate, but has thrown out just four of 25 potential base stealers. Though that the number can be skewed due to the involvement of the pitcher, McCann’s % of would-be base stealers caught is still well below the league average (30%).

Grade: B

Not many people realize that Ronald Torreyes is just 23-years old. It’s likely most people probably never heard of him until the Yankees grabbed him off waivers on Feb. 1 and he made the team out of a Spring Training. Much shorter than the 5’10” he’s listed as, Torreyes plays with a huge heart. With a team of mostly older veterans, Torreyes’ enthusiasm is a joy to behold. Plus, he’s done very well as the utility infielder, mainly playing shortstop and third base.

Grade: B

Ivan Nova was upset at losing out on one of the rotation spots out of Spring Training this season. Though he was upset, he certainly didn’t pitch well enough to be a starter. The long man out of the pen, Nova did a decent job in his first six appearances of the year. Then CC Sabathia and Luis Severino went down with injuries and Nova was back where he felt he belonged, starting games. In his three starts, he’s limited opponents to three earned runs in 16.3 innings pitched (giving up a solo home run in each start), and has Girardi seriously considering a six-man rotation when Severino returns from the DL.

Grade: B

When the Yankees reported to Spring Training in February, there was an assumption that Gary Sanchez would be McCann’s backup. But Austin Romine won the job and has been a solid number 2 catcher. There were no doubts about the 27-year old’s defense, but his offense had kept him off the Major League roster. That has changed this season. Romine’s main job is to ably fill in for McCann behind the plate…if he hits it’s a bonus. Though he hasn’t produced much offense in May, he had a decent first month of the year (and has hit much better on the road than at home), and overall has done what the Yankees have asked of him.

Grade: B-

Perhaps Girardi keeps his hair ultra short because he’s afraid he’d pull it out watching Nathan Eovaldi pitch. Eovaldi was on a pitching roller coaster last season…several strong outings followed by several poor ones. In his first five starts this year, Eovaldi would have received an ‘A’, a ‘C’, and three ‘F’s. However, in his last four starts, including this past Tuesday night, Eovaldi has given the Yankees everything they want from him. The fire-baller has allowed six runs in 25 innings (2.16 ERA), compiled a 0.88 WHIP, and picked up a win in each start. One major difference from last year is that it appears Eovaldi doesn’t carry his last start into his next one. His goal remains the same – to be consistent and get deeper into games.

Grade: B-

You Best Crack the Books

CC Sabathia has been a work in progress for the last three seasons. He’s had to adjust to lost velocity on his fastball, has struggled at times with his previous pinpoint accuracy, and has attended rehabilitation for alcohol dependency. His first four starts of this season were either poor or mediocre (6 IP, 3 ER doesn’t qualify as quality in my book), but on May 4 he tossed seven scoreless innings against a very good-hitting Baltimore club. Unfortunately, he also landed on the DL with a strained groin. In his first game back against Oakland, Sabathia built off his great early May stint. While the A’s don’t have Baltimore’s lineup, Sabathia still limited them to a run and six hits over six innings, and struck out eight batters to boot. Perhaps the big man has found his way.

Grade: C+

For the first three months of the 2015 season, the acquisition of Didi Gregorius looked like one of the worst moves GM Brian Cashman had ever made. The outstanding defender was making multiple mistakes in the field and couldn’t hit worth a lick. Then July rolled around and Gregorius turned into one of the best shortstops in the Majors, both with the glove and the bat.

Unfortunately, Gregorius got off to another bad start for the first month of this season. Fortunately, his May has been much better, though he has six errors already, after he committed 13 inr all of last season.

Grade: C

Jacoby Ellsbury has a decent average (.275), an average OBP (.345) – and has had a decently average season. The Yankees need much more of him than that. Ellsbury, like Chase Headley, is the victim of the “One Huge Season Syndrome” (OHSS). A player who has experienced OHSS has had unrealistic expectations thrust upon them. Ellsbury, in the third year of a seven-year, $153MM deal, had a miserable April before he got red hot in May. A .348/.455/.587 slash line has made him one of the hottest hitters in baseball this month. He also swiped four of five bases in May. While he may not keep up this pace, the Yankees need him to at least be somewhere in-between, and not flip-flop between Mr. Hot or Mr. Cold.

Grade: C

Chasen Shreve was outstanding last season until he wore down late in the year. This year, he’s shown to be a little more inconsistent. He didn’t allow a run in his first six appearances, but was tagged for earned runs in six of his next 12 apperances. Worse yet, in six of those 12 games he has exited with the lead diminished or the deficit greater than when he entered. That will lead to less high-leverage relief stints in the future.

Grade: C

If Eovaldi can be frustrating at times, then Michael Pineda can absolutely drive you crazy. After missing two seasons in 2012-13 due to shoulder surgery, Pineda looked like a pitcher on the verge of stardom. There was a small, but positive sample in 2014, and after a rough April 2015, he started looking like he would be an ace. There was an eight shutout inning performance against Toronto, followed by a 16-strikeout effort against the Orioles. He pitched well enough in eight or nine of his next 14 starts, and then things crumbled. A forearm injury caused him to miss all but one start in August and he made four poor starts in September. Pineda’s inconsistency has continued this season – he’s only completed six innings in three of his nine starts – and has put a  strain on the bullpen arms a aresult. No matter the outcome of his start, Pineda always looks like he’s in physical or mental distress, and seems to lack confidence.

Grade: C-

Time to Hire a Tutor

No one knew what to expect from Alex Rodriguez last season, after he sat out the 2014 campaign due a suspension. Certainly no one, especially A-Rod, expected 33 home runs, 86 RBI, an .846 slugging percentage, and 151 games played. It remains to be seen, however, if playing in that many games has had a negative effect. A-Rod missed the last 21 due to a hamstring injury and was hitting just .194 when he was injured. That’s actually higher than the .191 he had hit over the last two months of last season. The Yankees may need to sit him more often during the remainder of this year in order to get Beltran more at-bats at DH.

Grade: D with extenuating circumstances

Like A-Rod, Mark Teixeira enjoyed a renaissance last season after a few years of injuries and offensive production below his normal standard. The first baseman had his best season since 2011, and was an All-Star for the first time in six years. So far, 2016 has been a nightmare. Tex’s slash line of .193/.295/.283 is among the worst in the Majors. He’s hit just three home runs in his first 170 plate appearances. His solid play at first base and his durability are the only things that kept him from receiving a worse grade. The Yankees desperately need him to get into an offensive groove.

Grade: D

The other corner hasn’t been too “hot” either. Chase Headley had his ups and downs last year, but until recently it was mostly his bat that was deficient. Headley, who was signed to a questionable four-year deal prior to the 2015 season, had a .418 OPS in April and no extra-base hits. He finally homered in back-to-back games (May 12-13) and got his first double of the season in his 36th game played. Entering this week’s series with Toronto, Headley reached base safely in 13 consecutive game and had raised his OPS 158 points in the past month.  Thankfully, he’s played much better defense this season after he committed 23 errors last year.  His defense outweighed his .279 slugging percentage and kept him from getting an ‘F’.

Grade: D

Aaron Hicks was once tabbed as a Top-50 prospect by a number of publications. Baseball America had him as high as the 19th overall prospect in 2010. Until a fine showing with the Twins last season, he had not proven worthy of that praise. The Yankees thought so highly of him and his potential, they dealt backup catcher John Ryan Murphy to Minnesota for him during this past off-season. While Hicks has been stellar defensively, primarily as a fourth outfielder, his offense has been stagnant. A .567 OPS does not cut it.

Grade: D

I Hear Scranton is Lovely this Time of Year

I believe that Luis Severino’s  seven starts this season were an aberration and/or the result of the right tricep strain that landed him on the 15-day DL after his May 13 start. His 11 starts with the big club last year looked like the real deal, not this. Severino’s one good start this season (6 IP 2 ER) resulted in a no-decision. He lost all six of his other starts. When he completes his rehab, which should be shortly, the Yankees will have to decide whether to go to a six-man rotation, move Severino to the bullpen, or demote him to Scranton so that he can start on a regular basis.

Grade: F

Not enough appearances for a grade – Gary Sanchez, Nick Goody, Johnny Barbato, Branden Pinder,  Chad Green, Connor Mullee, Phil Coke, Tyler Olson, Ben Gamel, Luis Cessa, and Rob Refsnyder.