Depth the main difference between Yanks, Rays
NEW YORK -- Two hundred million dollars won't necessarily buy you wins. But it sure can buy you a lot of margin for error.
If there's a difference between the rosters of the two favorites in the American League East this year, it's that. When the Yankees have to do without Brett Gardner, or find themselves enduring a slump by Robinson Cano, they can churn right along. When the Rays have to go even a short time without Desmond Jennings and Evan Longoria, they feel it in a big way.
That difference was evident in Thursday night's 5-3 New York win against Tampa Bay, a game in which the Yankees' lineup depth (and the Rays' lack thereof) made a huge difference. Facing a Cy Young-caliber pitcher in David Price, the Yanks didn't blink. Seven Yankees had a run, an RBI, or both as Price took a rare loss against the reigning division champs.
"That's a good hitting team," Price lamented. "When you make mistakes, they hit them. When you make a good pitch, they hit them."
Ace CC Sabathia was also a huge factor for New York, but Tampa Bay gives up nothing relative to New York in starting pitching. The Rays have the division's best rotation top to bottom. They play the best defense in the division. Their bullpen has scuffled some, but should be effective in the long run. Plus, their lineup is better than it gets credit for. But in every unit, save the rotation, the margin is paper-thin. When the Rays have to plug holes, things get dicey.
Tampa Bay's lineup is, in general, unfairly maligned. The hitters' graveyard that is Tropicana Field brings down the club's offensive stats to the point where the Rays rarely get the credit they deserve for being a pretty good offensive team. However, one downside to playing on a limited budget is having limited depth, and that limited depth shows up when manager Joe Maddon's club has to deal with an injury or two.
The Rays were shut down by Sabathia on Thursday night at Yankee Stadium, managing two unearned runs -- thanks mostly to third baseman Eduardo Nunez's largesse. A night after they came three outs from being shut out, the Rays were two errors from a goose egg over the first eight frames.
That's not a coincidence. With Longoria out for at least a few more weeks and Jennings a day-to-day proposition, two of Tampa Bay's most important offensive players are unavailable. That leaves a lineup that had Jeff Keppinger batting cleanup, Sean Rodriguez in the No. 2 spot and only three real impact hitters anywhere in the starting nine.
Contrast that with the Yankees, who featured significant danger in each of the first six spots on Thursday, despite Gardner's injury. Depth is what wins over 162 games -- be it lineup depth, rotation depth or bullpen depth -- and the Yankees have it in two out of those three areas. Even with Price on the mound, there was no keeping the Yankees' bats down.
"We have a great lineup," Sabathia said. "These guys score a lot of runs. I always say, 'If I can just keep them in the game, we've got a good chance of winning.'"
Meanwhile, as Tampa Bay deals with the losses of Longoria and Jennings, New York appears to be getting Cano back in form. Cano, an AL MVP candidate the past two years, had an uncharacteristically tough April but is coming around in May. His three-hit showing on Thursday made him 12-for-36 (.333) for the month with four extra-base hits for a .555 slugging percentage.
He's as essential as any Yankees hitter, especially in a lineup filled with hitters on the wrong side of 30. Cano should be a constant for the Yanks at this point in his career. If he's back to being that, this lineup is every bit as dangerous at it appeared that it would be back in Spring Training.
Would that the Rays could say the same.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. Paul Casella and Kristen Zimmerman contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.