Opening Series Preview: New York Yankees @ Tampa Bay Rays (4/2-4/5)

Yankees fans rejoice! The day is finally here. After a long, cold offseason, Opening Day is finally upon us. The Yankees are about to kick off their 2017 campaign against a familiar foe – the division rival Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida.  The Yankees enter the 2017 as an afterthought in the eyes of most baseball experts. A good start to the season could set them on the right path to being big surprises.  Let's dive into the pitching matchups and some key players to keep your eyes on.


GAME ONE (Sunday, April 2 | First pitch: 1:10 PM ET)
Masahiro Tanaka vs. Chris Archer
The first game of the 2017 Major League season will pit the Yankees and Rays' two aces against each other. 

Chris Archer struggled to a 9-19 record in 2016, but his peripheral numbers indicate he was better than his record suggests.  In four spring starts for the Rays, Archer went 1-0 with a strong 1.98 ERA with a 0.80 WHIP and 17 strikeouts over 13.2 innings pitched.  Despite struggling against the Yankees last season (0-3), Archer has generally baffled Yankees hitters since his Major League debut in 2012.  For his career, Archer is 5-5 against the Yankees with a 2.63 ERA over 13 starts. Keep an eye on Jacoby Ellsbury on Opening Day as he owns a career .559/.563/.765 slash line against the Rays' ace.

Masahiro Tanaka is coming off a strong spring himself, as he didn't allow an earned run until his final start earlier this week, ultimately pitching to a 3-1 record with a microscopic 0.38 ERA and 0.59 WHIP.  Needless to say he was dialed in all spring and he'll look to carry that into the season opener. Tanaka has dominated the Rays more so than any other team in baseball since coming over from Japan in 2014. In eight career starts against Tampa Bay, Tanaka is 6-0 with a 2.82 ERA.  Tampa Bay infielder Brad Miller has, however, been able to take Tanaka deep on three separate occasions.
Photo Credit: Kyodo News

GAME TWO (Tuesday, April 4 | First pitch: 7:10 PM ET)
CC Sabathia vs. Jake Odorizzi
For the season's second game, Tampa Bay will send out 27-year-old right hander Jake Odorizzi who, despite some early season struggles in 2016, finished the season very strong and will look to build upon his second half success of 2016 in 2017.  Both Greg Bird and Matt Holliday are 2-5 in their careers against Odorizzi, but for both players, both of those hits left the yard.  If Odorizzi can effectively navigate the middle of the Yankees lineup, he'll be a tough matchup.

Entering his 18th season in the Major Leagues, CC looks to continue his transition from power pitcher to finesse pitcher.  CC won't light up the radar gun anymore, but he's learned to use both his slider and cutter extremely effectively when pitching to location.  It comes as no shock, but the player CC will need to navigate around to be effective is Evan Longoria, who owns a career .452 batting average against the lefty with three home runs. Sabathia holds a record of 14-14 against the Rays over 41 career starts with an ERA of 3.83.

GAME THREE (Wednesday, April 5 | First pitch: 7:10 PM ET)
Michael Pineda vs. Alex Cobb
In the series finale on Wednesday night, the Rays will look to embattled starter Alex Cobb who has had his fair share of adversity over the past few years.  Cobb infamously took a line drive off his head back in 2013 and then suffered a torn UCL in 2015 and missed the majority of last season recovering. Few Yankees have good numbers against Cobb, although it will be interesting to see how the Baby Bombers who don't have many (if any) at-bats against him fair.  For his career against New York, Cobb has strong numbers, compiling a 5-3 record with a 2.91 ERA.

Looking to build off a very strong spring performance, Michael Pineda will look to reverse his career 2-4 record (4.37 ERA) against Tampa Bay.  Pineda has been most snakebitten by the Rays' Stephen Souza, Jr who owns a .474 career batting average off Big Mike with four home runs.  If Pineda can keep the ball in the yard (he allowed 27 HRs last season) and effectively finish innings (he struggled with two outs last season), he could be in line for a big bounce back season, as the stuff is still undeniably there.

Players to Watch: Yankees
1.     Greg Bird – It's no secret that Greg Bird was one of, if not the best, Yankees players in camp this spring, but now he'll have to translate that to meaningful games – his first since the 2015 American League Wild Card game loss against the Astros. With Yankees fans so accustomed to Mark Teixeira's early season slumps, a hot start from Bird would be a welcomed change.
Photo Credit: AP

2.     Ronald Torreyes - Starting in place of the injured Didi Gregorius, Torreyes will look to hold down the fort at shortstop through the season's first month.  If he can contribute solid defense in the field and at least average hitting at the plate, the Yankees should be able to survive until Didi's return.  If Torreyes struggles, look for Pete Kozma to get more playing time.

3.     Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner - Joe Girardi has floated around the idea of splitting up the two lefties at the top of the lineup, but it's still not confirmed if this will actually come to fruition.  The Yankees are probably best served with Gary Sanchez hitting second, but I believe Girardi will at least give Gardner and Ellsbury one last shot to be the dynamic one-two punch at the top of the lineup that they've failed to live up to the past few years.  If these two aren't getting on base and the offense struggles as a result, look for Ellsbury to be dropped anywhere from fifth to ninth in the lineup.

Players to Watch: Rays
1.     Colby Rasmus - At first glance, Rasmus' career .187 batting average and .265 on-base percentage against the Yankees doesn't seem too frightening, but he has, for whatever reason, always seemed to come up with a big hit against the Yankees in recent years – most notably taking Masahiro Tanaka deep in the 2015 American League Wild Card Game while still with Houston.  Rasmus is a player that won't surprise anyone; he'll hit a lot of home runs and strike out a ton.  If the Yankees can keep him in check this series, he shouldn't be a concern, but his propensity for big hits is always something to be aware of.

2.     Derek Norris - Newly signed catcher Derek Norris will have a lot of catching up to do after signing a one year deal with Tampa following his release from Washington in mid-March.  Norris received only nine at-bats and 12 innings behind the plate with the Rays before camp concluded and it will be interesting to see how well he can work with Tampa Bay's pitching staff.  Despite his .186 batting average in 2016, Norris is a solid hitting catcher who is expected to hit near the middle of the Rays' batting order.

3.     Kevin Kiermaier - Fresh off a new long-term extension, the Rays' center fielder will look to rebound after an injury plagued 2016 that limited him to just 105 games (although that didn't stop him from winning the American League Gold Glove Award in center).  Kiermaier is arguably the best defensive outfielder in all of baseball and – when he is right – a solid top-of-the-order hitter who can cause havoc with his speed.  It will be interesting to see how well the Yankees pitchers can keep him honest at first base. If not, despite his rifle of an arm, Gary Sanchez might not have much of a chance throwing him out from behind the plate.

We as fans of baseball's most historic franchise tend to lose a little perspective if the Yankees don't open the season with a bang.  This year, however, with expectations lower than ever and fresh off a 24-8 spring that displayed the promise of this franchises future, I expect the Yankees to come out like gangbusters.  No more are the days of the overpaid veterans on the back nine of their careers who crumble under the pressure of donning the pinstripes.  This team is flush with young exciting talent, and although there will surely be growing pains later in the year, I expect this team to perform at a high level to start the season and stake their claim as the up-and-coming team of 2017.

Article by: Andrew Natalizio

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