Yankees vs. Angels: Interview with ESPN’s Buster Olney

ANAHEIM, CA - APRIL 27: Didi Gregorius
ANAHEIM, CA - APRIL 27: Didi Gregorius /

Following the Yankees 10th inning, come from behind victory on Friday night, I had the chance to speak with ESPN senior writer, and Sunday Night Baseball reporter, Buster Olney. Buster was kind enough to touch upon Didi Gregorius’ prospects, Sonny Gray’s struggles and the possibility of this early-season series being a playoff precursor.

MC: Even after taking the first two games of this series, the Yankees are still 161-178 all-time at Angel Stadium, as opposed to 205-125 versus the Halos at home. What gives?

BO: I do think that there has always been something to the idea of east coast teams struggling when they come to the west coast because the travel wears on the players. I spent some of Friday with Mike Trout, and we were talking about the travel and sort of shaking our heads about the different circumstances that pop up. In an ideal world for the Yankees this weekend, they would have had no game on Thursday, traveled in and got a regular night’s sleep.

I think it’s one of the underrated things that players deal with, but of course, none of them can ever complain about it aloud because no one is going to feel sorry for them. But I’ve always thought, when you look at the Red Sox against Oakland or the Angels against the Yankees, it’s always been a thing, and it’s something you overcome.

Think back to that great Yankees season of ’98, they started out on the west coast at 0-3.

MC: In my opinion, Didi Gregorius has been the most complete player in baseball throughout April. Is there any chance the Yankees break from tradition and offer Sir Didi an in-season contract extension, or are the two-sides destined to play out the entirety of Gregorius’ three arbitration years?

BO: I think they’ll go through arbitration and the reason why is because any long-term extension that they agree to during the course of the year applies to their luxury tax issue — and as you know, that’s something they’ve worked like crazy to get past.

I actually think, that in a vacuum, that if there was no luxury tax penalty hanging above the Yankees, that they would have already agreed to a deal with Gregorius. I do think in the offseason; they’ll probably explore some talks about a multi-year deal.

MC: What about the fact that paying Gregorius later as opposed to now, will likely cost the Yankees far more over the life of the deal?

BO: The Yankees really covet the flexibility they’re going to have in-season, and they don’t know exactly what’s going to become available to them. It’s one of those rare instances; they don’t usually have this situation where they can choose from the whole menu, between the prospects that they have and the payroll flexibility, when guys become available from other teams, the Yankees will be able to compete for anyone they want.

MC: Although Luis Severino left Friday’s night’s contest with a no-decision after seven complete innings, he still looks to be every bit the staff ace he established in 2017. With that being said, how do the Angels’ starters stack up to what the Yankees boast?And is there anyone on the Angels’ staff that can rival Severino?

BO: [Shohei] Ohtani. On any given day he has great stuff. Now, one thing that Ohtani is working through, like a lot of starting pitchers — is you talk to scouts, and they think he has a hard time making in-game fixes. When he’s off like he was against the Red Sox — one scout said to me, he was like this in Japan — that when it’s bad, it’s really bad.

Garrett Richards doesn’t have as electric stuff as he did when he first came into the big leagues, but his recovery from the injury he had is remarkable. But let’s face it, when you match up these two teams, the greatest theoretical advantage that the Yankees have over the Angels is with their starting pitching. The rotation issues are what the Angels are going to have to overcome during the year.

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MC: Can we expect any timely turnaround from Sonny Gray? And will Austin Romine be his personal catcher moving forward?

BO: The analytics people believe that the Yankees put themselves at a disadvantage every time Gary Sanchez doesn’t catch because of how strong he is offensively. And let’s face it, any adjustment really needs to come from Sonny.

On the broadcast the other night, I thought that Paul O’Neill made a great point, when Sonny, in his last inning of work, with one pitch, attacked the upper half part of the strike zone. O’Neill said that’s what Gray needs to do because if you’re a hitter and you’re facing Sonny Gray, there are two pitches that you’re mostly going to get.

He’s either going to throw you a pitch down in the strike zone, right at the edge — or he’ll throw a pitch that’s not competitive. He’ll bounce the ball in the dirt — he’ll go from 0-2 to 3-2 very quickly. I don’t know how that mental adjustment is going to come, but it certainly needs to — and Sonny has to be aggressive in the upper half of the strike zone, especially in this era when we’re seeing a lot of pitchers doing so, with all the hitters focused on launch angles.

He’s a competitive guy, a smart guy, and you keep on waiting for that transformation to take place. I think it has a lot less to do with Romine or Sanchez than it does about Sonny understanding that he’s got to attack the strike zone in certain situations.

MC: Tyler Austin is hitting. Miguel Andujar is doing his job. What are the Yankees going to do when Brandon Drury finishes his rehab assignment and Greg Bird finally returns from the DL? Who will be the odd men out?

BO: [deep breath] I would expect that the club will defer to the older players. They believe in Drury, and they acquired him for a reason. Like I said before, the Yankees have this unbelievable situation where they can work from a position of great depth.

I recently had a conversation with a GM about Patrick Corbin, who’s a free agent at year’s end. If you’re the Diamondbacks, just in terms of pure value, it would probably make sense, even if you think you’re going to win your division to at least explore the idea of trading Corbin for maximum value. And let’s face it, if Arizona actually put him out there, the Yankees, more than any other team could compete for him.

I wrote a piece about Madison Bumgarner, and I think the Giants’ front office should put him out there too. I don’t think they will — I think there’s no chance they would, but if they did, the Yankees would be at the top of the list.

It’s a great problem for the organization to have — it might not be great for Andujar or Austin, but the Yankees are going to have a lot of depth to work from at the trade deadline.

MC: Although it’s still incredibly early in the season, would you call this series more a preview of the AL Wild Card Game or the ALCS?

BO: [oof] I changed my pick for the American League East during Spring Training because I saw how great the Yankees looked. I switched from the Red Sox to the Yankees, and I’ll stick with that. I do think that in the end, probably, the Astros’ rotation strengths, relative to the Angels, will be a difference maker.

I think your point is well taken, though. I do believe both of these teams will be in the Postseason, one way or the other. And it very well may be that this will be the Wild Card Game, 100 percent.

You talk about — [laughs] — that would be a show because I would assume that the Angels, probably, would work out their rotation so that Ohtani would pitch — and that Severino would pitch for the Yankees after his Wild Card Game struggles last year. That would be something because these are two great teams — the Angels are getting better and better and having the two clubs face off would be a night!

MC: It does seem there is a growing disparity between the very best and very worst teams in baseball this season.

BO: I sent out a note on Saturday — when we look at the records of how good the Yankees have started, we have to keep in mind about how top-heavy baseball is now. As of April 29, there are 16  teams on pace to win 90 or more games, and there are eight teams on pace to lose 100 or more.

So the tanking issue is really manifesting itself, and there is going to be great teams that win potentially 90, 92, 94 games, and they may not sniff the playoffs.

Next: In search of the Yankees' next great starting pitcher


As if you needed any more reason to tune into Yankees baseball, on Sunday, beginning at 6 P.M., ESPN2 will air a special edition of Baseball Tonight, entitled, Around the Cage.

This precursor to the Sunday Night Baseball presentation of the Yankees and Angels will give you an up-close and personal look at batting practice; as the likes of Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Trout and Albert Pujols take part in their very own home run derby.

Host Karl Ravech will be joined by David Ross, Tim Kurkjian and Olney as they interview players and coaches from both clubs, leading up to the finale of this exciting three-game series.