They’re the only team in the league for which a mere ALCS appearance represents a disappointment. The Yankees fell six victories short of their goal, but went into the off-season with a bit of confidence. A bona fide ace, Cliff Lee, was on the market, and Yankee dollars would surely lure him to the South Bronx. When that plan backfired, the off-season was immediately deemed a disappointment. Yet the Yankees again return one of the strongest teams in the league for 2011.
The Starting Nine
Despite disappointing seasons from three of their key veterans, the Yankees still boasted the league’s best offense in 2010. This year they return the same group, save for Russell Martin replacing Nick Johnson and the parade of DHs the Yankees employed. That could lead to another year atop the offensive leader boards, but there are certain roadblocks to that scenario.
Most importantly, the Yankees need their three big veterans — Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Derek Jeter — to rebound. With Teixeira that might not be a particularly tall order. At 31 he’s still in his prime, or, at the very least, not far out of it. For three straight seasons, from 2007 through 2009, he produced a wOBA of .400 or greater. Last year that dipped to .367 thanks to a abominably slow start and an injury riddled September. During July (.488 wOBA) and August (.411 wOBA) he produced as the Yankees might expect. He’ll need to do that all season long in 2011.
Jeter and Rodriguez are tougher cases because they’re a bit older. Both experienced their worst seasons in the bigs in 2011, which is always concerning for players in their mid-30s. Both have reportedly worked hard to regain form this off-season, with Jeter altering his mechanics at the plate and Rodriguez working out like a madman. As Joe Posnanski wrote last month, it’s not often we see these players recover. Age is an uncompromising factor for ballplayers, and they can only do so much to stave it off. Yet Jeter and Rodriguez, superstars of the first order, stand a chance if anyone does.
In addition to having three players who had down years in 2010, the Yankees also had two veterans with career seasons. Robinson Cano, always touted as a potential superstar, started his breakout in 2009 and finally came through in 2010. While his batting average remained identical to 2009’s, he raised his OBP by nearly 30 points and his ISO by 15 points. This was all the more valuable because it came during a year when offense as a whole was down. His 6.4 WAR season — which would have been over 7.0 if DRS, and not UZR, were used in WAR calculations — earned him MVP consideration. Cano is currently in his prime, and could certainly reproduce this type of season in 2011.
When the Yankees acquired Nick Swisher in November, 2008, he was coming off a career-worst season. A year later he was celebrating a World Series victory and his best season to date. In 2010 he managed to top that, at least relative to the league. His OBP actually dropped from .371 to .359, but his batting average rose to a career-high .288. That might appear to stem from an inflated BABIP, .335 against a career average of .286, but his xBABIP also rose thanks to a more aggressive approach at the plate. It resulted in a .377 wOBA and 133 wRC+. He might not reproduce those numbers, especially the batting average, but at age 30 Swisher appears in line for another big year.
Curtis Granderson is one of the more interesting cases heading into 2011. The Yankees acquired him after the 2009 season with hopes that he’d rebound to his 2008 — or, if they were lucky, 2007 — levels of production. What they got was essentially the same disappointing player that showed up in 2009. His defense helped him to a 3.6 WAR, but the Yankees were expecting more. Towards the end of the season he worked on his approach with hitting coach Kevin Long and his results improved dramatically: a .401 wOBA in his final 192 PA. That could just as easily be a hot streak, but it’s encouraging nonetheless.
In left field the Yankees have an odd fit with Brett Gardner. That is, it would be an odd fit with most teams, since left field is typically considered a power position. Gardner’s .103 ISO from 2009 was better than just four left fielders, and even then not by much. (That is, except in the case of Juan Pierre, which is just…) But since the Yankees get pop from up-the-middle positions, they can afford to have Gardner patrol left. His production dropped after Clayton Kershaw plunked him on the wrist in late June, but he still managed a .383 OBP for the season, which ranked fourth among MLB left fielders. He can also swipe plenty of bags and plays superb defense, especially when compared to his peers. Since Gardner doesn’t look like a left fielder — or, really, a ballplayer at all — he’ll always have doubters. But if he’s healthy there’s little reason to believe he can’t have another 2010-type season.
At catcher the Yankees have quite an abundance. Acquiring Russell Martin this winter provided them with even more flexibility at the position. They were able to move 39-year-old Jorge Posada off the only position he ever knew and into the DH spot, where his bat should profile well. If the move keeps him healthy and fresh he can certainly hit among the best DHs in the game. That’s a big if, though, considering his age. His wOBA dropped last year, but even that would have placed him fourth among DHs. As long as he doesn’t take another dive he’ll represent an improvement over what the Yankees got out of that spot in 2010.
Martin takes over as the everyday catcher, health permitting. The hip issue that cost him the last part of the 2010 season seems to be behind him, though surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee has led to a slow start this spring. He’s already catching in games, and is on track to be the Opening Day catcher. His bat certainly raises questions, as his production has dropped the past two seasons. That’s where Jesus Montero comes into play. There’s a good chance, now that Francisco Cervelli is out for at least a month, that Montero opens the season as the team’s backup catcher. If he hits and Martin doesn’t, the Yankees probably won’t hesitate to install their catcher of the future. That gives them plenty of room to maneuver with the position in 2011.
The bench this season will likely contain many familiar names who are trying to continue their careers in reduced roles. The Yankees signed Andruw Jones as the fourth outfielder, and he could get starts at DH and in the outfield corners — especially in left field when facing a tough lefty. It also appears that the team wants to bring Eric Chavez north as a lefty bat, third baseman, and first baseman. He hasn’t been able to stay healthy for about a half decade now, but the Yankees are hoping a reduced workload will allow him to perform when called upon.
The Pitching Staff
While the outlook for the Yankees offense appears positive, it isn’t so rosy for the starting pitching. After Lee signed in Philadelphia and Andy Pettitte retired the Yanks were left somewhat short changed on the rotation. They signed a few veterans to low-risk contracts and have a number of youngsters in camp, but chances are when they break for New York on March 30 they’ll be lacking a bit in the rotation.
That’s not to belittle the top of the rotation. CC Sabathia remains one of the league’s premier pitchers. His strikeouts dropped a bit last year and his walks rose, but he was still able to keep the ball on the ground and in the park. It amounted to a 3.18 ERA that put him in the Cy Young conversation for a fourth straight season. This season will essentially be a walk year for Sabathia, as he can opt out of his contract. Another fine showing will likely earn him more than the $92 million remaining on his contract from 2012 through 2015.
When the Yankees signed A.J. Burnett in the winter of 2008 they expected him to be Sabathia’s No. 2. In 2009 he played that role fairly well. In 2010, though, he imploded. Much has been made this off-season of his work with new pitching coach Larry Rothschild, including a mechanical change that eliminates his wild leg swing. But no one will believe that Burnett has changed until he gets on the mound and proves it. Until further notice, he’s a 34-year-old pitcher who showed marked signs of decline, including a career-low strikeout rate, in 2010.
Taking Burnett’s spot as the No. 2 in the rotation is Phil Hughes. After Baseball America named him the game’s No. 1 pitching prospect in 2007 Hughes has struggled to live up to the hype. He came close in 2010, though, especially early in the season when he was gassing hitters with his fastball. But as the season wore on he found he needed his secondary pitches, and when he reached back he didn’t have much of anything beyond a knuckle-curve. He emphasizes working on his changeup, but that has been the case since he turned pro. Without it he’s likely a No. 3 who will turn in a number of stellar starts. With it he can be that No. 2 to Sabathia’s No. 1.
After those three come a slew of veterans and rookies vying for two rotation spots. The favorite for the fourth spot is Freddy Garcia, whom the Yankees signed to a minor league deal during the winter. Last year he pitched 157 acceptable innings for the White Sox, recording a 4.64 ERA and 4.77 FIP. Those numbers aren’t the stuff of a championship caliber No. 4, but at this point the Yankees will take it as they let the trade market develop and their youngsters to get a bit more seasoning. If he can provide a 4.50 ERA, the Yanks will take a half season of that.
The Yankees might make the fifth starter spot sound like a competition among many, but it really comes down to veteran Bartolo Colon and rookie Ivan Nova. Colon signed a minor league deal this winter, and has looked fairly impressive in two spring training starts. There’s a chance that the Yankees could take him based on that, prepared to cut him at the first sign of trouble. That would allow Nova to be a depth option rather than a primary one. Nova pitched well enough last season, but had trouble getting through lineups a third time. Chances are he’ll be in the rotation by May if he doesn’t break camp with the team.
What the rotation lacks, the bullpen picks up. Led by immortal closer Mariano Rivera, the supporting cast this year is better than in years past. That’s not to say that the setup men were bad in 2009 and in 2010. In fact, since Joe Girardi took over in 2008 the Yankees bullpens have produced the third highest WAR in the league. It’s just that their bullpens have typically started off poorly before the team makes changes and gets everyone in line. This year they’re starting with a better crew than before.
Soriano heads the list of setup men, a role he was familiar with in Seattle and Atlanta. Health is his biggest concern, though he is coming off two injury free seasons. He represents the best full-season bridge to Mariano since Tom Gordon in 2004. Behind him is young reliever David Robertson, who has the fifth highest strikeout among relievers during the past two seasons. He tries to paint the corners with his fastball and get guys to chase his curveball, which leads to an above average walk rate, but that appears to be his only flaw. Joba Chamberlain will pitch in similar situations to Robertson. Last year he experienced poor results despite quality peripherals in the first half. Unsurprisingly, his results caught up in the second half. Chances are his results this year will come closer to his 2.98 FIP than his 4.40 ERA from 2010.
With Damaso Marte essentially out for the season the Yankees decided to pursue a lefty reliever on the free agent market. Not wanting to spend a first round pick on a relief pitcher, they went for Pedro Feliciano. He has been an effective reliever for the Mets since returning to the States in 2006. His walk rate might appear high, but many of those are intentional walks issued to a righty sandwiched between two lefties. If the Yankees keep him to a strict LOOGY role he could be an effective member of the 2011 bullpen. Boone Logan is the lefty who might have to take on more of an all-purpose role. He certainly took a step forward in 2010, keeping his strikeout rate high while limiting his home runs allowed. There’s no real indication he can handle the role, though, meaning that he, too, will likely be used in a LOOGY role. That will put a bit more pressure on the rest of the bullpen.
The final slot could change as the season marches along. Sergio Mitre, out of options for the second time, will likely break camp as the last man in the bullpen, but the Yankees have a few players, including a number of top prospects, who could take that spot later in the season. Nova could find himself there if the Yankees acquire a starter at the deadline. Andrew Brackman will certainly make his major league debut in 2011, and it could be in a bullpen role. Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances have both impressed in camp, but neither has significant professional experience and could end up in the bullpen later this season. Adam Warren, David Phelps, and Hector Noesi are other names to look for as bullpen, or even rotation, options later in the season.
The Key Guys
The Yankees will need a few of their veterans to bounce back on offense, but none of those is as important as the pitching staff. With a line of question marks following Sabathia, the Yankees will need someone to step up. Clearly, the best candidates for that are Hughes and Burnett. The Yankees’ hopes will ride on their arms this season.
For Hughes, it’s a matter of taking a step forward and figuring out what went wrong in the second half of 2010. Was it fatigue? Was it his lack of a third pitch? Was it the underwhelming nature of his curveball? An over-reliance on his heater in two-strike counts? Whatever the problem, he needs to fix it and step into that No. 2 spot if the Yankees are going to have a shot. He might have won 18 games last year, but he also received the most run support of any Yankees starter. Chances are that won’t happen for a second straight year.
Burnett’s recover will also be necessary if the Yankees are going to get through the first half on the pitchers currently with the team. He started off hot in 2010, with a 1.99 ERA on May 4 and a 3.28 ERA on May 30. But in June he completely broke down and while he recovered a bit in July, he was quite bad in August and September, a 6.61 ERA in 12 starts. If he repeats that the Yankees are going to be in serious trouble. But if he turns it around they can ride their offense to the trade deadline and perhaps improve the team then. But before that they need Hughes and Burnett to step up and pitch to their potentials.
Despite the perception that they had a poor off-season, the Yankees appear to be in decent shape for the 2011 season. The offense will again be a powerhouse, and there’s a solid bench to back it up. The rotation has considerably more question marks, but the Yankees have survived worse staffs in the past — and in those years they didn’t have a Sabathia on the club. The Red Sox might appear the favorites now, but the Yankees figure to hang around all season. With a pitching addition, they’ll certainly contend for the AL East crown.
Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.