2011 Team Preview: New York Yankees
Can the Bronx Bombers top the boys from Beantown?
By: Braden Gall | 2/25/11, 9:40 AM EST
The Yankees led the majors in runs scored while winning 95 games last season, but they have serious pitching concerns as they try to reach the playoffs for the 16th time in the last 17 seasons. They always have a strong chance to be playing in October, but with Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Alex Rodriguez all past their prime, the rest of the lineup must continue churning out runs to prop up a rotation that looks awfully wobbly past CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes.
The Yankees based their offseason strategy on making an overwhelming offer to Cliff Lee in free agency. When Lee took less money to play for the Phillies, it left the Yankees reeling. They have a bona fide ace in Sabathia, a workhorse who is happy in New York but whose agents cleverly inserted an opt-out clause into his contract after 2011. The Yankees can’t afford to worry much about Sabathia, though, because the rest of the rotation looks so sickly behind him. After earning an All-Star selection last July, Hughes had a 5.14 ERA through the end of the playoffs. A.J. Burnett may have had the worst season by a starter in team history: No other Yankee has ever had an ERA as high as Burnett’s (5.26) with as many innings as he pitched (186.2). Fixing him is priority No. 1 for new pitching coach Larry Rothschild. Ivan Nova is unproven in the fourth spot, and Sergio Mitre is no better than a fill-in. Freddy Garcia was signed to a minor league deal and has a good shot at making the team and contributing as a starter. Other intriguing invitees in camp this spring are Bartolo Colon and Mark Prior. The Yankees will keep Andy Pettitte’s number on speed-dial if he decides to continue his career, and GM Brian Cashman will scour the trade market. But with a rotation like that, even treading water could be a challenge.
The Yankees’ bullpen had a 3.47 earned run average last season, ranking seventh in baseball. Mariano Rivera was the centerpiece for its success, as always, with a 1.80 ERA and a team-low WHIP of 0.833. Rivera returns after signing a new contract, and even though he is 41 and essentially a one-inning pitcher, he must be considered the game’s best closer until he proves otherwise. The Yankees replaced Kerry Wood with Rafael Soriano, who closed for the Rays last season. Soriano saved 45 games and blew just three opportunities. Dave Robertson and Joba Chamberlain can be dominant — both have more strikeouts than innings for their careers — but they were inconsistent last season. Lefty Boone Logan had the best season of his career, and the Yankees signed former Mets stalwart Pedro Feliciano to a two-year contract because they know they cannot count on Damaso Marte after shoulder surgery. Logan and Feliciano, who has held lefties to a .214 average in his career, will see plenty of action against the Red Sox and their largely left-handed lineup.
Robinson Cano fielded the final out of the 2009 World Series, and kept finding greatness in 2010. He won his first Gold Glove and finished third in voting for MVP after batting .319 with career highs in homers (29) and RBIs (109). He stayed hot in the playoffs, hitting .343 and smashing four homers in the six-game ALCS. Cano is not fast, but he is a line drive machine with tremendous range in the field, and he is squarely in his prime. Jeter, the team captain, returns at shortstop after a contentious contract negotiation in which the Yankees publicly expressed their concerns about his age (he turns 37 in June) and his performance last season, the worst of his 15-year career. Aging shortstops have a poor track record throughout baseball history, but Jeter at least deserves some benefit of the doubt, and not just for his value as the face of the franchise. He needs only 74 hits to become the first Yankee to reach 3,000.
The Yankees’ corner infielders, first baseman Mark Teixeira and Rodriguez at third base, combined to make $53.6 million last season — more than the Athletics, the Padres and the Pirates paid their entire rosters. The Yankees are not too worried yet about the insane contract they gave Rodriguez, which averages $27.5 million per year through his 42nd birthday. There’s no telling how limited he’ll be by then with his surgically repaired hip. But Rodriguez has always been intensely driven, which should keep him productive. Teixeira wore down at the end of the season, but he carried the lineup in July and August. Rodriguez has a superior arm at third base, and Teixeira’s peers believe he is the premier defensive first baseman in baseball.
While the Yankees’ biggest stars play in the infield, their outfielders represent the complementary skills essential to a productive lineup. Brett Gardner is among the game’s fastest players and worked the count better than anyone last season. Curtis Granderson, who improved as the season went on, also has speed but provides a lot more power. The switch-hitting Nick Swisher is a power hitter whose walks make him an on-base machine. They are also a strong defensive trio. Gardner played left field last year, and by one statistical measure, he was the most valuable defender in the majors.
Since signing a four-year, $52.4 million contract after the 2007 season, Posada, now 39, has started only 39.9 percent of the Yankees’ games at catcher. That percentage will decrease even more this season, when the Yankees turn to veteran Russell Martin and a young catcher from within the organization, probably Jesus Montero. Though Francisco Cervelli has the most experience, he still has a minor league option remaining, and Montero profiles as a middle-of-the-order basher. If Montero flops in spring training, Cervelli and prospect Austin Romine will have the chance to share duty with Martin, a two-time All-Star coming off hip and knee injuries last season.
Without the rigors of catching, and facing free agency (or retirement) after the season, Posada should give the Yankees his usual power and plate discipline. Rodriguez, Teixeira and Jeter should also see time at DH. As for the Yankees’ bench, it tends to be much different on Opening Day than it is after the trading deadline. Reserve players typically avoid the Yankees in favor of teams that will give them more chance to play. Then, every July, the Yankees target specific bench needs and trade for veterans, who are happy to leave a losing team for a chance to win. Andruw Jones accepted the Yankees’ offer for a minor league deal and the opportunity to make the team this spring.
The Yankees gave Joe Girardi another three-year contract after the season, a sign of the rational approach favored by Hal Steinbrenner, who now heads the organization following the death last July of his father, George. The Yankees almost surely will always have the game’s highest payroll, but the younger Steinbrenner seems less inclined to make emotional decisions and more likely to defer to the judgment of Cashman, who enters his 13th season as GM. Cashman has begun using the Yankees’ improving farm system to get impact major leaguers, like Granderson last season, and has also integrated prospects Hughes and Gardner.
The Yankees are two starters away from being a sure-fire playoff team. Unfortunately, one of those starters is the perpetually shaky Burnett, and the Yankees must still find the other. Their best hope is that their powerful offense can keep them in the race until the right deal comes along. That sounds realistic, but by then, the re-loaded Red Sox might be running away with the division. With age creeping up on some of their most important hitters, coupled with the pitching questions, the Yankees figure to fight for the wild card again.
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