AL East Preview: New York Yankees

The narrative for the New York Yankees is already written. They are too old. They overspent on the free agent market and brought in a group of guys who have a high risk of injury and produce in 2014. The narrative is easier to write after a season in which the Yankees failed to make the postseason. But, as with most things New York Yankees, the narrative is an exercise in hyperbole.

For just the second time since the 1995 season, the Yankees failed to make the playoffs in 2013. The 2013 model was a team that gave regular at bats to the likes of Vernon Wells, Jayson Nix,  Lyle Overbay, Travis Hafner, David Adams, Zoilo Almonte, Eduardo Nunez, Austin Romine, Mark Reynolds, and Kevin Youkilis. Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, and Alex Rodriguez all missed significant time. CC Sabathia posted the worst season of his career. Phil Hughes couldn’t get going all season, posting a 5.19 ERA over 29 starts. With all of that, it is no surprise that the Yankees missed the playoffs. It is, however, a surprise that they managed to win 85 games.

{Discuss the Yankees on the BSL Board}

In typical Yankees fashion, the organization went out and spent serious money: over $400 million in contracts were signed this offseason. But, with all of that spending, the Yankees still chose to part ways with the best second baseman in the game, Robinson Cano. Is all of that enough to get the Yankees closer to the pack of playoff contenders?

The Good

Money Well Spent

The Money is outrageous. Only the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, and perhaps a Chicago team can afford to spend what they Yankees doled out this past winter. In each case, the expenditures were used to directly address a deficiency. Last season, Yankees’ catchers ranked 12th in the American League in terms of WAR. They posted a .213/.287/.298 batting line with just 8 home runs, the lowest total in the American League. In response, they signed 30 year old catcher Brian McCann to a 5 year $85 million deal. A long term deal with possible negative implications during the last season or two, McCann fills the Yankees’ biggest offensive weakness while also filling a void of having a catcher who could handle a veteran pitching staff. Even if McCann regresses, he is still a good bet to hit .260/.340/.451 with 20 to 30 home runs.

Another of the Yankees’ weaknesses was their inability to get on base. The Yankees ranked 12th in the American League in on base percentage. McCann helps improve that, as does Jacoby Ellsbury, who was signed to a 7 year, $153 million deal. Again, the money is outrageous and there is so much risk during the latter years of the contract, but Ellsbury’s skillset improves the team for the 2014 season. Ellsbury is coming off of a .298/.355/.426 season that also saw him post an elite defensive season. He fills the Yankees’ need for an above average leadoff hitter, a base stealer (52 of 56 stolen bases last season), and teams with Brett Gardner to form an elite combination in the outfielder.

The trio of offensive upgrades is complete with the 3 year, $45 million deal with Carlos Beltran. There will always be health questions about the future Hall of Famer, but Beltran has played in 142, 151, and 145 games in each of the last three seasons, all in the National League. He’ll man right field for the Yankees and can be expected to approximate his 2013 production. A .290/.340/.490 batting line with 25 to 30 home runs is reasonable to expect. The loss of Robinson Cano cannot be ignored, but the overall improvement of the offensive core of the team is evident. McCann is still an above average offensive catcher. Ellsbury is one of the best all around players in the sport. Beltran is still a threat.

The Yankees are relying on Brian Roberts to stay healthy and Kelly Johnson to put together a full season of production, which both seem risky. However, the lineup is a positive as only the Orioles will field a better one through nine.

While the offense was revamped, the Yankees real deficit was in the rotation. With questions about CC Sabathia, the Yankees were in dire need of another reliable, above average starter. The Yankees signed 25 year old right hander Masahiro Tanaka to a 7 year $155 million deal. The Japanese starter is expected to fill the number two spot in the rotation and has pitched well this spring. Like the rest of the signings, the salary is outrageous, but on the field, Tanaka makes the Yankees better. Potentially, he gives the Yankees a young, above average starter, which not only lengthens the rotation, but makes it as good as most in the sport.

There is an argument that the Yankees severely overspent. But, looking through the lens of the 2014 season, the club is vastly improved offensively and are going to feature a rotation that should be one of the five best in the league.

The Manager

Managing the New York Yankees will never gain anyone big accolades, but Joe Girardi deserved the Manager of the Year Award for wringing out 85 wins from last year’s club. Girardi has grown since taking the Yankees’ job as he now deals with the media as good as Joe Torre, he has been able to keep egos in check, and has shown the ability to get the best out of a bullpen. During his tenure, he has rarely ended a season with a bullpen that looked remotely close to the one he started with. He has always been able to rework a bullpen on the fly, a skill that will likely be needed this season. He was once criticized for his adherence to data and looking to a collection of charts in a binder, but that practice has become more acceptable around Major League Baseball.

Girardi has also been able to keep veterans fresh and has used the DH spot quite well over the years. He has the additional pressure of Derek Jeter’s last season, but Girardi has already proved he can deal with such outside pressures. The Yankees enter the season with many questions, but Joe Girardi is a calming influence and is an above average in-game Manager.

Michael Pineda

A couple of years ago, the Yankees sent their prized catching prospect Jesus Montero to the Mariners in exchange for Pineda. It looks like this season will be the first Pineda actually takes the mound for the Yankees. After a long rehabilitation from shoulder surgery, Pineda is finally throwing like he did when he was a rookie All-Star in 2011. Thus far, Pineda has pitched 9 spring innings and has allowed 8 hits, 1 walk, zero runs, and has struck out 14. Obviously, it is a small sample size, but Pineda looks healthy and is the likely fifth starter. If that’s the case, he is easily the best fifth starter in the division. A breakout season is too much to expect, but 4.00 ERA and  nearly a strikeout per inning is more than most teams will get out of its fourth starters, let alone fifth.

The Rotation

The rotation could also be listed as questionable. But, if everything goes according to plan, the rotation should be a strength. CC Sabathia posted a career worst 4.78 ERA, but his FIP was a bit better at 4.10. Sabathia is going through a process that most power pitchers go through. Now 33 years old, Sabathia is learning how to pitch with lesser stuff. He’s working on a cut fastball in the spring and is in great shape. While he isn’t lighting up the radar gun, Sabathia’s spring has been solid. In 10 innings, he’s given up 6 hits, 3 runs, 2 walks, and has struck out 9. Sabathia may never return to being one of the handful of shutdown aces, but he is still capable of posting an above average season.

Tanaka has shown that he can get Major League hitters out in the spring. He’ll face the same adjustments all Japanese pitchers experience such as dealing with the five man rotation. But, his stuff is that of a top of the rotation pitcher.

Hiroki Kuroda was one of the best pitchers in the game last season until August. Then, he went through an awful 10 start stretch to end the season. The 39 year old has had a rough spring, but has still shown he can miss bats. Of everyone in the rotation, Kuroda is the biggest question. Joe Girardi will likely have to handle his innings differently this season. Last year, Kuroda pitched deep into games for most of the season and looked like he ran out of gas down the stretch. He’s 39 years old and likely needs to be paced.

Ivan Nova is coming off of his best season, posting his lowest walk rate, home run rate, and his best FIP of his three year career. After a career best 53 percent ground ball rate, Nova is settling in as a solid middle of the rotation starter.

The rotation has the potential to be above average and a playoff caliber group. The improved offense gives the rotation a bit more wriggle room, but with questions in the bullpen, the Yankees will need Sabathia, Tanaka, Kuroda, and Nova to give close to 200 innings each. They are capable.

The Questionable

Age

Everyone in the expected everyday lineup is at least 30 years old. CC Sabathia is 33. Kuroda is 39. Derek Jeter is attempting to be an everyday shortstop at the age of 39. Carlos Beltran will try to get through his fourth consecutive season of good health at age 36. Alfonso Soriano is 38. There isn’t a whole lot of depth so the Yankees are really hoping that an older team can stay healthy. Older teams don’t normally stay healthy, which raises questions about just who will be getting significant at bats. The Yankees won 85 games with their second string. It’s unlikely to happen again.

Bullpen

Mariano Rivera is retired, which means David Robertson gets the chance as a closer. This is a significant weakening of the bullpen as Robertson was one of the best setup men in the league. Now, the Yankees will have to find another high leverage situation reliever. Shawn Kelley gets the first crack. Matt Thornton will be the lefty specialist out of the bullpen. From there, the bullpen gets interesting. David Phelps will be the long man/spot starter. The right hander pitched to a 3.81 FIP last season in 22 games, including 12 starts. The right hander has been valuable over the past couple of years and can be a slightly above average reliever. Adam Warren seems to be another favorite to land a bullpen spot, which will give the Yankees another pitcher capable of pitching multiple innings. Former top prospect Dellin Betances, now 25 years old, is another power arm that could play a key role. Other candidates such as Cesar Cabral, Preston Claiborne, Matt Daley, and Mike Montgomery could all play roles this season. Andrew Bailey, still rehabbing, could play a significant role in the second half of the season.

Bullpens are unpredictable by nature and the Yankees’ bullpen is no different. The rest of the roster may be older, but the bullpen is quite young. The power arms could become a strength. But, right now, even Brian Cashman is worried about the relief corp. Joe Girardi will work to find roles for the young pitchers who would lead to Robertson.

Depth

The Yankees’ projected bench looks to be 40 year old Ichiro Suzuki, backup catcher Francisco Cervelli, shortstop Brendan Ryan, and utility infielder Eduardo Nunez. That’s not exactly deep, especially with such a veteran lineup.

Most Important Player

Mark Teixeira is the Yankees’ key. Coming off significant wrist surgery, the switch hitting first baseman is progressing this spring. If his power can return to the level of 25 to 30 home runs, the Yankees lineup has a nice balance of power hitters in Teixeira, McCann, Soriano, and Beltran. If not, the Yankees lineup will be more dependent upon Ellsbury, Jeter, and Gardner to manufacture runs. If Teixeira returns to being a power hitter, the Yankees will hit enough home runs to truly compete.

Under the Radar Player

Kelly Johnson looks like he will be the starting third baseman. The versatile veteran should get at least 500 at bats, playing multiple positions. He won’t post a high on base percentage, but he should hit at least 20 home runs at the bottom of the order.

Farmhand to Know

The Yankees don’t have many farmhands ready to contribute at the Major League level, an organizational flaw. But, Dellin Betances is just 26 years old and is throwing 95 MPH out of the bullpen. He should be a vital member of the bullpen. On the offensive side, 23 year old Slade Heathcott could see outfield time if the Yankees lose a regular to injury.

Breakout Player

Yankees aren’t really a team that will field a player that fits this category. Tanaka could be a star right away, so he’s the closest to this.

Likely Scenario

The Yankees will battle some injuries and health concerns over the season. But, the rotation and everyday lineup is talented enough to contend.

Final Prediction

The Yankees will battle the Red Sox and Orioles for second place in the AL East over the course of the season. The Yankees edge both out and win 90 games.

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About the author


Gary Armida  

Orioles Analyst

Gary Armida is a Father to the best little girl in the world. After that, he is a writer who has been covering Major League Baseball since 2007. During that time, Gary operated FullCountpitch.com, one of the first independent online sites that gained Major League Baseball media credentials. Over the years, he has covered two Winter Meetings and has written feature articles for a variety of outlets while interviewing Major League personnel such as Rick Peterson, Jason Giambi, Zack Wheeler, Jeff Luhnow, Jack Zduriencik, Michael Bourn, and many others. In addition to his work at BSL, Gary contributes to USA Today Sports Weekly and maintains his personal site, garyarmida.com, that serves as his portfolio as well as a place for additional content.


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