Yankees confronted with unusual clouds of uncertainty…
Since 1995 when the Yankees began their remarkable run of reaching the postseason seventeen of eighteen seasons and winning five World Championships, the goal in the Bronx has never been to simply make the playoffs because meaningful baseball in October was seemingly a natural birthright for Yankee fans.
But, the reality is that since winning the 2000 World Series, the Yankees have processed down the Canyon of Heroes just once, and getting to the top has become increasingly difficult. Sure, they’ve made the playoffs every year except for 2008 in the new millennium, but during the 21st century, three teams have already won multiple championships (the Red Sox, Cardinals, and Giants) and the Yankees aren’t one of them.
Nonetheless, the Yankees entered every one of those seasons with the highest payroll in baseball and a roster that was arguably the favorite each spring to be the last one standing come November. But, that’s not quite the case this season, as the Dodgers are now the game’s most reckless spender and the Yankees are currently listed in Vegas at a whopping 20/1 odds to win it all (11th highest).
The ‘death’ of the Yankees has been forecasted by many for the past two years. Critics annually say that this will finally be the year where the Yankees are too old, not talented enough, and have too little young talent coming up through the system to continue winning. But, to their credit, the Yankees have won 97 and 95 games and two more AL East titles the past two years.
"We've had people say that on a yearly basis," General Manager Brian Cashman told ESPN New York a few weeks back. "People keep saying we've gotten too old, and we've defied that. We were old and outdated when we beat the Mets in [the World Series in] 2000, and when we went back to the World Series in '01, '03, and '09 and got close in '04.”
However, after their four-game wipeout in the American League Championship Series against the Tigers that saw the team get swept in a postseason series for the first time since 1980 and a status-quo off-season, the doomsayers have been more vocal than ever.
The Yankees didn't write a check to any big name free agents due to a self-imposed quest to get their luxury tax payroll under $189 million next year, and when the season begins in a week the players responsible for 201 of the team's franchise record 245 homers last year won't be available to them.
In the winter, 112 of those big fly’s headed out of town or toward an operating room in Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Raul Ibanez, Eric Chavez, Andruw Jones and Alex Rodriguez. Making matters worse the team will now start the year with $84 million in payroll on the DL, which is more than the payroll of 15 other teams.
Curtis Granderson will miss at least April until he returns from a broken forearm. Mark Teixeira is sidelined with a mysterious wrist injury and his return date is questionable. Now add Derek Jeter to the walking wounded, as he will miss his first Opening Day since 2001 with a nagging sore ankle.
These current doomsayers though, were the same ones who were ready with their pitchforks and torches to chase A-Rod, Swisher, Martin, Chavez, Teixeira, and Granderson out of town after the group combined to go 25 for 164 in the playoffs.
They also chastised the Yankees for being too reliant on the longball and wanted the Bronx Bombers to build a team more capable of scoring runs by playing small ball. But, as the old adage says: Be careful what you wish for.
This current Yankee team is set on deploying more small ball, but keep in mind that the top five AL teams in steals and hit-and-run attempts last year did not make the playoffs, while the top two in homers, and three of the top four, did.
Despite last year’s homer-happy Bombers pulling yet another disappearing act in the postseason, General Manager Brian Cashman defended the construction of his team after they were embarrassed by the Tigers.
“If you have a philosophy you believe in, that’s been tested, I have no problem with people asking about it, clearly trying to challenge it, trying to dissect it and tear it apart,” Cashman said. “But I am not going to turn myself into the Bronx Bunters because all of a sudden we didn’t hit for this week in October.
“That’s not our DNA. That’s not what makes us successful and that’s certainly not what’s getting us in the postseason every year but one year since I got here.”
Large in part to the longball, the Yankees offense last season averaged nearly five runs per game and ranked second in baseball to only the Rangers in runs scored with 804. The manufacturing game may look great when it’s working, but the best way to score nowadays is by hitting the ball out of the park, especially when your home park is a bandbox called Yankee Stadium.
In baseball a large part of success is winning at home and for the Yankees they have a short porch in right, so they have built around power, particularly lefty power. The strategy has worked pretty well, and over the past four years the Yankees (212-112) have the majors’ best home record.
No matter how you do the math the Yankees are not getting near 245 homers again this year— or remotely close. Sure, they brought in Travis Hafner and Kevin Youkilis, but both haven’t nearly been the same player they once were. At 35, Hafner has been to the disabled list seven times during the last five years and the 34-year old Youkilis posted a career low OPS last season.
Those were the only two additions to the lineup, and the team is still not certain who will be the right-handed DH/outfield bat and temporary replacement for Teixeira. Veteran Juan Rivera appears to have won a roster spot, and the recently acquired Brennan Boesch and Ben Francisco both should make the Opening Day roster.
Yankee fans must prepare for many nights where nearly half the lineup will consists of slap-hitting Ichiro Suzuki, Brett Gardner, Eduardo Nunez, and a catcher that might not be able to even reach the warning track in batting practice.
"I anticipate it's going to be different because we don't quite have the home run hitters we've had in the past," manager Joe Girardi said when camp opened.
"So we're going to have to find different ways to score runs. I think when you look at our club this year, there's more speed. So I think our offense is going to be different, but I believe that we're going to score runs. It's just going to be in a different fashion than it has been in the past."
Girardi hopes his team can compensate for the lost power in other areas like speed on the bases and defense. It’s possible that the Ichiro, Gardner, and Nunez can swipe a combined 100 bags, a year after the team combined for only 93. Girardi is also counting on strong defense behind the dish with Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli set to shoulder the load.
“It is hard to quantify how many runs a catcher can save. We have two catchers that can do a lot of that. The two catchers that we take will do a lot of that for us,” the skipper said. “That's not going to go in a statistic or on a baseball card or his numbers on the board, when you are hitting .270. They are not going to put that he saved 16 runs. Those are RBIs in my mind."
The last time the Yankees had a light-hitting catcher start at least 100 games behind the plate was in 2008 when Jose Molina stepped in for an injured Jorge Posada, and naturally that’s the lone Yankee team to miss out on the postseason since 1993.
Many attributed the lack of production behind the plate as the main reason behind the Yankees failures that season. But, many forget that team had an even bigger black hole in the pitching rotation. Other than Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina, the only other Yankee to start at least 20 games was Darrell Rasner. Yet, that team still managed to win 89 games.
These Yankees will also receive little production from their catchers, but one of the main reasons to not write them off yet is their pitching. C.C. Sabathia did have surgery in the winter to remove a small bone spur from his elbow, but he’s set to once again anchor the rotation.
Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda are both back, and a lot of the Yankees success will depend on the graybeards staying healthy and effective. The hope is that both can log at least 25 starts and around 200 innings. But, the Yankees are gambling here, as only two pitchers in baseball last year of at least 38 years of age pitched more than 80 innings (Bartolo Colon and Derek Lowe).
Another hope for the Yankees is that Phil Hughes continues his progression and has a strong campaign in his contract year. Last season he was solid other than the 35 home runs allowed, walking just 46 batters in 32 starts and winning 16 games.
The fifth starting spot will most likely go to youngster David Phelps, who had a phenomenal camp. He out-performed Ivan Nova, who was also solid and seems destined to be the long-man. Also remember that 24-year old Michael Pineda is a wild card here if he can come back healthy. It’s being reported that he’s 20 pounds lighter and looking at a possible June return.
The rotation isn’t the only strongpoint, as the bullpen should once again be among the better relief corps in the league. A lot of that will depend on the great Mariano Rivera, and whether he can come back from his injury and duplicate the success Rafael Soriano had in his absence. He enters the season as the lone active player born in the 60’s, but who can doubt the ageless wonder?
Despite the strong pitching outlook the Yankees are surrounded by an unusual cloud of doubt-- at least from the outside. During Cashman’s 15 years as GM, the Yankees have averaged 97 wins a year, yet Vegas has this current group pegged at just an over/under of 86 and 1/2 wins.
It’s difficult to find an area where this current version will be better than last year’s version. The team last season had ten guys with double-digit home runs, but the Opening Day lineup will consist of just Robinson Cano.
They lost their starting catcher, third baseman, right fielder, closer, and clutchest player. The lineup is lacking its usual cast of “big hairy monsters,” as Cashman likes to call them, and the trio of Jeter, Rivera, and Pettitte are another year older and all are coming off serious injuries.
They're more vulnerable than they've been since the early 90’s and the vultures already appear to be circling. Many doubt that these Yankees are good enough to make the playoffs for an eighteenth time in 19 seasons, but Cashman believes his group will find a way.
"I'm very confident in that," Cashman said recently. "Look at our pitching staff, and we're running out Robinson Cano, running out Derek Jeter, running out Kevin Youkilis, eventually running out Tex and Granderson, a 40-homer center fielder. We're running out high-end players, so when we get our guys back healthy, we're going to be fine."
Cashman may sound crazy to many, but even with the teams glaring holes the Yankees are still blessed with high-end talent and a payroll north of $200 million. They are certainly no underdogs, but what’s different from at any time in the past two decades is the worst case.
The Yankees have played .540-or-better ball (equivalent to 87.5 wins in a 162-game season) for an unprecedented 20 straight seasons. The amazing streak is a true testament to the depth of talent the Yankees have had, a depth that meant even if things start to fall apart, the Yankees would still be able to figure out a way to win at least 87 games. This was proven during Girardi’s first year at the helm in ‘08.
Last season the Yankees were second in baseball in games lost due to injury, and usually when that happens things get ugly and a manager ends up getting fired. If the injuries pile up once more, don’t expect this team to show the resiliency and depth that they showed down the stretch last year.
Unlike years past this team doesn’t have much depth, and more importantly, the AL East is arguably the best it’s ever been. The Blue Jays are the most improved team in the league and many have picked them to win the division. The Rays and Orioles are still two of the best managed teams in the game, and both will once again be in the conversation. Let’s not forget the Red Sox, as they spent plenty of money this off-season and their bullpen may just be the best in baseball.
Some experts are speculating that the Yankees could conceivably finish as low as last place in the wide-open division where anyone is seen as a potential division winner. Age once again is one of the main arguments against the Yankees, but they've been old throughout their entire stretch of dominance.
“That’s been something we’ve been talking about for the last 12 years — it’s an old roster,” Girardi quipped a few weeks back.
But, Girardi expects his oldies to still be goodies. Jeter, Rivera, and Pettitte may be a combined 123 years old during the season, but they are all as important to the Yankees in their twilight years as they were in their 20s and 30s.
Unfairly or not, the Yankees expect Jeter to still be the straw that stirs the drink, Mariano to be Mariano, and Andy to be dandy. In the construction of nearly 20 percent of the Yankees Championships the trio were among the chief foreman, and now eighteen years after winning their first Championship together, they’re embarking on what looks to be like one last title run, and possibly their biggest task yet in pinstripes.
The three Yankee icons may be reminders of the glory day Torre-era Yankees, but these aren’t your typical Bronx Bombers. It’s too early to anoint them as the ‘Bronx Bunters’, but for the first time in a long time the Yankees have an identity crisis and nobody quite knows what to expect from this aging group.
The fall of the Yankees Evil Empire will eventually come, and when it does it could be as hard as what happened when the original dynasty collapsed after their 1964 Game 7 World Series loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.
If everything goes right, the Yankees can win 90 games again and contend for another AL East title. However, these Yankees need absolutely everything to go right. But, it never does and so far just about everything has gone wrong, and it’s only March.