New York Yankees
2008 Record: 89-73 (.549)
2008 Pythagorean Record: 87-75 (.537)
Manager: Joe Girardi
General Manager: Brian Cashman
Home Ballpark: Yankee Stadium 2.0
Who’s Replacing Whom:
- Yankee Stadium 2.0 replaces Yankee Stadium 1.1
- Mark Teixeira replaces Jason Giambi
- Nick Swisher, Xavier Nady, and Hideki Matsui replace Bobby Abreu
- Brett Gardner and Melky Cabrera switch jobs
- Jorge Posada replaces Chad Moeller, Ivan Rodriguez, and hopefully a lot of Jose Molina
- Cody Ransom replaces Wilson Betemit and Morgan Ensberg
- Ramiro Peña replaces Alberto Gonzalez
- CC Sabathia replaces Mike Mussina
- A.J. Burnett replaces Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, and Carl Pavano
- Chien-Ming Wang replaces Darrell Rasner
- Joba Chamberlain replaces Sidney Ponson
- Brian Bruney replaces Joba Chamberlain’s relief innings
- Damaso Marte replaces Kyle Farnsworth
- Phil Coke replaces LaTroy Hawkins
- Jonathan Albaladejo replaces Ross Ohlendorf
1B – Mark Teixeira (S)
2B – Robinson Cano (L)
SS – Derek Jeter (R)
3B – Cody Ransom (R)
C – Jorge Posada (S)
RF – Xavier Nady (R)
CF – Brett Gardner (L)
LF – Johnny Damon (L)
DH – Hideki Matsui (L)
S – Nick Swisher (OF/1B)
S – Melky Cabrera (OF)
R – Jose Molina (C)
S – Ramiro Peña (IF)
L – CC Sabathia
R – Chien-Ming Wang
R – A.J. Burnett
L – Andy Pettitte
R – Joba Chamberlain
R – Mariano Rivera
R – Brian Bruney
L – Damaso Marte
R – Jose Veras
L – Phil Coke
R – Edwar Ramirez
R – Jonathan Albaladejo
15-day DL: 3B – Alex Rodriguez (hip labrum)
R – Derek Jeter (SS)
L – Johnny Damon (LF)
S – Mark Teixeira (1B)
L – Hideki Matsui (DH)
S – Jorge Posada (C)
L – Robinson Cano (2B)
R – Xavier Nady (RF)
R – Cody Ransom (3B)
L – Brett Gardner (CF)
Last year, the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993. That had as much to do with the rise of the Tampa Bay Rays as the Yankees’ own failings, as the Yanks posted the fourth-best record in the American League but the third-best record in the AL East. Still, during their streak of 13-straight playoff appearances, the Yankees finished a season with a winning percentage lower than last year’s .549 just once (ironically doing so in 2000, the last year they won the World Series).
The Rays aren’t likely to go away any time soon, but even if they did, the Yankees would need to improve upon their 2008 performance if they were to have any legitimate hope of ending their eight-year championship drought, which is the third-longest in franchise history since 1923.
The good news is that so many things went wrong for the Yankees last year that there’s considerable room for improvement from the returning players alone. As discussed at length in my November postmortem for the 2008 Yankees, the major things what went wrong in the Bronx last year were:
- Jorge Posada (shoulder), Hideki Matsui (knee), and Chien-Ming Wang (foot) got hurt.
- Robinson Cano (.271/.305/.410, 86 OPS+) and Melky Cabrera (.249/.301/.341, 68 OPS+) were awful.
- Phil Hughes (0-4, 6.62) and Ian Kennedy (0-4, 8.17) were awful, then got hurt (a broken rib and strained oblique, respectively).
- Less significantly, Andy Pettitte had a rough second half (4-7, 5.35), and Derek Jeter’s power went missing (career-low .107 isolated slugging).
Despite the issues with Wang, Hughes, Kennedy, and Pettitte, and an awful team defense (the Yankees’ .682 defensive efficiency was the sixth-worst in the majors in 2008), the Yankees were actually better at keeping runs off the board last year than they had been in 2007 (thanks to the strong performance of the bullpen and Joba Chamberlain’s emergence from the pen to replace Wang in the rotation). That would seem to point the finger of blame at last year’s offense, but the 2008 Yankees also out-scored half of the teams that made the playoffs (the Rays, Angels, Brewers, and Dodgers).
The issue is that comparing the 2008 pitching staff to the 2007 edition does the former no favors as the 2007 Yankees were heavily dependent on their offense. The 2007 Yankees scored 5.98 runs per game, which was not only the best in baseball in 2007, but remains the highest scoring rate the majors have seen since 2000. That level of offensive production was able to carry a roughly league-average pitching staff into the playoffs, though it couldn’t get it past the first round.
Last year’s Yankee team was designed to be more balanced. To their credit, Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi put the improvement of the pitching staff in the hands of the talented young arms that had begun to emerge the previous year, but while that worked like a charm in the bullpen, but didn’t pan out for the rotation. The net result was only a modest improvement in run prevention. Meanwhile, age, injury, and poor performance carved more than a run per game out of the offensive attack, resulting in a crucial five-win decline that left the Yankees on the outside looking in come October.
This past offseason, the Yankees made a more dramatic effort to shift the balance of the team toward run prevention, replacing Hughes and Kennedy with the two biggest free-agent pitching contracts of the winter. Wisely, they also made moves to improve the defense, replacing the immobile Jason Giambi with two-time Gold Glove winner Mark Teixeira at first-base, Melky Cabrera with the lightening-quick Brett Gardner in center field, and replacing Bobby Abreu, period. The Yankees also hope that Robinson Cano, who had an excellent season in the field in 2007, can rebound from what was a terrible 2008 season on both sides of the ball to contribute to the overall improvement of the defense.
In front of those fielders, the Yankees will trot out the best rotation they’ve had since their last pennant-winning season of 2003. That rotation is headed by 2007 AL Cy Young award winner CC Sabathia, a 28-year-old left-handed stud who is quite simply the best pitcher in baseball, in my opinion. The only concern about Sabathia is that he has thrown a major league high 494 innings over the last two years (513 if you include the postseason), but that doesn’t bother me. The Indians were careful with Sabathia during his youth, allowing him to throw more than 200 innings just once before the age of 26, he’s never had an arm injury of any kind, and after throwing roughly 250 innings in each of the last two seasons, his is now conditioned for a workload of that size. With regard to that last, the Yankees are unlikely to ask Sabathia to throw that many innings this year as just one Yankee pitcher has thrown more than 230 innings during Mariano Rivera’s career (Pettitte threw 240 1/3 in 1997). That means that Sabathia is likely to have some bullets left when the postseason rolls around.
Behind Sabathia, the Yankees bring back a healthy Chien-Ming Wang and Joba Chamberlain (who suffered what I believe was a fluke shoulder injury down the stretch last year, one that had more to do with the fall he took than the innings he threw). Wang was the team’s intended ace heading into last year and a 19-game winner in each of the previous two seasons. Chamberlain is the team’s intended future ace and posted a 2.76 ERA in 12 starts last year. Those two combined for just 28 starts last year and should thus double their impact this year.
Andy Pettitte blamed his poor second half last year on insufficient offseason conditioning resulting from his desire to hide out after his name was included in the Mitchell Report, and on a sore shoulder which would have ended his season early had it not been for the other losses suffered by the rotation.Even with that bad second half, he posted a 4.54 ERA (against a league average of 4.36) in 204 innings. As the team’s fourth starter, a simple improvement to league average would be perfectly acceptable this year.
Though Chamberlain is entering his first full season as a major league starter and will have his innings artificially limited, in part by his being slotted into the fifth spot and skipped when the schedule allows, the wild card in the Yankee rotation is actually big-money veteran A.J. Burnett. Putting aside the concerns over the length and price of his contract, Burnett is more likely to be a regular on the disabled list than a dominant number-two, though could very well prove to be both.
Though he won 18 games and led the league in strikeouts last year, Burnett was only slightly better than league average at keeping runs off the board (4.07 ERA, 105 ERA+). Prior to 2008, he had made 30 starts in a season just once in his eight “full” seasons in the majors and posted an ERA+ of 120 or better just once in those eight seasons (by comparison, Sabathia has had an ERA+ of 140 or better in each of the last three seasons). Burnett has said all of the right things since signing with the Yankees, and his stuff has always been filthy, but there’s little reason to expect him to do something at age 32 that he’s never done before, and Burnett has never been a dominant pitcher for a full season in the major leagues. Still, given the strength of the rest of the rotation, if the Yankees can get Burnett’s average performance from the last five years (170 innings, 3.78 ERA), they’ll be in great shape, and should Burnett or anyone else in the rotation land on the DL, the Yankees can turn to Phil Hughes. Hughes, who is still just 22, had a strong spring training and once again looks ready to pick up whatever starts are dropped by the Yankees’ intended starting five.
An overlooked advantage that rebuilt rotation gives the Yankees is that it’s likely to reduce the strain put on the bullpen. The Yankees had the seventh-best bullpen ERA in the majors last year, but that pen also threw the sixth-most innings of any bullpen in the majors in 2008. Despite that, Joe Girardi kept the pen fresh by spreading the work around and rotating pitchers in and out of Triple-A. Giarardi got multiple relief outings out of 18 different pitchers last year, and Mariano Rivera led the 2008 bullpen in both games (64) and relief innings (70 2/3), proof that Girardi was not only spreading the work around, but giving a plurality of it to his best pitcher.
Girardi’s performance-based bullpen management should continue to benefit the Yankees this year. His Opening Day pen includes three pitchers who still have options (Edwar Ramirez, Phil Coke, and Jonathan Albaladejo, the last two of whom are still technically rookies), and the Yankees’ Triple-A team in Scranton Wilkes-Barre has talented replacements at the ready in David Robertson, Mark Melancon, Steven Jackson, Anthony Claggett, and potential long-man Alfredo Aceves. That Girardi should have to call on his bullpen less often will only increases his ability to keep his relievers fresh and thus effective.
Combine the improved defense, restocked rotation, and bullpen depth and the 2009 Yankees should be among the stingiest teams in baseball, provided their new ballpark doesn’t prove to be too much of a launching pad. Their season with thus depend on the offense’s ability to cash strong pitching performances into wins. The Yankees lost 10 games last year in which they allowed three or fewer runs and were 9-12 in games in which they allowed exactly four runs. They missed the playoffs by six games.
The big change to this year’s offense is the addition of Mark Teixeira, a 29-year-old switch hitter who has averaged .295/.386/.552 with 35 homers and 118 RBIs over the last five years. That’s an average season for Teixeira. That’s a huge addition, as Teixeira alone (66.2 VORP in 2008) should replace the combined production the Yankees got from Jason Giambi (30.2) and Bobby Abreu (33.2) last year.
That makes whatever the Yankees get from their right fielder (be it league-average bat Xavier Nady or on-base machine Nick Swisher) a bonus. In 2007, Swisher was worth 32.5 VORP, so the potential exists for Teixeira and the right fielders to add three wins to the team without even factoring in the defensive upgrades they represent.
Elswhere, the Yankees are hoping for comeback seasons from Robinson Cano, Jorge Posada, and Hideki Matsui. As I wrote for SI.com when analyzing the impact of Alex Rodriguez’s hip injury, those three could combine for an increase of 75.5 VORP simply by returning to their levels of production from 2007, for Cano and Matsui, and 2006, for Posada who had an otherworldly 2007. That’s seven more wins back on the board. Add in the improved defense and pitching and whatever it is that Brett Gardner will be able to contribute above what Melky Cabrera did last year (seeing as Melky was 5.4 runs below replacement, that could be significant), and the Yankees could win 100 games even if a few things go wrong.
Of course, one thing already has gone wrong, that being Alex Rodriguez requiring quick-fix surgery for a torn hip labrum, but that is exactly the sort of minor problem the Yankees should be able to overcome this season. Rodriguez missed three weeks due to a strained quadriceps muscle last year and there have been indications that he will only miss three weeks while rehabbing his hip (though the Yankees still have mid-May as the official target date for Alex’s return). Rodriguez might return at something less than full strength, but is full strength the monster 2007 season he had or his more pedestrian (for him that is) 2008? The fact of the matter is that Rodriguez is a hitter talented enough to make up for a lost month all by himself, and the Yankees have restocked well enough to accommodate a slight loss in production from Rodriguez, though certainly Rodriguez’s injury underlines just how important the Teixeira signing was.
Save for Rodriguez’s hip, everything went right for the Yankees in spring training. Hideki Matsui didn’t hit for much average, but he cracked four home runs and drew nine walks against just three strikeouts. Robinson Cano hit .351/.393/.667, cracking four homers of his own. Derek Jeter’s isolated slugging was .194. Jorge Posada was less productive at the plate, but showed off the strength of his surgically repaired shoulder by throwing out half of the baserunners attempting to steal against him.
Still, age and fragility lurk throughout the roster. Rodriguez, 33, is already hurt. Johnny Damon is 35, and Jeter and Matsui will turn 35 in June; all three missed time due to injury last year. Posada is 37 and Pettitte will be also in June; both are coming off seasons hindered by shoulder problems. Joba Chamberlain, Chien-Ming Wang, and A.J. Burnett have only had one fully healthy season each in recent memory. Mariano Rivera was nearly unhittable in spring training and is coming off his best season, but he’s also 39 years old. Damaso Marte is 34 and has averaged 70 games a season over the last seven years.
There might be reinforcements ready for the pitching staff, but there’s no such thing for the offense. That is why I think the Yankees will ultimately have to settle for the Wild Card. Someone is going to get hurt or stop hitting, and given the strength and relative youth of the Rays and Red Sox, that little bit will be enough for one of them to slip by the Yankees and claim the division. Still, it’s the postseason berth that matters most. For the first time since 2003, the Yankees have the pitching to go deep into October. They just have to get there.