2011 New York Yankees: All Good Things...

BaseballEvolution.com Spring Preview
by Keith Glab, BaseballEvolution.com
February 10, 2011

This offseason, the New York Yankees were supposed to reunite Cliff Lee with C.C. Sabathia and form the best left-handed pitching tandem in baseball.  Not only did they fail to land Lee, but they lacked a Plan B and lost Andy Pettitte to retirement.  The starting rotation behind Sabathia is now as thin as it has been since the days of Andy Hawkins.  Could this be the beginning of the end for this Yankees dynasty?

C.C. Sabathia has thrown more innings over the past four seasons than anyone and has thrown 58 more innings than the #3 pitcher on that list.  He underwent offseason knee surgery to repair a small meniscus tear, but has also dropped nearly 30 pounds to take pressure off of it.  I'm not going to bet against him.  Everyone beyond Sabathia, however, warrants considerable doubt, if not all-out panic.

C.C. Sabathia

A.J. Burnett is coming off the worst year of his career (and the highest season ERA ever for a New York Yankee who made at least 30 starts), but it is hardly an isolated occurrence.  The 34-year old had been in decline for years now, having led the AL in walks two years ago and failing to post an ERA under 4.00 for the past three seasons.  Burnett has never been much better than an ordinary pitcher despite his extraordinary stuff, and there is no reason that he should suddenly harness his talent this season.

But surely the Yankees can rely upon 18-game winner Phil Hughes, right?  Not so much.  Hughes threw more innings in 2010 than he did in '08 and '09 combined, and that kind of workload bump generally wreaks havoc on a young hurler's arm.  He may have even begun to feel the effects of that last year, as he had a 4.90 ERA after the All-Star break, a 5.15 ERA over his final 20 games, and arguably cost the Yankees the ALCS single-handedly. 
Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Rafael Soriano RP
Pedro Feliciano RP
Russell Martin C
Departed Pos.
Javier Vazquez SP
Andy Pettitte SP
Kerry Wood RP
Austin Kearns OF
Marcus Thames OF
Lance Berkman DH
Nick Johnson DH
Dustin Moseley P
Chad Gaudin RP

With all their warts, Burnett and Hughes at least have the potential to be solid. That cannot be said of the rest of the candidates for the rotation, each of whom looks more like an emergency starter who could give you a few spot starts if your rotation is decimated by injuries rather than a viable candidate for the #4 spot. 

A former first-round draft pick, Andrew Brackman is 12-23 with a 4.77 in his minor league career.  The 6-foot-10 Brackman backs that up with some solid peripheral numbers and is generally considered to be among the top 100 prospects in baseball for reasons beyond my understanding.  Even if you're sold on the 25-year old's potential, is there any doubt that he needs more seasoning, given that he has never pitched above Double-A nor even performed well at Single-A?

Ivan Nova, who is a full year younger, was effective down the stretch for the Yankees, and has a solid minor league track record, is somehow considered less of a prospect than Brackman is.  I think Nova is the Yankees' best option, but he still does not seem like the #4 starter on a playoff-bound team.

Last, and certainly least, we have Sergio Mitre.  He is 13-29 with a 5.27 ERA for his big league career.  As a starter, his ERA jumps to 5.48.  Mitre turns 30 next week and should only be considered for the fifth starter's role if Kei Igawa, Hideki Irabu, and Chien-Ming Wang are all unavailable. 

What starting pitchers are available, anyway?  It's early February, and surely the Yankees won't enter the season with this shambles of a rotation, right?   By my reckoning, Jeremy Bonderman, Doug Davis, John Maine, Kevin Millwood, and Ben Sheets are the only starting pitchers left on the market.  While I think any one of them would represent an upgrade over Mitre or Brackman - especially if this were 2007 - I don't believe the addition of any one of them would turn this into an even average rotation.

Alex Gonzalez Candidate
Derek Jeter
36-year-old SS had 2 HR and 28 RBI over his final 96 games
Breakout Candidate
Joba Chamberlain
Expectations have lowered, and he did have a 2.98 FIP last year

Instead of strengthening their rotation, the Yankees focused on rebuilding their bullpen.  While Mariano Rivera and Rafael Soriano appear to form the best relief tandem in the game outside of Boston, remember what happened the last time a New York team acquired a closer to be a setup man.  The Mets made J.J. Putz the setup man to Francisco Rodriguez, both pitchers disappointed, and the Metropolitans limped to 70 wins.  There's no such thing as a sure thing with relief pitchers.

The Yankees made another seemingly sound addition to the bullpen by acquiring ex-Met Pedro Feliciano.  The rubber-armed Feliciano has made 28 more appearances over the past three seasons than the next-most used reliever (Carlos Marmol) and his 92 appearances last year tie him for the fourth-highest total of all-time. Although his durability will help matters, the rest of the bullpen is either too young (Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson, Boone Logan) or too old (Damaso Marte, Chan Ho Park) to be relied upon.  With no one but Sabathia likely to pitch deep into ballgames regularly and questionable bullpen depth  behind the big three, the Yankees are likely going to have overworked middle relievers and lose a lot of games in the fifth, sixth, and seventh innings.

Yankees Team Capsule

Fortunately, the Yankees did have the best offense in baseball last year and return basically the same group.  According to Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long, seven of the nine regulars should improve upon last year's performance.

"It would be hard for Cano and Swisher to duplicate what they did last year,'' Long told Wallace Matthews of ESPN.com. "If they stay even close to that, great. But I expect the rest of them to do better.''

A-Rod and Jeter

This is, of course, an absurd expectation.  Of the other seven, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Jorge Posada are each 35 or older and have a lot of wear on their bodies given the demanding defensive positions they've played.  Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson will each be on the wrong side of 30 when the season begins and are each more than two years removed from their most productive seasons.  A couple of these players could improve upon their 2010 numbers, but to expect all five to do so is something you might read in the New York Post.

At age 27, Brett Gardner could realistically be expected to improve upon his breakout 2010 campaign, although his minor league numbers suggest that he may have already hit his ceiling.  We can also expect newcomer Russell Martin to outperform Francisco Cervelli on both sides of the ball, but perhaps not by much offensively given Martin's paltry .680 OPS over the past two seasons.  Jesus Montero is an intriguing prospect based on his accomplishments at such a young age, but the 21-year-old is hardly ready to be an impact player in the majors and would be hard-pressed to outdo what the departed Marcus Thames gave New York last year.

Perhaps the Yankees should be less worried about performance and more worried about durability.  They were a remarkably healthy team last year, with seven players exceeding 135 games played and five playing in 150 or more.  Given the age of most of their position players, you have to anticipate fewer games played for their starters.  The trouble is, neither their fourth outfielder (Collin Curtis) nor their fifth infielder (Ramiro Pena) is a good bet to exceed a .600 OPS.  At least they are both good defenders - Pena in particular - since another year of age figures to make the regulars' defense worse than it was last year.

Final Word

The New York Yankees have not come particularly close to having a losing record in the past 18 seasons.  To some, that makes it unthinkable that they could have a losing record this year.  But imagine how fans felt going into the 1965 season, when the Yankees were coming off 39 consecutive winning seasons and five straight World Series appearances but finished the year in sixth place.  All good things must come to an end, and this Yankees winning streak has run its course.  The question is not whether they will finish 2011 with a losing record, but whether they will finish in the AL East cellar.

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