2009 New York Yankees: Spending Their Way into Contention

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Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
C.C. Sabathia SP
A.J. Burnett SP
Mark Teixeira 1B
Nick Swisher OF
Angel Berroa SS
Kevin Cash C
Jason Johnson SP
Departed Pos.
Mike Mussina SP
Jason Giambi 1B
Bobby Abreu RF
Ivan Rodriguez C
Sidney Ponson SP
Carl Pavano SP
Wilson Betemit IF
Chad Moeller C
Justin Christian OF
Chris Britton RP

by Tony Aubry, BaseballEvolution.com
April 1, 2009

2008 marked the first time since 1994 in which the Yankees did not reach the playoffs. So in order keep their playoff drought at one year, what did they do? Well, they did what they always do: throw wild amounts of money at free agents. Of course, this is nothing new, and many Yankee fans know that this procedure has gone haywire many times before. While you can nitpick certain nuances such as a few too many millions spent here, or an extra few years there, the Yankees for the most part invested their money wisely.

They went out and locked up arguably one of the top three or four pitchers in all of baseball in C.C Sabathia, a pitcher whose repertoire is second to none when healthy in A.J. Burnett, and a rare breed who can supply both solid offense and defense in Mark Teixeira. Despite scooping up the top three agents on the market, the Yankees are in a division where the margin of error is minimal, and are not guaranteed to play come October.

The catcher position situation for The Yankees is extremely polarized. On the one hand, if Posada has enough in his right shoulder for 120+ games, his solid offense matched with Molina’s outstanding defense can give the Yankees top-notch production coming from the position. However, it Posada surgically repaired labrum does not hold up, it could very well be disastrous. Despite Molina’s outstanding work behind the dish, he is someone that you do not want playing more than once a week, and that is because he flat-out hits like a 7-year old girl. Molina is a career .239/.276/.339 career hitter, and throughout his career, he has cost his teams roughly 7 wins with his anemic bat.

Jason Giambi was one of my favorite Yankees and seemed to hit a homer almost every time I was lucky enough to go to a game. Despite that, I’d be silly not to recognize the upgrade the Yankees are going to be getting at first base. Teixeira gives the Yankees an offensive and defensive boost over Giambi for 2009 and beyond. Over the past two seasons, Ultimate Zone Rating has Giambi pegged with -2.3 runs, and Teixeira with 9.5 runs.

So finally, as Mr. Glab has been predicting for years, the other shoe has dropped for the young Yankee second baseman. After three solid years of offensive production, Robinson Cano’s hack-and-jack swing combined with his immature demeanor finally caught up with him in 2008. As we all know, patience is not a virtue with Robinson. His career 4.3 BB% is dismal, and swings at pitches outside of the zone of 30% of the time.

Robinson Cano

Also taking a hit last year was his defense, after improving upon his skills with the glove every year under the tutelage of Larry Bowa. So, would it be a stretch to say that the departure of Bowa had a great deal to do with Cano’s worst season in the field since his rookie campaign? Hardly. It was a well-known fact that Bowa was a no-BS type of guy and repeatedly was on Cano’s case. His attitude actually got so bad that manager Joe Girardi was forced to bench Cano last September We all know Cano has the talent to do well. Despite his poor year, he still sprayed line drives around 19% of the time and made contact on 88% of his swings. It just a matter keeping his head screwed on tight enough.

From steroids to hookers, it would be an understatement to say that Alex Rodriguez had a rough off-season. So maybe it was a blessing in disguise that A-Rod will being missing the month of April. By doing so, belligerent fans won’t be at risk of hurting his famously frail psyche by riddling him with steroid chants.

Pos '08 '09
C Molina/Posada Posada/Molina
1B Giambi Teixeira
2B Cano Cano
3B A-Rod A-Rod/Ransom
SS Jeter Jeter
LF Damon Damon
CF Cabrera Gardner
RF Abreu Nady
DH Matsui Matsui

Last year, two players played with a similar injury: Chase Utley and Mike Lowell. Both players produced within their career norms, so it would surprise me if A-Rod will not be able to play well during the time he is manning third base.

His replacement will be Cody Ransom. Ransom has had limited playing time in the majors, and has not played more than 100 career games at any position in the majors, so it tough to tell how good he is in the field as well as in the batters box. However, Ransom has shown some pop in the minor leagues. Over the past three seasons in the minors, Ransom has hit 71 homeruns.

A Yankee fan recently emailed a local sports talk show, saying that Derek Jeter has too much pride to start declining. Unfortunately for Jeter, he does not live in some parallel universe where the will to win can defy science. Jeter turns 35 this June, and that is when players start to decline, if it has not already happened. In fact, Jeter might be showing some signs of decline already. Jeter slugged a career low .408, but in his defense, he played with an injured hand throughout a good portion of the season. Despite the old age and bad hand, Jeter actually went from being a terrible defender at shortstop in ‘07 to average in ‘08. I’ll be looking forward to see how performs in ‘09.

Defensively, the Yankees’ outfield has the chance to do extremely well as long as Girardi leaves his players in the proper position. And that is Johnny Damon in left, Brett Gardner in center and Xavier Nady in right. According to UZR, Damon saved 5.7 runs in left, Gardner saved 9.1 in center, and Nady saved 1.3 in right last season. Offensively, it will most likely be a different story.

I’d like to voice my opinion on Girardi’s horrible decision to take Damon out of the leadoff spot. In the past two years Damon has posted higher walk rates, stolen more bases at a high success rate, and is more fleet of foot than Derek Jeter, who will assume leadoff duties. If this is a ploy to force Jeter to hit into fewer double plays, it will only be 100% successful in the first at-bat. As for the rest of Jeter’s at-bats, Gardner will most likely making his own outs the majority of the time.

Mariano Rivera

Speaking of Gardner, only a fool would take his spring training numbers seriously. Gardner has hit 3 HR in spring training, and owns an OPS north of 1.000. Gardner has only hit 4 HR in his professional career, and had plenty of cringe-worthy at-bats in his small cup of coffee last year. He looked overmatched, and often times, flat-out confused. It appeared that he had lost sight of the strike zone, swinging at only 48% of the balls that had crossed the plate.

Also returning to planet earth this season will be Xavier Nady, as if he already hadn’t after coming to the Yankees. Nady enjoyed a career year at the age of 30, which was so out of touch with his previous performances that it’s inevitable that he will regress to his old self.

The Yankees did an excellent job of buying low on Swisher, giving up next to nothing to acquire him. His 2008 season was the polar opposite of Nady’s; it was much worse than what we would normally expect from him. Although Swisher is not known for a lofty batting average, his .219 average was more a product of poor luck than lack of ability. Nady will be the opening day starter, and the job is his to lose. With a normal BABIP, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Swisher starting some games in right field.

Yankees Team Capsule

Hideki Matsui returns as the team's primary designated hitter.  Should he prove healthy this season, he could be an upgrade.  Posada, Damon, and Swisher could each see time in this role as well.

Pos '08 '09
SP Mussina Sabathia
SP Pettitte Burnett
SP Ponson/Wang Wang
SP Rasner/Kennedy Pettitte
SP Joba, Hughes, Pavano Joba
CL Rivera Rivera
RP Joba Marte
RP Farnsworth Bruney
RP Hawkins Coke
RP E Ramirez E Ramirez
RP J Veras J Veras
RP Ohlendorf Albaladejo
The Yankees’ starting pitching is very similar to their catcher dilemma, but with much higher upside.  If healthy, they will have arguably the best rotation in all of baseball. If not, things can get rough. Sabathia is as reliable as a pitcher can be, but after him, things start to get dicey. Burnett is known for pitching well in contract years and then winding up hurt throughout his new deal. However, Burnett claims that Roy Halladay taught him “how to pitch” instead of just throwing the ball. If this is true, the AL East will be in trouble.

Chien-Ming Wang’s injury last year was fluky, so his health is not something to be worried about. However, when it comes to pitching, there is a small red flag. Since 2006, while his strikeout rate has risen each year, so has his walk rate. This stems most likely from his increasing the use of his slider. In 2005, he threw it 13% of the time; last year, he threw it 17% of the time. Wang was getting more swings-and-misses with this pitch than normal, so if he can control it better - which is likely the more he uses it - we should see further increase in his K rate.

Much has been made about Joba Chamberlain in recent years, mostly about whether he should be in the bullpen or not. Without question, he belongs in the rotation, especially after pitching well last season. However, the Yankees might have to wait until 2010 until he helps the Yankees to the extent he is capable of. An injury last summer curbed his inning count, which will affect his workload this year. The Yankees have made it clear that they don’t want increase his load by more than 50 innings, which will put him around 150 for 2009.

Andy Pettitte’s bloated 2008 ERA does not tell the entire story. He improved upon his K/9, BB/9 and his GB rates, but his ERA somehow shot up a half of run. Expect a bounce back season from the fan favorite.

With or without Joba, the Yankees’ bullpen ERA will remain a strong point (3.79 ERA, 7th in baseball. Four of their five mainstays were able to keep their K/9 above 9 and their K/BB ratio above 2 (Mariano Rivera had a ridiculous ratio of 12.8:1). However, if there was a sore spot, it was their workload (543.1 IP, 6th). A lot of the Yankees’ starters failed to pitch deep into games, forcing the bullpen to pitch more innings than wanted. With the addition of C.C. and a healthy Wang, the burden can be lifted off their shoulders.

Final Word

The Yankees won 89 games last year despite a plethora of injuries. The recent additions of Sabathia, Burnett, and Teixeria would normally add 5-6 wins to their overall total. However, the AL East is anything but normal, as it contains the three top teams in all of baseball. It goes without saying that the division is going to result in a dog fight.

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