No alarms and no surprises, please.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Yankees Preview

Ok, here's the 2009 Fridge Yankee Preview.

First, let's recap the 2008 Yankees. By all accounts, it was a disaster. 89 wins and missing the playoffs for the first time in somewhere around a gajillion years. Utter disaster! Fire Cashman, Fire Joe Girardi!

Here are the numbers.

89-73 (tied for 4th in AL)
Team ERA 4.28 (15th MLB, 8th AL)
789 Runs (7th AL, 10th MLB)
83 Errors (3rd MLB, 1st AL)

Those are the results. But, numbers only really have a meaning in context. When you begin a season you have a set of expectations. Usually veterans meet those expectations, especially expensive ones like the Yankees stockpile. You hope your young guys give you a reasonable performance and wish that one or two of them break out and reach their perceived potential. So, how does a $210 million team fail to make the playoffs? Well, in short, what you need to have happen is have lots of guys do far worse than anyone expected and have only one player exceed expectations. Just one. And he's old as fuck.

The Yankees didn't have a single batter exceed their expected output for a year. This would normally be fine as the Yankees have expensive veterans at many positions and all they need to do is perform to par. But A-Rod, Matsui, Posada missed over 200 games last year. Melky Cabrera, Cano, Jeter regressed. The bench was terrible, massing about 500 ABs of sub-600 OPS.

The starting pitching was a mess. The Yankees went into the season with the risky position of planning to start Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes 60 times. They got 17 starts and no wins. Darrel Rasner (sold to Japan in the offseason) started 20 games to place third in the rotation in that stat. The Wanger hurt his hammy and started a Hank Steinbrenner bitchfest about the lack of the DH in the NL. Usually penciled in for 30+ starts and 17 wins he only managed half that before getting hurt. The aforementioned Rasner, Sidney Ponson, Alfredo Aceves, Carl Pavano, Dan Giese, Kei Igawa started 58 games last year. 58, or greater than 1/3 of the entire season. They managed 15 wins. The Joba rules and shoulder stiffness limited Joba to 100 solid innings. Pettitte gutted out the season and ate innings admirably, but faltered down the stretch. Mike Mussina was the one Yankee who had a career year. The bullpen was sketchy all season except for the resplendent Mo Rivera who is ridiculous.

In short, an absurd number of things went wrong and the Yankees still managed to have the 4th best record in the AL. If you were to pick any 2 of the disasters above and have that player perform to expectation, the Yankees probably make the playoffs. So, the Yankees could reasonably expect to be better while doing basically nothing.

But, nothing wasn't really an option because they had 80 million to spend and 4 big holes to fill.

Here's what they did.

Last year's rotation leaving spring training was : Wang, Moose, Pettitte, Hughes, Kennedy. We saw how that ended up. Moose retired and Joba was in the rotation, so they had three rotation spots to fill. They signed the best two pitchers on the market, C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. Sabathia has been extremely durable over his career and Burnett has averaged 26.6 starts over the last 4 years. With those signings, they can reasonably erase the 58 starts by the cannon fodder mentioned above. Additionally, they are high strikeout pitchers, who will help to limit any Yankee defensive shortcomings. Then, the Yankees brought back Pettitte on a one year deal and you can reasonably pencil in him for 30 starts. So, the Yankees bought reliability in the rotation and now the only real question mark is Joba Chamberlain. And that's pretty fucking good because he had a sub 3.00 ERA as a starter. And if any of these guys falter, we have Hughes and Kennedy waiting in AAA with superlative minor league numbers. This alone will make the Yankees far better depth. There will be no more Sidney Ponson sightings, except for perhaps the visitor's dugout.

Mo Rivera had offseason surgery and looks as good as ever in Spring Training. At some point you can expect a decline, but Mo is exceptional and who knows when that will be. He may be like Eckersley and pitch into his early 40s. The bridge to Mo is looking a lot better than it was in the middle of the season. The Yankees re-signed Damaso Marte and he's been an above average reliever in his career and is solid from the left side. Brian Bruney was a bit of a revelation before he got hurt and I think he's the 8th inning guy which is a bit role for an unproven guy. But he looks great in spring training. Jose Veras quietly had a very strong season. I think he's gonna be pretty good this year, too. Phil Coke was fantastic down the stretch, but is still a bit new to the bullpen and the majors. Edwar Ramirez is what he is, which is replacement level. Jonathan Albaladejo is a wild card, full of unproven potential. The pipeline is very full of big arms in the minors: Robertson, Melancon, S. Jackson and others could all contribute later (especially Melancon). So this year will be a bit of a roller coaster ride. I predict a bit of a shuttle from Scranton to the Bronx and there will be some turnover. But bullpen management really is a strength for Girardi, so I feel confident that the Yanks will find some combination of arms that works for them by crunch time in late summer.

The Lineup:
The big additions here are Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner. Teixeira is better than Giambi in every single possible way. I think the amount of an upgrade will be staggering and his defense will make our infield much better. Swisher is the bench bat that the Yankees didn't have last year, causing them to use guys like Morgan Ensberg, Justin Christian, Richie Sexson to fill-in in the outfield and at first. He'll have that covered and also presents a good piece of trade bait if a trade is needed to shore up the pen. Gardner replaces Melky and should be a slight upgrade defensively. Offensively, he was even worse than Melky last year, but flashes potential for speed that Melky doesn't. He'll bat 9th and have a long leash assuming he catches the ball out in center. Posada and Matsui are back and looking healthy. I think it's clear that the Yankees would love to move the slow, rapidly aging Matsui, but they can't because of his salary. He won't be back this year and I could see him moved at the deadline to someone looking for offense and Swisher taking his place. Nady is here for the full year and Damon is in a contract year. Cano had a terrible first half but played to expectation in the second half. He should be much better this year. The big questions are A-Rod and Jeter. There's a lot of talk about Jeter's decline and while it's true that defensively he's declining, I'm not ready to bury the Captain offensively. Why? He was hurt all last year (rumor of broken bones in the hand, sapping power) but gutting it out because of the other injuries on the team and when he finally got healthy at the end of the year, he hit .345. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him decline, but I think there's reason to think he might be better this year at the plate.

And A-Rod? I expect him to return in early May, cause a bunch of controversy and still end up with 30+ homers and 100 RBI on the year. And until then Cody Ransom will play a great 3rd and barely hit his weight.

Melky, Molina, Swisher, Ransom and the much-hyped Ramiro Pena. All these guys are very solid defensively, but only Swisher is a threat at the plate. Pena will probably be sent down for at bats in AAA when A-Rod returns unless he does something amazing the first month. Melky will probably be traded. But this is a better bench than the Yankees have had in a while. Which should tell you how bad the Yankee benches have been.

The Conclusion:
The Yankees led MLB in spring training record. They're in the toughest division in baseball. The Rays went to the WS and the Sox almost did. Still, I look at the teams on paper and the Yankees look better this year. The Rays look worse. The Sox look about the same. That tells me that I think the Rays and Yankees will swap positions in the standings. The Yankees will win 97 games, the Sox will win 95 and the Rays will be left watching in October. The Yankee rotation is far better. The lineup is better. The defense will be better. Should be good times for Yankee fans.