2011 New York Yankees: Is this the year the Bombers take a step back?

2010 Record: 95-67, 2nd AL East, AL Wildcard
2010 Prediction: 95-67, 2nd AL East, AL Wildcard
Diff: 0
2011 Prediction: 3rd AL East

Impact Player: 2B Robinson Cano
Impact Pitcher: LHP C.C. Sabathia
Best Reliever: RHP Mariano Rivera
Top Prospect: C/DH Jesus Montero

General Manager: Brian Cashman
Manager: Joe Girardi (287-199, .591)

Significant Acquisitions:
RHP Rafael Soriano, C Russell Martin, OF Justin Maxwell, RHP Freddy Garcia

Significant Departures:
DH/OF Marcus Thames, DH/1B Lance Berkman, OF Austin Kearns, DH Nick Johnson, RHP Javier Vazquez, LHP Andy Pettitte, RHP Chad Gaudin, RHP Dustin Moseley, RHP Kerry Wood, RHP Alfredo Aceves, RHP Jonathan Albaladejo

I don’t want brag or anything, but I predicted the Yankees dead on last season; record, division placement and playoff seed.  I’m pretty much Jesus is all I’m saying.

Modesty aside, the Yankees were about as good as expected in the regular season last year winning 95-games and marching into the playoffs as the wildcard seed in the American League.  Once they got into the playoffs, things stopped going as planned.  The lack of depth in the rotation was exposed by the Rangers who bounced them in the ALCS and then came the offseason.  The Yankees lost out on Cliff Lee who signed with the Phillies and then failed to land Zack Greinke who was traded to Milwaukee.  Their consolation prize, Carl Crawford signed with their hated rivals who also traded for Adrian Gonzalez and became the early on-paper favourites in the AL.

By all accounts, it was not a good offseason for the Yankees.  To try and make up for it, ownership decided it would override general manager Brian Cashman and sign last year’s best closer Rafael Soriano to be Mariano Rivera’s new setup man.  Soriano’s contract is for three-years and $35-million, and is one of the more player-friendly contracts in baseball with out-clauses after each season.  That puts the Yankees in a no-win situation even if it does give them the best bullpen in baseball on paper for 2011.

Last week Andy Pettitte announced his retirement giving the Yankees a rather pedestrian starting rotation that failed to land anyone of consequence in the offseason; unless you think Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia or Mark Prior all in on minor-league deals, are game changers.  Sadly, this is not 2002.

Some in New York have been questioning whether or not Cashman is on his way out, especially considering his odd behaviour this offseason.  Only on the Yankees can any GM be on the hot-seat after a 95-win playoff season and less than a year and a half removed from winning the World Series.

Their offense will still be plenty good enough to win a lot of games, but compared to their chief rivals, the Red Sox and Rays, they just don’t have the starting pitchers to keep up.


Starting Rotation

C.C. Sabathia is one of the game’s pure aces.  He finished 3rd in AL Cy Young Award voting in 2010 after posting a 21-7 record with a 3.18 ERA.  He finished second in the AL in innings pitched with 237.2 and was top ten in the AL in FIP at 3.54.  He can opt out of his current contract at season’s end, but even if he did, the Yankees would still have to be considered the front-runners to sign him considering the money he’d command.

People (Yankees fans, if they can be called people) seem to think that Phil Hughes is kind of a stiff who may be overrated.  I don’t see this at all.  His second-half last year was somewhere between mediocre and bad, but it was the first time he’d pitched as a starter for the whole season.  This invariably happens to young starters and just because it feels like Hughes has been around a long time, doesn’t mean he should be expected to totally outperform most other 24-year-olds in this regard.  He posted solid peripherals in 2010 and if he can keep his HR/9 rate down, the sky’s the limit.  He is a more than capable number two starter on any team.

After those two, things get scary.  A.J. Burnett was an unmitigated disaster last year posting a 4.83 FIP and his worst K/BB ratio since 2001.  He lost 15 games and had a career-worst 5.26 ERA.  At 34, he could be in full decline which is not something you want from an already average and under-performing pitcher supposedly in the #3 spot on a contending team.  At the time, I think most smart Jays’ fans thought it was a good thing when A.J. opted out of his contract to sign in the Bronx; now they know it.

After Burnett is expected to be Ivan Nova whose rookie season was decent and who could actually supplant Burnett as the team’s third best starter this year.  Nova had a 2.86 ERA and 3.54 FIP in 23 AAA starts last season.

The fifth spot will be a spring battle between Sergio Mitre and the three non-roster veterans Colon, Garcia and Prior, who could also get a look in the bullpen.  Look for the Yankees to be active mid-season on the trade market to improve their rotation; especially considering Nova likely won’t pitch a full year.

Bullpen
To compensate for the lack of starting depth, the Yankees tried to make sure their bullpen would be more than capable of taking a lead from the sixth inning on.  For this season, they should be fine, barring injuries of course.

Rivera is back on another two-year deal after posting a 1.80 ERA and 2.81 FIP in 2010.  Even though his age now matches his jersey number (42), he is still the best reliever in the game.  With 2010 under his belt, he has posted 10 seasons with an ERA at 2.00-or less, including three straight and seven of the last eight.

Soriano may not be worth $35-million with two player options (not to mention the first-round pick the Yankees give up to their division-rival Rays by signing him), but he should be an elite eighth-inning man.  His FIP was identical to Rivera’s last year and his K/BB ratio was remarkably similar as well.  People who say that Soriano doesn’t have a track-record are nuts.  Since he came into the league and moved to the bullpen full-time in 2003 with the Mariners, Soriano has posted the 10th-best FIP among relievers with at least 300 IP at 3.01.  The names in front of him are some of the most elite closers in the game…and B.J. Ryan.

Beyond the two richest members of the bullpen, the Yankees are very solid.  David Robertson gives up a few walks, but is otherwise very dependable and Joba Chamberlain receives a lot of hate, despite posting solid peripherals in 2010.  Chamberlain posted a 3.50 K/BB ratio and a 0.75 HR/9 rate last season while keeping the ball on the ground (45.6 GB%), which is important in Yankee Stadium.  His FIP was a solid 2.98, only barely behind both Rivera and Soriano.  It’s time to stop hating on Joba; he was a tad unlucky in 2010 and is still a good pitcher.  If the Yankees were really smart, they’d let him start again.

Three lefties will likely round out the ‘pen in Boone Logan, free agent signing Pedro Feliciano and Damaso Marte, who is recovering from an injury-plagued 2010.  If the 36-year-old Marte appears done, Romulo Sanchez, Brian Schlitter, Rule 5 pick Daniel Turpen or any one of a handful of non-roster invites could also crack the team.

Catchers
Most people are unsure if uber-prospect Jesus Montero has any real future at catcher, but he certainly does have a future somewhere in the lineup; and he might make that jump this season.  With 39-year-old Jorge Posada now being slotted in at DH full-time after 13 seasons as the starting catcher, the Yankees decided to sign Canadian Russell Martin who has not looked right for a couple years now.  If his hip injury holds him back, the Yankees may be forced to bring up Montero earlier than they would like and possibly in a position he’s not suited for.  Francisco Cervelli is a more than capable backup who had a 1.1 WAR last season.

Infielders
Despite some probably unnecessary drama surrounding Yankee-great Derek Jeter’s contract talks, the two sides were able to come to an agreement and Jeter will be back at short this season.  His gold gloves are an obvious joke considering he’s no longer a good shortstop, but he’ll probably play there for a couple more seasons.  He had his worst year as a pro in 2010, but was still a well-above-average offensive shortstop and is only one year removed from serious MVP contention.

Robinson Cano is the best hitter on this team right now and perhaps the best second-baseman in the game.  Another outstanding year has put him in the realm of truly elite hitters.

Third Baseman Alex Rodriguez posted his 13th consecutive (and 14th total) 30/100 season and a full-year removed from his 2009 hip surgery seemed to improve his defence as well, although he is still below-average in that regard.  He’s also set up to pass Ken Griffey Jr. for fifth on the all-time homers list this season.  Of note, last season A-Rod posted his lowest walk-rate since 1999.

First baseman Mark Teixeira had one of his worst seasons in 2010 seeing his numbers drop across the board but should rebound this year.  He also lost a step defensively posting the worst fielding rating (-2.9 UZR) of his entire career.  Not a lot went right for him in 2010, but he was still a 3.5 WAR player and hit 33 homeruns.

The reserves are thin for New York with Ramiro Pena and his 2010 OPS of .505 being the most likely fill-in, but he is a fine fielder.  Kevin Russo can also play some third base if he makes the team.

Outfielders
Getting out of the way that Cano led all Yankee position players with a 6.4 WAR in 2010, who do you think was second-best?  A-Rod?  Jeter?  Teixeira?  Nick Swisher?  Nope.  It was Brett Gardner with a 5.4 WAR.  Gardner may be the most underrated player in baseball and if the Yankees are smart they’ll realize what they have.  The leftfielder posted a 21.9 UZR which led all major-league outfielders and he also had a .383 OBP.  When you add his 47 stolen bases to his OPS, it raises it from a solid .762 to a very good .861.

In centerfield, Curtis Granderson was solid but will need to be better against lefties in 2011, while Swisher is back in rightfield after a career year.  Most doubt that Swisher can sustain the .288 average he put up last year, but his OBP and wOBA were both close to his career average; there shouldn’t be too much of a drop-off in 2011.

At the moment, the Yankees’ outfield depth is scarily thin, as it is in the infield.  Justin Maxwell was just acquired in a trade with Washington and may be the best option for fourth outfielder.  Outside of him are Russo, Colin Curtis and Greg Golson.

For a statistical journey through chart, where you’ll find all the lineup info you need, click here.

Overview
The Yankees will have one of the best offensive teams in baseball again in 2011, which will gleam them more than a few wins, but their serious lack of rotation depth, if not remedied, will be a problem.  Another area of concern is position-player depth.  If any one of the Yankees’ regulars goes down for an extended time, I’m not confident Russo, Maxwell or Pena can step in and be truly effective.  They are one or two big injuries away from being an afterthought in 2011.
Final Prediction: 90-72, 3rd AL East

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2 responses to “2011 New York Yankees: Is this the year the Bombers take a step back?

  1. Even with the offense, I don’t see their pitching holding up at all.I think 86 wins. Just because I think the Jays finish ahead. I don’t expect Hughes to win as many, and 3-5 is pretty ugly to me. Although the back end of their bullpen looks good, they have to be able to hold a lead before getting to them. I just think 90 wins is a bit optimistic given the roster they have now. They could make some big moves leading up to the deadline, but I just don’t see the group they have as winning too many.

    • I’m with you, I think with the roster they have now, 88 wins, but they’ll probably make a trade, especially if they struggle early to improve things. I agree that 90 was optimistic, I just have a hard time betting against them making some sort of impact trade. Either way they’ll acquire some bench help as the year goes on.

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