Saturday, December 29, 2012
Never count out the New York Yankees
By David Schoenfield
This will be the year.
How long have we been saying this about the New York Yankees? This will be the year. Too old, too many bloated contracts, not enough young talent coming up through the minors and now ownership that -- horror of horrors! -- seems intent on keeping the team's payroll below luxury-tax thresholds.
The collapse is imminent. The dynasty -- the one that has seen the Yankees win 13 division titles and make the playoffs 17 times in 18 years during the wild-card era -- will come to a crashing termination. Derek Jeter, it's been nice knowing you all these Octobers.
After the four-game wipeout in the American League Championship Series against the Tigers and a relatively inactive offseason, the doomsayers have been more vociferous than ever. The Yankees didn't pursue any of the big free agents, lost effective role players in Eric Chavez and Raul Ibanez, might lose their closer, will lose Alex Rodriguez for several months, have to hope Jeter returns from his broken ankle, and, in the lowest point in franchise history since Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson exchanged wives, saw their starting catcher sign with the Pirates.
Before I explain why I'm not willing to count out the Yankees in 2013, let's take a year-by-year look at their remarkable run of the past 18 seasons.
One of the main arguments against the 2013 Yankees is their age. After all, the 2012 club was old, and the core of the 2013 club will be another year older (yes, oddly, this is true).
But look at the above chart. The Yankees have always been an old team during this run. The '95 team had the oldest lineup in the AL, and while the pitching staff was younger, the Yankees haven't had a staff that young since. That doesn't mean there isn't cause for concern here. The 2012 lineup was the oldest one yet, and while the Yankees have parted ways with Ibanez (40 years old in 2012) and Chavez (34), they will be counting heavily on 39-year-old Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki, 33-year-old Mark Teixeira, and 32-year-old Curtis Granderson.
It's also worth noting the team's run differential in 2012, always a good way to evaluate a team's base talent level. While the plus-136 differential was a 74-run drop from 2011, it was still the best in the AL. It also was better than those of several of those previous playoff teams. Meaning: The Yankees were a good team in 2012 (as long as you ignore the offensive collapse in the playoffs). The Blue Jays, everyone's team du jour of the offseason, were 204 runs worse than the Yankees in 2012. Yes, they added a lot of parts; that's still a lot of runs to get to the 95-win level the Yankees achieved.
Yankees fans and local columnists have complained the Yankees haven't done anything this offseason. What they mean, of course, is the Yankees didn't sign Zack Greinke or Josh Hamilton. But the club will be making additions for 2013:
1. Kevin Youkilis. Granted, he's just an insurance policy until A-Rod returns from offseason hip surgery, but Youkilis could slide over to the designated hitter role when A-Rod returns in June or July (or allow A-Rod to serve as the DH).
2. The Yankees re-signed Ichiro. While he is a downgrade from Nick Swisher, Ichiro did play well in his 240 plate appearances with the Yankees in 2012, hitting .322 and slugging .454. He hit particularly well at Yankee Stadium -- .338/.363/.531 (BA/OBP/SLG) in 139 plate appearances -- and while we have to point out that obviously has small-sample-size warnings written all over it, it's possible Suzuki retailored his swing to the short porch or was rejuvenated after leaving the Safeco Field dungeon. The larger point: Ichiro shouldn't be a complete disaster.
3. They get Brett Gardner back. He was a superb player in 2010 and 2011, and having Gardner back in left field will provide a big lift defensively and offer the team speed and better on-base ability than what it got from the likes of Ibanez and Andruw Jones. He easily could be a three-win improvement.
4. They get Mariano Rivera back. Would you bet against him?
OK, OK, there are reasons to be concerned about the lineup. But remember again what the Yankees did this past season: They led the AL in home runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. It's true that some of those power totals came courtesy of Yankee Stadium, but power does play anywhere; only the Orioles had a better AL road record.
But the main reason I won't write off the Yankees: the pitching staff. I still like the quality and depth of the starting rotation:
- CC Sabathia -- He did have surgery to remove a small bone spur from his elbow but is expected to be ready for spring training. Otherwise, he was arguably better than ever in 2012, with a league-leading strikeout-walk ratio and .238 batting average allowed.
- Hiroki Kuroda -- Pitched a career-high 219 innings while winning 16 games with a 3.32 ERA, adapting without a problem to the AL.
- Phil Hughes -- Had a solid season other than the 35 home runs allowed. Walked just 46 batters in 32 starts, so if he can cut off 10 home runs, he'll look more like a No. 3 than a 4 or 5.
- Andy Pettitte -- Made just 12 starts but was very effective with a 2.87 ERA. He hasn't lost much in stuff -- in fact, his strikeout percentage matched the highest of his career. If the Yankees can get 25 starts out of him, they'll likely be good ones.
- David Phelps -- Sleeper breakout candidate for 2013. Fastball in the 90-92 mph range, good cutter, a curveball and an improving changeup. Good minor league numbers, good numbers as a rookie as a reliever/spot starter.
- Ivan Nova -- Good rebound candidate, despite the ERA spike from 2011. His strikeout rate was much higher than in 2011 and his walk rate was slightly better, but he suffered a .331 average on balls in play, third highest among all qualified starting pitchers. There are reasons that happened but the stuff is there to suggest improvement is possible if he adjusts.
- Michael Pineda -- The wild card if he can bounce back from shoulder problems.
When I look at the strengths of teams entering a season, I place a huge emphasis on the depth of rotations. Few teams make it through the season with just five starters. Few make it through with six. So you need that depth. The Yankees have it -- certainly more depth than the other AL East teams. Yes, Toronto's rotation could be outstanding if Josh Johnson makes 30 starts (good luck) and if R.A. Dickey has another Cy Young-caliber season (I do like his chances) and if Brandon Morrow can pitch more than 179 innings for the first time and if Ricky Romero can bounce back. The Tampa rotation could be terrific again, but the Rays have to replace James Shields' 33 starts and 227 innings.
So, yes, I like the rotation. I like the bullpen. I like the power. I know you can look at the chart above and note the last time the Yankees didn't make any big moves in the offseason was 2008, the one year the team missed the playoffs during this period.
The fall will come. When it does, it could be as hard as what happened when the original dynasty collapsed after 1964. The Yankees went from the World Series to last place in two seasons. Maybe 2013 will be that year. But we've said that before.