A little age can be a wonderful thing. Take a fine bottle of scotch for example, perhaps a bottle of Lagavulin, aged 16 years. The aging process allows the liquor to mature, thus giving it a mellow, oak-like flavor. It’s warm, delicious and all that tasty flavor is possible because of the oak-barreled aging process.
The New York Yankees are hoping this whole aging thing works just as well for them as it does for that bottle of Lagavulin. Their roster had an average age around 32 or 33 a year ago, which was the oldest in the American League although that didn’t stop them from winning 95 games. GM Brian Cashman has basically doubled down on age for the 2013 season, scooping up all the affordable mid-30’s veterans that he can get his hands on. 40-somethings Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte are back for one more go-around. So are 38-year-old Hiroki Kuroda and 39-year-old Ichiro Suzuki, two important vets from last year’s squad. 36-year-old Travis Hafner and 34-year-old Kevin Youkilis have been added to the fray to provide power.
All these maneuverings have everybody asking basically the same question: is this finally the year Father Time catches up with the Yankees? Or will they come together much more like a fine scotch on the way to another 90+ win season? Here’s some of the thoughts rattling around my brain:
– Their starting rotation is one of the most talented and deepest in baseball
Pitching wins championships, right? If that’s a school of thought you subscribe to, then you also probably subscribe to the notion that everything in Yankee-land will be just fine. Despite playing in a bandbox of a ballpark, one that enabled New York to allow the 5th most homers in baseball, the Yankees still had a top 10 pitching staff in terms of runs allowed, strikeouts, and walks allowed.
CC Sabathia gives the team a legitimate ace at the top of the rotation and he should be even better in 2013. The big man struggled with elbow issues for parts of the 2012 season, even hitting the DL a couple of times, which drove his innings count down. He finally looked fully healthy in the playoffs and he was able to parlay that into a pair of extremely impressive starts against Baltimore in the playoffs, including a complete game, 9 strikeout performance to clinch the ALDS. He had minor offseason surgery to remove a bone spur in his elbow which should allow him to return to the workhorse of old. If he’s 100% ready the Yankees should be able to getting 30 more innings of work out of Sabathia, and I’m guessing a lower ERA as well.
The rest of the starting staff is very solid. Kuroda is a perfect #2, especially in New York where his sinking stuff effectively keeps the ball in the park. Hughes and Pettitte should fill the 3 and 4 spots in the staff just fine with Ivan Nova starting the year bringing up the end of the rotation.
The Yankees also have a very effective long man/6th starter in David Phelps. His biggest value to the ball club comes in his ability to work seamlessly out of the bullpen or rotation, allowing Joe Girardi the option to skip a starter occasionally, keeping everyone fresh. The Bronx Bombers have an ace in the hole as well, and his name is Michael Pineda. He was electric as a rookie in 2011, striking out more than a batter per inning while making the All-Star team and if he can return in July he could give the Yankees a boost similar to the one Kris Medlen gave the Braves a year ago. Without Pineda this is easily a top 10 rotation, which is more than enough to keep the Yankees in the hunt. If they can get him back at full strength, this rotation becomes scary good.
– Brian Cashman has a habit of turning other GM’s trash into the Yankees’ treasure
Outside of Billy Beane in Oakland, no general manager in baseball today is as good as the Yankees’ Brian Cashman at finding veteran diamonds in the rough.
Two years ago he fished Bartolo Colon from out of nowhere and Freddy Garcia away from the White Sox for a total of just over $2 million dollars. All they did was reward him with 300 total innings, a combined ERA under 4.00, 20 wins, and over 200 strikeouts. That’s about $20-30 million worth of value for just over $2 million and incentives.
Last season Cashman pulled the trick with Raul Ibanez, Ichiro, Eric Chavez, and Andruw Jones. Chavez was able to step in to 3rd base admirably in the absence of Alex Rodriguez, hitting 16 homers with an OPS of over .800. Ibanez was basically responsible for the entire Yankee playoff run. His heroics in Game 3 of the ALDS will not be forgotten by anyone in the Bronx anytime soon.
Cashman’s plan this offseason involves 36-year-old Travis Hafner and 34-year-old Kevin Youkilis. The former Red Sox staple will be counted on big time in 2013, as he will see a majority of the playing time while Rodriguez recovers from surgery/destroys his reputation then lights it on fire/dates Lady Gaga or Madonna/gets another centaur painting. Even with Youkilis in decline, the difference between him and A-Rod is actually not as much as it might seem. A-Rod posted an OPS just 40 points higher than Youkilis did a year ago and the power numbers between the two players are just about identical. If Youk plays about as well as he did a year ago, the Yankees should be just fine. If he can find the fountain of youth like so many in the past did, the Yankees could have a borderline MVP candidate on their hands.
The prognosis for Mr. Hafner isn’t as sparkly, but it still has a similar tune. The short porch in left could be a big boon to the pull-hitting slugger because more than half of his 201 career homers have been hit out to left field. The big problem for Hafner has been his health. Pronk has played more than 100 games just once in the past 5 seasons, topping out at 118 games, and that’s mostly as a DH, a position designed to reduce the strain on a player. The Yankees will only use Hafner in 100 or so games, mostly against right-handers, which may keep him healthier and more productive. If he can take that amount of wear and tear, I think Hafner could hit 20 homers for the first time since 2007.
– The loss of Nick Swisher really hurts the offense
Swisher was the 2nd most productive offensive player the Yankees had a year ago, trailing only Robinson Cano in output. His play in the regular season has been remarkably consistent as a Yankee. Swisher hit between 20-30 homers while driving in at least 80 runs each year and his OPS+ always fell somewhere between 120-130, which is very, very good. Swisher never could carry this performance into the playoffs, where he hit a pathetic .162 with just 4 homers and 7 RBI in 36 career games with the Yankees. It’s perfectly understandable why New York didn’t want to resign the 32-year-old outfielder (poor playoff performance, age and financial concerns), but that doesn’t make replacing his production any easier and it will probably prevent the Yankees from finishing top 5 once again in runs scored.
– The return of Brett Gardner and his speed and defense
I’m not going to lie, Brett Gardner is one of my favorite players in the big leagues. I love watching him take guaranteed hits away with the glove and when he’s on the bases you better stay in your seat because he’s going to make something happen. There isn’t an outfielder playing the game today who steals more doubles in the gap off opposing hitter’s bats than the Yankees’ lefty speedster. If the Yankees are smart enough to move him to centerfield this year, they could have the best defensive outfield unit roaming the Bronx in team history. He also brings an element to the Yankee offense that was sorely lacking a year ago: speed. If Gardner’s healthy he’s a lock to steal 40 bags and I wouldn’t bet against him swiping 50. Last year’s team stole just 93 total bases and became one-dimensional at times, moving station-to-station waiting for the 3-run homer. Gardner’s presence in the lineup fixes all of these issues.
– Unless something changes in the next month, the Yankees start the year with the worst catching situation in baseball
For most of the franchise’s illustrious 112 year history, the Yankees have had a top flight catcher, one worthy of applause and All-Star appearances. Yogi Berra, Thurmon Munson, Elston Howard, Bill Dickey, and Jorge Posada are the best evidence of the ball club’s long history of valuing the catching position above all others. Unless Brian Cashman has a late move up his sleeve, this year’s Yankee team won’t be running out an All-Star catcher. No, their catching situation is looking more like that of a Triple-A team right now.
Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart, and Austin Romine will all enter training camp with some shot at the starting position. Cervelli and Stewart each have over 100 career starts behind the plate, although neither has been used as much more than a backup or spot starter in his respective career. The reason? Neither Cervelli nor Stewart can hit a lick. Stewart, the better defender of the two, is a career .217 hitter (67 OPS+) with 4 career homers in about 400 career at-bats. Cervelli does a slightly better job of scraping for a way on base, but he offers zero power as well and his defense is no better than league average, even on his best day.
Romine has the most potential out of this gaggle of backstops. He was a fringe top-100 prospect following his 2009 and 2010 campaigns, but he’s stalled out the past couple of years. Romine is only 24, so the potential for some more growth as a player exists, but basically he profiles as yet another solid defender, low power/mediocre average hitter. If Romine was able to put together a big spring and win the job that would probably be the best case scenario for New York. Regardless of who wins the position, expect Brian Cashman to search for an upgrade all season long.
I have a very strong suspicion that all of this hand wringing over the Yankees’ lack of activity this offseason will end up being vastly overblown. I understand the concern over the catching situation, Derek Jeter’s rehab from a gruesome broken ankle, and the team’s complete lack of youth, but to be frank New York had the best run differential in the American League a year ago at +136, which gives them plenty of leeway to work with.
Most of the overreaction seems to be connected to the ugly ALCS loss, which is absolutely idiotic and shortsighted in my opinion. The Yankees played 171 total games a year ago and to judge the outcome of their entire season based on the team’s performance in the final four contests is just plain unintelligent. It also erases the fact that for about 80% of the season New York was one of the undisputed two best teams in the American League. The playoffs are a fickle, highly unpredictable beast and 4 games or even 7 games isn’t enough to properly judge a team. It isn’t even close. I could pick any 4 game stretch from last season that makes even the Houston Astros, yes the Disastros, look like a competent ball club. That kind of analysis is short-sighted and should be ignored.
New York was old last year, an old team the year before, an old team the year before that, and you know what? I didn’t stop them from making the playoffs each year while winning two division titles and I don’t expect it to stop them from battling for the AL East crown in 2013.