2011 pre-season preview: AL East – New York Yankees

NY Yankees 1B Mark Teixeira

New York Yankees (2010 record: 95-67)

The Yankees entered the off-season expecting to sign LHP Cliff Lee to a lucrative deal, but a funny thing happened on the way to the ballpark – the Philadelphia Phillies signed Lee out from under their nose at the eleventh hour. Hey, turn about is fair play, right? The Yankees did the same thing to the Boston Red Sox a few years ago when they stepped in and signed Mark Teixeira at the last minute. Karma can be a real bitch!

To compound the Yankees dilemma this winter, the Red Sox stepped in and signed Carl Crawford, the Yankees’ Plan B, while the Yankees brass awaited the decision from Lee.

With Lee lost and Andy Pettitte officially retired, the Yankees face the prospect of having A.J. Burnett, Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia fill out the back of their rotation. That should not be the rotation of a $200 million ballclub! Yes, the team has an all-star-laden lineup … and, yes, the addition of reliever Rafael Soriano should help the bullpen immeasurably… but unless the front office makes a major acquisition for the rotation, the Yankees won’t win the East and could teeter on the precipice of missing the post-season altogether.

Notable additions: LHP Pedro Feliciano, C Russell Martin, RHP Rafael Soriano

Notable subtractions: LHP Andy Pettitte, RHP Kerry Wood

The offense:

Catcher: Russell Martin

Infield: Mark Teixeira (1B), Robinson Cano (2B), Derek Jeter (SS) and Alex Rodriguez (3B)

Outfield: Brett Gardner (LF), Curtis Granderson (CF) and Nick Swisher (RF)

Designated Hitter: Jorge Posada

The Yankees’ offense led all of baseball in runs scored last year (859) and could be better in 2011. A-Rod is another year removed from his hip surgery and has looked pretty good in spring training. Granderson is acclimated to life in New York City and should produce better numbers now that he can relax a little. Jeter should improve on last season’s disappointing performance. Additionally, blue-chipper Jesus Montero could take over at DH or behind home plate at some point, or at least work his way into a platoon.

Martin has seen his production decline each year since 2007 and found himself without many suitors during free agency this winter. He landed on his feet in The Bronx, where the ballpark should help boost his stats. His average will likely be below league-average but his walk rate remains strong (13%), so he should get on base and get his fair share of stolen base opportunities. He won’t be a 15-15 player any more, but he could go for 10 and 10 (HR and SB).

A number of pundits are down on Posada, but I am inclined to think he still has a couple of good years left in his bat. Yanks manager Joe Girardi will use him as the Designated Hitter, with the goal of saving wear and tear on his legs and keeping him in the lineup (he’s had just 934 ABs over the last three years combined). His underlying metrics are still pretty solid, so look for some improvement in 2011.

Teixeira got off to a brutal start last year (.136, 2 HR in April). While he rebounded and had darned good success, he still wasn’t the guy the organization and its fan base expects to show up in 2011. He struggled at the plate throughout the season, not just in April (he hit just .271 during the second half of the season). That said, he posted a spectacular 176 power metric during the second half … and if you are one of those people who believe the second half is an indicator of future success, then you probably believe “Tex” is going to have a m-o-n-s-t-e-r season.

Cano has been remarkably consistent since being promoted to the big leagues in 2006. He regularly posts a contact rate of 88-90% and has hit .300 or better in four of his six major league seasons, just missing the mark on a fifth occasion (.297, 2005). He compiled a 900+ OPS last year for the first time in his career, largely due to an extraordinary first half. And while he was a mere mortal in the second half, he still posted an .859 OPS after the all-star break.

Jeter suffered through the worst season of his Hall-of-Fame career last year, establishing or tying career-lows in BA, OBP, OPS, HR and slugging percentage, as well as several peripherals. Still, he was one of only five shortstops in baseball to hit 10 HR, drive in 65 runs, and steal 10 bases last season … plus, he led all shortstops in runs scored. The drop in batting average was due to a precipitous increase in his ground ball rate (66%) and a sharp decline in his hit rate (31%). His strikeout rate and walk rate were both within the range of his career norms, suggesting last year’s struggles were likely an outlier.

Even as health problems chipped away at A-Rod’s production, he has remained one of the elite third basemen in the game. That said, he is in the midst of a four-year decline in BA, OPS, OPS+, slugging percentage, RAR and WAR … likely the result of his hip injury and other assorted injuries. He continues to ride an MLB-record streak of 13 straight seasons of 30+ HR and 100+ RBI. Looking ahead to 2011, he arrived at spring training in terrific condition. Assuming good health, I expect his walk-rate, hit rate (28%) and BABIP (.274) to improve towards career norms. He should have a big year.

Gardner was the only player in the major leagues to post a .380 OBP, score 95 runs and steal 45 bases last year, but there were ominous warning signs in the second half of the season: his contact rate dropped from 84% to 73% and, as a result, his 2nd-half batting average was just .230. His problems may have been the product of injury … or fatigue.

The Yankees expected big things from Granderson last year, but injuries limited his p/t and hampered his production. He took advantage of his new home park and slugged the second-most home runs in his career (14 at home, 10 on the road) despite setting career lows in BA, OBP and runs. Last year his contact rate slid to 75%, his hit rate settled in at 28% (for the second straight year) and he compiled a .277 BABIP (well off his 162-game average of .314). I expect the peripherals will rebound and his overall numbers will improve.

Swisher was clearly a safe investment for the Yankees organization in terms of his power and production – he has hit 20+ HR and scored 80+ runs in each of the last five years, and has driven in at least 78 runs in four of those five years. I doubt he will be able to hit .288 again, as he did last year, as his contact rate (34%) and BABIP (.335) will regress, but it seems safe to expect 20+ HR and 75+ RBI hitting in that lineup.

The pitching staff:

Rotation: LHP CC Sabathia, RHP Phil Hughes, RHP A.J. Burnett, RHP Ivan Nova and RHP Freddy Garcia

Closer: RHP Mariano Rivera

The pitching staff finished seventh in the American League last year in ERA (4.06) due to miserable seasons from starters Javier Vazquez and Burnett, as well as struggles from relievers Chan Ho Park, Chad Gaudin and Joba Chamberlain. The front office is hoping for a turnaround from Burnett and a breakout season from rookie Ivan Nova to stabilize the rotation. While Yankees Universe may be counting on their revamped rotation to be able to carry the day, it is far from guaranteed.

Sabathia has been remarkably consistent. He hasn’t posted an ERA above 3.27 since ’05, and hasn’t pitched fewer than 230 innings since ’06. He is a true “ace” in every sense of the word and, thus far, he has earned every penny of his lucrative deal with the Yankees.

While I am well aware Phil Hughes was an all-star last year, I remain unconvinced he is anything more than an end-of-the-rotation starter or reliever who has been thrust into the two-slot behind Sabathia. While he had a pretty good first half last year (a 3.83 ERA), he was just 8-6, 4.59, in the second half. The Yankees front office seems to agree with me: Cashman & Company wanted to slot Lee and Pettitte at No. 2 and No. 3, not Hughes and Burnett. That would have left Hughes to move to the bullpen in the role Soriano now occupies.

Burnett’s peripherals continue in a prolonged nosedive, leading him to post a career-high ERA and WHIP in 2010. He has lost 2.5 mph off his fastball and added 2.5 mph to his changeup over the last 3 years, leaving the difference between the two pitches at less than 5 mph. That speed gap is problematic for any big league pitcher – let alone one who will face each of the AL East lineups 18 times this year. While Yankees fans will write off the criticisms as the rant of a Red Sox fan, they can’t avoid one undisputable truth: no Yanks starter has ever posted an ERA as high as Burnett’s (5.26) while pitching as many innings (186.2) … and an objective analysis says there is little reason to believe he can reverse his current career trend in 2011.

Nova’s ability to induce grounders was impressive last year, but otherwise he looked very hittable. He was inconsistent from game to game, allowed more hits than innings pitched, and walked too many batters. He keeps the ball on the ground, which is promising when you consider that he will pitch half of his games at the new softball field. He is a work in progress and should probably spend one or two more years in the minor leagues, but the ballclub doesn’t have that luxury.

Garcia rebounded to pitch 157 innings last season after pitching just 129 innings during the previous three years combined … moreover, the statistics he compiled were marginal and promise to get considerably worse as he moves to the New Yankee Stadium Softball Field. He has evolved into a soft-tosser who is prone to surrendering home runs – a fact that forebodes bad tidings in The Bronx (NOTE: he saw a 50% increase in his HR-rate last season). He’s not the answer.

Rivera is the model of consistency and excellence. The future HOFer has recorded 30 or more saves in each of the last eight seasons, while posting an ERA under 2.00 in seven of those eight years. Year after year the pundits speculate that age will catch up to him, but year after year he proves his doubters wrong. Soriano was an excellent addition to the pen, but at a ludicrous price. Mark Prior could be a great addition if he can stay healthy.

Prediction for 2011: 2nd place (90-72)

Yankees fans look at the club’s starting lineup and sees the possibility of a world title, but pitching and defense wins championships – and the Yankees have neither. It’s not enough to have one of the best starting pitchers in the league (Sabathia), it’s all about the depth of the rotation and bullpen – and the Yankees have neither. There are too many questions in the rotation after Sabathia, and too many questions in the bullpen after Mo and Soriano. The defense will be marginal thanks to a bad left side of the infield (Jeter and A-Rod) and poor defense in right field.

I expect they will win a bunch of 9-5 games, but lose too many 6-5 games to prevail in the division or get very far in the post-season. They should secure the American League Wild Card berth, but if Sabathia experiences health problems they could miss the post-season altogether.


Yankees top prospect Jesus Montero

Top Five Prospects:

1. Jesus Montero, C
2. Dellin Betances, RHP
3. Manny Banuelos, LHP
4. Gary Sanchez, C
5. Andrew Brackman, RHP

Montero was considered the most talented international free agent (Venezuela) back in 2006 and given $1.65 million to sign with the Yankees. He has lived up to his plaudits while rising through the Yankees farm system. He was named to the roster for the 2008 and 2009 Futures Games, but didn’t make the squad last year because of a rough start in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Triple-A). He hit just .214 through the first two months of the season, but rebounded to finish at .289, with 21 HR and 75 RBI.

He doesn’t have especially good hitting mechanics, but he has exceptional strength and hand-eye coordination. He will use the entire field and can hit with power to the opposite field – making him well-suited to the new softball field in The Bronx.

While many observers believe he has not put in the requisite work during batting practice (to iron out the issues with his mechanics), he is widely praised for the work he has put in to make himself a viable big league receiver – that said, he still has a long way to go in that regard. He is still a below-average receiver, struggling with passed balls and getting rid of the ball quickly and accurately to second base. He has good arm strength, but slow ball transfer skills and sloppy footwork.

Many pundits doubt he will ever be good enough behind the plate to play the position on a regular basis, so he may be pigeon-holed as a DH – unless the team decides it can live with his catching skills in order to get his bat in the lineup (though that seems highly unlikely). It is also possible he could be trade bait later this year, when the club tries to acquire the pitcher it will surely need.

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