Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: A team you may or may not have heard of: The New York Yankees.
The Big Question: Do the Yankees have enough starting pitching?
Apologies to those of you who follow the Yankees closely, because that’s a question you’ve heard asked approximately 500 times since Cliff Lee chose to join the Phillies and Andy Pettitte retired. You’ve hashed it and re-hashed it and you’re probably sick of it. But Springtime Storylines is not just for you, Yankees faithful, and it still remains the most pressing question for the Yankees.
And we all know the breakdown: Sabathia remains awesome, Hughes remains highly promising, A.J. Burnett remains a wild card, Ivan Nova is likely a fifth starter in fourth starter’s clothing and the fifth spot is a hodgepodge of Bartolo Colon, Sergio Mitre, Freddy Garcia and A Guy We’ll Trade For Later, I’m Sure of it, Because The Yankees Have to Trade for Someone, Right?
I’ve been suckered by guys like Burnett before, but I can’t help but watch the guy pitch, see that his velocity is still good and that his stuff still moves and picture him being a totally solid starter. He is labeled as an erratic pitcher, but he was fairly consistent for the six seasons before last year’s train wreck. Given that 2010 hasn’t been adequately explained by injury — and given that there have been some vague allusions to some dark personal business — I’m not ready to write the guy off. He may not ever earn his contract, but it’s far from crazy to say that he can still be an effective third starter for a playoff contender.
As for the rest: Ivan Nova may or may not have had a breakthrough in his good but by no means dominant time in Scranton last season. It was his second go-around at AAA, and it’s hard to gauge whether his success there was the result of a breakthrough, merely a function of figuring AAA hitters out or some good luck. He was serviceable in seven big league starts, but that tells us less than the AAA stuff. He’s probably more of an unknown than Burnett at this point, but he’s not as sexy a subject as A.J. so people aren’t fretting about him as much. In the fifth spot I have faith that Joe Girardi can cobble together a couple dozen respectable starts between the professional arms he has available to him. Take a look around baseball’s fifth starters sometime. You’ll see that the bar is not set too high, even on contending teams.
Finally: the trade option. If New York is four games out of a playoff spot on July 1st, yeah, I think they’d deal one of their increasing number of nice prospects for a front line arm. It’s just that right now it’s kind of silly to talk about it because we have no idea who might come available. A week before the season starts everyone thinks they’re a contender. Reality will set in over the first couple months of the season and many teams will be willing to trade good pitching. Right now, it’s a dry, dry market.
Ultimately: while the rotation is not ideal, yes, I think the Yankees have enough starting pitching to hang in there. To strongly contend, I think they need two of the three back-end rotation slots to come through. I’d feel quite comfortable betting on one of them being fine. I wouldn’t rule out two of them being OK. And if they’re not, when was the last time the New York Yankees were hesitant to make a major move in the middle of the season? So I guess what I’m saying is to relax, bunky. Things aren’t as dire as they may have seemed during the cold dark months of the offseason.
So what else is going on?
- One of the reasons I’m not as concerned about the Yankees rotation as some are is because this is a team that is still poised to beat the living hell out of people on the offensive side. They led the league in runs scored last year despite Derek Jeter giving them a lot of nothing, Mark Teixeira falling off, Alex Rodriguez missing a chunk of time and despite them giving way to many plate appearances to Francisco Cervelli. I don’t think Jeter’s best days are in front of him, but I don’t think last year was indicative of what his decline will look like going forward. I’m likewise optimistic that A-Rod and Teixeira will bounce back some. I don’t see anyone who so out-performed their talent level in 2010 that we should expect a major backslide. In short, I think this team will score a boatload of runs and that will cover a lot of pitching ills.
- The catching position is kind of crazy with Jorge Posada the new DH, Russell Martin the new starter and — by virtue of Francisco Cervelli’s injury — top prospect Jesus Montero the backup. I think Posada will be just fine at DH as he’s still an above-average hitter and may be better off without the wear-and-tear. I’m no Martin fan, but I love the fact that Montero is lurking. Give the guy a couple of big hits in a couple of Sunday afternoon starts early on and he could easily supplant Martin. Given his promise, that could be a great thing for an already impressive lineup.
- The bullpen looked to be among the best in baseball when it was assembled in early January, but since then both Joba Chamberlain and Pedro Feliciano have been hurt. That said, the 1-2-3 punch of Mariano Rivera, Rafael Soriano and David Robertson are unmatched in the game so the pen — like the offense — will be another thing taking the load off the rotation.
- Derek Jeter will get his 3000th hit sometime in the first half of this season. Given how much hype surrounded him passing Lou Gehrig as the all-time Yankees hit leader, I suspect that him becoming the first to get 3000 hits in a Yankees uniform will cause an overload of some kind. The New York press LOVES randomly significant numbers. That said: good for Jeter. For as much as do the “is-he-overrated?” thing, he is one of the best shortstops the game has ever known and it has been a pleasure watching him play this game for the past 16 seasons.
So how are they gonna do?
I’ll do the Boston preview either later today or tomorrow, and when I do, you’ll see that I believe the Red Sox to be the best team in baseball. But for as all-or-nothing as the Boston-New York war seems at times, just because the Sox improved so much doesn’t mean the Yankees faltered in equal measure. I think this is still a fine Yankees team. One of the best squads in the game, in fact, and even if they aren’t as impressive as their rivals, I believe that they’ll put a lot of hurt on a lot of people in 2011. I’ll pencil them in as the wild card winner and — if they figure out that rotation — they stand just as good a chance as anyone to make noise in October.