Springtime Storylines: Do the Yankees have enough pitching?


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.

2018 Preview: Detroit Tigers

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2018 season. Next up: The Tigers.

We can’t blame you if you chose to erase the Tigers’ 2017 season from memory. They plummeted to the bottom of the AL Central division for the second time in three years, hobbled by Michael Fulmer’s chronic shoulder and elbow issues, an untimely implosion from Francisco Rodriguez and the worst version of Miguel Cabrera anyone’s seen to date. Their rotation ranked 13th-best among major league teams; their bullpen, dead last. By mid-July, it was clear the team wasn’t going to touch the division-leading Indians or the surprisingly hot Twins or the streaky Royals. Rather than make a pointless push for the playoffs during the second half, they seized the opportunity to get a head start on a lengthy rebuilding process instead.

Prior to the July 31 trade deadline, the Tigers had already jettisoned some of their biggest contributors—and biggest contracts. J.D. Martinez packed his bags for Arizona as the club gained a trifecta of Diamondbacks shortstop prospects: Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara and Jose King. Justin Wilson and Alex Avila were swapped for Cubs infielders Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes. In one of the most nerve-wracking deadline deals, Justin Verlander and the outstanding $56 million left on his contract (not including the $22 million vesting option for 2020) were shipped to the Astros for prospect right-hander Franklin Perez, catcher Jake Rogers and outfielder Daz Cameron—with just seconds to spare before the cutoff time.

Of course, the writing was on the wall well before Al Avila decided to host a fire sale. Francisco Rodriguez logged six blown saves in his first 25 appearances with the club and was released after he proved incapable of handling any high-leverage situation. His struggles might have been more easily overlooked had Bruce Rondon not tanked as well, depleting the Tigers of much of their bullpen depth as they dropped yet another closer candidate—Justin Wilson—off with the Cubs.

A dilapidated bullpen wasn’t the team’s only weakness. Perennial All-Star and future first-ballot Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera labored through the worst year of his career, slashing .249/.329/.399 with 16 home runs and a .728 OPS in 529 PA. His power and productivity was zapped by lingering back issues, and he finished the year with two herniated discs in his lower back and a career-worst -0.2 fWAR. Not helping matters was a series of explosive, bench-clearing brawls against the Yankees in August, during which Cabrera got slapped with a seven-game suspension after he incited the first fight against New York catcher Austin Romine.

The offseason yielded few returns. The Tigers declined a $16 million option for Anibal Sanchez and found a taker for Ian Kinsler in the Angels, who helped restock Detroit’s farm system with minor league outfielder Troy Montgomery and right-handed pitching prospect Wikel Hernandez. The team committed another $12 million to rotation and outfield depth with right-hander Mike Fiers, lefties Francisco Liriano and Ryan Carpenter, and outfielder Leonys Martin. Perhaps most notable was a change in management: Brad Ausmus capped a four-year run with the team as Ron Gardenhire stepped into the dugout.

Looking ahead, the Tigers still have a few items to check off their to-do list before they can stage a full-scale rebuild. That includes offloading the remaining $184 million on Cabrera’s contract, something that will be impossible to do unless and until the 35-year-old has a monster bounce-back year in 2018. It also means exploring trade options for Fulmer, who profiles as one of the biggest assets on the Tigers’ 2018 roster and, with four years of control remaining on his current contract, could net some serious talent as they continue to build for the future. Likewise, closer Shane Greene, shortstop Jose Iglesias and outfielder Nicholas Castellanos are all expected to be made available at some point this year.

Come Opening Day, the club will likely roll out a rotation featuring Michael Fulmer, Jordan Zimmerman, Francisco Liriano, Mike Fiers and Matt Boyd. Daniel Norris is also competing for a starting role, though he will likely get edged out by Liriano to start the season. Despite the serious health concerns that were raised last year, Fulmer remains the undisputed ace of the pack after putting up All-Star numbers in 2017, including a 3.83 ERA, 2.2 BB/9 and 6.2 SO/9 in 164 2/3 innings. No one else (save Verlander) managed an ERA under 5.00 last year; Zimmerman kept a 6.08 ERA, 2.5 BB/9 and 5.8 SO/9 in 160 innings and led all major-league starters with a league-worst 108 earned runs.

Mikie Mahtook, Leonys Martin and Nick Castellanos project as the Opening Day outfield trio, though JaCoby Jones has looked versatile enough to back up all three spots this spring. Both Mahtook and Castellanos had decent runs last year, while Martin will try to stage a comeback after slashing just .172/.232/.281 with three home runs in back-to-back gigs with the Mariners and Cubs.

Cabrera, naturally, is expected to resume his post at first base and fellow veteran Victor Martinez will continue to slot in at DH. Both Cabrera and Martinez have looked exceptional at the plate this spring, but take that with a grain (or several hundred) of salt. Dixon Machado is set for a full-time role at second base, with Jose Iglesias at shortstop and Jeimer Candelario at third. James McCann and John Hicks are scheduled to share time behind the dish again. Barring a lot of surprises and bounce-back efforts, that doesn’t make for a very intimidating lineup, and probably not one that can supersede the collective .258/.324/.424 batting line the offense managed last year.

In a nutshell: Rebuilds are no fun to watch. The Tigers were very bad last season, and they’re going to be very bad this season. Cross your fingers that Miguel Cabrera looks as sharp in the regular season as he has in camp, keep an eye on that no. 1 draft pick this June, enjoy the September call-ups, maybe attend a few minor league games, and keep reminding yourself that contention is only a few years away (probably).

Prediction: 5th place, AL Central