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Springtime Storylines: Are the Yankees the best team in baseball?

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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 2012 season. Up next: The New York Yankees.

The Big Question: Are the Yankees the best team in baseball?

The Yankees won 97 games last year and then they went out and fixed what most people considered to be their biggest problem: lack of starting pitching depth. That, plus the fact that they were six games ahead of the competition, and that the competition didn’t go crazy over the winter, has to make them the favorites this season, right?

I think so. Even with Michael Pineda ailing as the season gets underway, the addition of he and Hiroki Kuroda — and the elimination of A.J. Burnett and what I think will be an improvement in Phil Hughes, no matter where he pitches — makes the Yankees staff extremely formidable. Between what is now a deep rotation and the deadly 1-2 combination of David Robertson and Mariano Rivera in the late innings, there are few if any teams who can match the Yankees’ arms.

And of course the bats are there too. They’re boringly good, of course. What I mean by that is that it’s so expected and ho-hum by now that the Yankees are going to score a lot of runs, that it is hardly remarked upon during spring training. Think about it: how many times  have you heard Robinson Cano or Curtis Granderson mentioned in the last month?  Not much. Because there isn’t much to say beyond “they’ll score at least 850 runs even if they have Raul Ibanez in the lineup.” Ho-hum.

Anyway, you can try to make an argument that there is a more complete team than the Yankees right now. And I might entertain said arguments from Rangers fans. But unless father time catches up with five of these guys at once, I think the Yankees get the nod as the top team in the league.

What else is going on?

  • I mentioned Ibanez. That’s brutal stuff, man. He had a bad year last year and has looked awful in spring training. While Andruw Jones mashes lefties just fine, the left-handed part of the Yankees’ DH platoon is going to stink on ice, methinks. Shoulda kept Jorge.
  • Speaking of old dudes from the glory days, Andy Pettitte is back and should be joining the rotation at some point during the season. Again I’ll offer the Pineda health caveat, but it seems to me that people are really underestimating the fact that the Yankees brought in three above average starting pitchers this winter to join what was a 97-win team.
  • There is another potential weakness here, and it’s akin to “half of the DH platoon sucking.”  It’s the lack of a solid lefty in the pen. Boone Logan ain’t exactly vintage Jesse Orosco. Of course, having a great lefty in the pen is not the most important thing on the planet. If that’s one of your biggest problems, you have a decidedly high class set of problems.
  • As mentioned above, one possible weakness here is age. If Jeter, Rivera, A-Rod and maybe, I dunno, Mark Teixeira suddenly went Dale Murphy on us, yes, it could be a horrible season. But people have been saying that about these guys for years. It’s an older team, sure. But their best hitter (Cano) and their best pitcher (Sabathia) are not particularly gray, so it’s more of a storyline/narrative issue than it is serious strategic issue.  One of the veterans could implode and the team would OK. Maybe two could.

So how are they gonna do?

They’re my choice for first place in the east. And I think you’re being a little too cute or optimistic about the Red Sox, Rays or maybe even the Blue Jays if you pick otherwise.

The Yankees are paying $86 million for a one-inning reliever

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OXON HILL, MD — The Yankees signing of Aroldis Chapman late Wednesday night came as something of a surprise. And the money — $86 million — was something of a shock. Yes, we knew that Chapman was going to break the bank and likely set a record as the highest paid relief pitcher in history, but seeing it in black and white like that is still rather jarring.

In the coming days, many people who attempt to analyze and contextualize this signing will do so by pointing to the 2016 playoffs and the unconventional use of relievers by Terry Francona and the Indians and Joe Maddon of the Cubs. They’ll talk about how the paradigm of bullpen use has shifted and how relief pitchers have taken on a new importance in today’s game. Chapman’s astronomical salary, therefore, will be described as somehow more reasonable and somewhat less shocking than it first seems.

Don’t buy that jive for a second.

Yes, Andrew Miller and, to some extent, Chapman himself were used unconventionally in the 2016 playoffs, but not long into the 2017 season we will see that as an exception, not the rule. And not just because Chapman showed himself unable to hold up to that level of use in the playoffs. It will be the exception because the Yankees have shown no inclination whatsoever to deviate from traditional bullpen usage in the past and there is no reason to expect that they will do so with Chapman in the future.

As you no doubt remember, the Yankees had Chapman, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller for the first half of 2016. Such an imposing back end of a bullpen has rarely been seen in recent history. All of them, however, were used, more or less, as one-inning-a-piece guys and no real effort was ever made to break any bullpen usage paradigms or to shorten games the way many applauded Terry Francona for doing in the playoffs.

Miller pitched 44 games for the Yankees, totaling 45.1 innings. He pitched more than a single inning on only three occasions. Chapman pitched 31 games for the Yankees, amassing 31.1 innings. He was used for more than one inning only twice. Betances worked in 73 games, totaling 73 innings. On 11 occasions he pitched more than one inning.  It was unconventional for a team to have three relievers that good, but they were not, in any way, used unconventionally. Nor is there any reason to expect Chapman to be used unconventionally in 2017, especially given that Miller is not around and Chapman has shown no real ability to be stretched for multiple innings for a sustained period.

None of which is to say that having Chapman around is a bad thing or that he is any less of a closer than his reputation suggests. It’s merely to say that the Yankees paying Chapman unprecedented money for a closer should not be justified by the alleged new importance of relief pitchers or that changing role for them we heard so much about in the playoffs. Indeed, I suspect that that changing role applies only to pitcher use in the playoffs. And I do not suspect that this transaction alone pushes the Yankees into serious playoff contention, making that temporary unconventionality something of a moot point in New York for the foreseeable future.

It is almost certain that the Yankees are paying $86 million for the same one-inning closer Aroldis Chapman has been for his entire seven-year career. His contract may or may not prove to be a good one for New York based on how he performs, but don’t let anyone tell you now, in Decemeber 2016, that it’s better than you think because Chapman will somehow transform into a 1970s-style relief ace or something.

Report: Yankees sign Aroldis Chapman to a five-year, $86 million deal

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Update (12:02 AM EST): Rosenthal adds that Chapman’s contract includes an opt-out clause after three seasons, a full no-trade clause for the first three years of the contract, and a limited no-trade clause for the final two years.

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Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports that the Yankees have signed closer Aroldis Chapman to a five-year, $86 million contract. Mark Melancon recently set the record for a contract earned by a reliever at $62 million over four years. Chapman blew that out of the water and many are surprised he didn’t fetch more.

Chapman, 28, began the 2016 season with the Yankees but he was traded to the Cubs near the end of July in exchange for four prospects. The Cubs, of course, would go on to win the World Series in large part due to Chapman. The lefty finished the regular season with a 1.55 ERA, 36 saves, and a 90/18 K/BB ratio in 58 innings between the two teams.

Chapman was the best reliever on the free agent market and, because he was traded midseason, he didn’t have draft pick compensation attached to him.

The Yankees don’t seem to be deterred by Chapman’s domestic violence issue from last offseason, resulting in a 30-game suspension to begin the 2016 regular season.