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2014 Preview: New York Yankees

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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 2014 season. Next up: The New York Yankees

The Big Question: Does $471 million in offseason commitments put the Yankees back in the playoffs?

The Yankees added Jacoby Ellsbury,Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Masahiro Tanaka this offseason, with total salary commitments of nearly $500 million. That’s a lot of talent added, and every bit of that talent fills a need for the Yankees and represents a good baseball signing, even if one can question whether it will work out for them financially in the long term. Of course, why we care about the money side with the Yankees is an open question. But it’s also an open question as to whether all of those commitments make the team better in the aggregate, because there are a lot of problems here too.

The infield, as I noted in my video preview of the Yankees, is a tire fire. Or a dumpster fire. If he’s healthy, Mark Teixeira should be OK, but we don’t know if he’ll hold up. Derek Jeter and Brian Roberts up the middle are serious defensive liabilities even if they’re hitting, and a full-blown disaster if they’re not, and each of them have durability questions too. Kelly Johnson may hit well in Yankee Stadium, but his ability to hold down third base is seriously questionable. Brendan Ryan has an amazing glove, but he can’t play more than one position at a time and he can’t hit a lick.

The bullpen has questions too. David Robertson should be fine taking over for Mariano Rivera, but the rest of the arms there aren’t exactly intimidating. While Joe Girardi has been pretty good at making the most with what he is given in the Yankees pen, he doesn’t have as much here — or at least as much proven here — as he’s had in the past.

There are other “ifs” too, including “if CC Sabathia rebounds,” “if Michael Pineda returns to rookie form” and “if Masahiro Tanaka is as good as people think he’ll be.” Many of those “ifs” will break right for the Yankees as none of their uncertainties are the type which couldn’t, quite reasonably, turn out in the team’s favor. But all of the uncertainties puts a lot of pressure on McCann and the outfield which, while definitely team strengths, can’t afford to miss expectations.

Maybe all of that adds up to good playoff odds in another division, but in the AL East, I think it tips things in favor of the Yankees being on the outside looking in this October.

What else is going on?

  • Let’s focus on that big strength for a minute: the outfield. Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury would be starting center fielders for most teams, so having both of them out there at once is going to make Yankees pitchers happy. Beltran’s offense is quite welcome, and the fact that he can be the DH whenever he’s even mildly tired — with Alfonso Soriano and Ichiro spelling him — makes for an optimal situation.
  • Michael Pineda missed each of the past two seasons recovering from shoulder surgery and has yet to throw a regular season pitch for the Yankees after they acquired him from the Mariners for Jesus Montero in January of 2012, but he is now officially the 5th starter. If he’s anything close to what he was in 2011, he’ll provide a big boost to the rotation.
  • CC Sabathia being anything close to what he was before 2013 would be an even bigger help. Only five starters who qualified for the AL ERA title last year had a worse ERA than Sabathia’s 4.78. His velocity is down and he is trying to remake himself both physically — he’s noticeably thinner this year — and as a pitcher, having added a cutter to his repertoire. In people’s minds he’s still the Yankees’ ace. If he can return to being one in reality, it’s another big boost for this team.
  • Joe Girardi’s Yankees have been really good about not getting sucked into the media firestorms that always seem to visit the Bronx during the baseball season. They tend to say and do the right things and let the media bleat. Still, with A-Rod gone all year and no other obvious source of friction on the horizon, the team may be able to relax a bit more this season than they have in the past few years. One can’t quantify that, of course, but it’s hard to see how a little less time being on guard can’t help.

Prediction: The Yankees should be fun to watch — all that new talent in pinstripes will ensure that — but the Rays and Red Sox have more overall talent and far fewer question marks. I feel that makes the Yankees no safer a bet than Third Place, AL East.

Drew Smyly brings youth and experience to Mariners rotation

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PEORIA, Ariz. (AP) Trades don’t surprise Drew Smyly anymore.

At age 27, the Seattle Mariners left-hander has been dealt twice. The first swap sent him from the team that drafted and developed Smyly, the Detroit Tigers, to the Tampa Bay Rays in midseason 2014. That trade landed star pitcher David Price in Detroit.

“I was surprised by that one,” Smyly said.

The most recent trade involving him came in January, when the Rays shipped Smyly to Seattle for three prospects in one of many moves by Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto. Smyly immediately joined the Mariners’ projected starting rotation, and is having fun getting to know his new teammates at spring training by way of manager Scott Servais’ clubhouse icebreakers.

Servais thinks Smyly is a solid fit as a still young yet experienced pitcher.

“One, being where he’s at in his career age-wise and service time, he’s kind of at the point where, put him in the right environment … very good defensive outfield, he’s a fly ball guy, maybe he does step up and take the next step,” Servais said. “Getting out of the American League East certainly should help him, but there’s no guarantees. Our division’s pretty tough.”

Servais suggested that another Arkansas native, ex-big leaguer Cliff Lee, might have helped sell Seattle on Smyly. Lee is a former Mariner and the two share an agent.

Smyly went 7-12 in a career-high 30 starts last season in Tampa, but won five games from July 30 to the end of the season after starting out 2-11. From May 21 to July 18, he lost seven straight starts.

“Pitching’s tough, you know,” Smyly said. “To manipulate the ball, to make it do different things, to put it in the strike zone with hitters that know what they’re doing. … I just had a rough stretch but I show up at the field every day, play catch and work on my craft and you know, that’s going to turn around one day.”

The 32 home runs Smyly surrendered in 2016 figure to be reduced in Seattle’s pitcher-friendly Safeco Field.

“It can only help,” he said. “But it’s still going to be up to me to execute pitches and pitch well.”

Smyly is set to join the U.S. World Baseball Classic team shortly. Before that, he’ll make his first spring training start in the middle of next week.

“It’s an honor to be able to put your country on your chest and play with some of the guys on that team,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it big time.”

NOTES: Servais plans to roll out what figures to be Seattle’s opening day lineup in the spring training opener Saturday against San Diego. It’s OF Jarrod Dyson, SS Jean Segura, 2B Robinson Cano, DH Nelson Cruz, 3B Kyle Seager, OF Mitch Haniger, 1B Dan Vogelbach, C Mike Zunino and OF Leonys Martin. … Servais said Cano and Cruz will play a little more than is typical for early spring games, as the two will depart for the World Baseball Classic in early March. … LHP Ariel Miranda will start Saturday, then RHP Chris Heston Sunday, RHP Yovani Gallardo on Monday and ace Felix Hernandez on Tuesday.

Mitt Romney’s sons are trying to buy a stake in the Yankees

TAMPA, FL - AUGUST 30:  Tagg Romney son of Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gives an interview during the final day of the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on August 30, 2012 in Tampa, Florida. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was nominated as the Republican presidential candidate during the RNC which will conclude today.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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Mitt Romney built his professional life in Massachusetts and was once the governor of the state. As such, it is not surprising that he has long identified as a Red Sox fan. So this has to be troubling to him from a fan’s perspective. From Jon Heyman:

The Romney family is bidding to buy a small stake in the Yankees months after their try for the Marlins stalled. If the deal goes through, it is expected to be $25 million to $30 million per percentage point and thought to be interested in one or two percentage points. The Yankees are valued around $3 billion or more.

The effort is being led by Mitt’s son Tagg, one of his brothers and their business partners. Mitt’s spokesman tells Jon Heyman that he has nothing to do with it personally. Tagg Romney is reported to have been planning a bid for controlling interest in the Marlins, but that has fallen through.

I find this interesting insofar as the M.O. for the Steinbrenners has, for years, been to buy out minority shareholders in the Yankees, not seek more. Indeed, when George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees back in 1973 he held just a bare controlling interest and there were a ton of silent partners, most of which were back in Ohio and knew Steinbrenner from his shipping business. I’ve personally gotten to know some of them over the years as there are a handful of them in Columbus and I crossed paths with them in my legal career. They have almost all been bought out in the past couple of decades. They still get season tickets and World Series rings and stuff. You can tell them by their personalized Yankees plates and the fact that, within the first ten minutes of meeting them, they will tell you that they once owned a piece of the Yankees but got pushed out.

In light of all of that it’s interesting that the Steinbrenners are once again accepting bids for small stakes in the team. Especially from someone whose interest in controlling the Marlins suggests that they do not consider it to be a mere vanity investment. Makes me wonder what the Steinbrenners’ long term plans are.