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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.

Red Sox set a new major league record with 11 strikeouts in a row

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 20: Starting pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez #52 of the Boston Red Sox works the first inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on September 20, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Patrick Smith/Getty Images
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Lost in the nifty base running by Dustin Pedroia that won Sunday’s game against the Rays, the Red Sox set a new major league record by striking out 11 batters in a row, per Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe. Starter Eduardo Rodriguez struck out the final six Rays he faced and reliever Heath Hembree struck out five Rays in a row after that. Tom Seaver had the previous consecutive strikeout streak of 10, set on April 22, 1970 against the Padres.

The Red Sox also set a team record with 23 strikeouts in total: 13 by Rodriguez, five by Hembree, one by Matt Barnes, and four by Joe Kelly. Per Abraham, that’s the most strikeouts in a 10-inning game since at least 1913 and the most in a game of any length since 2004.

For Rodriguez, Sunday marked the first double-digit strikeout game of his career. He has pitched quite well since returning to the rotation at the start of the second half. Over 13 starts, the lefty has a 3.10 ERA with a 70/23 K/BB ratio in 72 2/3 innings.

Dodgers clinch NL West on Charlie Culberson’s walk-off home run

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 20: Charlie Culberson #6 of the Los Angeles Dodgers runs to first base after hitting a single RBI in the second inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on July 20, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images)
Matt Hazlett/Getty Images
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Dodgers second baseman Charlie Culberson delivered a walk-off solo home run in the bottom of the 10th inning, clinching the NL West for the Dodgers on Sunday afternoon. What a way to celebrate Vin Scully’s final home game behind the microphone.

The Dodgers were trailing 2-1 in the seventh inning, but shortstop Corey Seager tripled in a run to tie the game. Rockies outfielder David Dahl untied the game in the top of the ninth with a two-out solo home run off of Kenley Jansen. But Seager once again rose to the occasion, blasting a game-tying solo shot in the bottom half of the ninth against Adam Ottavino. That would set the stage for Culberson in the next frame.

Culberson, a former Rockie, came into the afternoon with a .591 OPS and zero home runs in 53 plate appearances. He finished the afternoon 3-for-5 with the homer.

It’s the fourth consecutive season in which the Dodgers have won the NL West. The Cubs have clinched the best record, which means they’ll play the winner of the Wild Card game. The Dodgers will play the Nationals in the NLDS. The Nationals have a 1.5-game lead over the Dodgers for home-field advantage, so both teams are still playing for something of importance in the regular season’s final week.