Derel Jeter

2013 Preview: New York Yankees


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 2013 season. Up next: The New York Yankees.

The Big Question: Is the Jeter Dynasty over?

People used to predict the end of the Jeter/Rivera/whoever dynasty every year. Then they won another World Series in 2009. Then they resumed predicting the end of the dynasty. Then the Yankees won 95, 97 and 95 games and went to the playoffs a three more times. Now here we are back again.  If I had a dime for every time a New York columnist claimed that this is 1965 redux and that we’re in for a decade of the Yankees in the wilderness, well, with apologies to Slim Pickens for mangling his quote, I’d have a bunch of dimes.

This year, however, there is way more ammo for the doomsayers. Because of the front office’s seeming obsession to get the 2014 payroll under the luxury tax threshold of $189 million, Brian Cashman was apparently constrained from signing or re-signing guys who would help the 2013 Yankees a lot.  Gone are Russell Martin and, in his place is, well, no one nearly as good as Russell Martin. Gone is Nick Swisher who woulda been nice to have as it was, but who would have been REALLY nice to have now that Mark Teixeira is injured. Gone is Eric Chavez who was pretty darn useful last year and would have helped cover for Alex Rodiguez’s extended absence.  And of course there are all of the injuries: Jeter, Teixeira, Granderson, Rodriguez. It’s kind of a mess at the moment.

Yet despite all of that I can’t bring myself to join the doomsayers.  Yes, it’s gonna be a tough year. Especially for the first couple of months as so much of the Bombers’ firepower is going to be on the shelf.  But what I said in the Blue Jays’ preview still holds true: there is no alpha team in the AL East. The Yankees, though diminished, are going to look a lot more like the Yankees come June than they seem now, and as long as no one has run away with the division or as long as the AL’s two wild card leaders aren’t themselves some 95-win juggernauts, you can’t count the Yankees out. You can never count them out, many of us have learned to our annoyance, because even when diminished they are talented.

I’ll believe the Jeter dynasty is over the moment Derek Jeter stops playing baseball. I’ll believe the Yankees are through being competitive the moment they end a season with, say, 80 losses and are surrounded by drama and strife.  Until then I’ll realize that this was a 95-win team last year and that they still have just as good a chance to come out of this division as anyone, even if the downside — Last place? A sub-.500 record? Armageddon? — seems a lot more likely this year than it has in any year since, oh, 1992 or so.

So what else is going on?

  • Part of the reason you can’t count the Yankees out is something that no one really talks about a lot lately: the pitching.  CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda are a pretty good 1-2-3 punch. Yes there are questions — Pettitte and Kuroda have to age eventually and this year could be it — but it’s not hard to see those three pitching pretty well in 2013 either. The back end is a lot sketchier — David Phelps, Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova are either injury or performance risks — but there isn’t a black hole here. The likes of Jonathan Sanchez and Aaron Cook aren’t walking in that door, thank God.
  • Also, while the offseason additions weren’t inspiring, there is certainly upside. Kevin Youkilis is not what he was but he’s still capable of a bounceback season. Travis Hafner’s power from the left side is tailor made for Yankee Stadium. I don’t think that Ichiro Suzuki is gonna replicate his post-trade numbers from last season and the less said about the Vernon Wells acquisition the better, but it’s not like Brian Cashman sat in his office and looked at lolcats all winter.
  • Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter’s injuries get more press, but the Yankees need Curtis Granderson back before anyone. He didn’t look at lolcats all winter, but Brian Cashman’s outfield acquisitions make my head hurt. Wells, Brennan Boesch, Juan Rivera and Ben Francisco are no saviors. For the Yankees to have a punchers’ chance they need Granderson’s power back in the lineup and they need to limit their lineup holes to catcher and, until Mark Teixeira comes back, first base.
  • Mariano Rivera’s last hurrah is going to be sad to see. We’ve been in the presence of greatness for many years and often took it for granted. I’m sure someone has figured out how many different dudes held full time closer jobs since Rivera took over ninth inning duties for the Yankees. The number has to be huge. The worst part about Rivera leaving, however, will come if the Yankees are out of it come September. Because you just know the wannabe Roger Angells who work for the tabloids are gonna pen the most hamfisted quasi-poetic tributes you’ve ever seen, equating the Yankees’ demise with the end of Rivera’s career.  Actually, I kinda want this to happen. Bad prose is awful, but truly wretched prose can be sublime in its own twisted way.

So how are they gonna do?

More AL East bet-hedging. I could see first place or last place or anyplace in between. For now let’s call them Third Place, American League East, but don’t give me any “ah-has!” if they’re in the playoffs again. Because I’m one of the few people not burying these guys at the moment, and could easily see them make the playoffs again.

2013 Preview: Baltimore Orioles

Baltimore Orioles' Johnson pitches against the Boston Red Sox during a MLB spring training baseball game in Sarasota, Florida

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 2013 season. Up next: The Baltimore Orioles.

The Big Question: Was last season a fluke?

Wanna make an Orioles fan mad? Tell them that the Orioles got lucky in 2012. Tell them that winning all of those one-run and extra innings games was fluky and rare. Cite their pythagorean record (82-80) and say that it was way more reflective of team quality than their actual record (93-69). Tell them that their — well, let’s call it good fortune for now — in close games was unprecedented in recent baseball history and, as such, it is not something that can be expected to be repeated in 2013.  Hoo-boy, they get rather perturbed at that!

Thing is, it wasn’t just dumb luck as in “wow, how the hell did that happen?” luck. Winning so many tight games was mostly a function of the bullpen. Jim Johnson, Darren O’Day, Pedro Strop, Troy Patton and Luis Ayala all managed to have great seasons at once, and Buck Showalter was damn nigh masterful at deciding when to put them into games. That actually happened, without supernatural interference. But it’s also something that, historically, isn’t easy to replicate.

Which isn’t to say that the bullpen will be bad this year. It’s a very good bullpen. But things change from year to year. Guys who had big workloads in one year like Johnson don’t alway maintain their mojo. Pitchers who have been hurt before, like Darren O’Day, can get hurt again. No team in baseball history has ever had everything go right one year and then have all those same things go right the next year. It just doesn’t work that way.

So maybe the real question isn’t whether last season was a fluke. Last season happened and it nothing will ever take that away. But without even getting into the question of luck, one must acknowledge that what occurred last season as far as dominant bullpen work in addition to a few fortunate bounces here or there, is unlikely to occur this season or, at the very least, is not something one can count on with any amount of certainty in March.  If the Orioles are to make the playoffs again, they’ll have to improve in some other areas, anticipating that they’ll regress in the one area where the exceeded any reasonable expectations in 2012.

So what else is going on?

  • All of that talk about the luck of the Orioles and, particularly, their pythagorean record, obscures the fact that the team changed incrementally over the course of 2012 and the version we saw later in the season was legitimately good, not just lucky. Calling up Manny Machado and getting an unexpectedly good performance from Nate McLouth were sub-headline news items which nonetheless contributed to a team that did outscore its opposition late in the season. It seems, based on the very quiet offseason, that Dan Duquette and Showalter continue to treat the O’s as a work in progress which is better to be tinkered with than overhauled. This gives a lot of O’s fans pause, of course, but it seems smart given how uncertain the AL East is right now.
  • The bullpen was an obvious strength last year, and part of the reason it had to be was that the rotation was not one. Wins don’t matter a heck of a lot, but only one starter won ten games or more last season, and that’s just kinda odd for a playoff team. Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez and … Jair Jurrjens? Jake Arrieta? Field? Aren’t gonna scare anyone. A couple of someones in that group need to pick up the slack from the bullpen this year. I know many will clamor for Dylan Bundy to come in and save everyone, but it’d be a surprise to see him in the majors before September if he appears in the bigs at all this season. He’s really a 2014 guy, methinks.
  • The offense has some nice top-end-for-their-position talent in Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy and Matt Weiters, but it’s not an especially deep and potent group. Nick Markakis is healthy again and the O’s need him to return to his old form. A full season of Brian Roberts would be nice, but after so much time lost it’s hard to count on him being the Brian Roberts of old. Manny Machado has a ton of potential and a lot of room for improvement, but he’s still a baby. There’s a decent chance that Chris Davis and Nate McLouth remember that they are Chris Davis and Nate McLouth and do not replicate their second half production this year. In other words, the offense is a mixed bag.
  • Wilson Betemit got hurt on Monday and is going to miss at least the first two months of the season. The O’s will miss his production — he hit .302/.357/.502 with 10 homers in 255 at bats against right-handed pitching last season — but it’s worth remembering that he missed most of the end of last season and all of the postseason too, so Baltimore is not in uncharted waters here.

So how are they gonna do?

Like anyone else in this crazy division I could see them winning it all or see them finishing fifth. Sorry, I know that’s a copout, but that’s where the AL East is right now. We’ll call them: Fifth Place, American League East, but please don’t think of that as some sort of damnation. I just say that because Matthew already did the Red Sox and Rays and predicted them fourth and second, respectively, I did the Jays and picked them first, and I’m gonna do the Yankees and have a hard time picking them last ever. Take this preview for what comes before and consider the actual prediction to be the least committed prediction ever.

2013 Preview: Toronto Blue Jays

Blue Jays

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 2013 season. Up next: The Toronto Blue Jays.

The Big Question: The Blue Jays went for it this offseason. They gonna get it?

There’s every reason to think so. Look, normally I don’t look too kindly on assuming 20-win swings by any given team from year to year, but in 2013, in the AL East as currently constructed, and with all of the moves the Blue Jays made, I don’t think it’s irrational to think they can do it.

You don’t need me to recap the dramatic changes the Jays made this offseason, but I will anyway: They picked up Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Melky Cabrera and R.A. Dickey and gave up little if anything that would have helped the 2013 team. What’s more, they will be getting Jose Bautista back for a full season and can expect improvement from young players like Brett Lawrie and (maybe, because we’ve been saying this for years) Colby Rasmus. The rotation went from a flaming crater to a team strength and everyone else who was already there save Edwin Encarnacion can be expected to either be healthier or to improve. Most things went wrong for this team in 2012. It won’t take miracles for most things to improve. Even cautiously optimistic projections for this roster make them a strong, strong team. If some things break right, well, it’s a darn good team.

But the biggest reason why I think the Jays have a good shot at taking the AL East is that there simply is no alpha team in this division at the moment.  The Yankees are probably gonna be better than the current gloom-and-doom surrounding them would have you believe, but they are not the 2012 Yankees and, for the first month or two of the season before they get some injured players back, they may be way worse than that.  The Red Sox are in transition. The Rays lost James Shields and always operate on thin margins. The Orioles are no longer doormats, but they got an awful lot of good luck last year.

The Blue Jays can win this division because they got a lot better over the winter. But they can also win this division because no one else did, and because anyone can win this division. And anyone can probably finish fifth, with the spread between first place and fifth place being a relatively small number of games compared to the way these things usually go. Any person who tells you that they have some certainty about that to the contrary is full of it.

So what else is going on?

  • Not that there is reason for unbridled optimism. All of the additions contain some bit of risk. We probably saw the best R.A. Dickey will ever pitch last year. He’s 38. It’s possible that he found some new kung-fu that will help him be an elite pitcher well into his 40s, but it’s more likely that he takes a step back. Buehrle is still only 34, but he has a lot more mileage on the odometer than most 34 year-olds. Josh Johnson has been a mess of injuries for year. Rickey Romero is way better off being a back of the rotation risk than a front of the rotation risk but he’s been a hot mess this spring. On paper the Jays really turned that rotation over, but in practice there is risk here.
  • The back end of the bullpen is something of a question mark. Casey Janssen is just now getting game action in Dunedin thanks to collar bone surgery in the offseason and Sergio Santos’ 2012 season ended early due to shoulder surgery.  Darren Oliver is 146 years-old. Again, good on paper — I like Janssen a lot — but  it could go sideways in practice. Which doesn’t make it a liability. It’s an uncertainty, the kind of which goes to why one does not hand the Jays the AL East now.
  • Melky Cabrera has a lot to prove. He had two great seasons at an age when you can expect a player with promise to take a step forward, but then he tested positive for testosterone last year. Now everyone wants to forget that Cabrera had such promise when he broke in, claiming he was a marginal-at-best talent then and a PED-fueled fraud now. In the public relations arena Cabrera can’t win. If he hits again people will just claim he’s on PEDs and continue to believe he’s a fraud. If he falters, even a little, people will nod their heads in a self-satisfying fashion. Thing is, though, the public relations arena doesn’t matter. Cabrera could be the bargain pickup of the offseason if even approaches the production he provided in San Francisco and Kansas City.
  • John Gibbons is back. I always find it weird when a guy manages a team, leaves, and then comes back and manages the same team. The Blue Jays have done that twice now, with Cito Gaston and now Gibbons. If Gibbons screws up I predict either Jimmy Williams or Bobby Cox to return. And that’s just because Bobby Mattick and Roy Hartsfield are dead.

So how are they gonna do?

First place, American League East. Because fewer things have to break just right for that to happen to this bunch than for any other team in the division.

2013 Preview: Boston Red Sox

Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes

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 2013 season. Up next: The Boston Red Sox.

The Big Question: will the offseason spending spree prove worth it?

Coming off a disastrous season in which they lost 90 games for the first time since 1966, the Red Sox were among the winter’s biggest spenders, signing five of the game’s top 25 or so free agents:

DH David Ortiz – two years, $26 million-$30 million
OF Shane Victorino – three years, $39 million
1B Mike Napoli – three years, $39 million (revised to one year, $5 million + incentives)
SP Ryan Dempster – two years, $26.5 million
SS Stephen Drew – one year, $9.5 million

They didn’t stop there, either:

OF Jonny Gomes – two years, $10 million
RP Koji Uehara – one year, $4.25 million
C David Ross – two years, $6.2 million

That they limited themselves to rather short-term deals was a form of restraint. Not sure whether the Dodgers would be willing to bail them out again, the Red Sox wanted to leave themselves the ability to retool on the fly should their latest plan fail as spectacularly as the previous one did.

That strategy prevented the Red Sox from competing for the best of the best (Zack Greinke, Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton and others). And because the Red Sox wanted to protect their second-round draft pick (and, more importantly, the draft slot money that came with it), they limited themselves to pursuing free agents who failed to receive qualifying offers. Which makes one wonder if they really got the players they wanted or if there were compromises involved.

Because, really, it’s not hard to see how the Red Sox could have gotten more bang for their buck:

  • Victorino is coming off a down season in which he struggled to hit righties. He might be in decline at age 32. Upton, on the other hand, could still have his best days ahead of him.
  • Making his AL debut after being traded by the Cubs, Dempster posted a 5.09 ERA in 12 starts for Texas last year. Anibal Sanchez was better after his trade to the Tigers, and he’s far younger.
  • Napoli ended up receiving a much smaller deal after his physical revealed a hip condition. The Red Sox could have moved on from him and signed Adam LaRoche for three years instead, but he would have cost a pick.

For all of their signings, the Red Sox core remains unchanged since the Adrian Gonzalez megadeal: the team is centered around Dustin Pedroia, Ortiz, Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury and maybe Clay Buchholz. It also has an emerging regular at third in Will Middlebrooks and a very good prospect trio in shortstop Xander Bogaerts, right-hander Matt Barnes and outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr.

What we’ll find out over the next six months was whether the Red Sox were right to add $60 million in non-superstars to that group. If the team contends and keeps fans interested to the point at which soon-to-be-snapped Fenway Park sellout streak proves to be nothing more than a minor dip, GM Ben Cherington will be praised. But this looks to be more of an 80-85 win team as presently constructed, and if that holds up, the Red Sox will kick themselves for thinking more about 2013 than 2014-15.

What else is going on?

  • Lester and Buchholz currently rank 1st and 2nd, respectively, in the Grapefruit League in ERA. It might be worth writing off under normal circumstances, but perhaps the return of ex-pitching coach John Farrell as Boston’s new manager shouldn’t be underestimated here. Farrell was instrumental in the development of both pitchers during his first stint with the Red Sox, and at least half of the reason the Red Sox wanted him back this winter was for his ability to work with the team’s pitchers.
  • Bradley has been the shining star of camp, hitting .444/.523/.667 with two homers, 11 RBI and as many walks (eight) as strikeouts in 54 at-bats. Ortiz’s Achilles’ tendon setback has opened the door for the 22-year-old to make the team as a left fielder, with Gomes moving to DH.
  • Since Bradley is a natural center fielder, Ellsbury’s status as a free agent to be will be a frequent topic of discussion all year. Regardless of whether he returns to his near-MVP form of 2012, Ellsbury might be too expensive to keep next year, particularly since he’d likely be facing a move to left field. He’ll be a candidate to be traded this summer.
  • New closer Joel Hanrahan appears to be finding his footing now after struggling mightily the first half of camp. The Red Sox also have Andrew Bailey throwing well after an injury-ruined campaign, giving them a fallback in case Hanrahan struggles and potential trade bait come June or July.

Prediction: Fourth place, American League East.

2013 Preview: Cincinnati Reds

votto getty

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 2013 season. Up next: The Cincinnati Reds.

The Big Question: Is this the Reds’ year?

It certainly has that feel. The Reds tallied 97 wins in 2012 and made a massive roster upgrade this winter, acquiring outfielder Shin-Soo Choo from the Indians as part of a three-team, nine-player trade that also involved the Diamondbacks. Shoo boasts a shiny .289/.381/.465 career batting line and will finally bring some stability to Cincinnati’s leadoff spot. Reds leadoff men hit .208/.254/.327 last season.

First baseman Joey Votto has led the National League in on-base percentage for three straight years, Brandon Phillips is probably the best defensive second baseman in the bigs and has averaged 21 homers per season since 2006. Ryan Ludwick, who was re-signed to a two-year, $15 million free agent contract in December, posted an .877 OPS, 26 home runs and 80 RBI in 125 games last summer. Right fielder Jay Bruce carries MVP upside, Todd Frazier brings the thunder at third base and Zack Cozart has flashed good power potential while playing a fine shortstop. Then there’s catcher Ryan Hanigan, who owns a .370 career OBP and draws rave reviews from those in the know for the way he handles the Cincinnati pitching staff.

The Reds also have decent depth in young backup catcher Devin Mesoraco and outfielder Chris Heisey. Utility infielder Jason Donald came over in the Choo trade and Jack Hannahan was signed as a free agent.

This is a team with ample big bats and a home stadium that caters well to raw power. Boom, suckas.

What Else Is Going On?

  • The outfield defense is iffy. Choo has started only 10 games in center field in his eight-year major league career, but that’s where he’ll play the majority of the time in 2013. Ludwick has good instincts, but he turns 35 years old in July and isn’t suddenly going to gain more defensive range. Bruce possesses a big arm but can’t be considered speedy. The group should do fine at Great American Ball Park — where the dimensions are tight — but there might be some unintentional comedy this year on the road.
  • The Reds’ top-five starters only missed one total outing in 2012 — and it was the nightcap of a mid-August doubleheader. That crew carries good health into 2013 and should again be one of the better rotations in the National League. Johnny Cueto finished fourth in the Cy Young Award voting last year after posting a 2.78 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 170/49 K/BB ratio across 217 innings. Mat Latos was also excellent, posting a 3.48 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 185/64 K/BB ratio in 209 1/3 frames. Bronson Arroyo continued his inning-eating ways, Homer Bailey took a leap forward and Mike Leake was solid in bringing up the rear.
  • Aroldis Chapman was expected to finally make the transition from reliever to starter this spring, but the Reds cut the chord on that plan earlier this month. The flame-throwing lefty expressed a desire to remain in the bullpen and it’s what manager Dusty Baker wanted. Chapman’s value can be better maximized when he’s throwing more innings, but feeling comfortable is important too and he should again excel in the ninth-inning role. Setting him up this year will be Jonathan Broxton, who was signed to a three-year, $21 million contract this winter, and Sean Marshall, one of the steadiest middle relievers in the game.
  • Start stocking up on popcorn for the Billy Hamilton show. The 22-year-old speedster is converting from shortstop to center field and is scheduled to make his MLB debut at some point in 2013. He stole a record 155 bases in 132 games last season between High-A Bakersfield and Double-A Pensacola while managing to hit .311/.410/.420. Baseball America ranks him the 11th-best prospect in the sport.

Prediction: First place in the National League Central, surpassing 100 victories.