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.

Swanson, Olson go deep vs Scherzer, Braves take NL East lead

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ATLANTA — Dansby Swanson and Matt Olson homered off Max Scherzer, lifting the Atlanta Braves to a crucial 4-2 victory Saturday night over the New York Mets and a one-game lead in the NL East.

The defending World Series champions beat aces Jacob deGrom and Scherzer on consecutive nights to take their biggest lead of the season in the division. New York, which held a 10 1/2-game cushion on June 1, faces its biggest deficit of the year with four games remaining.

Atlanta will try for a three-game sweep Sunday night, with the winner earning the season-series tiebreaker between the teams. Even though both teams are headed to the postseason, that’s important because the NL East champion gets a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Swanson’s 24th homer, a go-ahead, two-run shot in the fifth inning, touched off a frenzy among the sold-out crowd at Truist Park, the ball sailing a few rows up into the seats in left-center to make it 3-2. Olson hit his 32nd homer in the sixth, a solo shot into Chop House seats in right to put Atlanta up 4-2.

Austin Riley led off the fourth with a double and scored on Olson’s single to make it 1-all.

Kyle Wright (21-5) gave up two runs and seven hits with one walk and three strikeouts in five innings as he won his eighth straight decision. The Braves have won 16 of his last 17 starts.

New York went up 2-1 in the fifth when Pete Alonso, Francisco Lindor and Jeff McNeil hit consecutive two-out singles.

The Mets led 1-0 in the first when Brandon Nimmo singled, advanced on a walk and a single and scored on Eduardo Escobar‘s groundout. Wright, who threw 30 pitches in the first, stranded two runners in scoring position to prevent further damage.

Scherzer (11-5) allowed a first-inning single to Riley and a third-inning infield single to Ronald Acuna Jr., who advanced to third on a fielding error by Lindor at shortstop but was stranded when Michael Harris II lined out to center. Scherzer patted his glove and pumped his fist as he walked off the mound.

Scherzer was charged with nine hits and four runs with no walks and four strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings as the Mets were knocked out of first place for only the third day all season.

The Braves have won five of the last six against New York to tie the season series 9-all, outscoring the Mets 37-16 over that stretch.

Atlanta’s bullpen, which posted a 1.70 ERA in September, got a perfect inning from Dylan Lee in the sixth. Jesse Chavez faced four batters in the seventh, Raisel Iglesias faced the minimum in the eighth and closer Kenley Jansen pitched a perfect ninth for his NL-leading 39th save in 46 chances.

Since the Braves were a season low-tying four games under .500 at 23-27 after play on May 31, they have gone 76-32, tying the Los Angeles Dodgers for the best record in the majors over that span. They were a season-worst 10 1/2 games behind the first-place Mets on June 1.

Wright, the only 20-game winner in baseball this season, hasn’t officially become the first Braves pitcher to lead the league in wins outright since Russ Ortiz had 21 in 2003, but the Dodgers’ Julio Urias has 17 and can’t reach 20 before the regular season ends.

Wright will become the first Braves pitcher since Hall of Famer Tom Glavine in 2000 to lead the majors in wins. Houston ace Justin Verlander also has 17.

Wright began the game 1-4 with a 6.75 ERA in six career starts and one relief appearance against the Mets.

The Braves, who got homers from Riley, Olson and Swanson off deGrom on Friday, lead the NL with 240 homers.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Mets: All-Star RF Starling Marte (right middle finger fracture) has yet to begin swinging or throwing. Manager Buck Showalter said Marte is experiencing less pain but not enough to take the next step in his recovery. Marte has been sidelined since Sept. 7.

Braves: RHP Spencer Strider still has not thrown as he gets treatment on a sore left oblique. Manager Brian Snitker said there is no timetable for the rookie’s return. Strider has been sidelined since Sept. 21.

NICE GLOVE

Harris ran back and jumped to catch Nimmo’s fly against the wall in center field for the first out of the third.

UP NEXT

Mets RHP Chris Bassitt (15-8, 3.27 ERA) will face RHP Charlie Morton (9-6, 4.29) as the teams conclude a three-game series.