2015 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 2015 season. Next up: The New York Yankees.

The Big Question: Is there a team with a more extreme possibility of outcomes in 2015 than the Yankees?

Hard to see one. Which may surprise some of you given that, in the mind of the general baseball public, the Yankees are toast. Really, strike up a conversation about the Bombers with casual baseball fans anyplace, even in New York, and the sentiments will very quickly turn to “well, it was a nice run” with very few people giving them an actual chance in 2015.

But it’s premature in my mind to write the Yankees off. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which they win, say, 88 games and make the playoffs. To be sure, that scenario is not particularly likely to play out and getting there is going to take everything breaking right with a lot of older players with injury histories. That’s not, historically, the sort of bet on which smart gamblers make a lot of money.

But nor is it sheer fantasy to suggest that two young, potential ace pitchers — Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda — can bounce back from injury and that CC Sabathia can put in an innings-eatery sort of year which makes him a nice third starter. It’s not crazy to think that Brian McCann will bounce back to his old self after last season’s quite unexpectedly bad year. It’s not insane to think that they won’t get better production at shortstop, second base and third base because, really, it’s hard to imagine it being worse. It’s not a totally loony thing to think that one, two or some combination of Jacoby Ellsbury, Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran and Alex Rodriguez will give the Yankees more in 2015 than they did in 2014, even if we can’t expect them to be megastars again.

The point here isn’t that the Yankees are a good bet to be a playoff team. They’re not. It’s just that they (a) won 84 games last year, even if it feels like they were terrible; (b) they have more guys who can be expected to have better years in 2015 than they did in 2014 than worse ones; and (c) it’s not going to take 95-100 wins to make the playoffs out of the AL East.

Is this the Bronx Bombers we’ve lived with for most of the past two decades? Is this a mid-dynasty kind of team? Nope. Not by damn sight. Indeed, it’s a team that, if it experiences even an average amount of decline and injury for a roster of its age, could totally crater. And that’s before you take into account the possibility that Tanaka or Pineda could have injury setbacks, which may immediately sink New York if and when it happens.

But, if things break just so, it’s a club that could, without total miracles, improve by five or six games over where it was last year. And in the age of parity and two wild cards, that can be enough.

What else is going on?

  • Oh, one other reason not to write the Yankees off just yet? Killer bullpen. The sort of bullpen which quite often elevates a team no one thought much of into contending status. Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller may be the best lefty-righty combination in baseball. Each of them could be a closer for a championship team. Joe Girardi is going to have all kinds of options here, including making them a two-headed closer combo, allowing him to use whichever of these two match up best with seventh or eighth inning threats while still having someone around to lock down the ninth. That’s before you get to the considerable number of other power arms hanging around, and another good lefty in Chasen Shreve. It may not make Yankees fans happy to be compared to the Royals, but it’s a model that works, even if a club has a sputtering offense.
  • While the top three starters I mentioned above provide some upside, it’s pretty darn risky upside. Tanaka’s UCL could give up the ghost, Pineda could struggle with injury once again and Sabathia could show us that all of those innings he tossed earlier in his career have finally caught up with him. Really, the rotation is the most make-or-break part of this club. The break comes from the fact that there really are no reinforcements if the top three guys don’t come through. Starters four and five are Nathan Eovaldi and Chris Capuano. Starters 6-10 may include Sterling Hitchcock and Andy Hawkins.
  • A-Rod got all of the headlines this winter and early spring, but he’s been quiet since camp opened. And he’s been useful, according to his manager. Some have suggested cutting him to get the famous addition-by-subtraction effect. He may, actually, be a nice addition to the Yankees lineup when he DHs or the bench when he doesn’t.
  • Always an x-factor, even if it’s one that goes criminally underappreciated: Joe Girardi. The Yankees have outperformed their Pythagorean record the last two seasons, and he should get a lot of the credit for that. Primarily for his bullpen management. Maybe that’s not the sort of thing that holds up — maybe last year’s 84-win club should’ve won just 77 games and, this year, their results will fall far more closely in line with numerical expectations — but it’s hard to find a team whose manager does less to harm them and more to nudge them ahead than the Yankees. Even if Girardi doesn’t get much credit for it.

Prediction: All of that talk about upside notwithstanding, let us not delude ourselves. The Yankees are still an old team. They’re an old team counting on multiple guys with serious injury histories and risks to bounce back and be healthy and effective. That could happen, but it’s gonna require long odds to pay off and multiple needles to be threaded. Ask the Phillies how those sorts of bets pay off. If everyone feels their age and even one or two key injuries happen, this could be the worst Yankees team in 25 years. If everything breaks right and the bullpen powers them forward, they could sneak up and snag a wild card.

So let us hedge our bets and say that they’ll find themselves in Third Place, American League East, even if a more likely outcome is both better and worse than that.

Whitewash: Rob Manfred says he doesn’t think sign stealing extends beyond the Astros

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Rob Manfred said today that he believes the sign-stealing scandal which has taken over the news in the past week does not extend beyond the Houston Astros. His exact words, via Jeff Passan of ESPN:

“Right now, we are focused on the information that we have with respect to the Astros. I’m not going to speculate on whether other people are going to be involved. We’ll deal with that if it happens, but I’m not going to speculate about that. I have no reason to believe it extends beyond the Astros at this point in time.”

This is simply incredible. As in literally not credible.

It’s not credible because, just last week, in the original story in The Athletic, it was reported that the Astros system was set up by two players, one of whom was “a hitter who was struggling at the plate and had benefited from sign stealing with a previous team, according to club sources . . . they were said to strongly believe that some opposing teams were already up to no good. They wanted to devise their own system in Houston. And they did.”

The very next day Passan reported that Major League Baseball would not limit its focus to the Astros. Rather, the league’s probe was also include members of the 2019 Astros and would extend to other teams as well. Passan specifically mentioned the 2018 Red Sox which, of course, were managed by Alex Cora one year after he left Houston, where he was A.J. Hinch’s bench coach.

Add into this the Red Sox’ pre-Cora sign-stealing with Apple Watches and widespread, informed speculation on the part of players and people around the game that many teams do this sort of thing, and one can’t reasonably suggest that only the Houston Astros are doing this.

Which, as I noted at the time, made perfect sense. These schemes cannot, logically, operate in isolation because players and coaches change teams constantly. In light of this, players have to know that their sign-stealing would be found out by other teams eventually. They continue to do it, however, because they know other teams do it too. As is the case with pitchers using pine tar or what have you, they don’t rat out the other team so they, themselves, will not be ratted out. It’s a mutually-assured destruction that only exists and only works if, in fact, other teams are also stealing signs.

So why is Major League Baseball content to only hang the Astros here? I can think of two reasons.

One is practical. They had the Astros fall in their lap via former Astro Mike Fiers — obviously not himself concerned with his current team being busted for whatever reason — going on the record with his accusation. That’s not likely to repeat itself across baseball and thus it’d be quite difficult for Major League Baseball to easily conduct a wide investigation. Who is going to talk? How can baseball make them talk? It’d be a pretty big undertaking.

But there’s also the optics. Major League Baseball has had a week to think about the report of the Astros sign-stealing and, I suspect, they’ve realized, like everyone else has realized, that this is a major scandal in the making. Do they really want to spend the entire offseason — and longer, I suspect, if they want a thorough investigation — digging up unflattering news about cheating in the sport? Do they really want to be in the bad news creation business? I doubt they do, so they decided to fence off the Astros, hit them hard with penalties, declare victory and move on.

Which is to say, it’s a whitewash.

It’s something the league has tried to do before. They did it with steroids and it didn’t work particularly well.

In 1998 Mark McGwire, that game’s biggest star at the time, was found to have the PED androstenedione in his locker. It was a big freakin’ deal. Except . . . nothing happened. Major League Baseball planned to “study” the drug but most of the fallout was visited upon the reporter who made it public. It was accompanied by some shameful conduct by both Major League Baseball and the baseball press corps who eagerly went after the messenger rather than cover the story properly.

Four years later Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco went public with their PED use and said drug use was widespread. MLB’s response was slow and, again, sought to isolated the known offenders, singling out Caminiti as a troubled figure — which he was — and Canseco as a kook — which he kind of is — but doing them and the story a disservice all the same.

The league eventually created a rather toothless testing and penalty regime. Congress and outside investigative reporters filled the void created by the league’s inaction, calling hearings and publishing damning stories about how wide PED use was in the game. Eventually Bud Selig commissioned the Mitchell Report. Some ten years after the McGwire incident baseball had at least the beginnings of a sane approach to PEDs and a more effective testing plan, but it was pulled to it kicking and screaming, mostly because doing anything about it was too hard and not very appetizing from a business and P.R. perspective.

And so here we are again. Baseball has a major scandal on its hands. After some initially promising words about how serious it planned to take it, the league seems content to cordon off the known crime scene and refuses to canvass the neighborhood. Sure, if someone gratuitously hands them evidence they’ll look into it, but it sure sounds like Rob Manfred plans to react rather than act here.

That should work. At least until the next time evidence of cheating comes up and they have to start this all over again.