2015 Preview: New York Yankees

64 Comments

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.

Nationals succeeded by spending money

Patrick Smith/Getty Images
1 Comment

Throughout the playoffs, the Nationals have been cast as plucky underdogs fighting and scrapping their way into the World Series. It’s somewhat true: the Nats overcame a dreadful start to the regular season after losing their star outfielder in Bryce Harper, and were heavy underdogs in the NLDS against the Dodgers, who won 13 more games. But the Nationals are not David in a David vs. Goliath story. They’re closer to Goliath because they have flexed their payroll muscle to fill the roster with talented players.

The Nationals didn’t come close to matching the 13-year, $330 million contract the Phillies wound up agreeing to with Harper, instead offering a 10-year, $300 million deal of which about $100 million was deferred. Losing Harper has somewhat defined their 2019. But they did sign starter Patrick Corbin to a six-year, $140 million contract, and they’re paying Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg $38.33 million and $37.4 million, respectively. As we saw in the NLCS, it was the starting rotation that carried them into the World Series.

Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young Award winner, will not win the award again this year most likely, but he once again ranked among the game’s best pitchers. During the regular season, he posted a 2.92 ERA with 243 strikeouts across 172 1/3 innings. Strasburg led the league in wins with 18 and innings with 209 while authoring a 3.32 ERA with 251 strikeouts. Corbin continued to impress with a 3.25 ERA and 328 strikeouts in 202 innings. As a unit, the Nationals’ 3.53 ERA from starting pitchers ranked second-best in baseball behind the Dodgers. Sounds about right for a rotation collectively earning about $100 million.

We — the royal we — have been quick to point out when an uncommon strategy works, like the Cubs’ and Astros’ rebuilding strategies before they came in vogue or the Rays’ use of the “opener.” It’s only fair to point out that a time-tested strategy, spending money on good baseball players, also works. The Nationals’ current payroll of about $204.5 million is third-highest in baseball, according to USA TODAY.

In September, the Nationals’ NL East rival Phillies were reported by The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal to have curtailed efforts to compete for a Wild Card because of a lack of certainty. The front office didn’t want to invest significant resources into grabbing a lowly Wild Card only to have to match up with the behemoth Dodgers in the NLDS. But that’s exactly what the Nationals did. The Nationals also swept the slumping Phillies in a five-game series September 23-26.

The Phillies aren’t alone. We’ve seen in the last few offseasons that teams have become loath to invest in free agents, particularly ones 30 and older. Even Scherzer took notice. Asked about the Nationals’ collective age, Scherzer said via The Athletic’s Rustin Dodd, “It just seems everybody wants younger and younger players. And everybody wants to forget about all the old guys. We see it in free agency, we’re not dumb. And the fact (is) we’re the oldest team and we won the National League.”

Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, and Josh Donaldson will highlight the upcoming free agent class. They could be joined by Strasburg, Aroldis Chapman, and J.D. Martinez if they exercise the opt-out clauses in their contracts. In the cases of Cole and Rendon, at least two-thirds of the league should be actively pursuing them but if the past few years are any indication, the actual interest will be muted and they won’t end up signing until after the new year. Front offices have continued to blindly recite the phrase “aging curve” while pointing at the Rays in an effort to scale back payroll. The Nationals, meanwhile, are putting the “money” back in Moneyball and they might win a championship because of it.