Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Are The Yankees Better Than They Were In 2009?

The Yankees won the World Series last year going away. Since then, they’ve turned over a third of their starting lineup, traded away relievers who threw 100 innings as well as the “center fielder” of the future,” and a former no 1 draft pick and let go of a two-time 19-game winner.

Normally teams that succeed as well as the Yankees did last year don’t perform so much maintenance on their roster, but apparently, the Yankees felt complacency wasn’t an option. The question is now, as we draw closer to "Pitcher & Catchers Reporting", with all the changes, are the Yankees a better team than they were 3 months ago?

Let’s start with the rotation. The Yankees traded Melky Cabrera, Mike Dunn and highly rated prospect Arodys Vizcaino for Javier Vasquez and Boone Logan. Obviously, this tightens up their rotation, something the Yankees felt they needed to address with Sergio Mitre taking the ball a little too often last year. In the playoffs, with Sabathia, Burnett and Pettitte the only reliable starters, Cashman felt getting a reliable 4th starter should be on top of the “To Do List.” The 5th spot presumably is up for grabs between Chamberlain and Hughes, with Mitre or Gaudin being very dark horses.

Overall, this unit, assuming it stays healthy—potentially a big assumption, considering Pettitte’s age and Burnett’s history—should be stronger than last year’s version. The top 4 are reliable, if not overwhelming aces (Sabathia excluded), and hopefully, another year under their belts, Chamberlain or Hughes should grow into the fifth spot.

Next up is the bullpen. Considering the changes from the Opening Day 2009 pen to the great one that helped win the Series, consider anything we surmise a shot in the dark. That said, there are causes for concern. First off, the Yankees traded Phil Coke and Michael Dunn—2 capable lefties that figured to be in the mix for the lefty reliever role. Coke became a Girardi favorite last year, while Dunn had a strong year at AAA and was almost certain to fight for a roster spot in Spring Training. With them gone, only Damaso Marte—awful in the regular season, but picked it up in the postseason—is the reliable lefty out of the pen. Boone Logan, just in from Atlanta has been, well, God-awful, in 4 major league seasons.

Beyond that issue, the pen shouldn’t look all that different from last year. Brian Bruney is gone, but David Robertson seemed up to the task of assuming his role. Gaudin and Mitre are fine as long relievers/spot starters. Aceves was one of Girardi’s main men until he tailed off a little towards the end of last year, but he should be fine this year. And whoever doesn’t get the fifth starter’s role should be the 8th inning guy—be it Hughes or Chamberlain—and should handle it very well. Call this one a draw between 2009 and 2010, assuming the Yankees find another half-way decent lefty for the pen..

OK, now the main course—the new Yankee lineup. In essence, the Yankees traded Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon and Melky Cabrera for Nick Johnson, Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner. How does that taste?

Well, Granderson and Gardner—especially if Gardner mans center and helps out Swisher in right a little—should improve the defense of the outfield. The range, with Granderson and Gardner should be better out there and the arms couldn’t get worse than Damon’s chicken wing. Granderson, whose .BA and .OBP have plummeted the last two years, can still thump the ball—he had 30 home runs last year playing a lot of his games in cavernous Comerica Park. And protected in the Yankee lineup and with a short right field, Granderson may have his best power year yet—and something of an overall revival at the plate. Or at least that’s the hope.

Gardner, who played decently last year, has the speed and pluck missing in the power-rich Yankees. And a .270 BA player with sick speed.... the Yankees could do worse with their number 9 hitter. Rule 5 pickup, Jamie Hoffman is the main backup. Shelley Duncan, last year’s AAA MVP, was let go. Lefty Juan Miranda could potentially be an emergency outfielder, but the Yankees probably wouldn’t want to see that. Look for the Yankees to pick up a spare outfielder—someone like Rocco Baldelli or Marcus Thames— for real cheap. Don’t even think Nick Johnson can back up anywhere in the outfield.

No, Nick Johnson comes in to be the backup first baseman/DH. When healthy—a big question—Johnson is a base-clogging OBP machine. Last year, Johnson was 3rd in the majors with a .426 OBP, including .477 in 35 games with the Marlins. Considering who will be batting behind him, Johnson should see some good pitches and potentially drive that number even higher.

That said, the trade off of Johnson with Matsui is apples/oranges. Their batting averages are almost the same, but Johnson’s OBP is off the charts compared to Matsui’s. On the other hand, Matsui hit 28 home runs—or 20 more than Johnson’s 8. For all his girth, Johnson is not a power guy, more a line drive spray type hitter. Also odd, is that Johnson is better facing lefties over his career, rather than righties—though he seemed to hit both just fine last year. The Yankees, in the end, felt that Matsui wasn’t going to be able to last another year on his gimpy knees—which by some accounts are shot through. And as a replacement, getting the guy with the 9th highest active OBP for relatively cheap wasn’t so bad. The Yankees don’t really need home runs anyway.

Overall, the 3 changes may wash out to be equal. The Yankees get a potential all-star in Granderson, but may get a guy on the decline. Who knows if Gardner works out in 2010? And Nick Johnson is just a foul tip away from another prolonged injured list spot. But Cashman and the Yankees feel that Gardner’s speed and youth, as well as Granderson’s speed and power and Johnson’s incredible OBP and plate awareness were worth any potential risks they may bring to the table.

One other change the Yankees made, and which has gone underreported, is the decision not to resign Jose Molina. Now Molina, who couldn’t hit a breaking pitch if he had a time machine and a tennis racquet, was on the Yankees roster last year for 2 reasons. A; he was great at keeping potential base stealers glued to first base, and B; the pitching staff loved having him call games. Burnett in particular, felt more comfortable with Molina, so much so he became his personal catcher for the postseason. And there’s no doubt that Molina did make a difference. The 2 new pitchers for the Yankees, Sabathia and Burnett both pitched far better with Molina than they did with Posada. Apparently, the Yankees have faith that either the new pitchers will develop chemistry with Posada, or that Cervelli will handle the pitchers capably.

It shows a great deal of faith in young Francisco Cervelli to be the main backup to Posada. With Posada catching fewer and fewer games—and a potential age breakdown—Cervelli will be seeing considerable at bats. And while he played well in 42 games last year, handling the staff well and batting .298, it seems almost a little foolhardy to think that a 23 year old with 42 big league games under his belt, and nothing in his history suggesting he can handle the Yankees for a lengthy period of time. If Posada should go down, look for the Yankees to make a quick deal for a veteran—unless Cervelli starts hitting like Pujols.

All said, the Yankees have the potential to be even better than last year. Cashman said his focus would be on starting pitching, and he delivered on that statement. Vasquez should be solid and easily man the 3 or 4 spot in the Yankee rotation. In 2010, the Yankees will have 4 above average to great starting pitchers and 2 high potential prospects battling for the fifth spot. They have a younger faster outfield and a high OBP DH. The Yankees won 103 games last year. With this roster, the potential is there to win even more in 2010.

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