In 2008, the Yankees missed the postseason for the first time since 1993. The front office responded with a busy and expensive offseason. After trading for outfielder Nick Swisher, New York announced the signings of pitchers C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett to deals that, combined, exceeded $143 million. Later, they inked first baseman Mark Teixeira for $180 million. Those moves answered the team’s biggest offseason needs.
Before the start of the 2009 season, Alex Rodriguez admitted to using PEDs; however, that was the last bit of drama for the Yankees. Among the good news was Sabathia anchoring the rotation, going 19-8 with a 3.37 ERA; Texeira leading the A.L. with 122 RBI and tying for the league lead in homers with 39; and A-Rod driving in 100 runs. Powered by that trio, the Yankees won the Division with a 95-67 record and proceeded to capture the franchise’s 27th World Championship.
That was then, this is now. The Yankees, who responded to missing the playoffs for only the second time since 1993 by spending close to $500 million on four free agents – Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Masahiro Tanaka – find themselves in a situation comparable to 2009. Sort of. While parallels exist, the degree-of-difficulty this season seems to have increased exponentially.
Sabathia has lost significant mileage on his fastball; Teixeira’s offense has regressed big time; and A-Rod, while steadfastly denying using PEDs is suspended for the season for using said PEDs. Despite that, the Yankees do appear to have a potential World Series-winning roster. Elsbury in center and McCann behind the plate give the Yankees arguably the league’s best players at those respective positions. In the early going, Tanaka’s splitter looks as dominant as advertised. And Derek Jeter has looked downright sprightly at short.
Here’s the caveat: A LOT has to break right for the 2014 Yankees to capture the franchise’s 28th title. The regulars have to stay healthy. Sabathia has to prove he can remake himself as a pitcher a la Andy Pettitte. And the team needs to find some pop for its bench. Those are secondary concerns, however. Following are the three things that MUST happen for the Yankees to contend deep into October:
3. Jeter, Teixeira and Roberts Each Play 130-plus Games, and Someone, Anyone, Does a Serviceable at 3B
Tanaka, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova figure to induce their fair share of ground balls, which makes a sound infield defense a priority for this team. It won’t matter how much real estate Brett Gardner and Ellsbury can cover in the outfield if the infield is a porous one. That means Derek Jeter’s ankle can’t restrict his mobility at short. And that his double play partner, Brian Roberts – yes, that’s who is replacing Robinson Cano — doesn’t hit the disabled list for any extended period of time. And that Kelley Johnson, or whoever they round up, can at least can knock balls down at third. Most importantly, however, it means Teixeira, still a Gold Glove-caliber defender, has to be able to man first base most nights. If Teixeira trying to school Johnson on the fundamentals of playing the position this spring are any indication (and considering Johnson also must learn third after having played the position a total of 16 games – all last season – in eight seasons), the Yankees don’t have a legitimate second option at first.
Offensively, whether third is manned predominantly by Johnson, or Manager Joe Girardi goes the platoon route, the Yankees need better production — .231/.293/.340 – from that position than what they got last season.
Jeter and Teixeira are two of the more important hitters in New York’s projected lineup. Jeter figures to get the bulk of his at bats in the two hole, hitting between Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, and Texeira is going to be a middle-of-order presence, either hitting cleanup or fifth. Both players have to produce for the Yankees to score enough runs, because the alternatives are no-hit Brendon Ryan at short and who knows who at first.
It’s likely wishful thinking to expect the soon-to-be 40-year-old Jeter, who had three stints on the disabled list last season and played in only 17 games, to approach his 2012 numbers: a .316 average and a league-best 216 hits. But New York needs something approaching Jeter’s 2011 stats – a .297 average and 162 hits in 131 – to have a chance. Add Teixeira hitting in the .280 vicinity and approaching a .400 OBP to the wishful thinking category. In his five seasons with New York, Teixeira has posted a .260 average and .355 OBP. But, not including last season when he played in only 15 games due to a broken wrist, Teixeira has averaged almost 34 home runs and 106-plus RBI for the Yankees. New York needs comparable production from Tiexeira this season.
2. David Robertson Does a Reasonable Mariano Rivera Impersonation; Ditto Shawn Kelley Channeling Robertson in the Eighth
Ah, for those glory days when the Yankees played a seven-inning game and opponents had to struggle through two more frames? Over a 19-year career – the final 18 as a closer – Rivera saved an all-time record 652 games during the regular season, blowing only 80, and another all-time best 42 in the postseason with only five blown opportunities. The odds when Mo entered a game with a lead overwhelmingly favored the Yankees congregating on the mound to congratulate themselves on another W. For the past several seasons, David Robertson provided the eighth-inning bridge to Rivera; and Robertson’s was a very sturdy bridge. Over the last three seasons, he recorded 97 holds, ranking first in 2011 (34), third in 2012 (30) and second in 2013 (33). Over six seasons, Robertson threw 329 innings and struck out 428 batters for a filthy 11.7 SO/9 ratio, while holding hitters to a .221 batting average.
For his efforts, Robertson now is rewarded (or punished, depending on one’s level of sadism) with the task of replacing the greatest reliever ever. And while the sample size is admittedly small, Robertson history in closing situations is not great. Robertson has had 18 save opportunities and blown 10. But while the Yankees keep their fingers crossed that arguably the best set-up ma in baseball the last few seasons does a reasonable job of impersonating the Great Rivera, they also will have to hope (presumptive set-up man) Shawn Kelley can handle the role Robertson is vacating.
First, the good news regarding Kelley: He is a strikeout machine. Last season, his first with New York, Kelley threw 53.1 innings, whiffing 71, giving him a gaudy average of 12 Ks per nine innings. Over parts of five Major League seasons, Kelley’s SO/9 ratio is 9.6. Now, the not-so good news: While Kelley was unhittable during parts of last season, he was a human piñata during others. His ERA each month, from April through September was as follows: 7.84, 3.38, 1.00, 1.74, 3.72, 16.20.
If Robertson and Kelley both have successful transitions, the Yankees and their opponents figure to experience déjà vu all over again.
1. Michael Pineda Locks Down the No. 5 Spot in Rotation
The 1998 Yankees won 124 games (including postseason) and are, by definition, considered one of the greatest teams in the history of baseball. They did not have a legit No. 1. Rather, the team’s rotation boasted five No. 2- and No. 3-type starters who gave the Yankees a chance to win every time they stepped on the mound. David Wells and David Cone, both 35 that season, were past their Ace expiration dates; however, they went a combined 38-15 and finished third and fourth, respectively, in the Cy Young Award voting. Andy Pettitte, 26 in 1998, went 16-11 with a 4.24 ERA and a 1.44 WHIP. Hideki Irabu posted a 4.06 ERA in going 13-9. Cuban defector Orlando Hernandez was a maybe 32-year-old rookie who went 12-4 in 21 starts. The point of this history lesson?
The 2014 version of the Yankees does not need C.C. Sabathia to regain the fast ball that made him one of baseball’s top pitchers. They don’t need the 39-year-old Kuroda to carry the team the way he did much of last season. They don’t need Tanaka to go 24-0 as he did in his final season in Japan.
What is essential to their success is the belief they can win regardless of which starter is on the mound on any given day. Michael Pineda is an essential ingredient to that belief system. If Pineda – and early indications are positive – can regain at least some of the form that made him an All-Star in his rookie season with Seattle in 2011, the Yankees starting five would consist of Sabathia, Kuroda, Tanaka, Nova and Pineda. No Clayton Kershaw in the bunch to be sure. But five high-end No. 3 starters at the very least. That’s a recipe for a lot of wins.
There would be a secondary, and almost as vital, benefit to Pineda winning the No. 5 spot: David Phelps and Adam Warren likely would make the team as relievers, thus deepening New York’s bullpen, and allowing Girardi to rest Tanaka and Kuroda when he saw fit, by spot starting either Phelps or Warren. Additionally, Phelps enjoyed more success pitching in relief last season. As a reliever, he held batters to a .241 batting average (80 at bats) compared with a .273 average as a starter (253 at bats).