Had renowned physicist Stephen Hawking taken a look at the New York Yankees’ third base depth chart … or their bench (or lack thereof) … or their middle relief situation, he may not have been so quick to claim, as he recently did, that black holes don’t exist. That’s because the Yankees clearly have several dotting the field with Spring Training approaching.
That, however, is not to say the team isn’t improved from last season. It most certainly is, the retirement of future first-ballot Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte, and the departure of Robinson Cano notwithstanding. Nor is it to accuse General Manager Brian Cashman of not getting a lot of talent in return for the nearly $500 million dollars of Steinbrenner cash he spent on free agents and arbitration-eligible players. He definitely did, headlined by centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury and catcher Brian McCann, both among the best at their respective positions; and Japan’s most dominant pitcher, Masahiro Tanaka.
Yet, when examining the Yankees’ offseason shopping spree, a feeling of cognitive dissonance sets in when thinking about their payroll (Baseball Prospectus puts it at $195,215,709) compared to all the past-their-prime or not-ready-for-primetime players projected to play significant roles for a team desperate to make the playoffs after missing them last season for only the second time in 19 years. The “projected” qualifier is necessary because the current iteration of the team may not be what fans see after the trade deadline. But, on paper at least, Cashman came up, well, small in a few of his small-ticket pickups that every team needs to compete for a championship. Additionally, for a team whose clubhouse doubled as a triage unit last season (barring injury, Brett Gardner is the only player who is going to be on both the Yankees’ 2013 and 2014 Opening Day lineups), their big-name pickups each having significant injuries in their recent pasts and that the projected batting order will feature nine players north of 30 and five 36 or older, have to be reasons for concern.
Brett Gardner, Ellsbury, both of whom are 30, and 36-year-old Carlos Beltran have the potential to form one of the league best outfields. Gardner ($5.6 million for one year), who avoided arbitration, rates highly defensively, sees a ton of pitches, and is among the fastest players in baseball. In 145 games, he posted a solid .273/.344/.416 line while averaging 4.23 pitches per at bat (6th in the AL), knocking in 52, swiping 24 bags, leading the league with 10 triples.
The Ellsbury signing ($153 million over seven years) gave the Yankees one of the best center fielders and most dynamic players in the league, in addition to signaling Robinson Cano’s days as a Bomber likely were numbered. An integral part of the Red Sox’s championship team, with great defensive skills, Ellsbury paced the league in stolen bases with 52 while hitting .298 with a .781 OPS. A left-handed hitter, Ellsbury is likely to see an increase in his power numbers (he hit only nine last season after clubbing 32 in 2011) in the friendly confines of Yankee Stadium. New York didn’t waste a lot of time replacing Cano’s bat in the lineup, inking Beltran ($45 million over three) to a deal the same day Cano left for Seattle. Besides the age, there’s little not to like about Beltran’s presence in the lineup. In the past two seasons with St. Louis, the switch hitter averaged 28 home runs and more than 90 RBI. Making Beltran even more attractive to the Yankees is his postseason track record: 51 games, 16 homers, 40 RBI, and a .333/.683/1.128 line.
The Yankees brought in another big-ticket position player in McCann ($85 million over five years), which was arguably their most important pickup. The reason can be found in a set of three figures: .213/.289/.298. That’s the line New York’s catchers produced last season. So, to say the five-time Silver Slugger winner, who has a career line of .277/.350/.473 and who has hit at least 20 homers in each of the last five seasons, is an upgrade is a galactic understatement. Behind the plate, the 30-year-old has thrown out nearly a quarter of the attempted base stealers over his career.
Ace C.C. Sabathia’s disappointing season (14-13, .478) and injuries to seemingly every high-ceiling pitching prospect in the Yankee farm system, made signing Masahiro Tanaka a top priority, so much so that the team gave the 25-year-old $155 million despite his never having thrown a pitch in the Majors. But, if his numbers — 99-35, 2.30 ERA, 1,238 strikeouts and 275 walks over seven professional seasons — from Japan can translate, the Yankees found themselves a young ace they can pencil as their No. 1 for years to come.
The Yankees have to be pleased they were able to entice Hiroki Kuroda to come back ($16 million for one year). Although he ran out of gas in his last eight starts last season (0-6 with a 6.56 ERA.), the soon-to-be 39-year-old kept the injury-plagued Yankees in the race for a playoff spot for much of the season and finished with solid numbers — 3.31 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, and 200 innings pitched — despite a 11-13 record.
In addition to Gardner, the Yankees avoided arbitration with three pitchers. Ivan Nova ($3.3 million for one year) figures to slot in as the Yanks’ No. 4. The 27-year-old bounced back from a poor 2012 campaign and stint on the DL last season to finish 2013 strong. In his final 15 starts of 2013, Nova posted a 2.59 ERA and 1.17 WHIP, and went 7-4. Nova finished with a 9-6 record, a 3.10 ERA and a 1.285 WHIP.
In 2014, David Robertson ($5.215 million for one year) has to be short-listed for The 2014 Most Unenviable Job in Spots: replacing the most dominant reliever ever. But if Robertson is as effective in the ninth as he has been in setting-up for Rivera, the Yankees will take it. Over six seasons and 329 innings, the 28-eight-year-old has a 2.76 ERA and 428 Ks.
Shawn Kelley ($1.765 million for one year) figures to take over Robertson’s old job as set-up man. Over five seasons, the soon-to-be 30-year-old has struck out 9.6 batters per nine innings, and last season, his first in the Bronx, his Ks per nine were a robust 12.0.
New York brought in reliever Matt Thornton ($7 million over two year) to serve as its lefty specialist. Over a 10-year career, the 37-year-old southpaw has held lefty hitters to a .233 average, including .235 in 60 appearances last season with Boston and the Chicago White Sox.
Well, for starters, there was Kuroda’s dismal end to the season, which perhaps was age catching up to him and/or the fact he’s thrown 200-plus innings in each of the last three seasons. Then, there’s Tanaka’s workload. Only 25, Tanaka’s arm already has thrown 1,315 innings, the most by someone that age since Frank Tanana 35 years ago.
Derek Jeter is as much a lock to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer as August in New York is to be hot and muggy. But the Captain is turning 40 this year and coming off a season in which he went on the disabled list three times due to complications from a broken left ankle he sustained in the 2012 ALCS, played in only 17 games and hit .190. The shortstop agreeing to a one-year deal ($12 million) may be an indication he intends this season to be his last. If this were the 1970s, when shortstops were typically all glove/no bat, Jeter’s backup at short, Brendan Ryan (one year at $2 million) would probably be a perennial All-Star as he is arguably the best defensive shortstop in baseball and arguably its worst hitter.
The Black Holes
Switch hitting second baseman Brian Roberts ($2 million for one year) is a career .278 hitter, with a .349 on-base percentage and 810 runs scored. The injury-riddled 36-year-old, however, has not played a full season since 2009, and has appeared in a total of 194 games since 2010. And Roberts has the unenviable task of replacing Cano at second.
To compound a history of concussions, Francisco Cervelli ($700,000 for one year) served a suspension last year for violating the joint Drug Agreement. But if he beats out Austin Romine and JR Murphy, Cervelli, who turns 28 in March, will serve as McCann’s backup. Cervelli has eight home runs and 79 RBI in 201 career games. That means Cervelli and Ryan, neither of whom can hit, will be part of Manager Joe Girardi’s pinch-hitting options (or lack thereof).
And, finally, there is Kelly Johnson ($3 million for one year), the Yankees’ apparent answer to their third base problem. The only problem is that Johnson, who has played 1,051 games in the Majors, didn’t play a game at third until last season when he manned the position 13 times for Tampa Bay. Additionally, his lines the last two seasons are awful: .225/.313/.365 in 2012; .235/.305/.410 last season.