Despite handwringing by analysts, thoughts of Yankees' demise are premature
The sky is falling in Yankees Universe. The Yankees are poised for the biggest meltdown since Chernobyl. Make room at the bottom of the AL East, Red Sox, here come the Yankees.
At least that’s the impression you’ll have if you spent much time reading or listening to national sportswriters and talking heads the past few days.
The main concern, as it always is in the off-season, is the age of the Yankees’ key players. They are viewed as the Rolling Stones of the baseball world. Throw into that mix the news about Alex Rodriguez’s impending surgery and Russell Martin signing with the Pirates, and then the Yankees’ new frugality in signing free agents, and suddenly you have the national pundits issuing Code Red alerts for the Yankees.
Bashing age of Yankees nothing new
This seems rather dire considering the Yankees last season had the best record in the American League despite enough injuries to supply a season’s-worth of episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. The Yanks are returning most of that lineup and most of the pitching staff this season, which would seem to make them favorites to repeat. Yet somehow the walls are crashing in around them.
Yankee fans are accustomed to this annual winter bashing of the Yankees, which started following the 2000 season when they were deemed too old to compete, then came within a pop-up of pulling off one of the greatest World Series comebacks in history. Before the 2009 season everyone warned that the Yankees couldn’t possibly win with a shortstop as old as Derek Jeter. Even before the 2012 season, many experts had the Yankees finishing third behind the Red Sox and Rays.
Yanks won last season despite adversity
Last season the Yankees suffered injuries to many key players. Among those with injuries were C.C. Sabathia, Michael Pineda, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Dave Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, Alex Rodriguez, Brett Gardner, Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher, as well as top catching prospect Austin Romine. Pineda, Gardner, Rivera and Romine missed the bulk of the season because of injuries, while Pettitte, Chamberlain and A-Rod all spent significant time on the shelf.
In addition, only Derek Jeter enjoyed a truly great season, although Hiroki Kuroda and Rafael Soriano contributed far more than expected. (Most people would put Robinson Cano in the category of great seasons, but as I pointed out in a previous column, linked below, much of Cano’s greatness was illusory. He had a terrific stretch in the middle of the season and an out-of-this-world final nine games, but for the bulk of the season his offensive stats were average to below average.)
The Yankees also had an atrocious batting average with runners in scoring position and were only 22-25 in one-run games.
Reason for optimism
Despite all of that, the Yankees finished with the best record in the American League (one more win than the World Champion Giants and seven more than the Tigers) and advanced to the ALCS.
So there is reason for a lot of optimism for the Yankees. They get most of those players back and healthy. Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova and Chamberlain have all shown flashes of brilliance in the past and are reaching the age where pitchers often put it all together for a great season. You have to think just by sheer chance they’ll hit better with runners in scoring position, which will help them win more of those one-run games.
Reason for concern
There is a lot to be concerned about, of course. Age is one of them. Rivera (43) and Pettitte (41) could be big contributors or suddenly start throwing like slo-pitch softball pitchers. At some point Jeter will certainly start showing his age. Hughes, Nova, Chamberlain and Gardner have all shown signs of their potential but have yet to fully deliver. The outfield is thin. The Yankees seem determined to make Romine the catcher, with plenty of platoon help, and he is unproven. Third base is suddenly a question mark. Joe Girardi has at times made questionable moves, especially with his bullpen.
Despite all the handwringing about the loss of A-Rod and Russell Martin, the Yankees biggest concern should probably be the outfield. Their best bet would be to re-sign Ichiro Suzuki and promote Melky Mesa, who had a good year at Triple A. Defensively, at least, it would be a strong outfield (although I still think they’d be better served putting Gardner in center and Curtis Granderson in left).
The loss of A-Rod is only a huge deal if you expect him to play like he did four or five years ago. If he was only going to contribute the way he did last season (.272, .353, .430, 18 homers, 57 RBIs), then replacing him won’t be as hard. It’s essentially what Kevin Youkilis did after being traded to the White Sox. As I mentioned in my previous hub, the Yankees may need to look at replacing A-Rod sooner rather than later, and may need to consider a long-term fix by making a trade. If they don’t sign Youkilis, they could still get by with a combination of Eduardo Nunez and Jayson Nix.
Plenty of time left to address issues
Age will force the Yankees to make some changes. I will be surprised if Jeter plays more than 100 games in the field this season. He hit well as a DH last season and putting him in that slot 50 or 60 times will not only help keep him healthier longer, but will also allow the Yankees to work Nunez into more games at short. I think they will also begin to work Robertson in as a closer because regardless what happens this season, I’ve got to believe it’s the last one for Rivera.
The off-season still has a ways to go and the Yankees could do some big things yet. They may decide to bite the bullet and go over their self-imposed limit of $189 million in salary. They could sign Josh Hamilton to play rightfield, which would make it easier to live without a power third baseman. They could make a big deal, such as trading Curtis Granderson to Texas for Mike Olt and an outfielder.
AL East will be tough, but Yankees can compete
Yes, the American League East will once again be a tough place to play. Toronto has improved thanks in large part to the Miami Marlins and look like favorites to win the division. But they still have to actually play games on the field. Tampa Bay is strong, but they have been strong the past couple of years and still finished behind the Yankees. Baltimore had a great season in 2012 but will have to prove it wasn’t a fluke. The Red Sox signed some new players who may or may not improve them.
So the Yankees have reason to be concerned at this point going into 2013, but they aren’t quite at the Chicken Little phase of thinking the sky is falling. Even if they slide off by a few wins, they’ll still be in the 90-plus range. And that’s never a bad place to be.