Red Sox Outsmarting Yankees This Offseason: New York Needs a Backup Plan
It is very hard to look at the New York Yankees' offseason so far and qualify it as anything but a success. With $88 million coming off the books for free agency, New York has been able to sign two very good starters, CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett, while also beating out the rival Red Sox for the services of 28-year-old first baseman Mark Teixeira.
Although these moves drew criticism from fans and management figures around the game, it was not in fact an example of "spending like drunken sailors." New York had a number of pressing issues to address, and they were able to bolster both their lineup and starting rotation with young, excellent players, all while cutting their overall payroll from last year.
The one area that the Yankees have failed to address, however, is the one area that the Red Sox have once again done such a good job of bolstering: the bench and overall depth of the 25-man roster.
During the course of a baseball season, no team makes it through the 162 games without suffering at least some injuries. You would think that the Yankees, of all teams, would know this best, considering the remarkable number of crippling injuries the team has suffered in the past couple of years.
In 2006 the Yankees lost Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui for the bulk of the season, and were constantly searching for a No. 5 starter with Carl Pavano out for the season.
2007 brought more of the same, with Mike Mussina and Chien-Ming Wang both missing time in April, Phil Hughes going down for three months after only two starts, and Jason Giambi only managing to play in 83 games.
As if this wasn't enough, the Bronx Bombers were once again ravaged by injuries throughout the 2008 season.
On the offensive front, Matsui struggled with bad knees and only managed to play in 93 games.
Jorge Posada had a nagging shoulder injury throughout the year, playing in only 51 games and hitting three home runs.
Johnny Damon and Alex Rodriguez both went on the 15-day disabled list as well, leaving the Yankees with only three players who played at least 150 games (Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, and Bobby Abreu).
Pitching wise, things weren't much better, as Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte were the only starters from the Opening Day rotation that made more than 15 starts.
Wang injured his foot in June and never returned, while Hughes and Ian Kennedy were never able to stay healthy or effective throughout the season. Joba Chamberlain had a great two-month stint in the rotation, but he also went down with an injury in August and never returned as a starter.
All of these injuries can't and shouldn't be used as an excuse for why the team hasn't made the ALCS since 2004, but there is a lesson to be learned from all this: You can never have enough good players, especially when it comes to pitching.
In each one of the last three seasons the Yankees have seemed to be scrambling to find starters throughout the year, and they have been very hit-or-miss on this front.
In 2006, the Yankees got six good starts from Jeff Karstens, but saw Shawn Chacon and Aaron Small struggle after their great 2005 seasons. New York used seven different rookie starters in 2007, and ended up with nine pitchers who made at least five starts. Of those nine, three posted ERAs over 6.00, and only two of them were able to win at least 15 games.
In 2008 the Yankees trotted out 13 starting pitchers, and had to endure 20 starts from Darrell Rasner (5-10, 5.40 ERA) and 15 starts from Sidney Ponson (4-4, 5.85).
Obviously the easiest formula for success is to have all five starting pitchers stay healthy throughout the year. There is no better example of this than the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays, who got at least 27 starts by everyone in their rotation and cruised to 97 wins and a division title even though none of those five starters received a single Cy Young vote.
It is rarely that simple, though, so every team needs a contingency plan. For the 2009 Yankees, it is hard to see what that is.
Going into the season, the Yankees' rotation as it currently stands is Sabathia, Burnett, Wang, Chamberlain, and Hughes, with Alfredo Aceves and Ian Kennedy waiting in the wings. On paper this looks great, especially with the top four, but there are a number of question marks.
Although Burnett stayed healthy last year, he has missed an alarming amount of starts throughout his career and has only won 15 games or more once.
Wang has been a 19-game winner twice, and should be fully healed from his foot injury, but he needs to prove once again that he can stay healthy and win games for the team.
Chamberlain had a great nine-start stretch in the rotation last season, when he posted an ERA of 2.04 and the team was 8-1. However, he is operating under an innings limit employed by the team and has never had a full season as a starter.
Finally there is Hughes, who despite all of the hype has only won five games in the Major Leagues, with a career ERA of 5.15 and two lengthy stints on the disabled list.
If any one of these starters goes down, the Yankees have almost nobody that they can confidently send out to hold down the fort.
This lack of depth extends beyond the pitching staff, as New York's bench is alarmingly thin. Beyond Jose Molina, who is a very good backup catcher, there is almost nobody who jumps out as being a quality bench player.
When Teixeira was signed and became the everyday first baseman, the Yankees deemed that they had a surplus of corner outfield/DH types, and decided that they want to trade Xavier Nady or Nick Swisher.
Either one of these players could fit in as the team's starting right fielder. Swisher is the better fielder and power hitter, but Nady is the more solid average hitter and run producer.
If the Yankees do swing either of these two in a deal, however, they will once again put themselves into a hole when it comes to the team's depth.
The Yankees want to hold a spring training battle between Brett Gardner and Melky Cabrera for the center field spot, but both struggled greatly last year and it's possible that neither is full-time Major League outfielder material. The loser of that competition would serve as the fourth outfielder, not exactly a promising situation for the Yankees.
While all of this has been going on, the Red Sox have once again been making a number of savvy, low-risk moves in order to bolster their own bench.
The team signed Rocco Baldelli from the Rays, and he can play all three outfield positions and is a solid all-around player. Boston then brought back Mark Kotsay, who can help out in the outfield as well as first base.
While neither player is a star, they could both fill in when someone needs rest or gets injured, and the Sox would hardly miss a beat.
Even more important for the Red Sox, however, has been their ability to build one of the deepest rotations in baseball.
Last season, without Curt Schilling and with a struggling Tim Wakefield and Clay Bucholz, Boston seemed to only have three quality starting pitchers down the stretch. Instead of spending big money to bring in one starter, the Sox went out and signed Junichi Tazawa, Brad Penny, and John Smoltz to relatively cheap deals, giving the Red Sox eight potential starting pitchers heading into the season.
Although Penny and Smoltz are injury risks, they are quality pitchers when healthy and are not needed by Boston to be aces. Instead, they will be back of the rotation guys who may not even end up starting in the playoffs if the Sox are able to get back, but will certainly help them throughout the long and grueling season.
According to a number of sources, negotiations between the Yankees and Andy Pettitte went south when Pettitte rejected a one-year, $10 million deal that Brian Cashman and New York offered.
What I don't understand is why, assuming that Pettitte doesn't return, the Yankees wouldn't want to take a page out of the Boston playbook and use that money to sign another starter or two, or a starter and a fourth outfielder.
Despite the number of players who have already changed locations this offseason, there are still a number of free agents who are available and could be signed at a relatively cheap price considering the current market.
As far as starting pitchers go, the Yankees might be wise to use some of that $10 million on someone like Jon Garland, Randy Wolf, or Braden Looper. Any one of them could help out as the No. 5 starter until Hughes proves he is healthy and ready to win or could stay in that role for the whole season.
The Yankees did make one move to bolster their bench, signing former American League Rookie of the Year Angel Berroa, but there are a number of players that they could acquire at a low price who may prove to be very valuable down the stretch. These hitters include Eric Hinske, Gabe Kapler, Rich Aurilia, and Craig Counsell.
It is unlikely that the Yankees will do too much to alter their lineup before Opening Day, as they have already exhausted the majority of their financial resources for this offseason.
New York could acquire a starting pitcher by trading either Nady or Swisher, and still could make a trade for a center fielder, with the main name that has been discussed being Mike Cameron. In addition to these moves there is the potential that Cuban defects Yadel Marti and Yasser Gomez, a pitcher and center fielder who are currently working out in New York, could end up signing with the Bronx Bombers.
If the Yankees do anything, though, it should be to follow Boston's lead and take advantage of the current market, signing a number of players at lower cost to build a more complete 25-man roster. Until they do, it is hard to project that a team as susceptible to injury as New York will be able to catch the Red Sox or Rays, even with their significant upgrades.
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