This Friday, pitchers and catchers report to the New York Yankees’ Legends Field spring training complex in Tampa, Fla. Not uncommon to this team is the bombshell off-the-field distraction to start the year.
In 2009, there are two such distractions: Joe Torre's book and the A-Rod steroids scandal. Even if you remove those two factors, spring training for the Yankees is the most highly anticipated in the league, thanks to the three biggest free agent signings of the winter: C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixiera.
This is supposed to be the grand wake-up call, the big-money old-fashioned Bomber spending that will put them back in the big show after nearly a decade of underachieving. Each one of these superstars is expected to put up big numbers, deal with the pressures and media with poise and swagger, and inject a fresh spirit of leadership and a je ne sais quoi that has been desperately lacking.
Teixiera will not be scrutinized nearly as much as the two pitchers. It’s been known that the offense excels, but the starting pitching is the component that has caused the most headaches for Yankee fans in recent years. This begs the question: Does the 2009 staff have the right stuff?
One thing’s for sure...these guys have to earn their pinstripes. Even after missing a huge chunk of 2008 due to injury, Chien-Ming Wang remains the ace of the staff. The finesse pitcher who is bound to pitch a perfect game before his career ends was the only one keeping the ship afloat during rough starts in 2006 and 2007. He’s twice won 19 games and his efficiency gives the bullpen much needed rest.
Meanwhile, there are many who see C.C. as the new ace. Not necessarily so. While he is a proven AL pitcher, C.C. has only once eclipsed the 19-win mark in seven years of major league ball. His torrid NL experience last year is definitely encouraging and he seems to have the charisma to psychologically make the adjustment.
In short, the diagnosis is that he will be a competent No. 2 but won’t displace Wang. Either way, his addition makes a world of a difference competitively for the Yanks. Look or 16-19 wins from C.C. and an ERA in the high threes. This cushion for Wang is something they have not had in a long time.
Similarly, in A.J. Burnett, there is a competent No. 3 who had his best year in 2008 with the Blue Jays. His abilities include resilience after Tommy John surgery and a wild side/independent character that allows him to mold his own image in The Bronx. Look for about 15 wins from him with an ERA in the low fours.
After the top three, the staff is still shaky. Andy Pettitte was finally re-signed, but his numbers have dropped considerably. The fifth spot will likely be filled during spring training, a tossup between Phil Hughes and Alfredo Aceves.
Ian Kennedy needs to be ruled out after his less-than-stellar introduction to the majors and a display of bad attitude. And a smart Yankees team will have Joba Chamberlain in the bullpen and realize that Joba in the pen is better than Joba starting.
Even though the staff seems very incomplete still, it is a far cry better than the one last year where Sidney Ponson figured to be a major factor.
As such, we can expect the Yankees to fare better in 2009, thanks to a much more effective starting staff. This is key in the AL East, widely regarded as the most competitive division in baseball, mostly because of the power-hitting Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays and the upstart AL Champion Rays. The Red Sox have had the upper hand on the pitching staff in recent years, with Beckett, Dice-K and Lester giving the Yanks trouble. Plus, the Rays’ young arms are a formidable bunch.
The Yanks’ staff already puts them ahead of the Blue Jays and Orioles. However, it is also likely that their superstar factor will dismantle the Rays’ crown. The Rays’ pitchers will only get better but the trio the Yankees have going can topple them head-to-head. This can essentially be a Boston-New York race once again, as the top three for each match up very well.
If the two new starters prove they have the focus to pitch here, they can win a dogfight with the Red Sox. That’s the only real concern when you consider the genuine talent that Sabathia and Burnett have. If they can’t measure up to this, then leaving Wang as the only headstrong starter will leave them open to annihilation by the Red Sox.
Now, if they can only steer clear of any A-Rod/Joe Torre news.