Seasoned vets Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter need to carry the Yankees yet again.
Cue the annual spring training freak-out by media people and fans alike regarding the 27-time world champions, but this year it may actually be warranted.
Hyperbole or not, the New York Yankees head into the 2013 season with possibly their oldest and weakest roster in two decades. With the Detroit Tigers dismissing them from the postseason in the previous two seasons, it may not be so crazy to make such statements.
Brian Cashman and the Steinbrenner brothers did little to improve the team in the winter, although pitchers Hiroki Kuroda, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and outfielder Ichiro Suzuki agreed to return this season. They also brought in other veterans, like former nemesis Kevin Youkilis from the Red Sox, Indians DH Travis Hafner and Matt Diaz.
However, they lost 45 home runs from two starting position players—catcher Russell Martin and outfielder Nick Swisher. They also lost important bench pieces in Eric Chavez and playoff hero Raul Ibanez. Rafael Soriano, who replaced Rivera as closer after the ACL accident in Kansas City in May, also bolted.
Worst of all, much-maligned superstar Alex Rodriguez underwent surgery on his hip and will be out until July. Like him or not, he still has some power and baseball ability left, if he ever gets healthy. Also, the Yankees have lost center fielder Curtis Granderson until at least May to a forearm fracture. Granderson hit 84 home runs and drove in 225 men in the previous two seasons.
Going into Opening Day, the Yankees will be missing six players who hit 141 of the Yankees' major league-leading 245 home runs last season. There will also be a black-hole at catcher and in the outfield, as Brett Gardner takes over center for Granderson. That is absolutely significant and concerning if you're a Yankees fan.
The lineup for Opening Day will look something like this:
C: Competition between Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli
1B: Mark Teixeira
2B: Robinson Cano
3B: Kevin Youkilis
SS: Derek Jeter
LF: Up for grabs at the moment
CF: Brett Gardner
RF: Ichiro Suzuki
Is all hope gone? Absolutely not. This may be an old team, but there is still talent and experience on the Yankees' side. The AL East is very wide open, with all teams having strengths and weaknesses.
For a very long time, the Yankees have relied on high-octane offense to win ballgames. This year is a different story, and they may have to live and die by pitching instead of the home run ball. It's not exactly a bad thing, either.
Most of all, the pitching staff is strong—very strong. It is perhaps the most underrated in the game. Their rotation pitched well down the stretch last year and in the playoffs, as well. Here's what it may look like this year:
#1. LHP CC Sabathia
#2. RHP Hiroki Kuroda
#3. LHP Andy Pettitte
#4. RHP Phil Hughes
#5. RHP Ivan Nova or RHP David Phelps
Despite playing in the home run haven at Yankee Stadium, New York's staff ranked fifth in the AL in ERA and ERA+. Yankees starters ranked sixth in the AL in ERA, despite injuries to CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte, as well as numerous starts by Freddy Garcia and Ivan Nova, both with ERAs over five.
As long as Sabathia is healthy, he should have no problem posting his consistent numbers, carrying the usual massive innings load or delivering close to 20 wins. He's still clearly one of the greatest and most consistent starters in all of baseball.
Despite their age, seasoned veterans Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda will be able to anchor the middle of this rotation. Kuroda made a successful transition to the American League East last year and pitched masterfully down the stretch. Pettitte was knocked out for months after an ankle injury in June but was still able to pitch very well in his return to the majors.
Then we have the back end of the rotation, where the Yankees have quite a few options—all young. Phil Hughes battled inconsistencies all year but managed to put up a solid 16-win/191-inning campaign. His back injury this spring will give Nova and David Phelps a chance to make their cases to start. Michael Pineda, who missed the entire 2012 season, could be back in the summer as insurance for just about anyone in the rotation.
Just about any team in the league would want this amount of depth and potential in its rotation. Its success just depends on the health of Sabathia and Pettitte and the ability of Kuroda to still handle the AL East well.
Next, there is the bullpen, which is usually among the elite in the majors. Any team losing its closer could go down in flames, especially if he's as good as Mariano Rivera. Despite losing him to a torn knee in May, though, the Yankees still ranked in the middle of the pack in reliever ERA. Rivera's return should be enough to make up for losing Rafael Soriano. David Robertson is as good as any setup man in baseball. The staff could also receive a boost from full seasons from Joba Chamberlain and David Aardsma.
It remains to be seen whether a team that has long relied on high-powered offense will be able to switch to a team that can play small-ball and run-prevention in order to win close, low-scoring games—something the Yankees have struggled to do for the past couple of years.
The talent and experience is there, so there is still more than a chance for these Bronx Bombers this year. Don't abandon all hope just yet, Yankee Universe.