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How Good Can the New York Yankees Be When Finally Healthy?

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How Good Can the New York Yankees Be When Finally Healthy?

Most of the words I've written about the 2013 New York Yankees have been of the pessimistic/naysayer variety. Based on the amount of negative buzz the club was accumulating during spring training, I'm not the only one who can say as much.

But today is a day for something different. Today's a day to be optimistic for the purpose of answering a question that needs to be asked.

When the Yankees finally look the way they're supposed to, how good could they be?

Short answer: Pretty darn good.

And now for the long answer.

The Yankees are already pretty good, as they entered Monday with a 15-9 record after a four-game sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays over the weekend. That they've been doing it with the likes of Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner and Lyle Overbay in their lineup only makes what they've done more impressive.

Eventually, the Yankees' injured stars will start percolating back into the mix. Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira will presumably come back first, followed by the recently injured Francisco Cervelli, the apparently not-so-immortal Derek Jeter and, maybe, the not-so-necessary Alex Rodriguez.

Now, the Yankees offense has already been better than expected. It's gotten a chance to feast on some weak pitching, sure, but I'll be damned if anybody had this star-less Yankees lineup leading the American League in home runs in late April.

So the big question, naturally, is how much better the offense is going to be once the stars are back.

Nobody has a crystal ball, but we do have rest-of-season steamer projections that can be found at FanGraphs  and be used to get a general idea of what the Yankees will be gaining when their stars return.

A good stat to turn to in this situation is one called "weighted runs above average," or wRAA for short. By FanGraphs' definition, it's a metric that "measures the number of offensive runs a player contributes to their team compared to the average player."

Here's a look at the projected wRAAs for the eventual returning players compared to those of the players they'll be replacing. We'll ignore A-Rod, as exactly who he's going to be replacing if and when he comes back is anyone's guess.

Player Replacing Player wRAA Replacement wRAA Difference
Curtis Granderson Brett Gardner 12.0 3.7 8.3
Mark Teixeira Lyle Overbay 16.7 -0.4 17.1
Francisco Cervelli Chris Stewart -1.5 -2.7 1.2
Derek Jeter Eduardo Nunez 3.9 -2.1 6

I'll repeat that we're just trying to get a general idea here, but you shouldn't be surprised to see that we're talking about significant offensive upgrades when these four guys rejoin the Yankees lineup.

Behold some Mark Teixeira defensive goodness; video courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com

Least surprisingly, swapping out Lyle Overbay for Mark Teixeira is going to be a huge upgrade. Teixeira will provide plenty of production by way of his power and on-base prowess, whereas Overbay is projected to give them pretty much nothing.

This is to say nothing of Teixeira's defensive talent, which is far greater than Overbay's. Teixeira totaled 17 defensive runs saved last year (see FanGraphs) and is the kind of first baseman who can make an entire infield better.

Elsewhere, Granderson, Cervelli and Jeter will also be offensive upgrades for the Yankees, even if Cervelli and Jeter are projected to be mediocre offensive producers when their time comes. Chris Stewart and Eduardo Nunez just aren't that good.

But the Granderson/Gardner situation obviously isn't that simple, as the Yankees aren't about to move a player of Gardner's caliber directly to the bench. He's no scrub.

In fact, I'd say Gardner is likely to stick around in center field when Granderson comes back, as Gardner is once again proving himself to be an above-average center fielder so far this season. He has three defensive runs saved and a 3.2 UZR (see FanGraphs).

What could happen is this: Gardner stays in center, Granderson moves to left and Vernon Wells supplants Ichiro Suzuki in right field.

That would be another upgrade for the Yankees. Wells has been a well above-average producer so far in 2013, whereas Ichiro has been a well below-average producer. 

What's more, Wells is projected by both Steamer and ZiPS to be the better player the rest of the season. Ichiro is projected to continue to be a below-average player.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Wells has three homers and two doubles against southpaws.

It's either that or the Yankees could take to platooning Wells and Hafner in the DH spot. Not a bad idea seeing as how Wells has an OPS over 1.000 against left-handed pitching and Hafner has an OPS over 1.100 against right-handed pitching. This would also be a way to keep Wells and Hafner fresh and, thus, more productive for the long haul.

As for A-Rod, the Yankees could look to ease him back into action by giving him the Wells role at DH against lefty pitching. On those days, Wells would play the outfield and the Yankees would have a lineup capable of handling itself against lefty pitching. 

That's not something they're doing so well, for the record. Entering Monday's action, the Yankees had just a .630 OPS against lefty pitching. They could use some extra firepower to throw at southpaws.

The ways in which Joe Girardi could constantly be tinkering for the purpose of exploiting matchups makes it tricky to go over to LineupSimulator.com, plug in some numbers and come up with a precise calculation of how many runs the Yankees are going to be able to score once everyone is healthy. So I'll just skip it and take a couple educated guesses.

The Yankees entered play on Monday scoring 4.67 runs per game. That's about a 757-run pace, which is decent...but not very Yankee-like. This is a team that scores 800 runs per year like clockwork.

If the injured players come back and everything goes according to plan, the Yankees surely aren't going to have any trouble ultimately coming closer to 800 runs than a measly 757.

But since we're talking best-case scenarios, there's always the possibility of Teixeira, Granderson and Jeter turning back the clock. Combine that with the platoons working out exactly as intended, and it's not crazy to think the Yankees would top 800 runs scored in the end.

That's pretty good in these days of deflated offense. For some perspective, the Yankees scored 804 runs last year, and that was good for second in the majors. Given the circumstances, 800 runs would be an even bigger victory for the Yankees this season.

Mike Stobe/Getty Images
Bronx Bombers, indeed.

As for pitching, the Yankees have one guy on the disabled list who could potentially make a huge difference in the club's starting rotation down the stretch: Michael Pineda.

Pineda's next pitch in a Yankees uniform will be his first, and it's coming pretty soon. Per the team's official site, Pineda threw a simulated game last week and could conceivably be back by June. The Yankees may be able to get half a season's worth of starts out of him.

How good could he be?

The best answer to that question is "Who the heck knows?" 

The more optimistic answer is "Better than you probably think."

The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports
It won't be long now.

Steamer actually has Pineda projected to make 14 starts this year with a 3.74 ERA. That looks pretty good next to Ivan Nova, whose ERA projections are all north of 4.00.

And let's not forget how good Pineda was when he was right. In his first 17 starts in 2011, he posted a 2.58 ERA and held opponents to a .564 OPS. If by some miracle he has any of that stuff left, the Yankees are going to have a top-end guy in the No. 5 spot in their starting rotation.

That's not a pleasing thought for the rest of the American League, as the Yankees rotation is already decent. Even despite some issues here and there, it still had a 3.63 ERA heading into Monday's action.

(Yeah, I'm ignoring the fact that Andy Pettitte got rocked by the lowly Houston Astros on Monday night. This is supposed to be an optimistic outlook, after all.)

This is all about how good the Yankees could be, and they could be pretty darn good if everything goes according to their plan (their ideal version of it, anyway).

Their currently shelved hitting stars could add both life and depth to a lineup that already has plenty of the former and could use some of the latter. Pineda could be the guy who stabilizes the rotation outside of Pettitte, CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Phil Hughes.

How many wins are we talking about here?

Well, the Yankees were on a pace to win 101 games heading into Monday's action. I don't see that happening no matter what, but they could easily win 95 games and then be ready to do some damage in the postseason.

The "ready to do some damage in the postseason" part is what would separate this Yankees team from last year's Yankees team. They may not end up with a better record, but they would have the goods to make a charge at No. 28 if the dominoes fall the way they could.

It wouldn't be the most impressive Yankees championship. In light of the way the season started, though, it would surely be the most unlikely one.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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