Step-by-Step Plan for Yankees to Give Derek Jeter One Final Ring in 2014
In a recent survey of 23 front office executives conducted by ESPN's Jayson Stark, the New York Yankees were chosen as the most improved team of the offseason. And, at least on paper, that's probably true.
But for a team that may have had more glaring weaknesses on their big league roster than any other team in baseball heading into the offseason, it doesn't necessarily put them in line for a playoff spot and another World Series championship.
With a lot less questions to answer now and much more room for error on this Yankees team, however, it does make it much more likely that future Hall of Famer Derek Jeter, who announced that he will retire after the 2014 season, can go out on top with what would be his sixth World Series championship.
Several things will need to fall into place, though. Here's a step-by-step plan for the Yankees to give the 13-time All-Star one final ring before he hangs up his cleats.
A Healthy Derek Jeter
The Yankees should have several options next offseason as they look to replace their legendary shortstop. In 2014, however, they'll need a healthy and productive Derek Jeter (pictured) on the field for at least 120-130 games. His backups, Brendan Ryan and Eduardo Nuñez, will need to be just good enough to where Jeter's absence when he's not the starting shortstop won't be a major drop-off.
Even if his production at the plate is limited, Ryan's defense should give the team a boost while Nuñez, who started 69 games at shortstop last season, could earn a fair share of playing time if he can carry over his success from late last season when he posted a .762 OPS in his final 162 at-bats.
The more the Yankees can rely on Ryan and Nuñez, the more they can give Jeter a day off or utilize him in the designated hitter role. The more they can rest Jeter, the more likely he is to give them 120-130 games—he recently expressed confidence that he could be the star player he was prior to the ankle injury that derailed his 2013 season.
A Sabathia Rebound
All the money they spent to improve their 2014 team—they re-signed Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year deal and gave big-money, multi-year contracts to Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Masahiro Tanaka—could be all for naught if CC Sabathia (pictured) can't bounce back from an awful end to the 2013 season.
The 33-year-old lefty, who went 74-29 with a 3.22 ERA, 2.4 BB/9 and 8.2 K/9 in his first four seasons as a Yankee, was having another solid season in 2013 before hitting a wall in mid-July. Over his final 13 starts, Sabathia posted an alarming 6.12 ERA with 37 walks and 93 hits allowed in 78 innings pitched.
While he pitched well in three of his four September starts, his age and his workload—he's averaged 230 innings per season, not including the playoffs, since 2007—would make his sudden decline more of an expectation rather than a surprise.
Still, the Yankees will hope that they can squeeze at least one more good season out of the former Cy Young Award winner so that there will be less pressure on rookie Masahiro Tanaka as he transitions from "best pitcher in Japan" to the major leagues and less pressure on an unproven bullpen.
CC Sabathia's days of being a staff ace could be numbered, which would make it extremely difficult for this Yankees team to place any higher than fourth place in the AL East, let alone return to the playoffs. The best way for them to counter that possibility is for Masahiro Tanaka (pictured), the team's $175 million investment ($20 million posting fee; seven years, $155 million contract) from Japan, to completely live up to the hype.
Prior to the 1995 season, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Hideo Nomo, who was then considered to be the best pitcher in Japan. As a 26-year-old rookie, Nomo took the major leagues by storm with his unorthodox and deceptive pitching delivery and a forkball that was unhittable at times. He posted a 2.54 ERA while leading the league in strikeouts on his way to winning the the NL Rookie of the Year and finishing fourth in NL Cy Young voting.
Tanaka, 25, will be under an even bigger spotlight with the New York Yankees. He comes over with even greater expectations and a secondary pitch, a split-finger fastball, that is widely regarded as one of the best around. If you buy into the hype, he can be every bit as good as Nomo was as a rookie and his impact could be even greater.
Whether he can handle the pressure that comes from being paid so much money prior to pitching a game in the major leagues, on a team that expects to contend in 2014 and in front of a fanbase that isn't used to losing remains to be seen.
If he isn't up to it, Jeter's last season could be a long one.
A Brian Roberts Resurgence
Replacing Robinson Cano's production at second base isn't possible. What the Yankees have done, however, is make significant improvements throughout the lineup with the additions of Brian McCann at catcher and Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran in the outfield to help make up for the loss of Cano, who signed a ten-year, $240 million free-agent deal with the Seattle Mariners this offseason.
It also wouldn't hurt if Cano's actual replacement at second base can chip in with at least a league-average contribution. The front-runner for that job is former Orioles star Brian Roberts (pictured), who has averaged only 48 games per season since 2010 and will be trying to bounce back at age 36.
While it doesn't appear to be much of a "Plan A," Roberts did show signs of life in the 77 games he was able to play in 2013 (.703 OPS, 8 HR, 12 2B, 3 SB in 77 games).
Roberts is not without competition as Eduardo Nuñez and former A's infielder Scott Sizemore could push him for the starting job—either player could also end up at third base with Kelly Johnson getting the majority of time at second base—but as long as he can carry over what he did in 2013, the job is likely his to lose.
The Yankees aren't expecting him to return to his 2009 form when he hit 56 doubles and 16 homers while stealing 30 bases. But without much of a backup plan in place, they appear to be leaning heavily on Roberts to give them at least 120-130 games of solid production.
Unexpected Pitching Staff Contributions
Having as many players live up to, and in a few cases, exceed expectations is a key to any team's championship run. But in order to balance out the injuries and poor seasons that will almost always occur with key players on any team, there needs to be positive contributions from players who weren't being counted on heading into the season.
In the case of the Yankees, they are going to need at least one unproven pitcher to step up to fill out the back of the rotation and maybe four or five others to help stabilize the bullpen.
After CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova, the Yankees will hope that one of Manny Bañuelos (pictured), David Phelps and Michael Pineda will take hold of the No. 5 spot in the rotation. Some combination of the three might be necessary with Bañuelos, a former top prospect prior to undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2012, and Pineda, a former All-Star with the Mariners in 2011, likely to have innings limitations after being out of action for most of the past two seasons.
Phelps is the most likely candidate to provide a solid full season of production, though the other two have the ceilings to be much better. Jose A. Ramirez, the second-best prospect in the organization, according to Baseball Prospectus, could be a dark-horse candidate to help at some point in 2014.
In the meantime, the bullpen is an even bigger enigma. David Robertson will assume closer duties from the legendary Mariano Rivera, while Dellin Betances and Shawn Kelley are the front-runners for the setup job that Robertson is vacating.
While Kelley flashed his late-inning relief ability in his Yankees debut last season with a 4.39 ERA, 3.9 BB/9 and 12.0 K/9 in 57 appearances, the hard-throwing Betances has only shown off his potential in the minor leagues (2.68 ERA, 4.5 BB/9, 11.6 K/9 in 84 Triple-A innings last season) after failing to show enough consistency to stick as a starter.
Mark Montgomery, who has a career 13.6 K/9 in the minors, will also likely reach the majors in 2014 while veteran journeymen Matt Daley, David Herndon and Chris Leroux will all get a long look in the spring. The potential list of names who might be able to help is at least 10-15 names long. The Yankees will need to find some stability within that group.
Without a strong bullpen to close the door on opponents late in the game, this Yankees season could be the worst of the entire Jeter era.