Before we go any further, let me state for the record, on March 8, that I am not declaring that I think the New York Yankees will be world champions in 2014. Not yet, anyway. But it's never too early to start examining the possibilities.
Last year, I was one of the few people (possibly the only one outside the Boston Red Sox organization) who picked Boston to win it all. It took a thorough examination of the personnel and perhaps a slight homage to the law of averages. This year, the Yankees are coming off just their second non-playoff season since 1993. Following their other rare miss in 2008, they reloaded as only the Yankees do and won the World Series in 2009.
The Bronx Bombers have undergone a relatively large makeover this offseason. Much attention has been paid to the retirements of Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte (and the pending retirement of Derek Jeter after this season), the season-long suspension of Alex Rodriguez, and the free-agent departures of Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Boone Logan. Those are major hurdles to clear, without a doubt.
But if any team can overcome such challenging obstacles, it's the Yankees. Once again, owner Hal Steinbrenner has opened his checkbook and let general manager Brian Cashman go to work.
Exit the aforementioned names and enter Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Brian Roberts, Matt Thornton and, oh yeah, a hyped Japanese import named Masahiro Tanaka. Include the return of Francisco Cervelli (50-game suspension) and Mark Teixeira and Michael Pineda (injuries), and the Yankees have done more than adequately patch their roster holes.
But just as intriguing as all of their prized acquisitions are their core players. One of the highlights of their 85-77, tied-for-third-place finish in the AL East in 2013 was the opportunity afforded to a number of young players who otherwise may not have seen the field. These are players who now have some experience under their belts and provide the Yankees with some much-needed depth.
That five letter word—depth—was so instrumental in driving the Red Sox to a title a year ago.
Offensively, many wonder how the Yankees will be able to overcome the losses of Cano, Granderson and Rodriguez and still put up runs the way they have in the past. The element of their lineup that could elevate them is their speed.
Ellsbury and Brett Gardner are two of the American League's best base stealers, and their presence at the top of the lineup could provide them a similar spark to the one that Ellsbury, Shane Victorino and Dustin Pedroia had while forming an unconventional one-two-three in Boston's lineup in 2013. (Also, don't sleep on Alfonso Soriano after the scorching start he had to the reincarnation of his Yankees career after a midseason trade from the Chicago Cubs.)
There will be a large spotlight shining on 28-year-old David Robertson this season as he attempts to fill some major shoes in Rivera's as the Yankees closer, but Robertson should be well-equipped to handle the role.
He has cut his teeth as Rivera's setup man since 2010, emerging as a dominant reliever with a nearly unhittable curveball and a cutter that would make Mo proud. Whether he possesses the mental toughness to handle the role remains to be seen, but all indications point to Robertson making the transition quite smoothly.
The starting rotation justifiably enters 2014 with its share of questions.
CC Sabathia is coming off arguably the worst season of his career, and Hiroki Kuroda hasn't lost a step but is 39 years old. Tanaka has the potential to dazzle but has never pitched in a major league game. Ivan Nova has “no ceiling,” at least in McCann's opinion according to Brendan Kuty of NJ.com, but has not consistently produced as a starter for an entire season. But Pineda could be the true wild card.
The 6'7” right-hander was once considered the gem of the Seattle Mariners' farm system before being traded to New York, where injuries have derailed his path to greatness.
Last season was a lost one for Pineda, but he has gotten off to a strong start this spring. If he comes anywhere close to what he is expected to be as a No. 5 starter, the Yankees could be in serious business with their starting pitching.
In the bullpen, bridging the gap to Robertson may not be as challenging as it seems. Even with Logan gone, veteran southpaw Matt Thornton, who earned a World Series ring with the Red Sox last year, will pick up the slack. Youngsters David Phelps, Adam Warren and Preston Claiborne all showed flashes last season, while veteran Shawn Kelley proved valuable despite an inauspicious track record with the Mariners. Prospects Dellin Betances and Mark Montgomery have potential, but their roles are undefined.
Youth can always spell disaster, but it also provides excitement. By the same token, because of injuries, ineffectiveness, etc., in 2013, Phelps, Warren and Claiborne now have had a taste of the big leagues and will benefit from that “trial by fire,” if you will.
From a managerial standpoint, the American League East may feature the best array of skippers in baseball. A major reason for that is Joe Girardi, who was shortchanged in the Manager of the Year voting last season after guiding a team that was at times full of castoffs to 85 wins.
Girardi earned instant credibility for winning the honors in his debut season with the Marlins in 2006 and is as adept at handling adversity and change as anyone in baseball. He is ready to tackle the challenges of a team that will look vastly different in 2014 than it did a year ago. That is an intangible quality not to be taken lightly.
While the Yankees have some talented company in their division—they still have to dethrone the reigning world champs, after all—it is hard to imagine there isn't some mystique left in the pinstripe uniforms, especially in the swan song season of one of the franchise's all-time greats in Jeter. Competitive balance appears to be as robust as ever, but the Yankees taking consecutive playoff absences is almost unfathomable.
One guarantee I can make on March 8 is that they will return to the postseason. Whether they become “this year's Red Sox” will be determined at a later date. But don't be surprised if it happens. And once again, remember where you heard it first.