New York Yankees' Big Flaws Loom Large in Lifeless Start to 2014

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New York Yankees' Big Flaws Loom Large in Lifeless Start to 2014
Troy Taormina/USA Today

Maybe the New York Yankees are just trying to get all of the bad baseball out of their system now so they don't have to worry about it later.

It's either that, or the version of the Yankees we've seen in the first two games of 2014 is closer to the real thing than anyone wants to admit.

Take a wild guess which way I'm leaning.

If you've spent the last couple of days on Mars with your eyes shut and your fingers in your ears, what you've missed is the Yankees committing the unforgivable sin of starting off 0-2. They lost 6-2 in their opener Tuesday, and again Wednesday by a 3-1 final.

Oh, and I guess if you have been on Mars, this has been against the Houston Astros. Yeah, the same ones that lost an MLB-high 111 games last season. In the face of the Yankees' $200 million roster and all of the big-name players on it, the Astros have come out swinging.

Now, since it is so early in the season, you know "the drill" that must come now.

These are two games out of 162. Just as we've seen countless teams start strong and then sputter, we've seen a number of teams start slowly and then right the ship. Given the talent and resources at their disposal, these Yankees should be one of the latter clubs.

To boot, this tidbit might cheer you up if you're feeling down in the dumps:

“We’re going to be fine, man,” said Carlos Beltran after Tuesday's game, via Chad Jennings of The Journal News. “We haven’t been able to put anything together, but offensively I think we have what it takes to play better and win ballgames. So we don’t worry about it.”

Thus have we completed the drill, with the message being: Don't panic. It's much too early for that.

It's never too early to worry, however. And in racking up their 0-2 record, well, shoot, let's not pretend like the Yankees haven't displayed some things worth worrying about.

Pat Sullivan

We can begin with the one that was on display in the Yankees' opener Tuesday: CC Sabathia. The big lefty generated some positive buzz with a dominant spring, but then he kicked off his regular season by allowing four runs in his first inning of work and six in six innings overall.

I won't dive too deeply into Sabathia's performance, as that would be stealing thunder from the piece that fellow MLB Lead Writer Jason Catania did on him. He did a fine job of hitting on the big ol' question mark that's still there with Sabathia: His velocity isn't getting any better, and by extension, he's not getting any more effective at fooling anyone with it.

But it wasn't just Sabathia who looked bad Tuesday. The Yankees defense had a rough day too.

One incident involved a bad throw from Mark Teixeira that led to the run that put the Astros up 2-0 in the first inning. Another involved Brian McCann recovering a Sabathia pitch in the dirt and throwing it into left field. Carlos Beltran had a boot that allowed a runner to take second base after a single.

Bob Levey/Getty Images
Defensive Runs Saved by Derek Jeter from 2002-2014: minus-148.

Then there was the biggest gem of all: a ground ball to the left side that snuck past both Kelly Johnson and Derek Jeter. CBSSports.com's Matt Snyder has the cringe-worthy GIF, if you dare.

There was more what I like to call "duffence" Wednesday. Notably, Teixeira booted a ball in the third inning that allowed a run to score. Jacoby Ellsbury might have played two balls that turned into triples better than he did.

I'll put on my optimistic hat and say this: Teixeira, McCann and Ellsbury should all be fine. While we're on the topic, Brett Gardner should be too. In these guys, the Yankees have four players who have proved themselves as well-above-average defensive players.

But elsewhere? Nah.

A scout told Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com that the Yankees' infield range has to be the "worst in baseball," and it was easy to agree with that before the team had even taken the field to play meaningful games.

Johnson isn't a third baseman. Jeter wasn't a rangy shortstop to begin with and was never likely to get any better coming off an injury-ruined year while also pushing 40. Second baseman Brian Roberts is 36 and hasn't been an impact defender in years (see FanGraphs).

And while his job will be made easier by getting to play alongside Ellsbury and Gardner, Beltran is no prize in right field. The minus-15.3 Ultimate Zone Rating he posted in 2013 was the worst among qualified right fielders.

There's not much the Yankees can do about these weaknesses. They don't have better options than Johnson, Jeter or Roberts, and the only other position Beltran can play is designated hitter. That's where Alfonso Soriano resides, and switching out Beltran for him in right field likely wouldn't do much. Putting Ichiro Suzuki out there on an everyday basis would, but his bat would be a liability.

This means that, even if their four best defenders do play up to their talent, the Yankees are going to have to live with a few poor defensive games here and there. Their best hope is that they'll be able to score enough runs to offset the damage.

But about that...well, this:

Player AB H XBH BB SO R RBI
Ellsbury 7 0 0 2 0 1 0
Jeter 6 1 0 1 2 1 0
Beltran 8 2 1 0 1 0 0
McCann 8 3 0 0 1 0 1
Teixeira 7 2 0 1 3 0 1
Soriano 8 0 0 0 4 0 0
Gardner 6 1 0 1 1 1 0
Roberts 7 3 0 1 1 0 0
Johnson 6 1 1 0 0 0 0
Total 63 13 2 6 13 3 2

MLB.com

What you're looking at is an offense that's produced a .518 OPS in two games.

This unit is going to be better than that, of course. Likely a lot better, as the offense the Yankees have arranged this year is head and shoulders above what they had last year, and even that offense still finished 16th in MLB in runs scored.

What this slow start does do, however, is bring up questions about how high this Yankees offense's ceiling actually goes. And in light of what's happened, now's as good a time as any to acknowledge that its ceiling may not go that high.

Despite their excellent track records, Jeter and Teixeira are both potential liabilities. Teixeira's numbers were declining even before he hurt his wrist last spring, so it's especially disconcerting that he told the New York Daily News' Christian Red that his wrist is "never going to be normal" again. And while Jeter had a truly terrific season in 2012, he hit just .282 in the two seasons before that one. 

Gene J. Puskar
Beltran's OPS fell 121 points from the first half to the second half in 2013.

Beltran (36) and Soriano (38) are two more older hitters, and it's possible that both will be big disappointments. Soriano only had a .287 OBP in 93 games with the Cubs last season. Beltran's own .339 OBP was his worst since 2005, and his isolated power (slugging percentage without singles) dropped below .200.

McCann is no sure thing either. He only had a .296 OBP in the second half of 2013, a figure awfully reminiscent of the .300 OBP he posted in 2012. Yankee Stadium should boost his power production, but power without on-base isn't worth that much.

On paper, I'd say the Yankees have one of the five best lineups in the league. But their lineup is also a fine example of how paper can obscure two things: the potential pitfalls of age and/or injury and the statistics that might really matter.

Things are going to get better for the Yankees. At the least, we know this because it's not like they can get any worse. We also know this because, for lack of a better way to put it, they're too good to be this bad.

But it's times like these that you remember that the 2014 Yankees were never projected to be a superteam. They're still not, as Baseball Prospectus currently has them projected for an 84-win season, and FanGraphs only has them predicted for an 82-win season.

These are numbers you typically see attached to teams that, while generally solid, have too many flaws to achieve greatness.

And so far, the Yankees have looked the part.

 

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

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