The Yankees experienced a magical 2009 season that resulted in their 27th championship. Everything fell into place in just the right way, and they avoided any and all unfortunate mishaps.
Alex Rodriguez was able to break out of his October nightmare, even after a crippling hip injury nearly derailed his season before it began.
Every season is different and provides a whole new set of obstacles, and this 2010 Yankee team is no different.
Here are the five most pressing issues facing New York in their hopes of a title defense, and it remains to be seen which—if any—will be the biggest hurdle for a confident and immensely talented Bronx roster.
Coming off of remarkable 2009 seasons at ages more typical of a stark decline, Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui combined for 52 HR, 172 RBI, and 169 R. They anchored a potent Yankees offensive attack, and provided countless clutch hits at the most opportune of moments.
Ultimately, Curtis Granderson and Nick Johnson were only able to provide 38 HR, 133 RBI, and 162 R total in their 2009 campaigns.
Granderson’s homer-hating ballpark is said to have reduced his overall production, though a man possessing his speed should have been able to contour his game to its endless outfield.
An eye-popping .426 on-base percentage fuels the optimism of Johnson’s Yankee reunion, though injury concerns regarding Matsui were in fact magnified by signing his younger, yet even more fragile, replacement.
If he can lace up his cleats without slipping a disk in his porcelain back, one would assume Johnson can increase his power numbers in his new home. As an “all fields” hitter, however, a vast increase is likely exaggerated.
Perhaps the real question is not whether Granderson and Johnson can combine for 50+ HR and 170+ RBI, but if Damon and Matsui have a snowball’s chance in hell of ever recreating that level of success at 36 and 35 respectively.
When a sturdy innings eater coming off of a season in which he compiled 15 wins, 238 K and a 2.87 ERA sits in a rotation’s four spot, there is reason for a suddenly slowing heartbeat.
Javier Vazquez is back in town, and he immediately helps to calm the fears of a Game Four playoff starter, as well as any concerns of Andy Pettitte’s durability. He had a rocky inaugural season in pinstripes, but he did make the All-Star team that year—proving injuries and not nerves were perhaps the catalyst.
This only leaves uncertainty in the number five slot, where young guns Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes will clash horns to see who ends up a set-up man—as opposed to toeing the rubber every five days like they once dreamed.
The development of a cutter enabled Hughes to show great promise near the end of his trial run in the rotation in 2009, which spring-boarded him to a year of dominance at the back end of the bullpen.
Joba never looked right from the get-go, and appeared both damaged by the limitations of the “Joba Rules” and physically unprepared for the role. His intimidating fastball disappeared along with his command, his devastating slider became more recognizable, and his secondary pitches never worthy of respect.
Both have a lot to prove, and perhaps Joba can develop now that the training wheels have been removed, but my instincts lean toward Hughes as the candidate most likely to succeed.
Not only is Hughes a more complete pitcher with the mindset to succeed as a starter, but the Yankees are a better team with Joba anchoring the eighth inning in a big spot—as evidenced by Hughes’ playoff implosion.
Whoever runs the gauntlet during spring training and comes out on top will have absorbed a lot of pressure along the way. The victor will be battle-tested and primed for a breakout season in 2010.
How can a second baseman hit .320 with 25 HR and 85 RBI and be viewed as a failure? Folding up like a lawn chair in big moments under the powerful microscope of New York City is a solid introduction.
Robinson Cano by all accounts had an excellent bounce-back season after a dreadful 2008. He climbed 49 points in batting average, nearly doubled his home run totals, and nearly produced a Gold Glove defensive effort.
When New York needed him most, however, he shriveled up like a slug trapped in a salt shaker. Cano hit an anemic .207 with runners in scoring position, and just .204 in those situations with two outs.
Couple that with a .193 BA in 57 at bats during the World Series run, and Cano has built an unenvied reputation for himself as a choke artist. The absence of Matsui and Damon will place more pressure squarely on Cano’s shoulders, and it is uncertain whether or not his knees will buckle.
Yankees GM Brian Cashman also brought an end to his passionate “bromance” with OF Melky Cabrera, and Cano has already admitted he is affected by the change.
Cano has all the tools to be a Gold Glove second baseman, a more powerful version of Rod Carew at the plate, and perhaps even the best at his position in MLB. The question is, can he handle that responsibility?
The Yankees are without question the most stacked 25-man roster in terms of pure talent in MLB. They are dangerous one through nine in the batting order, and have star power bursting from their ears.
The lack of a viable bench, however, should at the very least cause a bead of sweat to form on manager Joe Girardi’s forehead.
Getting younger and more athletic was the organization’s philosophy heading into the frantic winter season, but no signing or trade could eliminate the risk of a long-term injury to a vital contributor.
Any way you slice it, AJ Burnett, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Nick Johnson, Alex Rodriguez, Joba Chamberlain, and Mariano Rivera have experienced injury woes in years past.
No team can soak up the damage of multiple disabled list stints to key players, but New York has left itself very vulnerable to the injury bug.
By not signing a dependable utility player with pop like Mark DeRosa, the slack would be left up to the likes of Marcus Thames, Randy Winn, Juan Miranda, Ramiro Pena, or Francisco Cervelli.
They are a fine group in terms of the needs of an American League team, but the Yankees could be one or two injuries away from having a serious problem on their hands in terms of depth.
The Yankees have been spoiled for 15 years by the daily presence of Jeter, Rivera, Posada, and Pettitte, and 2009 was no exception. Each of them was irreplaceable members of yet another championship team, yet each is also at least 35 years of age.
Pettitte provided 14 wins and a 4-0 postseason record, Rivera added 44 saves and a sparkling 1.76 ERA (0.56 October ERA), Jeter made a run at an MVP by hitting .334 with a Gold Glove, and Posada’s renaissance season proved he was not yet ready to follow in Jason Varitek’s footsteps.
It was a season full of magic, good fortune, timely hits, and storybook finishes, but can 2010 possibly provide a worthy sequel?
One would have to believe that even a disappointing season from Jeter would net a .300 average and 100 runs scored. A “failure” for Rivera would likely result, barring injury, in a 3.00-3.25 ERA and 35 saves.
On the other hand, the downside of a Posada and Pettitte nightmare scenario could be crippling to any hopes of a title defense.
Not much is keeping Posada from a full-time parking place at designated hitter, and even less is separating him from another lengthy DL stint. Additionally, Pettitte’s balky shoulder and elbow are one pitch away from disaster.
When experiencing discomfort in 2008, Pettitte pitched to a 4.54 ERA, and now two years older could be looking more like the 11-10 and 5.15 ERA that Mike Mussina compiled in 2007.
The “Core Four” has done nothing but perform at the highest of levels throughout their Yankee careers, but all good things must come to an end. Yankees Universe is hoping that this end is still far on the horizon.