When the incomparable George M. Steinbrenner III turned the role of New York Yankees Managing General Partner, the ownership representative most closely tied to the day-to-day operations of the team, over to his son Hal Steinbrenner, baseball fans everywhere witnessed the end of an era.
Say whatever you want about George, but the fact of the matter is he has been one of the most influential figures in sports since purchasing the New York Yankees in 1973.
The Boss worked within the established rules of baseball (albeit at times barely within them) to restore the Yankees to a level of glory they once enjoyed in the days of Ruth, Gehrig, and Berra. He was always committed to winning at any cost and ensuring the Yankees were nothing but a first-class organization. He was also the inspiration for one of the all-time greatest sitcom characters, with his recurring portrayal on Seinfeld.
George Steinbrenner created a franchise which unquestionably bolstered the interest in major league baseball in America and grew the brand of major league baseball world wide. Love them or hate them, no baseball fan is indifferent about the New York Yankees, and that passion on both sides of the ledger draws in viewers and fills seats.
Hal’s first year at the helm was also the first year for the Yankees in their brand new, $1.6 billion stadium, which replaced a true cathedral of American sports in old Yankee Stadium. The pressure was on for the Yankees to perform in the new park’s inaugural season, especially after saying goodbye to old Yankee Stadium in a season where the team failed to make the playoffs.
Hal’s team delivered in spades.
Hal worked together with GM Brian Cashman to assemble an all-star cast, bringing in starting pitchers C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnette, and first baseman Mark Teixeira. The moves paid off, delivering the Yankees their first World Series title since 2000 and their unprecedented 27th overall.
Now as we prepare for the 2010 season with the Yankees as defending champions, many are already asking “Is this team poised for a repeat?”
The Yankees are returning a strong key core of players from their World Champion squad last year, but some key changes are apparent as well. The question is, has this made the team better or worse than last season?
Starting with the pitching staff, the Yankees’ troubles at starter were no secret last year, despite the addition of two dominating hurlers in Sabathia and Burnette. The fourth and fifth spots in the rotation were a constantly revolving door of spot starters and mostly failed experiments.
Former ace of staff Chien Ming-Wang missed much of the year with injuries and looked average at best in limited action he did see, leading to his release at the end of the season. Attempts to convert relievers Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain to the starter role met with mixed results, but ultimately little tangible success, eventually leading the Yankees to employ a three-man rotation in the post season.
The team addressed this need in the off-season, bringing in Chan Ho Park as a free agent and trading for former Yankee starter Javier Vazquez with the Braves. Vazquez will surely add stability to the tail end of the rotation, fitting in well to a fourth starter role that stands to have much less pressure associated with it than the one he was asked to fill in his last tenure in the Bronx.
The Yankees still have some questions to answer as to who will ascend to the fifth spot in the rotation. Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes remain as options, along with versatile long reliever Alfredo Aceves and spot starter Chad Gaudin. However, not only do Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain seem better-suited to the bullpen, with either or both of them starting, the Yankees would have few good setup options for Mariano Rivera.
Mo will continue to be the Yankees’ sandman in the ninth inning this season, but it will do the team little good if there is nobody available to hold the leads until then. Mo’s days as a closer are also numbered, and the Yankees need to develop an heir apparent.
While the Vazquez trade will certainly help address some of the pitching woes the Yankees had last season, the price of his return should be a concern. In order to bring Vazquez back into the fold, the Yankees had to give up clutch hitter and locker room favorite Melky Cabrera. Coupled with the free agency loss of Johnny Damon to the Detroit Tigers, Melky’s departure will mean the Yankees’ only constant outfielder from 2009 to 2010 will be Nick Swisher, who was arguably the least consistent of three regular starters.
The addition of Curtis Granderson, at very little cost in a three-team trade, will go far toward to filling the void left by Melky and Johnny Damon. His power numbers were better than either Damon or Melky in 2009, and his overall offensive production was right in line with the two former Yankees. Still, despite this key addition, the loss of both Melky and Damon means that former utility man Brett Gardner will have to play a much larger role in the Yankee outfield in 2010 (likely being spelled occasionally by free-agent acquisition Randy Winn).
While an outfield of Granderson, Gardner, and Swisher should provide better mobility, defense, and base-running options in 2010, the total offensive production will likely hinge on Gardner’s ability to adjust to playing a more regular role. Power numbers from the trio stand to be lower than those posted last year by Cabrera, Damon, and Swisher, but with some creative lineup moves, manager Joe Girardi should still be able to make this work.
Finally, there is the issue of designated hitter, where the Yankees lost World Series MVP Hideki Matsui, but regained former DH/first baseman Nick Johnson. Again the Yankees will expect a drop off in power, but gains in other offensive categories. I would expect the trade-off to be mostly a push, but the loss of a World Series MVP should never be taken lightly.
So where does that leave the 2010 Yankees? Only time will tell. The biggest areas of concern remain production from the outfield and how the tail end of the rotation and the set-up roles in the bullpen pan out. If the Yankees can find solutions in these areas, the talent on the roster seems to suggest they could be poised for their first World Series repeat since their three-peat from 1998 to 2000.