Unlike the previous two seasons, the New York Yankees are not the widespread favorite to win their division in 2011. The team considers 2010 a failure as their star-studded lineup came up short in October, and they set out from there with one primary offseason goal in mind.
That completely backfired and the Yankees were forced to turn to plan B. Their high-profile, contentious negotiations with Derek Jeter, whose importance to the team extends far beyond his batting average, put a sour taste in many a mouth but didn’t stop the Yankees from addressing their late-inning pitching corps and Jorge Posada’s wobbly knees.
CC Sabathia is the surest thing in pinstripes and his rubber arm holds the Yankees’ hopes for 2011. If he falls apart—not that there’s any reason to expect him to—the team is in big trouble as they will have roughly 240 innings of 3.30 ERA to make up. The aspect of his game that tends to get lost on people is his groundball-generating abilities. CC got 1.49 grounders per fly in 2011, and has not had a ratio below 1.15 in any season, excluding 2004. He is the undisputed ace and, with that Yankee offense, could win 20 games again. There’s nothing not to like about him.
I think A.J. Burnett’s problems were mostly mental and he should be better. His start against the Texas Rangers in the ALCS was the best by a Yankee starter that series, and he has the stuff to be successful again. I think he’ll be alright, and by alright I mean a winning record and an ERA under 4.30. I would actually say that Joba Chamberlain had the same problems as A.J. and probably deserves another shot at starting. I still believe in his natural talent and I think his 2010 season was better than it looks in some ways. I would not be terribly surprised to see him take advantage of the chance and deliver a season as good or better than Phil Hughes’ 2010.
Hughes was productive last year with his Achilles heel being the home run, and he’s going to continue to give them up. He has good control (2.96 walks per nine innings in 2010) but hitters still elevate the ball so I am not sure what he can do to limit that. The Yankees should let him reach 200 innings pitched this year and I can see him pitching competently. His newly-developed cutter has been working nicely for him since 2009 and he had the seventh-best fastball in the AL last year, according to this.
The back end of the Yankees’ rotation makes me uncomfortable. Ivan Nova’s delivery is a Tommy John surgery waiting to happen. He didn’t show us much, both in performance and in actual time on the mound.
I don’t like Sergio Mitre for the same reason everybody else doesn’t like him. I expect him to run up an ERA around 5.75 in ten starts and then be relegated to long relief. He would need to repeat his BABIP-against of .226 to mimic his 2010 performance, and if he makes enough starts fans might start to miss Javier Vazquez.
With the duo of Nova and Mitre penciled into the Yankees’ depth chart on MLB.com, I’m convinced this rotation is worse than that of last year. However, it doesn't have to be. If Burnett, Hughes, and Joba can do what I think they can do, this can be one of the better rotations in baseball. Add four months of Andy Pettitte to that, and it would compare well with the Boston Red Sox group.
The Yankee starters contributed an ERA of 4.35 (22nd in MLB) last year. The rotation as it stands now might not manage that but the rotation that could be is capable of much better.
Mariano Rivera is still Mariano Rivera and is still a Yankee, so all is well in the ninth inning. David Robertson’s career WHIP of 1.44 is slightly worrisome but his 10.42 K/9 from last year should translate into another successful season. He would be better if he developed a more effective secondary pitch.
I’ve written elsewhere that I think Rafael Soriano will be good in his setup role, though perhaps not as good as he was in 2010. I’ve also said that Joba was better than his 2010 stats indicated and he should be fine whether he starts or relieves.
From the left side, I think Boone Logan and Pedro Feliciano will be Joe Girardi’s go-to guys. I don’t expect to see Damaso Marte much as he’s probably fallen out of favor. Marte has contributed 31 subpar innings while earning $7.75 million over the last two seasons. Both Logan and Feliciano should do their jobs well, provided their jobs don’t include more than a few right-handed hitters. It is vital for the Yankees to have quality left-handers in their bullpen, especially given what Boston has done this offseason.
If Mitre and/or Nova are pushed out of the rotation by either Joba or Pettitte, the Yankees gain a potentially useful (though not necessarily good) long man in either. Nova should be interesting regardless of his role. I’d like to see what happens with him.
With Posada moving to DH and Russell Martin taking over behind the plate, Francisco Cervelli is bumped to a third catcher role, and that makes the Yankees better. Posada should be able to contribute more than 451 plate appearances for the first time since 2007 and he can still hit. Having a DH not well-equipped to play the field will hamstring the team in terms of versatility, but Posada should be worth 20 HR and (like most Yankees) an above-average OBP.
I liked Lance Berkman in the DH role and think that he would have been good for the Yankees if they had retained him, but I digress. Posada’s importance to the team extends beyond his knees and his bat and he has a certain sentimental value to Yankee fans. I’m glad to have him on the team.
Martin is, as I said, better than Cervelli. He fits nicely into the Yankee tradition of drawing plenty of walks, and despite his last two seasons can probably still hit for average if healthy and motivated. He doesn’t have much power but would hit more home runs than Cervelli. We all know Jesus Montero will make an appearance at some point as well.
Corner Infielders: Comparable
Mark Teixiera should bounce back from his career-low BABIP (.268) and hit .280 again. Alex Rodriguez also saw his BABIP plummet to a career-low (.274). His problems are a little bit more real as he also saw his line drive rate fall to 13.8 percent and his HR/FB rate fall to its lowest point since they started keeping track. His troubles are due partly to luck, partly to his hip and partly to a declining skill set. More worrisome, his walk rate was 9.9 percent, his lowest mark since he was a Seattle Mariner, though his K-rate fell as well. Tex, on the other hand, actually took more walks in 2010. Another 65 home runs and 225 RBI from the duo shouldn’t be out of the question but neither are getting any younger.
Middle Infielders: Improved
They’re improved because Jeter will be better. He probably won’t hit .330 again, but can probably still wind up around .290. I don’t believe his decline was as rapid as it looks to some people. You don’t go from being a .300 hitter to a .270 guy overnight. Okay, maybe some players do, but his ground ball rate skyrocketed, which I think was partly a fluke. I think he’ll be fine.
Robinson Cano saw only 43 percent of pitches in the strike zone, and he swung at a relatively high percentage of them (36.5). You can’t really argue with his ability to hit them though, so I’ll take the .320 averages for now, even if he would otherwise be capable of OBPs north of .400. I’m not sure he repeats his home run rate of 2010, though I think he easily hits 20. Cano should be the Yankees' number three hitter, though I think it would be difficult to explain to the expensive Teixeira that he’s now batting fifth.
Last year’s outfield trio of Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner return. Perhaps the best outfield not to consist of any player widely considered a star, it is a well-balanced group. I like the way these three compliment each other. Two of the three hit for plus power, two of the three have plus speed and two of the three have exceptional plate discipline.
Gardner’s speed and discipline make him an ideal leadoff man. He plays with an intensity that the Yankees need at the top of their lineup and he could easily repeat last year’s 47 steals and 83.9 percent success rate on steal attempts. 48.3 percent of pitches to Gardner were in the strike zone—the average major leaguer saw 46.5 percent—yet he swung at only 18.2 percent of the pitches he saw that were out of the zone, compared to an MLB average of 29.3 percent. The guy is a legitimate threat to post an OBP of .400 and steal 50+ bases, not to mention a tremendous defender.
Granderson brings power and speed to the table, most notably the power to hit 30 home runs with that short porch in right field. Not the lead-off type he was once considered, he fits nicely into the sixth slot in that lineup and could hit somewhere between .260 and .270 if healthy.
Swisher brings power and discipline to the team, as well as a ton of personality. His walk rate fell precipitously to 9.1 percent in 2010 from 16.0 percent in 2009, while he posted his lowest strikeout rate since he played for the Oakland A's. His line drive rate was up from 2009 as well. The simple explanation is that, as the hits started falling in for him, he started swinging at more and more pitches. Swish swung at about 9 percent more pitches in 2010 than he did in 2009, and that cannot continue because he is not the .280 hitter we saw in 2010. He is, however, a threat to post an OBP north of .370 and he needs to do that by taking the walks.
I am a huge fan of this Yankee outfield (and of the Yankee team in general). For the things they do on and off the field, these guys bring a lot to the team, and as I said, compliment one another well. The Yankees’ leadoff man and number six and seven hitters (that’s where I’d have them hit) are better than your average guys hitting in those positions, and I think they will be a little bit better than the 2010 crew for two primary reasons. Number one, I think Gardner has made his presence known and will move into the leadoff spot where he will steal more bases and score more than 100 runs. Number two, I think Curtis Granderson will be a little bit better.
The Yankees chose to replace Marcus Thames with Andruw Jones, substituting a little power for some defense. Jones isn’t the gold glover he once was, but his range and his arm are better than Thames’ and he can play all three outfield positions if necessary. Jones has less raw power, but he strikes out less and walks more than Thames. It was a good move, considering how unlikely it is that Thames repeats his .288 average. Jones could wind up stealing a few bases too.
Colin Curtis, Kevin Russo and Greg Golson may appear again at some point, but if the Yankees have to rely too heavily on any of them then there must have been some serious injury problems. Ramiro Pena is a decent-enough backup infielder who does more with the glove than with the bat.
How will the Yankees place in their division in 2011?
As usual, The Yankees will win a lot of games by pounding opposing pitchers all over the place. I expect a fair number of 10-7 victories, but there are a couple of Yankee starters who can regularly hold opponents to two, three or four runs. There are also a couple of Yankee starters who probably can’t. The Yankees should contend to lead MLB in runs scored for a third consecutive year, and should have no trouble placing in the top three.
I’d love to see Andrew Brackman at some point, even as a reliever, but I think he’s going to spend the season in AAA. I also like Hector Noesi, a starter with good control who should be in AAA. I don’t know if he’s ready just yet, but he may get there by the end of 2011.
The Yankees have a 24-year-old named Melky Mesa in the low minors who looks to me like Jones with more speed. They also have Brandon Laird, a 23-year-old third baseman with good power who needs more time in AAA.
Austin Romine is a 22-year-old catcher who should play AA ball in 2011. His route to the majors is blocked until and if Montero moves to the outfield. There are a couple of promising arms in AA in Adam Warren and Manuel Banuelos, but we wont see either in 2011.
I expect the Yankees to get more help from the waiver-wire or a potential trade than from the minors in 2011. Aside from Montero, I cant say there’s anyone I am sure we’ll see at some point this year and, as always, it’s hard to gauge how much they’ll help.
Expected win total: 92-97
As a whole, the lineup will not be too different from last year’s, save for a few upgrades that give them added depth. The pitching staff, as it stands, looks weaker than last year’s, but the bullpen is stronger. The biggest threat to the Yankees is the revamped Red Sox. Overall, the division may be a touch more competitive, and will be entertaining as always.
See also my article on the Cincinnati Reds.