Turning Gears: What The Yankees Need To Be Serious World Series Contenders
The New York Yankees entered the offseason two wins shy of a second straight American League Pennant. Seeking what they were short on for much of the second half and the postseason - starting pitching - they attempted to lure free agent left hander Cliff Lee with a ludicrous offer. Instead, Lee returned to Philadelphia to form the best rotation in baseball, leaving the Yankees in dire straits.
The current rotation for the Yankees in 2011 as of now looks like this: CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, AJ Burnett, Ivan Nova, and Sergio Mitre.
Sabathia is coming off another stellar season, but he had knee surgery in the offseason to repair a torn meniscus and an opt out clause looms (despite getting the word he won't exercise it.) Hughes is coming off a solid, yet inconsistent first full year as a big league starter, and he should improve. Burnett is coming off a horrendous season, so he should be expected to be at least SOMEWHAT better.
Nova is unproven, and is just back-end of the rotation insurance, but he's the first of a wave of good, young pitching prospects the Yankees have. Mitre had a 5.93 ERA as a starter in 2010, and will only be in the rotation if the Yankees don't make a move for a starter or bring back Andy Pettitte.
Every champion has almost everything go right for them in order to win, and this year's edition of the New York Yankees is no exception. The following things must go right for the Yankees to be legitimate World Series contenders.
Robinson Cano's Continued MVP-Calber Play
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Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano broke out last year, hitting at a .319/..381/.534/.914 clip while setting career highs in home runs (29) and RBIs (109) batting mostly fifth in the Yankees deadly lineup. He placed third in AL MVP voting, won his first Gold Glove award and his second Silver Slugger award.
In 2011, he is the best player on a very old Yankees team. Just 28 years old, he is just entering the prime of his career, which looks to place him at not only the best second baseman in baseball, but also one of the game's best all-around players.
On one of the oldest teams in the league, the Yankees will need him to pick off from last year and carry this team.
The Yankees Need To Continue To Be One Of The Game's Best Offenses
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Here are some projections for the Yankees offense in 2011, courtesy of FanGraphs and Bill James
Russell Martin: .266/.367/.379/.746, 9 HR, 56 RBI
Mark Teixeira: .282/.383/.532/.915, .250 ISO, 36 HR, 120 RBI
Robinson Cano: .308/.356/.502/.858, 24 HR, 95 RBI
Derek Jeter: .295/.365/.410/.775, 101 R
Alex Rodriguez: .284/.381/.530/.911, .246 ISO, 35 HR, 116 RBI
Brett Gardner: .275/.377/.371/.748, 101 R, 50 SB
Curtis Granderson: .264/.341/.471/.812, 95 R, 25 HR, 73 RBI,
Nick Swisher: .257/.359/.472/.831, 87 R, 27 HR, 83 RBI
Jorge Posada: .260/.363/.454/.817, 16 HR, 60 RBI
Obviously, Bill James' projections are usually very optimistic, but this kind of offensive production would suit the pitching dry Yankees well.
New Additions To The Bullpen Have To Solidify It
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Dry of starting pitching, the Yankees signed closer/reliever Rafael Soriano to a three year, $35 million deal. They also signed former Met lefty reliever Pedro Feliciano This gave the Yankees big pieces in a bullpen that could be argued to be baseball's best.
Soriano, who spent last year with the arch rival Tampa Bay Rays, had a career year in 2010. He led the league in saves while posting a solid line of a 1.73 ERA, 228 ERA+, 0.80 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, and a 4.07 K/BB ratio. Now, he's the set-up man to the greatest closer of all-time.
Feliciano comes over from Queens, where he has a career 127 ERA+. Left-handed batters have a career .214/.282/.297/.580 against him. Last year, he held them to a .211/.297/.276/.574 line. With a lineup loaded with lefties in Boston, Feliciano could be a big signing for the Yankees.
If these two elite relievers are able to live up to their track record, the Yankees would most likely have the best bullpen in baseball, which also contains Mariano Rivera, Boone Logan, David Robertson, and Joba Chamberlain.
Mark Teixeira Must Rebound From an Inconsistent 2010
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Mark Teixeira is notorious for his slow starts, but last year he took it to a new level, hitting .136/.300/.259/.559 with just 2 HRs and 9 RBIs in April. He was batting as low as .211 as recent as June 6th, a day after striking out five times in Toronto.
From that point onward until September 3rd, he went on a monster tear, batting .314/.411/.632/1.043 with 22 HRs and 65 RBIs. He then went on another slump, batting just .194/.325/.316/.641 with only 3 HRs and 9 RBIs. All of this added up to .256/.365/.481/.846 which is one of the worst seasons of his career despite hitting 33 HRs and driving in 108.
In the playoffs, Teixeira continued to struggle. After hitting a game winning home run against the Twins during the division series, he would go hitless against his former team the Rangers in the ALCS and would suffer a season ending hamstring injury in Game 4.
Mark Teixeira was a key piece in the Yankees run to a World Series Championship in 2009, hitting .292/.383/.565/.948 while leading the league in homers with 39 and RBIs with 122. The Yankees will need that elite production in order to stay elite.
Derek Jeter's Resurgence
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Just one year after having one of the best seasons of his career (.334/.406/.465/.871, 125 OPS+), Captain Derek Jeter had THE worst season of his Hall of Fame career, hitting just .270/.340/.370/.710. For the first time in his career, he posted an OPS+ below league average at 90.
Even Jeter's defense took an extreme dip. After posting a solid 6.4 UZR and a 8.0 UZR/150 and winning a Gold Glove in 2009, he posted a -4.7 UZR and a -5.4 UZR/150 but still won another Gold Glove.
The Yankees' all-time leader in hits would avoid an ugly exit from the Bronx, signing a three-year deal to stay in New York, and will become the first player in Yankees history to reach 3000 hits, presumably in June or July. The Yankees will surely need him to rebound from an ugly 2010.
AJ Burnett's Resurgence
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AJ Burnett was brought to New York to be the number two guy to CC Sabathia. In 2009, he had a solid, yet inconsistent season, going 13-9, posting a 4.04 ERA, a 114 ERA+ while striking out 195 batters. He would be play a big role in the Yankees' championship season in 2009.
In 2010, however, it was a much different story. Burnett was one of the worst pitchers in the American League, going just 10-15, posting a 5.26 ERA, an 81 ERA+, and striking out just 145 men at a 7.0 K/9 clip. He was so bad he was removed from the rotation in the ALDS, making just one start in the postseason in Game 4 of the ALCS in which he put the Yankees in a three games to one deficit.
In 2011, he will be heavily relied on to have a bounce back season for the Yankees in year three of a five year deal. In 2009, he made the start in Game 2 of the World Series that saved their season. The Bronx Bombers will need him do something like that to get back.
Alex Rodriguez Must Regain His Power Stroke
By many measurements, 2010 was one of Alex Rodriguez's worst seasons. His .270 average was the worst of his career. His on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, and OPS+ were his lowest totals since 1997.
Still, he managed to get 30 home runs and 125 RBIs, which extended his streak of 30+ HRs, 100+ RBIs to an all-time record of 13 consecutive seasons. After battling injuries all season, he posted a monster September line of .295/.370/.600/.975 with 9 home runs and 28 RBIs.
Rodriguez has not been fully healthy for an entire season 2007, which was the best season of his career and a year of a 3rd MVP award for A-Rod. While it shouldn't be expected that he will put up those numbers, it will be expected that he will regain his power stroke as long as his hip is healthy.
Phil Hughes' Continued Improvement
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It's hard to believe it was only four years ago when Phil Hughes was considered the best pitching prospect in baseball. After battling injuries, inconsistency, and trips between the majors and minors, he broke out as the Yankees' set-up man in 2009 and earned a right to be placed in the rotation.
Hughes delivered a solid, All-Star 18-8 campaign with a 4.19 ERA. As the season wore on, however, he began to tire out, having a mediocre 4.79 ERA in the final three months of the season. This was reasonably expected, as he set a professional career high in starts and innings pitched.
He is still only 24 years old with much room to improve. Endurance and the ability to retire batters more consistently will be the key for the young right-hander, as he was often unable to get outs with two strike counts throughout the second half.
Hughes enters the 2011 season as the second best pitcher in a very thin Yankees rotation. All lot of pressure will be placed on this kid.
Andy Pettitte's Return
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Before missing pretty much the entire second half last season, Andy Pettitte was going under a Renaissance, starting the season 11-2 with a 2.70 ERA.
Although he struggled when he came back in September, he lived up to his postseason reputation, posting a 2.57 ERA in two starts in which he beat Carl Pavano and Cliff Lee was just better.
Despite a positive outcome, for him at least, the Yankees are once again waiting for Pettitte's annual decision whether to return or retire.
The Yankees will need him now more than ever, as they have just two reliable starting pitchers, a box of chocolates in AJ Burnett, and who knows at the back end of the rotation.