Breaking Down the Yankees' Blueprint for Winning the Division

Jake SingerContributor IIIMarch 19, 2013

TAMPA, FL - MARCH 09:  Infielder Derek Jeter #2 of the New York Yankees singles in the first inning against the Atlanta Braves during a Grapefruit League Spring Training Game at George M. Steinbrenner Field on March 9, 2013 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
J. Meric/Getty Images

For the first time in arguably 15 years, the New York Yankees are not a slam dunk favorite to win the American League East. Not only are the Bombers noticeably weaker than they have been, but the rest of the division has also improved over the offseason.

The Toronto Blue Jays added Jose Reyes, R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle to a team that already boasted the likes of Jose Bautista and Brett Lawrie.

The Baltimore Orioles made the playoffs last year and return several players from injury.

The Tampa Bay Rays have perhaps the league's best pitching, even after trading James Shields to the Kansas City Royals, and the Boston Red Sox signed Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino.

Even though the Yankees' path to the playoffs isn't as clear as it once was, they're still a talented team capable of winning the division.

Here's how.

Keep the starting pitching healthy

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For the first time in a long time, the Yankees will rely more on their pitching than their hitting. Lucky for them, they have an excellent staff. The key is to keep the starting pitchers on the mound, which is no slam dunk.

CC Sabathia had offseason elbow surgery, which means that counting on him for over 200 innings isn't as much of a given as it used to be. Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte are 38 and 40, respectively, so it's no given that they'll make 35 starts either.

They do have some leeway for injuries, as either Ivan Nova or David Phelps (whoever does not win the fifth starter spot) provides a quality backup option. But with an offense drastically weakened in 2013 (see below), it's important that the Yankees' best pitchers are on the mound as much as possible.

Get Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira Back as Soon as Possible

With the losses of Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Raul Ibanez and Alex Rodriguez (to injury, for at least half the season), the Yankees offense was already going to be weaker. Then, they lost two of their best power hitters in spring training.

Granderson's fractured forearm seems to be a straightforward injury that needs time to heal, and then he can return, probably in early May.

Teixeira's is more complicated. What was initially diagnosed as a wrist sprain now appears to be a tendon sheath injury. The Yankees are being cautious and are saying he might not return until June, but that would be the worst-case scenario.

Using Granderson and Teixeira's WAR values (Wins Above Replacement Player) from 2012, missing them for April would probably cost the Yankees just one to two wins. If they're out for longer it would be even more and in an extremely competitive division, a one win difference might be the difference between playing baseball in October or playing golf.

Go At Least 38-34 in AL East Play

The 2012 Yankees went 41-31 in division play on the way to a 95-win season and division title. The Yankees probably won't win 95 this year with a weaker team and stronger division but they still need to win their share of games against the teams they're in direct competition with.

A three-win regression from last year within the division would still give them a chance to win 92 games, which I think would be enough to win the AL East. But if the Yankees don't go at least .500 in division play, they will be in big trouble.

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