2011 New York Yankees: Why the Yankees Are Still the Beasts of the AL East

Mike Chiari@mikechiariFeatured ColumnistMarch 30, 2011

NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 04:  Derek Jeter #2 of the New York Yankees holds up the trophy as he celebrates with A.J. Burnett (L), Jorge Posada (2nd L), Mariano Rivera (2nd R) and Robinson Cano after their 7-3 win against the Philadelphia Phillies in Game Six of the 2009 MLB World Series at Yankee Stadium on November 4, 2009 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

If you're a fan of the New York Yankees, the 2010-11 off-season must have felt like one, long nightmare.

First, the dreaded Boston Red Sox landed stud first baseman Adrian Gonzalez in a trade with the San Diego Padres. Then, just a couple days later, the Red Sox swooped in, seemingly out of nowhere, and signed outfielder Carl Crawford, a player the Yanks were reportedly courting.

If that wasn't enough, the final stake was driven through the collective hearts of Yankee Universe when ace pitcher Cliff Lee spurned the Yankees' six-year $140 million contract offer and, instead, took less money to return to his old stomping grounds in Philadelphia.

The kicker for Yankee fans wasn't necessarily that they lost out on those players, but how they lost out on those players.

The Yankees have long been considered Major League Baseball's model franchise; an organization that players would go out of their way to join. Lee's decision cast a shadow of doubt across Yankee fans because he was actually willing to take less money to sign elsewhere. If nothing else, the Yankees have always been able to fall back on money, but that may no longer be the case.

If the World Series championship were handed out in December, the Boston Red Sox would have already had their parade. There's a reason why the MLB season has 162 games, though, and that reason is that over the course of five months the cream tends to rise to the top. Despite the fact that nearly every pundit has already awarded the American League Eastern Division crown to the Red Sox, there's plenty of reason to believe that the Yankees are still the team to beat.

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After signing Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett to massive contracts two years ago, the Yankees have pulled in the reins over the past two off-seasons with an emphasis on trades, value signings and building from within. Perhaps the biggest reason why the Yankees shouldn't be discounted is the amount of depth they have offensively, in the bullpen and organizationally in terms of prospects.

Despite the perception that the Yankees got worse during the off-season, the only truly key loss came with the retirement of long-time Yankee pitcher Andy Pettitte. Apart from that, the Yanks lost only rentals and ineffective performers.

What they gained, however, was a host of battle-tested veterans who were all signed to either discounted or minor league deals. Among them are catcher Russell Martin, corner infielder Eric Chavez, outfielder Andruw Jones and pitchers Mark Prior, Pedro Feliciano, Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia and Kevin Millwood.

In addition to the aforementioned signings, the crown jewel of the Yankees' off-season was the addition of former Tampa Bay Rays' closer Rafael Soriano who will team up with Mariano Rivera to form the league's deadliest end-game combination.

The bullpen has been considered an Achilles heel for the Yanks over the past couple seasons, even when they won the World Series in 2009. Not only are the eighth and ninth innings now in good hands, but New York has arms for every situation.

Dave Robertson and Joba Chamberlain both return, and each of them are capable of handling the seventh inning. A lack of quality lefties has been a problem in the past, but the Yankees now possess three capable ones. Boone Logan is back after a solid 2010 season. Feliciano, while currently injured, should return soon and act as a very reliable lefty specialist.

The wild card of the group is Damaso Marte who had an incredible run in the 2009 postseason. Marte is expected to be out until the All-Star break, but could provide a nice boost down the stretch.

Finally, having not pitched in the majors since 2006, Prior is primed to become a fixture in the Yankee bullpen. Because of the injury to Feliciano, it's possible that Prior will get a look at some point early in the season. Although he'll start the season in the minors, he could eventually give the Yankees some good innings at a fantastic price.

While the Yankee bullpen has been tabbed as potentially one of the best in the majors this season, questions are abound regarding New York's rotation. In many ways, a lack of rotation depth is what did the Yanks in last postseason against the Texas Rangers. With just three reliable starters (Phil Hughes, Sabathia and Pettitte) the Yankees had very little margin for error. When Hughes faltered by failing to get out of the fifth inning in each of his two losses in the series, the Yankees' fate was sealed.

With the departure of Pettitte and the failure on the Yankees to bring in a high-profile replacement, the rotation is perceived to be the main thing holding the Yanks back this season. Although the Yankee rotation should by no means be considered elite, I think it's certainly serviceable enough to keep them in the race.

Nothing has changed at the very top of the rotation. Sabathia is, and will continue to be, a bona fide ace. Twenty wins and 230 innings may be closer to a certainty than an expectation. Hughes, despite his playoff struggles, had an extremely strong season in 2010 that saw him win 18 games. He faded a bit down the stretch, but that can easily be attributed to a huge jump in innings pitched from the previous season. Hughes threw more than 100 more innings in 2010 than he did in 2009 which is something all young pitchers must struggle through. Now that he has cleared that hurdle, Hughes should be primed for a breakout season.

The three through five spots in the rotation possess a lot of unknowns, but each has the ability to pay big dividends. There's no denying that A.J. Burnett was dreadful last season. He was routinely battered by the opposition and had problems controlling pitches within the strike zone. Inconsistency has plagued Burnett throughout his career, however, there is no denying his talent. When Burnett is on he resembles a top-of-the-rotation starter. Burnett has shown glimpses of that ability during the spring, posting a sparkling 2.77 ERA.

It's quite possible that Burnett has benefited from the fresh perspective of new pitching coach Larry Rothschild. If the two can forge an effective working relationship, there's a good chance that Burnett can have a resurgent season.

Veteran Freddy Garcia and youngster Ivan Nova round out the rotation. Garcia is certainly on the back end of his career, but he gave the White Sox some quality starts last season en route to a 12-6 record. In his prime, Garcia was a workhorse capable of eating innings. Despite his age, Garcia's arm should be quite fresh as he pitched just over 100 innings in three years combined prior to 2010.

Nova pitched well for the Yanks down the stretch last season, but he often ran into trouble once he reached the fifth inning. He has been fantastic this spring, however, and should be able to fix his middle-inning issues with a little more seasoning.

Should any of the previously mentioned starters trip up or get injured, former Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colon is waiting in the wings. Colon will start the season as a long reliever, but he may have been the best Yankee starter this spring. He brings with him a good deal of experience in big-game situations as well.

The ace in the hole when it comes to improving the Yankee rotation is the considerable minor league depth the organization possesses. Baseball America ranks the Yankees as having the fifth best minor league system with six prospects in the publication's top 100. Pitchers Dellin Betances, Danny Banuelos and Andrew Brackman are all poised to get a look at some point over the course of the season. It's certainly possible that one or two of them could impress immediately and stick with the big club.

Because of their minor league depth, the Yankees also have the ability to package some prospects to acquire a top-flight starter at the trading deadline.

Another position of strength for the Yanks is catcher. Jesus Montero, Austin Romine and Gary Sanchez all reside on the top-100 list, and Francisco Cervelli is promising young backstop in his own right. Should an ace such as Felix Hernandez or Francisco Liriano become available at the deadline, the Yankees have the tools necessary to get a deal done without compromising their prospect depth too severely.

While pitching is undoubtedly important, the biggest key to the Yankees' success this season is their offense. New York led the majors in runs scored for the second straight season in 2010, and very little has changed in 2011. As the old adage goes, don't mess with success.

The Yankees still have the best infield in baseball with Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. Teixeira got off to a slow start last season and suffered a toe injury that nagged him throughout the season. Teixeira said that he has focused more on hitting and less on working out this spring in hopes of getting out of the gates quickly.

Cano is coming off an MVP-caliber season with little sign of slowing down. With a repeat of 2010, Cano can launch himself into the conversation of the elite hitters in the game. Jeter had the worst full season of his career in 2010, but he has seemingly risen from the ashes before. After a sub-par 2008 season, many considered Jeter to be on the downside of his career. All the captain did the following season was hit .334 with 18 home runs. Even if Jeter is unable to rebound in such outstanding fashion this season, the fact of the matter is that Jeter's 2010 numbers are still well above the league average when it comes to shortstops.

A-Rod had a bit of a roller-coaster season last year, but he's always a lock to put up big numbers. The fact that he hit over .400 with six bombs this spring can only be good news.

At catcher, Martin may not be the All-Star caliber player he once was, but he should fit in very well on a veteran-laden team. Offensively, he won't be much of a liability batting at the bottom of the order, but his real values comes behind the plate. Martin is not considered an elite defensive catcher, but he will certainly be an upgrade over Jorge Posada. His arrival also allows Posada to move to designated hitter where he can focus solely on his hitting and presumably stay healthy.

The Yankee outfield surpassed expectations last season and is a good bet to further improve this season. With a .288 average and 29 homers, Nick Swisher had a career year in 2010. While he may have reached his ceiling, a repeat performance would be plenty for the Yanks.

Although Brett Gardner is more valuable on the basepaths and in the field, he adds a different dimension to the Yankee lineup. His patience improved greatly last season and his ability to spoil two-strike pitches is extremely effective in wearing down opposing pitchers. If Gardner can improve his bunting, he might be able to evolve into a .300 hitter.

Curtis Granderson got off to an awful start last season, but his torrid play down the stretch is what kept the Yankees' heads above water during a shaky month of September. The main reason for Granderson's turnaround was a change that he and hitting coach Kevin Long made in his swing. Granderson seemed to continue his hot swinging this spring. While he's expected to miss a few games to start the season with an oblique injury, Granderson should be able to put together a full season of success in 2011.

As much as I believe the Yankees are being overlooked heading into the season, I believe that some of their divisional foes have been equally over hyped, namely the Red Sox. I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention the Rays since they won the AL East last season, but it's clear that Tampa suffered too many free agent losses to seriously compete this season.

Boston, on the other hand, has been the baseball media's darling this off-season. The additions of Gonzalez and Crawford are great, but many seem to conveniently forget the losses that Boston suffered as well. Third baseman Adrian Beltre, catcher Victor Martinez and utility man Bill Hall will all be difficult to replace.

Last season Beltre and Martinez combined for 48 home runs and 182 RBI, while each of them hit over .300. This was with Martinez missing 35 games over the course of the season. Gonzalez and Crawford combined to hit 50 home runs and 191 RBI. While I realize that Crawford brings a different dynamic to the lineup than any of the other players, those numbers are quite comparable. Add to that the versatility lost with the departure of Hall, and I'm not sure that Boston has gotten significantly better.

Swapping Gonzalez in for Beltre also hurts Boston defensively as Kevin Youkilis is forced to play third. While solid at first base, Youkilis is always an adventure at the hot corner, and he could certainly end up costing the Sox at inopportune times this season.

The Sox also have some pitching issues in their own right. Jon Lester is a top-notch starter, but things get muddled after that. Clay Buchholz had a great 2010 season, but he has yet to prove that he can have sustained success. John Lackey appears to be trending downward quickly and certainly isn't the same pitcher who headed the Angels' rotation for so many years. Josh Beckett is incredibly injury prone and doesn't seem to have much left in the tank. To round out the rotation, Daisuke Matsuzaka is wildly inconsistent and simply can't be counted on to show up on any given day.

To top it all off, Jonathan Papelbon has regressed over the past couple seasons and regularly struggled to close out games in 2010. If Papelbon's slide continues, the ninth inning could become a real problem for Boston, something that is in stark contrast with the rival Yankees.

Overall, Boston may have a little more talent than New York at the moment, but that disparity has been a bit overblown. The Sox aren't as unbeatable as they've been made out to be, and the Yanks aren't in as much trouble as has been suggested. These are two evenly matched teams that should battle it out from wire to wire. I'll take the team everyone is sleeping on though. I'll take the Yankees.