In the wake of winning their 27th World Series in 2009, the Yankees made it all the way back to the sixth game of the American League Championship Series last year, thus reaching the ALCS in consecutive years for the first time since 2003 and 2004. This year, the Yankees return largely the same lineup, but with serious questions about their starting rotation. With the first pitch of the season less than an hour away (weather permitting, and it looks like it will), here's a quick look at what has changed and what to expect from the 2011 New York Yankees.
Though the Yankees made it all the way to the ALCS last year, the only members of their lineup that had superlative seasons by their own standards were Robinson Cano, who finished third in the AL MVP voting, and Nick Swisher, who hit 36 points better than his career average and slugged over .500 for the first time in his career. Per Baseball Prospectus's offense-only statistic VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), Cano and Swisher were also the two most productive Yankees, period.
That leaves plenty of room for improvement elsewhere despite the lack of turnover in the lineup, and there are several reasons for optimism. Alex Rodriguez, finally able to focus on his swing rather than rehabbing his 2009 hip injury, had a monster spring, hitting .388/.444/.898 with six home runs, and looked free and easy at the plate, prompting many to wonder if the 35-year-old might just have one more MVP-worthy campaign in him. Curtis Granderson hit .385/.442/.795 this spring, appearing to retain the improvements he made last August when Yankee hitting coach Kevin Long simplified his swing and Granderson hit .273/.380/.567 through the rest of the regular season and playoffs (including .286/.375/.500 against lefties during the regular season). Brett Gardner struggled with an injured right wrist over the final three months of 2010, courtesy of a Clayton Kershaw pitch, hitting just .233/.364/.342 over that span, but had surgery on the wrist in December and has also reworked his swing with Long. Gardner now keeps both hands on the bat in his follow-through and did seem to be hitting the ball with more authority this spring with seven of his 13 hits going for extra bases.
The Yankees also hope to see a bounce-back from Mark Teixeira, who had his worst season since his 2003 rookie year last year (though he still hit 33 home runs, led the league in runs scored, and drove in another 108). Teixeira has been typically focused on getting off to a better start this spring, and Tom Verducci wrote back in January about Long's work with the Yankee first baseman, which both hope will be as effective as the work Long has done with Granderson, Swisher, Cano, Rodriguez, and Gardner.
Long also worked with Derek Jeter this winter, eliminating the Captain's stride and keeping him from cutting himself off at the plate (Jay wrote about this back in February and linked to a must-see video of Long explaining the changes in Jeter's swing). I'm less optimistic about Jeter, who will turn 37 in June, than I am about the others listed above, but at least he and Long are taking an active approach to compensating for his decline.
Finally, the Yankees hope Jorge Posada can stay healthy and productive as their designated hitter and have brought former Dodgers All-Star Russell Martin in to be their everyday catcher. Martin is an up-side play that might not pay off, but he's a better bet than another season of Francisco Cervelli, and there's always the chance that top prospect Jesus Montero could arrive mid-season to make another potential upgrade to the Yankees' catching situation, at least on the offensive side of things. As for Posada, he'll be 40 in August, is a career .223/.336/.358 hitter in 351 plate appearances as a DH, and put up a similar line this spring. One hopes he can adjust to sitting rather than squatting between at-bats, but it might be a tougher transition than many realize.
The Yankees also have to expect some regression from Cano, and while Swisher did spike his batting average last year, which raised his overall production, it came at the expense of some of his power and patience, which could make him less valuable than he was prior to 2010 if he can't either correct those losses or repeat the batting average.
On the whole, however, there are good reasons to expect the Yankees, who led baseball with 5.30 runs scored per game last year, to be even more productive at the plate this year.
Again, not much has changed, and everyone is a year older, but the Yankees were the third-best defensive team in the majors according to Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (the rate of turning balls in play into out, adjusted for home ballparks) and second by unadjusted defensive efficiency. The only real change they have made is an upgrade from the aging Posada and a surprisingly poor defensive season from Francisco Cervelli, to the solid-to-strong defense of Martin behind the plate.
Led by former stars Andruw Jones and Eric Chavez, the Yankee bench has the potential to be one of their best in recent memory. Jones should replace Marcus Thames' production from the right side of the plate, but with the added ability not only to play competently in the outfield, but to be an asset in the corners and capable of filling in in center. Chavez is a large gamble given that he hit just .222/.265/.330 in just 249 plate appearances over the last three years due to a litany of injuries and surgeries, but he was healthy and productive in camp, started to show some power as the exhibition schedule drew to a close, and impressed with his play at third base (though he's still learning first base). The Yankees have also upgraded at utility infielder from futility man Ramiro Peña to Eduardo Nuñez. Nuñez isn't a great hitter, but I'm finally convinced he's an upgrade on Peña at the plate (not a difficult feat, but I was a Nuñez doubter for a long time), and while he's a downgrade defensively, that's only because Peña is that good. Nuñez is also the superior baserunner and basestealer. In short, he give the Yankees a wider range of abilities from a position from which little is expected, and with Peña little was delivered, other than the ability to make plays in the field.
The Yankees do start the season with a total dud at backup catcher in Gustavo Molina, but the hope is that Francisco Cervelli will return from a broken foot, suffered when he fouled a pitch off the foot early in Spring Training, by May and will revert to his pre-2010 form behind the plate while continuing to show the solid on-base skills he displayed last year at it. Again, there's also the fantasy that Montero will take over the starting job by mid-year, pushing Martin to the bench and Cervelli back to the minors.
This is where the pessimism creeps in. There are no concerns about CC Sabathia, who could actually improve on his 2010 season seeing as he pitched the latter half of it with a torn meniscus in his right knee which was repaired in October, but everyone else brings question marks and doubts.
A.J. Burnett will start the second game of the season coming off what was one of the worst full seasons by a Yankee starting pitcher in team history. Burnett did pitch well in April and July of 2010, but his struggles the rest of the year were never properly explained, and thus leave us all wondering about his ability to bounce back. If you buy that they were simply mechanical failures former pitching coach Dave Eiland failed to correct, or that his problems stemmed from off-the-field issues (remember the mysterious black eye?) which may have dissipated, there's reason for hope. Certainly, Burnett has looked better this spring after working with new pitching coach Larry Rothschild with his complete lack of walks in 13 spring innings jumping off the stat page, but just how much better he'll be is a mystery. A 4.75 ERA would be a half-run improvement over last year, but would still be a disaster coming from the ostensible number-two in the rotation.
Of course, Phil Hughes is the real number-two in the rotation, despite pitching third, but that doesn't make many Yankee fans feel much better. We're all optimistic about Hughes' future, but he did post a 4.98 ERA over is last 23 starts of the 2010 season (that is, from May 17 on) and benefitted from a whopping 6.75 runs of support per game for an undeserved 18 wins on the season. The encouraging factors here are Hughes' youth (he'll be 25 in June), and the new cutter grip he broke out in his last spring start and the increased reliance on his changeup. Jay wrote about the effectiveness of those two pitches (the change and Hughes' old cutter) back in September and his research showed that more changeups and an improved cutter could make a huge difference this year.
Another pitcher who broke out a new cutter grip late this spring was Ivan Nova, the rookie who won the fourth-starter's job this spring after something of a mixed bag of a major league debut late last season. Nova's pitch is more of a cutter/slider mix (or "slutter"), but added to his low-90s fastball (which can spike up to 97) and strong change and curve, it could allow him to take a big step forward this year. Still, until he shows he can turn a lineup over a third time, there will still be concerns stemming from his major league performance last year in which his opponents hit just .222/.270/.368 against him in their first two plate appearances of a game while he posted a 3.14 K/BB, but .383/.491/.447 while he struck out just four men against ten walks thereafter.
Finally, there's Freddy Garcia, who the Yankees hope can be a veteran innings eater at the back of the rotation, but whose 89-mile-per-hour heater and extreme fly-ball tendencies create serious doubts. Here's the good news, per the Bill James Handbook the new Yankee Stadium was the third most homer-friendly ballpark in baseball last year (park factor: 143), but the number-one tater terrarium was Garcia's former home park, U.S. Cellular Field (park factor: 157). Garcia gave up 1.6 home runs per nine innings at home last year, but survived those long balls be keeping his walks down at home (just two per nine innings) and actually pitched better at home than on the road on the season. Overall, after a three-year injury odyssey, Garcia held his own with a just-below-league-average performance in 28 starts, 18 of which were quality starts. At 35 (36 in June) Garcia could have trouble repeating that success, but the Yankees don't expect much more from him and will support him with good defense and a ton of runs.
The Yankees had the fifth-best bullpen in the American League last year according to Baseball Prospectus's win-expectency-based WXRL (roughly Wins eXpected above Replacement adjusted for opposing Lineups). To that, they have added Rafael Soriano, who was the fourth-best reliever in baseball last year by that measure. We didn't like the Soriano signing here because of the resultant loss of a draft pick, but with that water under the bridge, it's hard to argue that he won't improve the pen this year. He won't be the a top-five reliever, however. Soriano, like his 2010 set-up man Joaquin Benoit, now with the Tigers, benefited from absurdly good luck on balls in play last year, with his opponents hitting .199 on fair balls that stayed in the ballpark. He does have a low career average of .243, but that still suggests a minimum of a 40-point improvement by Soriano's opponents. Soriano also has a history of arm injuries, though as with Burnett, those concerns are starting to fade as he has pitched 60 or more innings in four of the last five seasons.
Leading up to Soriano and the great Mariano Rivera, the Yankees once again have Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson, two solid righties for potential high-leverage work in the sixth and seventh innings or to set-up Rivera when Soriano needs a rest. Lefty Boone Logan pitched well after a mid-season recall from Triple-A last year (2.08 ERA, 10.3 K/9, 3.13 K/BB), albeit with some luck on balls in play of his own (.235 BABIP) and enters the season as the lone lefty in the pen due to triceps discomfort being experienced by offseason LOOGY addition Pedro Feliciano, who is likely paying the price for leading the majors in games pitched each of the last three seasons. Journeyman righty Luis Ayala takes his spot, but will likely need to be replaced as soon as the Yankees can come up with a viable alternative, with reclamation project Mark Prior, still in Tampa for extended spring training after a strong spring that did not include any back-to-back games or multi-inning outings, being a surprisingly high name on that list.
Finally, the Yankees have upgraded, in my opinion, their long-man spot by flipping Sergio Mitre to the Brewers and taking Bartolo Colon north. I wouldn't have believed I'd be writing these words a month ago, but Colon showed a lot this spring, not just by throwing in the low 90s, but with the movement on his two-seam fastball and changeup and with his command of his pitches, walking just one man against 17 strikeouts in 16 innings. Supposedly Colon surprised himself as well. It may all wither now that it's out of the Florida sun, but Colon was once one of the premier pitchers in the major leagues, and despite the fact that he'll turn 38 in May and had his career derailed by injuries and defections following his undeserved 2005 Cy Young award, I find myself surprisingly willing to believe that he has something to offer in this reduced role.
Maybe that's the optimism of Opening Day talking, but let me enjoy it while it's here.
Tigers preview here. Yankees roster below.
First pitch from CC Sabathia at 1:09 after Mike Mussina throws out the ceremonial one.
Welcome back, everyone. Happy baseball!
New York Yankees
2010 Record: 95-67 (.586)
2010 Third-Order Record: 96-67 (.593)
Manager: Joe Girardi
General Manager: Brian Cashman
Home Ballpark: Yankee Stadium 2.0
Bill James Park Indexes (2009-2010):
LH Avg-103; LH HR-141
RH Avg-100; RH HR-124
Who's replacing whom:
• Russell Martin takes over a large chunk of Francisco Cervelli's playing time as well as plate appearances made by Austin Kearns, Randy Winn, and various of rookies.
• Andruw Jones replaces Marcus Thames (LAD)
• Eric Chavez replaces Nick Johnson (CLE) and Lance Berkman (STL)
• Eduardo Nuñez replaces Ramiro Peña (mL)
• Gustavo Molina is replacing Chad Moeller and filling in for Francisco Cervelli (DL)
• Ivan Nova replaces Javier Vazquez (FLA) and Dustin Moseley (SDP)
• Freddy Garcia replaces Andy Pettitte
• Rafael Soriano replaces Chan Ho Park and Kerry Wood (CHC)
• Bartolo Colon replaces Sergio Mitre (MIL)
• Luis Ayala is filling in for Pedro Feliciano, who replaces Damaso Marte (DL) and Chad Gaudin
1B - Mark Teixeira (S)
2B - Robinson Cano (L)
SS - Derek Jeter (R)
3B - Alex Rodriguez (R)
C - Russell Martin (R)
RF - Nick Swisher (S)
CF - Curtis Granderson (L)
LF - Brett Gardner (L)
DH - Jorge Posada (S)
R - Andruw Jones (OF)
L - Eric Chavez (3B/1B)
R - Eduardo Nuñez (IF)
R - Gustavo Molina (C)
L - CC Sabathia
R - A.J. Burnett
R - Phil Hughes
R - Ivan Nova
R - Freddy Garcia
R - Mariano Rivera
R - Rafael Soriano
R - Joba Chamberlain
R - David Robertson
L - Boone Logan
R - Bartolo Colon
R - Luis Ayala
C - Francisco Cervelli (broken left foot)
LHP - Pedro Feliciano (sore left triceps)
LHP - Damaso Marte (labrum surgery on left shoulder)
OF - Colin Curtis (subluxated shoulder)
Opening Day Lineup:
L - Brett Gardner (LF)
R - Derek Jeter (SS)
S - Mark Teixeira (1B)
R - Alex Rodriguez (3B)
L - Robinson Cano (2B)
S - Nick Swisher (RF)
S - Jorge Posada (DH)
L - Curtis Granderson (CF)
R - Russell Martin (C)