Sam Miller: Give me an offseason that would make you excited about this Yankee team's chances in 2014.
Ben Lindbergh: Uh... if they sign everyone? If they sign McCann -- I don't know, if they signed Ellsbury or something and moved Gardner to left? They'd have to sign all of the good players! -- Baseball Prospectus, "Effectively Wild" podcast, November 4, 2013
When Ben Lindbergh said that the Yankees would have to sign all the good players to become an exciting team in 2014, it is almost certain he didn't think the Yankees would actually do it, or would spend quite as abundantly as they did during the 2013-14 offseason. No one could have guessed that the Yankees would suddenly commit about a half-billion dollars to their future over the next few months, completely dispensing with the long-rumored "Plan 189 from Outer Space," as it was occasionally referenced on Pinstripe Alley. Supposedly, the Yankees were going to try to stay under a $189 million payroll in order to avoid the luxury tax, but after a season of missing out on playoff revenue, upper management reconsidered its tactics.
Instead of Chris Stewart behind the plate, it's seven-time All-Star Brian McCann. Instead of the drastically declining duo of Vernon Wells and Ichiro Suzuki in the outfield, it's former Red Sox nemesis Jacoby Ellsbury and old crosstown rival Carlos Beltran. Instead of Phil Hughes serving up meatball after meatball in the rotation, it's 25-year-old Japanese phenom Masahiro Tanaka. Even with question marks littering the infield -- Can Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira rebound from an entire season lost to injury? How will the team cope with the glaring absences of Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez? -- overall this team is a better squad than the group that had to overachieve a 79-83 Pythagorean record last year to finish over .500. The Yankees could contend for the American League pennant.
In 2013, injuries struck the Yankees more viciously than ever before in their long history. A franchise record 56 different players were used in an attempt to make up for the production lost from their injured stars. A cursory glance at the Yankees with the most games played at each position in 2013 would make any Yankees fan -- and indeed, any fan of baseball -- wince. Vernon Wells? Jayson Nix? Lyle Overbay? Travis Hafner? Perhaps it's no surprise that this offense finished with an ugly .243/.308/.377 triple-slash and a league-low 2,048 total bases.
That meagre offense has since suffered the defection of Cano but was bolstered by the additions of McCann and Beltran. Some have unfairly labeled Ellsbury as an "injury-prone, slight improvement over Brett Gardner," but he brings much more than that to the table. His two biggest injuries were the results of collisions, and even if he never replicates his career year of 2011 again, a mere duplication of his 2013 in Boston (114 OPS+, a league-leading 52 steals, and 5.8 WAR thanks to arguably the AL's best center-field defense) would go a long way to assuaging the skeptics.
Additionally, while Alfonso Soriano probably won't homer every 14.3 plate appearances as he did down the stretch for the Yankees last year, he should still provide the righty power that the Yankees otherwise lack. While it's easy to question the Yankees' infield, the outfield is a much bigger threat. Full seasons from this quartet and perhaps a few under-the-radar surprises like power-hitting lefty infielder Kelly Johnson targeting the Yankee Stadium short porch with success, along with resurgences from Teixeira or Jeter, and the Bronx Bombers should restore the dignity of their old moniker in 2014.
Although the bullpen will obviously miss the incomparable Mariano Rivera, likely closer David Robertson has improved his control from his wilder days to 2.4 walks per nine innings in 2013, a rate that was better than that of most proven closers™. Shawn Kelley and Matt Thornton will have to pick up some of Robertson's slack as versatile set-up relievers, but if there's one thing manager Joe Girardi has demonstrated over his Yankees tenure, it's that he knows how to make a bullpen effective. After losing Rivera to injury in 2012, the Yankees still had a playoff-caliber bullpen. Given Girardi managed to coax productive seasons out of the likes of Cody Eppley and Clay Rapada, who's to say that he can't do the same with this bunch?
Tanaka will be the man everyone in baseball will likely be watching early on, but perhaps more attention should be paid to maligned ace CC Sabathia. A down year in 2013 combined with a decrease in velocity have caused some people to dismiss him as a lost cause. However, while CC might not have the pure stuff he once did, lefties far less talented than the big southpaw have succeeded in the league years after hitting their mid-thirties. While CC will celebrate his 34th birthday towards the end of July and has over 2,700 innings on his arm (more than both Bartolo Colon and Roy Halladay’s career totals), it's too soon to write him off.
While the peoples of two nations expect the world from Tanaka, simply posting an ERA+ in the region of 112 in his first season, just as his former NPB compatriots Yu Darvish and new rotation-mate Hiroki Kuroda did in their rookie campaigns, would be sufficient. Speaking of Kuroda, he turned 39 on February 10th but has not shown many sign of age. Ivan Nova was once banished from the rotation after injury and an ineffective 2012, but the now-27-year-old pitched to a 2.59 ERA and 639 OPS-against in 15 starts from July onward. The fifth starter spot could go to anyone from the long-rehabbing Michael Pineda to the versatile David Phelps, but even though the Yankees lost the reliable Andy Pettitte, the Yankees' rotation appears to be in better shape than it was on Opening Day last year.
The Yankees have been a safe bet to make it to the playoffs 17 times in the last 19 years. With five playoff spots available now, it's not foolish to envision a season led by an offensive resurgence that brings the Yankees back to October baseball and, eventually, the AL pennant. The spending spree worked last time during the 2008-09 offseason. It may just work again.