Last year was a pretty awful time to be a Yankee fan. Fans of other teams don't want to hear it and that's understandable, but watching that team with those players take the field each night really sucked a lot of the fun out of baseball. It wasn't so much the fact that they were bad and missed the playoffs, as it was the fact that they did it while insufficient backups took on starter roles for the sake of frugality and a new player got injured every other day. Except for the terrible Chris Stewart was made of the thickest Valyrian steel and couldn't be gotten rid of at any cost. The team somehow managed to overachieve; even with the cast of characters they had who barely resembled the real Yankees. The memory of 2013 will probably be nightmare fuel for a lot of us for the foreseeable future.
When the Mariners signed Robinson Cano to a ten-year deal, my unhappiness as a Yankee fan seemed to hit rock bottom. My favorite player was gone, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte had retired, and Plan 189 still hung like a weight over everything. Cano leaving wasn't supposed to be an option but it happened anyway. Little by little, it seemed like reasons to not feel like this season would be a repeat of last started to fall together. It took half a billion dollars to get there, but seeing this team in spring training was exciting. Seeing them take the field tonight will be even more exciting. There are reasons to be skeptical, but there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful. If you can't find hope on Opening Day, then when can you? Here are the reasons why I am optimistic about the Yankees' chances this year.
1. Masahiro Tanaka: How I fell in love with a splitter
If Cano was the 1A top prize of the offseason, Tanaka was 1B. The 25-year-old Japanese phenom was finally able to make his way to the United States after a long process that saw the posting system between NPB and MLB change dramatically. It looked for a second as though the Rakuten Golden Eagles may not allow Tanaka to leave after the system changed to give more money to the player and less to their former team. Tanaka was posted and the Yankees were able to come up with the highest bid, leaving Plan 189 behind.
Tanaka looked every bit like the pitcher he was billed as in spring training, striking out ten Marlins in his final six tune up innings. His splitter is devastatingly beautiful. The way that hitters make themselves look silly attempting to hit Mo's cutter or David Robertson's curveball is the same way they look when matched up against Tanaka's splitter. It's a thing of beauty. Should he continue his Japanese and spring success, the Yankees are looking at a new young superstar in their pitching rotation with serious Rookie of the Year potential.
2. Goodbye Chris Stewart, Hello Brian McCann
The first splash of the Yankees' offseason was signing the former Braves catcher to a five-year deal. Anyone would have been an upgrade over the catching situation of 2013, but McCann is one of the best in the game. The pitchers had nothing but rave reviews for him all spring training long and his left-handed swing is perfectly suited for long homers to right field. Getting offense and defense from the catcher's spot? It's been a while since the Yankees have seen that on their team. It's not always easy to be the new guy who has to replace the old guy, but in this case it couldn't be easier.
3. Re-emergence of Michael Pineda
Pineda hasn't been healthy in two full seasons and recovery from a torn labrum is never a sure bet, but Pineda came out this spring and proved he can still be a force to be reckoned with in the Yankees' rotation. The 98 mph velocity is not there, but his slider is still very much present. He had stiff competition with David Phelps, Adam Warren, and Vidal Nuno all turning in really impressive spring performances of their own, but Pineda managed to be the most impressive of them all, despite the fact that the job was always supposed to be his if he was healthy.
A healthy Pineda can be a total game-changer in the rotation. He's slotted in the fifth spot, but his potential is obviously much higher than that. The Yankees are going to want to work him back into a full season's workload gently, but there are a lot of reasons to think and hope that he'll be much more than a No. 5 pitcher before the season is out. Spring training gave us glimpses of how good he can be, even without the fireball velocity he had in Seattle.
4. Water covers 70% of the Earth, the rest is covered by Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury
The Yankees have had to put some interesting defensive characters in their outfield over the course of the last few seasons, such as Raul Ibanez, Vernon Wells, Andruw Jones.... you get the picture. Brett Gardner's claim to fame has always been his tremendous outfield defense that should have already won him a Gold Glove by now. Jacoby Ellsbury has been one of the best center fielders in the game. Now, they are going to man the same outfield. How will anything get down out there?
Ellsbury's addition made it seem like Gardner might be out the door after the season, but the Yankees locked up the latter to keep both of them in New York for at least the next few years. The speedy duo can cause mayhem on the bases for pitchers and mayhem in the outfield for batters looking to have their hits fall in. Good defense isn't always as sexy as good offense, but these two should make it really fun to watch this season.
First base, shortstop, third base, and center field: All of these positions were filled by non-starters when the 2013 season began for the Yankees. With the lone exception of infield backup Brendan Ryan, the entire roster left Tampa wholly intact. Knock on wood, of course. Part of the frustration last season was seeing players that were ill-equipped to be starting MLB players thrust into the role of starter for much longer than anticipated. Lyle Overbay manned first base all season. Shortstop was a black hole all year. The Yankees used approximately 65 third basemen. Curtis Granderson got himself broken by pitches twice.
Derek Jeter is healthy and running as well as you can expect a 40-year-old shortstop after ankle surgery to run. Mark Teixeira is mainly recovered from his wrist surgery, except for mentally overcoming the fact that he doesn't need to stop his swing early to protect his wrist. CC Sabathia is healthy and claims that he feels much better than he did a year ago, despite his velocity still not being where it was. Ellsbury's calf was enough of a non-issue that he would have played in the spring training finale if it wasn't rained out. The players who are supposed to be starting are going to be starting. That alone is a huge step up over the situation last year.
So, that's only a fraction of why I am excited about the 2014 Yankees. Five hardly encompasses them all, so feel free to add your own. Just don't rain on my parade today. Opening Day is when we can look forward to a season with all the hope in the world, and there is a whole lot to like about this team.