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Ninety Percent of the Game is Seventy-Five Percent Pitching

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It was Mariano Rivera’s birthday yesterday. He’s 42 years old, same age as his number, and can do more in his fifth decade than most of us could do in our second or third. Some people are just gifted; others eat.

In all of the years I’ve been writing the Pinstriped Bible, this offseason has been one of the toughest to write about from a Yankees perspective. They’ve been almost completely out of the news while teams like the Cubs, Red Sox, and Marlins made headlines. The issues for the Yankees are so well known as to barely merit discussion at this point. With Freddy Garcia re-signed, the rotation currently stands as CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes, and Garcia. That assemblage plus Bartolo Colon was good enough to get the Yankees to the postseason, but also got them sent home right quick.

Arguably the problems of the five-game American League Disappointment Series against the Tigers were as much on the offensive side, and that’s harder to fix given how locked in the Yankees are at every position except designated hitter. It’s never good to overreact to a short-series loss, but it’s also important to remember that:

(a) Once you take Yankee Stadium out of the equation, the Yankees had a good, not great offense.

(b) There isn’t a hitter on this team from whom we can expect significant improvement in 2012. We can expect consistency from many of the hitters. Maybe Mark Teixeira will pick up a few points of batting average. Perhaps Russell Martin will have two years that somewhat resemble each other for the first time in his career. As for Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and even Curtis Granderson, we’ve probably seen the best they have to offer.

(c) Gosh, does that put a lot of pressure on Jesus Montero to hit if he’s the regular DH.

(d) Gee, does that put a lot of pressure on the bench to be good, and right now the bench doesn’t exist.

All the offseason discussions about the Yankees to this point have revolved around pitching—first Sabathia’s opt-out, then the Garcia contract. The team has the resources in young arms that it doesn’t need to obsess about pitching. Signing a veteran arm might even be counterproductive (despite which I have a warm feeling about Mark Buehrle for some reason) given the reasonable expectation that Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos have a chance of being very good major league pitchers sometime in 2012, not to mention all the other four-five types the Yankees have at Triple-A right now but probably won’t ever use.

I’m not sure what kind of trade the Yankees could make to upgrade the offense. The weakest offensive players, Brett Gardner and Russell Martin, do enough on defense to more than offset whatever their hitting leaves to be desired. Rumored deals involving Nick Swisher—perhaps to clear a place for a free agent such as Carlos Beltran—doesn’t make a lot of sense, as the team will pay a great deal of money for what is, in truth, a very small offensive upgrade. For all of his inconsistency in 2011, Nick Swisher had a .293 True Average. Beltran was at .318, but is older, more fragile, more expensive.

No, the Yankees may be boxed in on offense—trade a Brett Gardner for a bat and risk giving up so much speed and defense that you end up a net negative on the deal. For the team to have a happier outcome in 2012, so it is indeed the starting pitching that will have to be the focus for this winter. The rotation will have to be far better than it was in 2011 if the Yankees are to survive any kind of offensive step back. That probably means cutting bait on a failing starter faster than they have in the past, if you know what I mean (let his name not be mentioned here). Again, the Yankees have the depth that they don’t have to chase C.J. Wilson and the rest of the so-so free agent cadre, but whatever group they enter the season with, they will have to be quick on the draw when someone falters. Unless Montero comes on like gangbusters, there is a good chance that the batters won’t be as obliging as they were until recently.