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Can the Yankees improve enough to make the playoffs?

How much of their 2013 performance was unrepeatable luck? How much have they really improved?

Mike Stobe

It's likely the Yankees won't make the playoffs next year.

The 2013 Yankees seriously over-performed, everybody knows that right? But go back and look again. Do you see it?

Every end of year wrap up article talked about the 2013 Yankees missing the playoffs for the second time in 19 years. They talk about the worst record since those 1995 Yankees snuck into the playoffs with 79 wins.

But I look back at the 1992 Yankees as the last Yankee team to post a negative run differential, and the 2013 Yankees actually allowed 21 more runs than they scored.

The run differential for the AL 2013 playoff teams: +197 (Bos), +172 (Det), +142 (Oak), +83 (Cle), +54 (TB),

A chart:

2013 3.8 3.2 2.7 2.3 1.4 1.0 1.6 1.5 0.5 0.3 0.9 0.4 6.0 0.7 -1.6 1.2 4.6 0.2 -0.5 30.2
2014 Steamer Projection 3.4
3.6 3.2 2.2 0.9 0.5 4.4 2.0 0.7 2.0 1.8 2.5 3.8 1.8 1.0 33.8

So what does this say?

Andy Pettitte has retired, Phil Hughes is Twin. That leaves Kuroda, CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova and David Phelps as 2014 starters in this chart. Mariano Rivera has retired and Boone Logan was the Yankees fourth most valuable reliever in 2013.

Incredibly, this projection (which I'm using because it's freely available on Fangraphs) has big rebounds and big improvements for CC, Nova and Phelps. Brian McCann is an obvious upgrade at catcher. If Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez come back at two wins each, that's a further boost. Of course, maybe A-Rod won't be available. A Derek Jeter return at 1.8 wins would have me dancing with joy. And while I don't think Brian Roberts will be healthy enough to post the 0.7 WAR we're projecting for him, that seems like a reasonable platoon projection, since that's what the 2013 Yankee 3Bs put together.

For now, I've got Gardner in left, Ellsbery in center, Carlos Beltran in right, and Soriano at DH. I'm taking the liberty to disagree with the Steamer projection that sees Soriano providing negative WAR in 2014; with his terrible fielding limited in a bench/ DH role, I'm putting him at 1 win. The outfield/ DH situation is a real strength for the Yankees going into next season, because the bench players have the potential to be nearly as good as the regulars (though I think Vernon Wells' DFA is on its way), so I'm expecting the Yankee outfielders on the whole to outperform the individual projections I've plugged in here.

Obviously, signing the only high quality pitcher on the market is the best place to start; let's guess that Masahiro Tanaka is worth the same 5.0 WAR Yu Darvish has been worth the last two seasons. Now, let's hope those 200 quality innings sign in the Bronx. That would bring the team WAR to roughly 38, call it 40 once you round out the lineup.

Look at it this way: that would be a major improvement in the rotation (though not as big an improvement as most people make Tanaka out to be), a step back for the bullpen, and a small step forward in the lineup.

In the 2008-9 offseason, the Yankees had a nearly perfect free agent haul, bringing in two top pitchers and the best available hitter. The next year the team went from +62 runs to +162, exactly a +100 improvement. Are McCann, Ellsbury and Beltran a +100 improvement over Wells, Hafner and Cano? Would a Tanaka signing shift the balance?

And even if the Yankees are +100 runs better than last season, is that enough? That huge improvement would still leave the Yankees below the threshold of last year's division winners.

Of course, a head to head improvement against the Red Sox and Rays would matter. Of course, the Yankees have improved at the cost of the Red Sox's center fielder. Of course, scrapping Plan 189 leaves room open for a midseason upgrade at third or second base. Of course, the offseason isn't over yet.

But I look at all the moves the Yankees have made, and at how much their season depends on strong rebounds from Tex (and wrist injuries often sap a hitter of his power for more than a year after he's returned to play) and Jeter (would he set the record for oldest starting shortstop in MLB history?). And I wonder if the Yankees have improved enough.