The Yankees have a much better team this year. There’s no question about it. What isn’t as clear, however, is the degree to which they needed to improve the team and whether they’ve done enough to return to the postseason.
It’s hard to predict how good the Yankees can be in 2014 without revisiting just how bad they were last year. Although the injury riddled Bronx Bombers won 85 games, a more careful inspection reveals a paper tiger. Based on run differential, the Yankees were really a 79-win team, representing the franchise’s lowest Pythagorean record since 1992. The team’s offense also ranked as one of the worst in franchise history, while two starters, CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes, had similarly awful seasons. A few cosmetic changes weren’t going to fix the Yankees this offseason. In order to restore the pinstripes to among the A.L.’s elite, Brian Cashman needed to perform an overhaul. Now, the question remains, did he do enough?
Yankees’ Historical Run Differential/Game, 1901-2013
Although the Yankees made several significant additions, the subtractions were just as noteworthy. The combined losses of Robinson Cano, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte meant about 13 wins were siphoned off the team, according to Baseball-Reference’s calculation of WAR. So, the real starting point for rebuilding the 2014 Yankees was the approximately 66 win team that was left behind.
Masahiro Tanaka was the Yankees’ headline acquisition, and with good reason. If the right hander pitches anything like the ace he was in Japan, the boost to the team’s rotation would be immeasurable. However, Tanaka isn’t the only reason for optimism. At the end of last year, Ivan Nova emerged as a more polished pitcher with improved velocity, better command of a two-seam fastball and a knockout curve. As excited as the Yankees must be to see Tanaka in action, Nova’s continued maturation would be equally impactful.
Sabathia had an awful year in 2013. His dismal performance had many throwing dirt on his career, but the big lefty is also a source of optimism. Lost in the justifiable concern about Sabathia’s diminshed velocity was the off season surgery and abbreviated spring training that preceded last year’s regular season. These circumstances not only robbed Sabathia of the ability to train properly for 2013, but also denied him the chance to re-adjust to the natural erosion of his skills. Will a healthier, more prepared Sabathia bounce back to his Cy Young form in 2014? Perhaps not, but it is reasonable to expect a significant improvement over last year’s nightmare season.
As if the Yankees’ rotation wasn’t already brimming with upside, Michael Pineda is also making a comeback. Two years removed from shoulder surgery, Pineda won the fifth starter job by pitching lights out in spring training, but more important than the results was the way the ball looked out his hand. The right hander wasn’t coming close to triple digits, but with a mid-90s fastball and what Brian McCann called an “unhittable slider”, Pineda has all the makings of a top-line starter.
Yankees Historical Offensive Rates, 1901-2013
Source: baseball-reference.com, fangraphs.com and proprietary calculations
With such a rosy rotation outlook, the Yankees should be prohibitive favorites, but, in 2013, the pitching staff wasn’t the main problem. Where Cashman really needed to go to work was on offense. Last season, the Bronx Bombers was a misnomer. The Yankees’ OPS+ of 87 ranked third from last in the American League, and that included another MVP-caliber season from Cano. To compensate, the Yankees added three prime free agents in McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, but the potential cumulative offensive contribution of that trio is significantly offset by the likely drop off from the loss of Cano. Although the three-for-one trade off should result in a net production gain for the Yankees, if the Bronx Bombers are to be deserving of that name once again, they’ll need broad contributions throughout the lineup.
The Yankees will be featuring a new look lineup in 2014, but the season could hinge on the performance of the old guard. If Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira are healthy and able to put up numbers in line with even their worst season from the past, it will represent a marked improvement over last year. Obviously, the Yankees are hoping for much more, and, if they get it, the offense will be that much stronger. However, if Teixeira and Jeter struggle to either stay in the lineup or perform while in it, the lack of roster depth at both positions could anchor the team’s offense toward the bottom of the league once again.
Whereas the Yankees’ lineup and starting rotation are unquestionably stronger than last year, the bullpen appears to be weaker. Not only did the team lose the greatest closer of all time, but, by promoting David Robertson to fill that role, they’ve also lost one of the game’s best set-up men. If Robertson can make the transition to closer, it would soften the blow of Rivera’s retirement, but, if not, it could create chaos in the bullpen. However, even if Robertson emerges as a dominant closer, actually getting the ball to him could be a challenge. Without any proven setup men on the roster, the Yankees will either have to take a leap of faith or develop a new blueprint for crossing the bridge from starter to closer. One of Joe Girardi’s strengths has been managing his relief corps, so the Yankees’ skipper deserves the benefit of the doubt. Still, whatever plan he comes up with won’t be as reliable as the one the Yankees have used since 1997.
Defense is an x-factor for the Yankees. The pairing of Ellsbury and Brett Gardner should give the team one of the best outfields in baseball, but the infield could be one of the worst. With Kelly Johnson manning third base, a position he has played only 16 times in his major league career, and the veteran duo of Jeter and Brian Roberts up the middle, the Yankees shouldn’t expect to convert a relatively high percentage of ground balls into outs. Having more runners on base could be a problem with McCann behind the plate, but what the Yankees’ new backstop lacks in arm strength, he may more than make up for with his ability to frame pitches. On the whole, the Yankees’ defense should be better, especially if Brendan Ryan plays his fair share of games at short stop, but the uncertain state of the infield could be an issue that will eventually need to be addressed.
Putting win totals aside, the 2014 Yankees are in much better shape entering this season than last. Because of the significant upside in the rotation and added depth to the lineup, the Bronx Bombers once again look like a 90-win team, which should be enough to regain supremacy in the A.L. East. Unlike the past, however, the team’s status as favorite is tenuous. Had the team’s ownership been willing to carry a payroll commensurate with the last 10-plus years, the Yankees could be entering this season as a powerhouse. The retention of Cano and further additions like a closer and more accomplished infielder for the left side would have filled the team’s remaining holes and made 90 wins a baseline instead of an upside scenario. Nonetheless, the Yankees still arguably boast the most talented roster in the division, and that’s why I’ve forecast them to win the A.L. East. By no means, however, is that a cant-miss prediction. The Yankees could just as easily win 80 games as 95. Accepting such uncertainty is a new part of the franchise’s yearly calculus, so, until Steinbrenner shifts his focus from putting money in the bank, the team’s playoff chances won’t be.