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Know Thy Enemy: New York Yankees, 2009 Preview


This is part two of a 4-part series examining the Jay's AL East competition. Part one on the Orioles is here.

It is impossible to discuss the Yankees without touching on the circus that follows them around.  This off-season the circus included Hank Steinbrenner saying stupid things at 15 minute intervals. And a book came out by former manager Joe Torre, the theme of which seemed to be Jeter-good, ARod bad.  Speaking of ARod, he got in trouble for getting his cousin to inject steroids into his butt. One of the parts of that I don't understand, I don't like getting needles, but can you imagine having some random member of your family pump a needle full of something into your butt? But then maybe your family is different than mine......

Anyway beyond the circus a number of changes have been made to the Yankees this off season:

Departed: Jason Giambi, Bobby Abreu, Mike Mussina, Carl Pavano, Ivan Rodriguez, Kyle Farnsworth, Wilson Betemit and The House That Ruth Built.

Arrived: C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher and the New Yankee Stadium.

Position by Position:

Catcher:  Jorge Posada 37, Jose Molina 34.

Two years ago Posada had the best season of his career batting .338/.426/.543; last year he spent most of the season out with a shoulder injury.  Posada is 37 now which isn't young for a catcher and already this spring he has missed time with shoulder soreness.  Unfortunately for the Yankees their backup catcher is Jose Molina who is decent defensively but is awful offensively, hitting just .216/.263/.313 last year. If Posada plays the Yankees have one of the best catchers in the AL, but if he doesn't they don't.

First Base: Mark Teixeira 29

The Yankees signed Teixeira to an 8 year contract for more money than God makes. He is a pretty good risk, he's been healthy his whole career, he's never had lower than a .370 on base or a .514 slugging average since his rookie season. He's good with the glove and a switch hitter. He might not quite be worth what the Yankees are paying him, but he is a heck of a player. 

Second Base: Robinson Cano 26

Cano has always started slowly with the bat and improved as the season went on, last year improve as much as he had in the past. He ended up hitting .271/.305/.410, not bad for a middle infielder but the last three seasons his VORP has gone from 50.4 to 36.4 to 6.2 with the bat. If this was a ‘guess the next number' in the pattern thing the Yankees wouldn't like the answer.  I think he'll recover some with the bat but with Cano it is never good to try to guess what he will do next. He is pretty good with the glove.

Shortstop: Derek Jeter 35

Speaking of players whose VORP over the last three seasons has dropped, his went from 82.3 to 48.7 to 34.1, last season the worst offensively of his career.  Nagging injuries likely caused it but his defense has never been good, he does go all out and that adds to the little injuries that hurt his production. If he was anyone other than ‘Yankee Captain Derek Jeter' the team would move him to another position. Heck, Hall of Famer Robin Yount moved to center field to prolong his career and save him from the bumps and thumps middle infielders go thru. And the Yankees just happen to have a gaping hole in center field. Since they won't move him, I would expect he will continue to decline, in the long run, but this season there might be some bounce back in his numbers.

Third Base: Alex Rodriguez 33

Home runs in the last three seasons by ARod: 35, 53, 35. In 2007 he had an amazing season, last season he wasn't near as good and he was still the best third baseman in baseball. Maybe the drop in production was from being too preoccupied with Madonna? Or was it because he was a year further from being on the Juice? Who knows? How will he hit this season? Well, he is going to have opposing fans screaming at him more than ever this year. If I had to guess, I'd say his production will drop a little from last year, he is 33 now, but he'll still be as good as anyone in the league. Maybe he'll drop from 35 to 30 home runs. His defense has gone from being very good to being average.

Left Field:  Johnny Damon 35

Damon had a really good season last year, VORP 38.9, .303 average, .375 on base, 17 home runs and 29 steals. It was a great bounce back season after a poor 2007. It would be tough for him to repeat, he's reached the age where little aches and pains put him out of the lineup longer. His throwing arm is just terrible so his days in center are done, but he still has good range. I'd expect a season closer to his 2007 numbers than his 2008 numbers.

Center Field: Brett Gardner 25 or Melky Cabrera 24

Both players were terrible last year Gardner hit .228/.283/.299 in 141 at bats and Melky was .249/.301/.341. They are both good defensively and with the Yankee's offense, if Posada plays they can afford less than league average offense out of CF if they play good D. One of them will win the job out of the spring. If I had to I'd guess Gardner will win it because of his speed and ability to take a walk. Neither one will be great.

Right Field: Xavier Nady 30 and/or Nick Swisher 28

Nady hit well last year .305/.357/.510 but dropped off after he got traded to the Yankees, .268/.320/.474. Swisher had a poor season last year hitting just .219/.332/.410. Swisher should do better this season. He is a heck of a player. Nady a right-handed bat and Swisher a switch-hitter could platoon in right. Swisher is also the back up at left, first and center in an emergency.  Both of them are a huge improvement on defense over Bobby Abreu who couldn't go back on a ball if his life depended on it.  Replacing his offense will be more of a challenge.

DH: Hideki Matsui 35

Matsui started off well last year, but his knees gave out in June and eventually he had to have season ending surgery. He's in the last season of his contract and will just DH if he can stay healthy enough. He hit .285 with 25 home runs in 2007, that might be too much to hope for this season but he could still hit in the .270's, he has a good eye at the plate and likely have mid-range power.

Starting Pitching: CC Sabathia 28, AJ Burnett 32, Chien-Ming Wang 29, Andy Pettitte 37, Joba Chamberlain 23 and Phil Hughes 23

As Hugo noted, rarely does a team make it thru the season with just 5 starters and there is much less chance with the Yankee starters. Sabathia, signed for 7 years and $161 million tips the scales at about 300 pounds. While I expect him to be great this season, I'm not sure that I'd gamble 7 seasons on him. I'm about 120 pounds lighter than he is and my knees complain when I overdo it, I can't imagine what they would do with that much weight on them. Of course, compared to the 5 years and $82.5 million given to Burnett, I think CC's contract will seem like a steal. Baseball Prospectus picked Burnett's contract as the worst contract signed this off-season.  While I think comparing it to Carl Pavano's time in New York I think if you set the over/under for wins over the span of AJ's contract at 45 I'd take the under.  I have doubts that he'll be able to deal with the circus that surrounds the Yankees and his injury history was been well documented.  AJ's ERA was about league average with our terrific defense behind him; he is going to have to be a lot better to keep his ERA near league average with the Yankee's defense.

Wang has been a great for the Yankees until he hurt his foot in the middle of June last year.  He should be ready to get ground balls by the dozen again this year.  Pettitte was 14-14 with a 4.54 last year, can expect more of the same from him this year, though his he is getting older and the odds of him getting thru a season injury free are a little longer each year. Chamberlain started last season in the bullpen, moved to the rotation and then hurt his rotator cuff.  It's anyone's guess what the Yankee's will get from him this year, if he is healthy and stays healthy he could be very good. Phil Hughes was given a starters role out of spring training last year and he was awful, 6.62 ERA in 8 starts. Apparently he was pitching thru a stress fracture in his ribs.  Hughes won't start this season in the rotation but he'll be the first one called up when one of the starting 5 goes down with an injury. He'll definitely be better than last year, how much better is the question.


Closer:  Mariano Rivera 39

At 39, sooner or later he won't be able to do it anymore, but last year may have been his best season ever; a 1.40, 39 saves, only 1 blown save, amazing control (only 6 walks in 70.2 innings) and 9.8 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched.  So there is no sign that this will be the season that he can't do it anymore. But one day his Hall of Fame career will end. I wouldn't expect as good a season this year, because absolutely amazing seasons don't happen every year, even for Hall of Famers.

Setup men: Damaso Marte 34, Jose Veras 28, Brian Bruney 27 and Phil Coke 26

Marte came over to the Yankees from the Pirates in a trade with Nady, he didn't well with Yankees, having a 5.41 ERA in 18.1 innings. But Yankee manager Joe Girardi left him in for some long appearances when he first got him and Marte had elbow soreness after. He is a lefty that is almost as good against righty batters. He should be good this year if Girardi treats him gentle. Bruney and Veras are hard throwing right-handers. Bruney gets the more high leverage spots. Coke should do fine as a one out lefty type.

In Summary:

I'll admit that the Yankee's are my least favorite sports franchise, beating out Manchester United for the title by a fair bit.  So that makes it hard for me to totally objectively consider them. That being said, the real theme to Joe Torre's book was that championship teams build from the farm system up and that buying free agents really doesn't work to make a championship team. Brian Cashman said the same thing before last season. I'll admit I was impressed. This off-season they did a 180 and spent $423.5 million on 3 free agents. The Yankees do have a number of really good looking prospects, it will be interesting to see if they have the patience someday to let them play.

The Yankees finished third in the AL East last season, 8 games behind the Rays, 6 behind the Red Sox and 3 in front of the Jays at 86-76 missing the playoffs for the first time since 1993 in Joe Girardi's first season as manager. If they miss again he won't get a third year as manager. Last season the Yankee's had the oldest pitching staff and the oldest batters in the AL, the changes they have made make them some younger but they are not a young team.  Older players tend to have more injuries than younger players and they also tend to decline.

Changes made this summer will improve the defense the most. Jason Giambi was a terrible defensive first baseman, as Baseball Prospectus said ‘you could kneecap a fire hydrant and it would still have more range'. Right field defense will improve by getting Abreu out of there, center will improve by keeping Damon out of it and left will improve by keeping Matsui out of it.

The starting staff looks good but how much it improves is anyone's guess, you have 6 guys that are injury risks. CC Sabathia is terrific but he replaces Mike Mussina who was 20-9 last year, how much better than that can CC be? The other starters are wild cards; we don't know what they will do.

All in all, I think the Yankees will be better than year, if Posada can play most of the season.  If he can't the Yankees have troubles. Aging players Jeter, ARod and Rivera also have to stay healthy. Are they 8 games better than last year? I don't think so. But then the Rays and the Red Sox might fall back a little to help the Yankees out. I don't see the Yankees finishing first but they should be in the battle.  

Another new thing for the Yankees this year is a new Yankee Stadium paid for mostly by public money, some revenue sharing and tax loopholes that will cause years of investigations. As Hugo has noted the site of the new stadium was one of South Bronx's best green spaces.  It is too bad that is lost to build something so the rich could get richer, but then that's the way of the world.