2011 Record: 97-65, 1st AL East
2011 Prediction: 90-72, 3rd AL East
Impact Player: CF Curtis Granderson
Impact Pitcher: LHP C.C. Sabathia
Best Reliever: RHP Mariano Rivera
Top Prospect: LHP Manny Banuelos
The Yankees bashed their way to their 12th division title in 15 seasons, although it was only their second in the last five. They led the AL in home runs, were second in on-base percentage and third in slugging, led by Curtis Granderson’s MVP-calibre season. He ended up with a career high 41 home runs and a .394 wOBA while finishing fourth in AL MVP voting. The Yankees have now made the playoffs every year since the strike in 1994 with the exception of 2008.
The Yankees were chided all season long for a lack of rotation depth, relying heavily on the likes of Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, but they still managed to allow the third fewest runs in the AL with the help of a fantastic bullpen. It all ended in sadness for the Bronx Bombers, however; they lost to the upstart Detroit Tigers in the ALDS in five games.
Get ready, because I’m about to drop some knowledge: C.C. Sabathia is a really good baseball pitcher. Since 2006, only Roy Halladay has posted a higher fWAR and rWAR and there’s an argument to be made that he was actually better than Justin Verlander last season. Recognizing that the rest of the rotation was suspect, GM Brian Cashman made improving it priority number one this offseason and on paper, he was very successful. Within hours on January 13th, Cashman sent top prospect Jesus Montero and pitcher Hector Noesi to Seattle in exchange for young phenom Michael Pineda and minor league pitcher Jose Campos. In Pineda, the Yankees appear to have a legitimate number two behind Sabathia. In his rookie season with Seattle, Pineda posted a 3.15 K/BB ratio and finished second to Toronto’s Brandon Morrow in K/9 rate. There are some worries that Pineda’s lack of secondary stuff is an issue, as is a switch out of Safeco Field and in to Yankee Stadium, but he is just 23 and the raw materials are there for him to turn into a legitimate number one.
Hours after the announcement of the Pineda trade, the Bombers announced they had signed former Dodger Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year deal. Since coming over from Japan in 2008, the 37-year-old has posted a 3.62 xFIP and has averaged just over 3.0 fWAR per year. He’s an underrated pitcher and should fit in well as the number three starter for 2012.
The back end of the rotation will be filled out by Ivan Nova, whose low strike out-rate and middling walk-rate should lead to regression from the 3.70 ERA he posted in 2011, and either Phil Hughes or Garcia, who’s back on a one-year deal. Hughes lost some velocity on of his fastball (although not enough to truly be concerned about) and saw his swinging strike-rate plummet from 8.8% in 2010 to just 6.2% last year, taking his strikeouts with it. Garcia, meanwhile, posted his best season since 2006, but is still no better than league-average. With the Pineda and Kuroda acquisitions, the Yankees had enough depth to trade A.J. Burnett to the Pirates for a couple of low-end prospects to rid themselves of at least some ($13-million) of the $33-million they owed him over the last two years of the deal. Top prospects Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances are unlikely to have an impact until at least next season, but Betances could end up with a bullpen role if the team decides to accelerate him.
The Yankees still have an elite bullpen led by the greatest relief pitcher in the game’s history in Mariano Rivera (who will retire at season’s end). Rivera hasn’t posted an ERA over 2.00 since 2002. Even at 42, he’s possibly the best reliever in baseball. Setting him up will be David Robertson and the highly compensated Rafael Soriano. Robertson led all AL relief pitchers in a number of categories in 2011, including ERA (1.08) and K/9 (13.50). He still walks too many batters, but he more than made up for it last year. Soriano meanwhile, struggled in his first year with New York posting a middling 4.18 xFIP. Lefty Boone Logan will join Cory Wade in rounding out the ‘pen along with whoever loses out on the fifth spot in the rotation. Rule V lefty Cesar Cabral, Manny Delcarmen, Bradley Meyers, Matt Daley and George Kontos could also be in the mix for a spot.
Gone are the days when the Yankees were led offensively by Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira; last season the top offensive contributors to the team were Granderson and second baseman Robinson Cano. Cano had another impressive year, posting a .302/.349/.533 slash line with 28 home runs. He’s easily one of the top two-baggers in the game.
There is an emerging problem in the Bronx, however: Age. Of the Yankees projected starting nine, only Cano (29), catcher Russell Martin (29), and leftfielder Brett Gardner (28) are under the age of 30. The team’s infield is aging rapidly with Teixeira, Jeter and Rodriguez averaging over 35 years of age and all are into the decline phase of their careers. All three were still above-average offensive contributors in 2011, but injuries and aging skill sets for three cornerstone players would be a problem for any team. The Yankees will still score a ton of runs in 2012, but the warning signs for a rather steep regression are there.
Along with Granderson and Gardner in the outfield will be rightfielder Nick Swisher who will be a free agent at the end of the season. The Yankees picked up his $10.25-million option for 2012 and he should have no problem returning on the investment. Swisher has averaged 3.7 fWAR in his three seasons with New York. Designated hitter will be handled by a platoon of veterans Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones. Jones was the third-most valuable player in all of baseball between 1998 and 2006, behind only Barry Bonds and A-Rod, but he’s fallen off dramatically since then. He’s still an excellent option to fill-in as a fourth outfielder and provides a platoon partner for Ibanez who hit just .211/.232/.353 against lefties last season in Philly. Ibanez should be better than the now-retired Jorge Posada was last season in that role.
Francisco Cervelli will likely serve as the backup catcher and has all the necessary tools to do so. Joining him on the bench will be utility infielder Eduardo Nunez who could see an uptick in playing time this year as he figures to spell Jeter at short quite often while he rotates into the DH spot. The final spot should go to Eric Chavez, who’s back on a Major League deal to provide depth in the corner infield.
The Yankees are getting older and a lot of those older players are being paid a lot of money, but they are still a very good team. The Pineda trade upgrades the one weak spot the team had, but they still don’t have an elite rotation on par with the likes of the Angels or even the Rangers. It’s hard to imagine the Yankees repeating their 97-win performance from last year with so many 30-somethings, but they will still be in the thick of things in the AL East. Unfortunately for them, both the Red Sox and the Rays are very, very good teams.
2012 Prediction: 92-70, 3rd AL East