We keep predicting (let’s face it, wishing for) their downfall and they keep on going. No matter how old they get, no matter how much we think their aging core is going to suddenly stop performing, they continue to put up 95-win seasons and march into the playoffs. Since 1995, the New York Yankees have missed the playoffs once…once.
Still, things feel different this year. Yes, the Yankees had another 95-win season, yes they took another AL East title (their 13th in the last 17 seasons), but they whimpered out of the playoffs being swept in the ALCS by the Tigers; unable to hit. They looked old and tired and injured.
Things are also different this year because New York was not active this winter on the free agent or trade market. Ownership is committed to getting under MLB’s luxury tax threshold by next season and so they doled out only one year deals to a few aging veterans (and one two-year deal to Ichiro!). Gone are the ways of the free-spending Yankees. Yes, it’s true that they are still number-two in baseball in player payroll, but with cumbersome contracts like Alex Rodriguez, C.C. Sabathia and Derek Jeter, there’s not a lot left over to spend.
The other factor already facing the Yankees heading into 2013 is injuries. Jeter is expected to be fine by Opening Day, but is coming off a pretty serious ankle injury; A-Rod will miss at least the first half recovering from another hip surgery; Curtis Granderson was hit on the right forearm by a J.A. Happ pitch a few days ago and will miss the first month-and-a-half of the season; and Phil Hughes is also slated to miss some time. Not to mention Michael Pineda who has still not thrown a pitch in a Yankees uniform.
Despite all the apparent problems in Yankee-land, the pitching is still quite good. Sabathia threw exactly 200 innings—the first time he’s thrown under 230 since 2006—and although you could argue that it was his worst season in a long time, he was still excellent and is still a true ace. His 4.8 fWAR was sixth-best in the AL.
Joining C.C. at the top of the rotation is Huroki Kuroda who was re-signed on a very reasonable one-year contract. The 38-year-old has been consistently one of the most under-heralded pitchers in baseball since he came over from Japan in 2008. Last year, his first with the Yankees, he threw a career-high 219 2/3 innings and has now averaged 3.2 wins-above-replacement according to FanGraphs since coming to North America.
After more than a year away from the game, Andy Pettitte returned last season and pitched very well in 12 starts before succumbing to a broken leg after being hit by a comebacker. Even at 41-years-old, Pettitte should provide consistency when he pitches—even if that’s only for 150 innings or so. In his 12 starts last year, he actually posted his highest strikeout-rate since 2004 when he pitched with the Astros.
After the C.C., Kuroda and Pettitte, things are a little murkier, but the Yankees do have options. Hughes has a bulging disc in his back which could sideline him for the start of the season, but Ivan Nova is still healthy and will grab one of the final two spots. Until Hughes is back, expect David Phelps to fill out the rotation. He’s expected to act as the swingman this season after an encouraging debut in that role last year.
Mariano Rivera was going to retire following last season, but then a freak knee injury while shagging flyballs in batting practice ended his season very early and he decided that’s not how he wanted to go out. The greatest closer of all time is expected to walk away after this year now and it will be interesting to see what’s still left in the 43-year-old’s tank after missing spending significant time on the DL for the first time in his career.
Setting up and acting as a safety net for Rivera will be David Robertson who has become one of the more dependable relievers in baseball over the past few seasons. He was fifth in the AL in fielding-independent pitching among relievers last year.
Left-handers Boone Logan and Clay Rapada were excellent last year and are back along with right-handers Joba Chamberlain and Phelps. David Aardsma is expected to round out the ‘pen—he made only one appearance last year due to a recovery from Tommy John surgery. Shawn Kelley, who was acquired from Seattle, Jim Miller, who was acquired from Oakland, and Cody Eppley will provide depth.
The lineup looks especially old with the only player under 30 slated to see everyday playing time being 29-year-old Brett Gardner. The top of the order will consist of two 39-year-olds in Ichiro! in rightfield and Jeter at short. Jeter led baseball with 740 plate appearances last season and also saw his numbers rebound overall hitting .316/.362/.429. Even with his terrible defense he was worth 3.2 WAR. Ichiro! on the other hand struggled mightily until being traded to the Yankees in July whereupon he looked much more like his old self hitting .322/.340/.454. The short porch in rightfield is suited perfectly for him to add a little power to his repertoire—he hit five home runs in just 34 games at Yankee Stadium last year.
Second baseman Robinson Cano ended the year on a sour note by slumping through the playoffs, but he put up another phenomenal season garnering MVP votes for the third consecutive year while posting a 150 wRC+ and 33 home runs—both career highs. Joining him in the middle of the lineup will be first baseman Mark Teixeira who appears to be in sharp decline. He’s still a very valuable player, but his wRC+ has dropped successively every season since joining the Yankees.
A-Rod’s injury will make space for Kevin Youkilis to play third for at least the first half. Youk was signed to a one-year deal after splitting last season with all manner of Sox. He was much better with Chicago than he was with Boston, but was still barely average offensively overall. He’ll be a decent placeholder until A-Rod returns and will then likely platoon at DH with Travis Hafner who was also brought in on a one-year contract.
Granderson’s injury will push Gardner to centerfield for the first month or so and he may end up staying there as there’s a chance Granderson will play leftfield upon his return. Until then, expect Juan Rivera and Matt Diaz to see most of the time in left unless New York goes outside the organization for an upgrade. Gardner played in only 16 games last season and is a vastly underrated player when healthy. Granderson meanwhile, is slightly overrated. He hits for power—in fact, he leads all of baseball with 84 home runs over the last two seasons—but is vulnerable against lefties and doesn’t get on base all that well.
The biggest trouble spot for New York is at catcher where they let Russell Martin sign an affordable two-year deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates this winter. With nobody brought in from outside the organization, the Yankees appear content to go forward with some combination of Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart and prospect Austin Romine who couldn’t even hit at AA and AAA last season. New York may have the weakest catching in baseball—with the likes of Jorge Posada behind the plate for years, it’s been a long time since anyone could say that.
Infielder Eduardo Nunez will probably see his fair share of time at third and short this season, but he will also start the year as Travis Hafner’s DH platoon partner—although Diaz might also fill that role.
The Yankees were not a good defensive team last season, finishing tenth in the AL in defensive efficiency, but considering the personnel on the field, that’s not that bad. Gardner—a legitimate gold glover—should be healthy this year and that will improve the outfield defense dramatically, especially if he makes the move to center permanent. Cano is very well regarded at second as is Teixeira at first, but the left side of the infield will be porous with Jeter and Youkilis/a recovering A-Rod. Stewart is a solid catch-and-throw guy behind the plate, but Romine is the best of the bunch if he can hit enough to make the team. Either way, another year added on to the ledger won’t improve the Yankee D.
It’s easy to be all doom-and-gloom about the 2013 Yankees—and trust me, nothing gives me more pleasure—but it’s also hard to deny that the roster still has talent. Sabathia and Kuroda can pair up with anyone’s 1-2 in the rotation, there’s depth in the bullpen with the return of Rivera and Aardsma from injury and the lineup should still hit enough. A mid-90s win total seems bullish, but the Yankees could also add some pieces through trade as the year wears on and still be in the thick of things in the AL East.
2013 Prediction: 87-75, 3rd AL East