It is not often that you can say that the New York Yankees outperformed their talent level, but they did exactly that in 2013. Manager Joe Girardi did a spectacular job of MacGuyvering his way to an 85-77 record despite a roster held together with paper clips, duct tape, and something called an Eduardo Nunez. They outperformed their pythagorean win expectation by six games, which may have been part of the motivation behind this offseason's spending spree. Unless Mike Ilitch or another team owner happens upon this page, the Yankees likely spent more than the entire net worth of everyone reading this post in an attempt to get back to the top of the division. They have some big flaws, but it is hard to see this team as anything but a serious contender in 2014.
Manager: Joe Girardi (7th year)
2013 record: 85-77, t-3rd in AL East
SB Nation blog: Pinstripe Alley
First series vs. Tigers: August 4-7 @ Yankee Stadium
Derek Jeter's announcement that 2014 would be his last season all but guaranteed that we have to endure a second consecutive farewell tour of the American League. Like Mariano Rivera, Jeter is coming off an injury-shortened season in hopes of having one more good year to ride off into the sunset. Unlike Rivera, I'm not sure how valuable Jeter is going to be. His power is gone, his speed is questionable on that bum ankle, and his fielding range will likely be nonexistent. Despite all of these problems, he is still a much better option than third baseman Kelly Johnson. Formerly a second baseman known for his bat, Johnson has not posted an above average season at the plate since 2010 with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Though the left side of the infield sounds grim, the right side is even worse. Brian Roberts -- he of the 192 games played in the last four seasons -- is slated to be the team's starting second baseman. When healthy, Roberts has been a very productive player. He was an All-Star with the Baltimore Orioles in 2005 and 2007, and posted three consecutive seasons with an OPS above .800 from 2007 to 2009. He also stole 120 bases in that three year stretch. He will be in competition with first baseman Mark Teixeira to see who can stay on the field longer. Teixeira has only played in 138 games in the past two seasons, including just 15 last year while dealing with a wrist injury that eventually required surgery. The Yankees are hoping that he regains the power stroke that saw him hit 33 home runs or more in each of his first three seasons with the team.
Last year's catching trio of Chris Stewart, Austin Romine, and Francisco Cervelli was a horrific experience for Yankees fans of all ages. All together -- along with little-used J.R. Murphy -- they combined for 0.9 fWAR, which actually ranked ahead of seven teams. Meanwhile, Atlanta Braves catchers combined for the seventh-most fWAR in baseball, led by Brian McCann's 2.7 wins. McCann, as you may have heard, is now a Yankee, and seems ready to feast upon the short porch in right field.
McCann is sitting on a streak of six consecutive 20-homer seasons, and I would take the "over" on him getting number seven this year.
For all the problems they have in their infield, the Yankees' outfield is loaded. In fact, it may be overloaded. Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, and Carlos Beltran are the likely everyday starters, but Alfonso Soriano and Ichiro Suzuki are also in the mix -- though Soriano will probably spend a healthy amount of time as the team's designated hitter. This may be for the best, however, as Ichiro's downfall has been swift and merciless. He has a .305 on-base percentage over the past three seasons, bottoming out at .297 in 555 plate appearances last year. Meanwhile, Ellsbury and Gardner will be OBP-monsters at various places throughout the lineup -- expect Gardner to bat low in the order with Jeter still around -- and Beltran has shown no signs of dropping off. He may not be able to field a lick anymore, but last year's 132 wRC+ shows that Beltran's bat still has plenty of pop.
CC Sabathia suffered a puzzling drop-off in 2013, pitching at replacement level (according to rWAR) for 211 innings. He struggled to keep the ball in the park, allowing a career high 28 home runs. Sabathia has seen his fastball velocity drop in each of the past three seasons. He will be 33 this season and there is a lot of mileage on that arm, but a new offseason training regimen may help him stave off Father Time for another year or two. Co-ace Hiroki Kuroda has tossed 200 innings with a sub-3.40 ERA in each of the past three seasons. This included a seamless transition from the NL West to the AL East in 2012 in which Kuroda's FIP increased by a whopping 0.06. Given his reliance on location and deception -- especially with his wicked splitter -- expect more of the same in 2014.
While some believe that Sabathia and Kuroda can take pressure off of Masahiro Tanaka by performing well, it seems as if the 25 year old Japanese product already has plenty on his plate. If the Yu Darvish Circus of 2012 is any sign of what is to come, amplify that by 10 times when the Japanese media hits the largest market in the United States. As for his pitching abilities, he sports a low-to-mid 90s fastball and the same wicked splitter that Kuroda has mastered. I was able to catch Tanaka's Spring Training debut and came away impressed with how he challenged hitters with his fastball. He will need to continue to do that during the regular season in order to maximize the effectiveness of his off-speed offerings.
While Phil Hughes struggled during the better part of his tenure in New York, his departure leaves a decent hole in the back end of the rotation. Ivan Nova showed an improved ability to limit home runs last season, inducing a 53.5% ground ball rate en route to a 3.10 ERA and 3.47 FIP in 139 1/3 innings. He has received high praise so far this spring, and is firmly entrenched in the fourth starter's spot. Nova's old fifth spot is currently up for grabs, with David Phelps and Michael Pineda the top two candidates. Pineda has not thrown a pitch in a Yankees uniform, and has only logged 40 2/3 innings since being traded by the Seattle Mariners after his impressive debut season. He looked impressive earlier this spring, striking out Miguel Cabrera and three other Tigers in two innings of work. Phelps is a capable swingman, and probably will not get the chance to hold a starting spot down for long.
How do you replace Mariano Rivera? The real answer is "you can't," but David Robertson is a fairly capable reliever who should handle the ninth inning just fine. His previous attempts have not gone so well. Specifically, he was 1-for-2 with an 8.44 ERA in save opportunities after Rivera tore his ACL in 2012, leading to the brief yet successful Rafael Soriano era. Small sample aside, Robertson has had sub-2.70 ERAs and FIPs in each of the past three seasons. The real question in the Yankees' pen is who will get the ball to Robertson now that Robertson is not in a setup role. Shawn Kelley and Matt Thornton are the current contenders, and neither is inspiring much confidence. Kelley, rumored to be the frontrunner, had a 4.39 ERA and 3.63 FIP for the Yankees in 2013.
Empire state of mind
There is no "smart" way to spend half a billion dollars on a baseball team -- though another $180 million would have bought them the Houston Astros -- but the Yankees did about as well as one could expect this offseason. Brian McCann is a colossal upgrade over the team’s catching situation in 2013 and should feast upon the short right field porch. Jacoby Ellsbury will more than capably fill the void left by Curtis Granderson. Carlos Beltran can hit, which is more than you can say about anyone on their 2013 roster. And Masahiro Tanaka is the "eff you, we’re the Yankees" cherry on top. Things may look different in a few years (especially if Ellsbury gets hurt or Tanaka flops) but for now the Yankees are relevant again, which is exactly what their fanbase craves.
Player to watch: Brian McCann
Between his general baseball curmudgeon-ness and the fact that he's actually quite good, McCann should be prime entertainment in 2014. He was worth 2.7 fWAR last year despite only appearing in 102 games and has topped the 4.0 WAR mark on four separate occasions in his career. Usually, a move to the American League results in a slight drop-off in power numbers, but I do not expect this to be the case for McCann. For one, he is a pull hitter moving into a stadium so lefty-friendly it might as well be a driving range. Also, the designated hitter spot -- filled with older and more broken down players than him at the moment -- will keep his bat in the lineup on days off. McCann could feasibly be a five win upgrade over last year's brutal cocktail of catchers.
The "stars and scrubs" mentality has not worked for the Los Angeles Angels over the past few seasons, but that may be largely due to the fact that their entire pitching staff fell into the "scrubs" category. The 2014 Yankees seem to be following a similar path, and like the Angels, their pitching staff will determine how far they go. If Sabathia bounces back, Nova steps forward, and Tanaka proves he is worth all that money, the Yankees could be title contenders. If they falter and the infield proves as old and brittle as it looks on paper, this could be another third place team. Either way, 2014 should be a much more interesting season than '13 in the Bronx.