This is one in a series of posts in which we break down each team’s wily offseason maneuvers and tragic offseason blunders.
Last year, the Yankees managed to bash their way into the postseason despite lackluster starting pitching and an average age of fifty-seven years and three months. And for the third year in a row, New York was eliminated from the playoffs in the first round. In the Northeast, where we’re all overachieving Alpha-people who walk fast, talk faster, and expect nothing less than perfection from our sports teams, this is unacceptable. It’s especially unacceptable when you’re the most expensive team in baseball year after year by a margin of about fifty million bucks, or roughly the payroll of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
This offseason, they needed to add pitching and youth. They also faced another conundrum: many of their expensive superstar veterans were up for free agency. They kicked off the offseason by re-signing Andy Pettitte, 35 ( who ultimately did decide to exercise his 1 year, $16 million option), Mariano Rivera, 38 (3 years, $45 million), and Jorge Posada, 36 (4 years, $52.4 million). And, of course, they came to terms with Alex Rodriguez, 32 (10 years, $275 million), who was advised by Warren Buffet in the deal after his agent, Scott Boras, turned out to be greedy and classless (and A-Rod was shocked, shocked!).
Considering the year Jorge Posada just had, considering money is no object for the Steinbrenners, and considering how hard it is to find a catcher even close to that caliber, that deal actually made sense to me—even though they’ll be shelling out $13 million a year for a catcher in his late 30s. As for the A-Rod deal, given that no one but the New York Yankees would (or could) give him the money he wanted, that deal was at least understandable. And I suppose for a big-market team, $16 million isn’t too much to risk on a frontline starter. But I really do not understand the Mariano Rivera deal. Do they really think he’s going to last three more years?
Better money was spent locking up second baseman Robinson Cano, 25, with a long-term deal. He’ll get a minimum of $30 million for 4 years, and, if the options are exercised, a max of $57 million over 6 years. However, Cano will be one of just two every day players still in his twenties. Can the Yankees really expect such a roster to stay healthy into October? On some level, the Injury Bug is a capricious insect that attacks at random, like when your catcher breaks his elbow going after a foul pop. But when your team consists of thirtysomethings, I think you have to expect a certain amount of oblique strains, groin pulls, and hamstring tweaks. Though the Yankees do have some good outfield prospects in their farm system, they’ll begin the year in Double A and aren’t close to being ready for primetime.
The Yankees will hold tryouts of sorts for the 1B spot during Spring Training. The contenders: Morgan Ensberg (32 years old, .230 avg, 12 HR), Wilson Betemit (29 years old, .229 avg, 14 HR), Shelley Duncan (28 years old, .258 avg, 7 HR) and Jason Lane (31 years old, .175 avg, 8 HR). None of these guys is very inspiring. Lane and Ensberg have five games at first base between them. Shelley Duncan has nine. Wilson Betemit? The leader at fourteen. Not that first base is known for being a defensively challenging position, by any means. But that is some pretty slim pickings, and of the bunch, only Ensberg has a career OBP of more than .350.
With a question mark at first base, a third baseman who has never felt comfortable in the position, and a shortstop whose defensive abilities are consistently ranked among the last in baseball by the advanced systems of measurement, the New York infield’s only defensive bright spot is the aforementioned Cano. In the outfield, they can expect solid defense from Abreu and Melky Cabrera, when he’s playing. Matsui and Damon aren’t liabilities, defensively, but neither of them is very durable anymore.
Nonetheless, despite all these red flags, the Yankees will get a bit younger next season—from within. Their farm system is flush with righthanded pitchers, and we got a peek at three of them last season: the highly-touted Phil Hughes, 21, who had flashes of brilliance but battled injury; Joba Chamberlain, 22, who dominated batters down the stretch; and Ian Kennedy, 24, who pitched well in his 3 September starts. Kennedy projects to be a three-hole starter, while Chamberlain and Hughes have front-line stuff. However, all are certain to be on pitch counts and innings limits, which presents an even greater challenge for a team that plans on playing in October. Nonetheless, the Yankees will happily take whatever they can get from the trio, as Carl Pavano is expected to spend the season in the minors, rehabbing and womanizing, and as last year’s acquisition, Kei Igawa, turned out to suck a lot.
Acquisitions: LaTroy Hawkins, Morgan Ensberg
Losses: Roger Clemens, Doug Mientkiewicz, Andy Phillips, Luis Vizcaino, Tyler Clippard
1. Damon, CF, .270, .351, 12 HR
2. Jeter, SS, .322, .388, 12 HR
3. Abreu, RF, .283, .369, 16 HR
4. Rodriguez, 3B, .314, .422, 54 HR
5. Posada, C, .338, .426, 20 HR
6. Matsui, LF, .285, .367, 25 HR
7. Giambi, DH, .236, .356, 14 HR
8. Cano, 2B, .306, .353, 19 HR
9. ______, 1B, estimated at .230, .340, and 12 HR
1: Wang, 19-7, 199.1 IP, 3.70 ERA
2: Pettitte, 15-9, 215.1 IP, 4.05 ERA
5: Mussina, 11-10, 152.0 IP, 5.15 ERA
Mariano Rivera, 30 saves, 4 blown saves, 3.15 ERA
Melky Cabrera and whoever doesn’t get the regular 1B job
The Yankees have financial resources even other big market teams—the Red Sox, the Angels, the Mets, the White Sox, the Dodgers—can only dream of. While their 2008 roster will doubtless mash the ball as much as they do every year, it’s pitching, defense, and health that win in the playoffs, and this squad looks questionable on all three. New York’s goal is to field a team that can not only get to the playoffs, but can advance in them. If their three rookie pitchers can shoulder the load, they may be able to do that. But right now, this looks too much like the same team that was only good enough last year for second place in the division and a quick out in the playoffs. The Yankees needed hotter offseason action than this.