Monday, January 16, 2012

Return of the 'Evil Empire'

The New York Yankees have been called the 'evil empire' inside baseball for years.  The historical success of the team combined with the willingness of the Steinbrenner family to invest in the club by acquiring free agents add to the perception of those who dislike the Yankee's that they are an 'evil empire' 'buying championships'.

As in many cases, the perception is a bigger driver than reality.  After winning 4 world series in 5 years (1996, 1998. 1999, and 2000), the Yankees failed to win a championship until the inaugural season in the new Yankee Stadium in 2009.  While free agents played a role in these wins, what was known as the 'Core Four', Andy Petite, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, and Derek Jeter were key elements - and all were 'home grown' players from the Yankee farm system.

Last year, the Yankee's lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Detroit Tigers after winning the American League East championship.  A key weakness to the club was the pitching rotation.  Both AJ Burnett and Phil Hughes were major disappointments and one of the comeback players of the year, Bartolo Colon faded badly in the 2nd half of the season.  The Yankees also had very spotty offense - with a number of key players having sub-par seasons.  The lack of offense also contributed to the early Yankee demise in the playoffs.

Many expected the Yankee executive team to rush into the the free agent market this off season to make major changes including addressing the very problematic pitching rotation.  However, with a payroll of over $200 million dollars, the Yankees did not take the old approach (which rarely worked well) of throwing more money at their problems.  Key pitching free agents were signed elsewhere as the Yankees remain very quiet until Friday the 13th.

On that day they made two deals which not only addressed the Yankee pitching woes, but also leaped the Yankees to have one of the strongest pitching rotations as well as being a strong favorite to compete in the 2012 World Series.

The first deal was a trade with the Seattle Mariners where the Yankees picked up the 23 year old power pitcher Michael Pineada as well as a promising A level minor league pitcher in exchange for their number 1 rated prospect, Jesus Montero, and pitcher / reliever Hector Noesi. 

Jesus Montero, as demonstrated in September 2011, is a superb major league hitter.  However, while slated as a catcher, his defensive skills were well below that of a major league catcher.  The Yankees used him primarily as a designated hitter - and that is likely the role the Mariners will use his as.  While this could be another Jay Buehner trade which ultimately haunted the Yankees on more than one occasion, gaining a young, power pitcher who had a stellar rookie season to add to the rotation is a major coup.

The second deal was signing the 37 year old former Dodger starter Hiroki Kuroda to a one year free agent contract.  Kuroda went 13-16 with a 3.07 ERA in 32 starts for the LA Dodgers and brings experience and consistency to the Yankee rotation. 

With these deals, the Yankees have gone from having a dearth of starting pitching to the welcome position of having a surplus.  The rotation now looks like 1) CC Sabathia, 2) Pineada, 3) Kuroda, 4) Ivan Nova, and AJ Burnett, Phil Hughes, and Freddy Garcia fighting over the 5th starter role.

Last year, Phil Hughes was bothered by a 'dead arm' for much of the season, but did have some strong games late in the season.  I am optimistic that 2012 will be far closer to 2010 for Hughes than 2011.

AJ Burnett has been bothered for parts of the last two seasons with some major inconsistencies - with some performances far below his past history.  These still seem to be more related to mechanics and mental challenges than to lost stuff - and I am also optimistic that Burnett will have a better year as he enters the last year of his current contract.  Garcia, one of the surprises for the Yankees in 2011, is a reliable 5th starter who can fill that role ably if Burnett or Hughes falter - or if there is an injury elsewhere in the staff.

The Yankee bullpen also looks stronger this year.  Mariano Rivera remains the closer, with David Robertson and Rafael Soriano providing the set-up functions.  Cory Wade, ex-Red Sox lefty Hideki Okajima (minor league contract signing), and the returning Joba Chamberlain (Tommy John surgery) add additional depth and options for Manager Joe Girardi.

Defensively, the Yankees remain unchanged from 2011 - with Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, and Mark Texiera providing the core infield.  In the outfield are Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson, and Nick Swisher.  Behind the plate is Russell Martin.

Backing up the outfield are Chris Dickerson and the re-signed Andruw Jones.

The biggest concern defensively remains Derek Jeter at shortstop - but his defense is not as bad as the DJ hater's contend.

In reality, the only real offensive need for the Yankees is an every day DH.  It's unlikely that the Yankess will pay for a big name free agent DH - or look to their past and consider lefty's Johnny Damon or Hideki Matsui for that role...a righty DH would be the best fit for the club.  They can survive without acquiring one - using existing players and rotating infielders into the role to provide them rest.

I am expecting that Curtis Granderson will prove this year his offensive numbers last year were no fluke - and that Alex Rodriguez will return to his 30+ home run, 100+ RBI average now that he is both healthier and has more opportunities for rest.  Robinson Cano will still demonstrate all the skills - and Gardner will still provide stellar defense, good hitting, and speed on the bases.

My only point of concern of the position starters is with Nick Swisher.  He struggled a number of times last season - and may have set the expectation bar a bit on the high side after a couple of seasons of overachieving.  His is a key catalyst for the club in the clubhouse and just has to settle to playing his game / having fun.  He may not reach the numbers of the earlier seasons with the Yankees, but he still offers advantages which is why his option was picked up by the club.

The Yankees, thanks to the stewardship of the Steinbrenners and GM Brian Cashman, also now have one of the better minor league systems.  We'll be seeing strong contributions from these players in the years to come.

With the deal earlier this month, the Yankee season is showing a lot more promise than it did. 

Contrast that with the Red Sox who lost their closer, have a very suspect pitching rotation, and have to deal not only with their unprecedented September collapse / clubhouse turmoil - but the loss of their Manager and General Manager.  Bobby Valentine?  Seriously?

Pitchers and catchers report on Feb 19th - just over a month from now.

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