New York Yankees: 3 up and 3 down

2013 was a year to forget for the New York Yankees. A rash of injuries to star players left them fielding a lineup that George Steinbrenner would have fed to the wolves. Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez missed a combined 515 games, opening the door for players like Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner and Jayson Nix. Overbay, who was cut by the Red Sox in spring training and ready to hang up the spikes, was the team’s everyday starter at first base, playing in 142 games on the season. Considering the guys that manager Joe Girardi was working with, it’s a minor miracle the Yankees won 85 games.

But 85 wins wasn’t enough. The Bombers missed the playoffs for just the second time in 19 years, running out of magic down the stretch. To ensure that such an embarrassment wouldn’t strike the team again, the Steinbrenners handed GM Brian Cashman a wad of blank checks and told him to make things right. Cashman turned around and basically signed the entire free agent pool, committing $465 million to the likes of Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran and Japanese sensation Masahiro Tanaka. The Yankees will look like a much different team in 2014, which is undeniably a good thing.

If they were winners in the war of free agency, they were losers in the battle for Robinson Cano. The franchise second baseman spurned the Yankees and signed with the Seattle Mariners in December, a relative shock that made the big bad Yankees, for once, look like the little guys. The franchise has long been known for pilfering the homegrown stars of other organizations, so it was a surprise to the roles reversed. Cano’s departure leaves a giant hole at second base, and certainly negates some of the improvement the Yankees made elsewhere. It’s as if the team refurbished a few bedrooms and then absolutely gutted the kitchen. And Brian Roberts is not the guy to fix it.

Still, the Yankees got better this winter. Their offense is loaded, even without Cano, and should live up to that Bronx Bombers reputation. Their starting rotation is deeper, if less experienced, and should hold up better in the AL East meat grinder. The bullpen may be the one area in which the Yankees downgraded, but that was pretty much unavoidable with that Mariano Rivera guy retiring. All told, the Pinstripes are a significantly improved team with legitimate World Series aspirations. Things are back to normal in the Bronx.

Derek Jeter

Derek Jeter

3 Up 

Best Case Scenario 

World Series championship number 28. A lot will depend on how this grey-bearded lineup holds up, but if the Yankees can stay healthy then the sky’s the limit. They’ll need Derek Jeter, at 40, to hit like he did in 2012 and Mark Teixeira, a player in decline, to provide some big-league pop in the cleanup position. CC Sabathia will have to bounce back from a pretty miserable 2013 season, and Hiroki Kuroda will have to be close to the dominant pitcher he was a year ago. Out in the bullpen, the Yankees will need David Robertson to make a smooth transition from setup man to closer, which seems like a reasonable expectation given his growth over the past few seasons. A lot has to happen for the Yankees to reach baseball glory, but so it does for any team. Nothing’s ever guaranteed in sports.

Most Important Yankees 

Derek Jeter, the Yankees’ perennial shortstop, announced last month that he will retire at the end of the 2014 season. Joe Girardi has to hope that the captain’s last season is one of his best. In the field, the Yankees know what they’re going to get –between his limited range and below-average arm, Jeter will cost the team a few wins. But he can still be a major contributor at the plate. He batted .319 and led the league in hits in 2012, and is entering this season fresh having played in only 17 games in 2013. As the two-hitter, the Yanks will need Jeter to get on base a lot (.370-ish OBP) to set the table for the big bats coming after him.

Newly-acquired catcher Brian McCann should help Yankees fans forget about the disaster behind the plate in 2013. Chris Stewart, though a good teammate and earnest competitor, is not cut out to be a starter in the MLB – in 109 games last year, he hit .211 while racking up four home runs and 25 RBI’s. McCann, on the other hand, smacked 20 homers and drove in 57 runs for the Braves as part of another All-Star season. (In eight full MLB seasons, McCann has missed the All-Star game just once.) The lefty-hitting slugger should benefit from Yankee Stadium’s short porch in right field, and if he can produce even close to his career averages – .277, 26 HR’s, 97 RBI’s – the Yankees will experience a massive boost behind the plate.

The Pinstripes added the prize pitcher of the free agent class in Masahiro Tanaka, but the rock of the team’s starting rotation is still CC Sabathia. That, of course, is based on his track record (and his salary), not his performance last season when the big left-hander was, uhm, awful. Sabathia allowed the most earned runs in the majors in 2013 (112) while pitching to an ERA of 4.78, due in large part to a diminished fastball that probably won’t come back to life in 2014. As such, Sabathia must learn how to pitch, not overpower, for he can’t afford to miss his spots the way he once could. He has good enough off-speed stuff to make the transition from flamethrower to trickster, and if he can bring his ERA back down below 4.00 the Yankees might feel like they have an ace again.

Potential breakout players 

Two years ago, the Yankees traded prized prospect Jesus Montero to Seattle for Michael Pineda, a dynamic young pitcher coming off an impressive rookie season. He hasn’t pitched in the majors since. The then-23 year old tore his labrum in Spring Training in 2012 and has spent the past two years recovering from surgery. But he’s “feeling 100 percent,” as he told reporters a few weeks ago, and is ready to make a run at the fifth spot in the starting rotation. He’ll have to beat out David Phelps, Adam Warren and Vidal Nuno to get the job, but he certainly has the ability to do it. The biggest challenge will simply be readjusting to live competition, a process that will grow easier with each start this spring. If Pineda pitches his way onto the big league club in 2014, expect big things. It is due to players like him that MLB organizations have training grounds spattered across the Dominican Republic.

Another young pitcher looking to make his mark this year with the Yankees is Dellin Betances. The big, hard-throwing middle-reliever had a terrific season last year with Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre, finishing 6-4 while posting a 2.68 ERA and 11.59 K/9. There are spots to be had in the Yankees’ bullpen, and Betances is a prime candidate to emerge as a seventh inning guy by the end of the year. As with most young pitchers, command has been an issue, but if Betances can limit the walks in Spring Training he’ll be taking the flight back to New York when the Yankees close up shop in Tampa.

A long shot here, but keep an ear out for the name Rob Refsnyder as 2014 continues. The 22-year-old second baseman, drafted in the fifth round by the Yankees in 2012, has been raking in the minors since graduating from Arizona in 2012, where he hit .341 over three seasons as a Wildcat. He started last season with the Charleston River Dogs, posting a slash line of .370/.452/.481, before quickly being promoted to high-A Tampa where he slashed .283/.408/.404 over 117 games. Refsnyder is obviously still a long way from the majors, but he plays the right position for the right organization to make a fast ascent through the minor league ranks.  If Brian Roberts isn’t up to the task at second base this year for the Yankees and Refsnyder is hitting well in the minors, don’t rule out a surprise call-up.

CC Sabathia

CC Sabathia

3 Down 

Worst Case Scenario 

A repeat of last season. The Yankees may have retooled this winter, but they certainly didn’t get any younger. They remain one of the oldest teams in the league – younger only than the Phillies and Red Sox – which places a massive premium on their durability. Mark Teixeira is 33 and coming off wrist surgery. Derek Jeter is 40 and coming off ankle surgery. Carlos Beltran is 36. Alfonso Soriano is 38. And Jacoby Ellsbury, who is a green 30, has a knack for getting himself hurt. One of these guys is bound to lose time to injury as it is, but what if, like last season, a tornado comes through the training room and wipes out the core of this team’s roster? The Yankees look undeniably good on paper, but they look undeniably old too. Health could certainly be their kryptonite.

Areas of Concern

As noted above, the Yankees are extremely vulnerable to injury. Every one of their projected starters is 30 years of age or more, and the baseball season is a long, six-month grind that doesn’t favor the frail or the feeble. The Yankees learned, somewhat rudely last year, what can happen to a team relying on old legs, so all they can do is hope the bodies hold up.

As for on-the-field weaknesses, the Yanks have to be worried about an infield manned by dinosaurs. From third to first, this could be one of the worst infield outfits in the Majors, which makes it all the more important for them to produce at the plate. Between Kelly Johnson, Derek Jeter, Brian Roberts and Mark Teixeira, the average age of the team’s starting infielders is 35+, and none of them are getting any younger. Jeter’s lack of range at short is well documented, Teixeira’s sure hands are canceled out by lead feet, Kelly Johnson isn’t a third baseman by trade and Brian Roberts hasn’t played more than 80 games since 2009 for a reason.

The bullpen is another area of concern for this team, as it remains to be seen whether David Robertson can step in as the closer, not to mention who will fill his role as setup man. Boone Logan, who had a career year in 2013, left via free agency, so the team signed hard-throwing lefty Matt Thornton to take over as the bullpen southpaw.

Who needs to bounce back from a down 2013 

Despite a disappointing 2013 for the Yankees, this is a one-man list. CC Sabathia, we’re looking at you. The team’s purported ace was anything but that from April to September, delivering three or four awful outings, it seemed, for every good one. Only one pitcher in the majors – Oakland piñata Joe Blanton – gave up more hits than Sabathia in 2013 and no one, not even Ryan Dempster, gave up more runs. Most of what the Yankees accomplished last season was not due to but in spite of CC, which makes you wonder what might have been had the team’s $23 million starting pitcher held up his end of the bargain.

But Girardi, ever the player’s manager, hasn’t lost faith in his ace. He’ll be handing the slimmed-down Sabathia the ball on opening day, expecting the talented lefty to bounce back in 2014. As of now, the Yankees rotation goes Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Tanaka, Ivan Nova, Pineda/Phelps/Warren/Nuno, so the next move is CC’s. It’s up to him to prove Girardi right.

To do so, as we mentioned before, he’ll have to learn how to pitch, how to outsmart hitters through guile, how to fool them through deception. We’re not saying he needs to go all Jamie Moyer here and start making up pitches as he goes, but he does need to refine his approach on the hill. Less power, more ploy will have to be the game plan in 2014.

As for the other guys that seem to be candidates for this list (Jeter/Teixeira you might be thinking), they were hurt, not ineffective. We won’t hold it against them for being human.

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  • Gekabee

    Another bad thing for the Yankees – their farm system is pretty barren. This means when the old guys start missing time, they don’t have capable reinforcements to come in and pick up the slack. It takes a lot more than 25 guys to get a team through the long season. I expect the Yankees to finish 4th in the division at best.

    • RonFoss

      4th/// are you on drugs plain nuts!