It just wouldn’t feel like the start of a new baseball season without the Yankees having spent the previous few months making headlines. This was supposed to be the year during which they got under the $189 million luxury tax threshold. And with the full season ban issued to Alex Rodriguez, meaning most of his $25 million salary for 2014 was coming off the books, that seemed like a real possibility.
But these are the Yankees. There was always a bit of skepticism that came along with the declaration that they would treat this season as a sort of cost-saving measure. And with the hard-line stance they took in Robinson Cano‘s contract negotiations, it seemed like they were trying to stick to a new philosophy.
Oh, how wrong we were.
Instead of teetering on the luxury tax line, in true Yankees fashion they simply decided to obliterate it. General Manager Brian Cashman issued three of the six largest contracts of the offseason to Jacoby Ellsbury, Masahiro Tanaka, and Brian McCann, and also went big for three years of Carlos Beltran and one each of Derek Jeter and Hiroki Kuroda.
In total, the Yankees spent $483 million this offseason for 30 total contract years. It’s the exact opposite of what team executives had expressed in the couple years prior to this. But one can only imagine that watching the Red Sox win the World Series had something to do with their complete 180. Combined with the facts that they have one of the worst farm systems in baseball and the upcoming free agent classes aren’t exactly overwhelming, the Yankees decided now was the time to spend. The only question is whether this is the right group to make them a contender yet again.
The Yankees are coming off an uncharacteristically awful offensive year in 2013. Their .242 team batting average was 24th in baseball, and their 650 runs were 16th. That marked the first time the organization had scored fewer than 789 runs since 1995. Outside of Cano, there just wasn’t any production. Lyle Overbay was second on the team with 59 RBI, while Alfonso Soriano, who spent just 58 games in New York, was second on the team in home runs.
So there was no question the offense needed to be addressed and there is a full cast of new faces in the Bronx this year, highlighted by Ellsbury, who helped lead the Red Sox to a World Series title last year. He and Brett Gardner will give the lineup some dynamic speed, and they will be able to cover a lot of ground on the left side of the outfield. That’s assuming both can stay healthy.
As for power, it should come much more frequently this year than it did in 2013. Last season, the Yankees managed just 144 home runs, which was a 101 homer drop-off from 2012. Beltran hit 78 over the last three years, McCann has had at least 20 in each of his last six seasons, Soriano will have a full year in New York after hitting 17 homers in just 58 games last year, and Mark Teixeira will return after managing to play in just 15 games last season due to a tendon strain in his wrist. More home runs will lead to more scoring for a team that desperately needs it.
The weak points in the lineup will come from the infield positions. Derek Jeter is on his Mariano Rivera-like retirement tour, and it’s hard to know what to expect from the 40-year-old. He missed nearly all of last season and is off to a slow start this spring, with just a .148 average through 10 games. His double play counterpart, Brendon Ryan, doesn’t instill much fear into opposing pitchers either. Though he does bring excellent defense to the table, his combined .196/.268/.275 slash line of the last two seasons is, quite frankly, awful. And, as much as the Yankees are glad to be rid of the A-Rod circus for the year, they will be lucky if Kelly Johnson matches what the scandal-ridden third baseman would have provided, even in his post-prime years.
Ichiro Suzuki will give the Yankees a big-name fifth outfielder, but he is not the same guy who was a 200-hit-a-year lock in his Seattle days. Also coming off the bench will be Eduardo Nunez, who was, at one time, the heir apparent to Jeter at shortstop. Now he’ll be a utility infielder who will get time around the diamond as he again attempts to prove himself worthy of being a full-time player. New York is also taking a chance that former all-star second baseman Brian Roberts can get his career back on track after spending the last four seasons hobbled by injuries.
Though there may seem to be some stability at the top of the Yankees’ rotation, it doesn’t mean there aren’t a bunch of questions involving the front five. Most notably is what will New York get from prized acquisition Masahiro Tanaka? Some scouts believe he’s a potential ace, not far behind what Yu Darvish is for the Rangers. There are others who think he tops out as a middle-of-the-rotation guy. The Yankees bet $175 million that he’s going to be a stud. He brings with him a 24-0 record with 1.27 ERA from 2013, which is comforting, but he will also be pitching every fifth day now, compared to every sixth day in Japan. The effect that will have will be determined in the regular season. So far this spring, he has pitched five innings, giving up four hits and a run, while striking out four. Batters are hitting .211 against him. He is currently slated to be the team’s fourth starter.
As for the more familiar faces, C.C. Sabathia will be the Yankees’ number one again, and the team will need much more out of him than 2013 when he was just 14-13 with a career-worst 4.78 ERA. He’s developed a new cutter with help from Andy Pettitte, and has crafted a new Jonah Hill-esque physique to slim down as he transitions to another phase of his career. A 39-year-old Hiroki Kuroda will follow Sabathia, and he has actually been the team’s most consistent starter of the past two years. Ivan Nova will slide into the number three spot after a solid, but abbreviated, year. If he can be closer to the 2013 version of himself (9-6, 3.10 ERA) than the 2012 version (12-8, 5.02), that could give the Yankees a very good top four.
The glaring hole in the rotation is in the five spot, with four pitchers vying for it. Vidal Nuno, David Phelps, Michael Pineda, and Adam Warren have all put together nice springs in an effort to win the job. Pineda hasn’t been able to stay healthy enough for the Yankees to get a good look at him since trading for him two years ago. Phelps has split time between the rotation and bullpen over the last two years. In 23 career starts, he has a 4.39 ERA. Nuno and Warren have even less Major League experience, with each boasting three career starts. Warren, though, did spend last year pitching out of the bullpen, and owned a 3.52 ERA and .275 BAA in 32 relief appearances.
How do you replace a legend? That’s the unenviable position the Yankees find themselves in following Rivera’s retirement. The Sandman is the only closer the team has known since 1997, aside from the 2012 season he missed after tearing his ACL. Now they’re left hoping David Robertson can adequately replace the best ninth-inning man in Major League history. Robertson has established himself as one of the better setup men in the game, and was second in the A.L. last season with 33 holds. In his six-year career, he has limited opponents to just a .221 batting average against him. While moving into the closer’s job can present new pressure, even without taking into account the replacing-an-icon factor, Robertson at least has the foundation to be a viable option.
The rest of the bullpen could provide for a bumpy ride throughout the season. It will be a very young and inexperienced group. Only two pitchers have more than 44 games of major league experience. One of them is an aging Matt Thornton who is now little more than a lefty specialist. The other is Shawn Kelley, who still has only 177 appearances under his belt with a career ERA of 3.77. A couple more spots in the bullpen could be filled by the pitchers who don’t get the remaining starting rotation job. The rest will likely be claimed by young pitchers, including Preston Claiborne, Cesar Cabral, Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos, and Jose Campos.
It’s hard to imagine the Yankees won’t rebound, at least a bit, from their disappointing 2013 campaign. While they did lose their best player in Cano, they replaced him with four high-profile free agents. The key for the offense will be health. It is an aging lineup and several regulars have injury histories. But if they remain on the field, the runs will come. The ultimate fate of this team will be decided by pitching. The pitching staff’s ceiling is very high, but its floor is also very low. Among question marks with the starters, a new closer, and an inexperienced batch of relievers, there is a lot can go wrong. Assuming the worst does not happen, this is a team that can once again contend for a playoff spot. At this point, it would be hard to consider them an American League favorite, but a Wild Card berth is certainly not out of the question.