Originally written February 20, 2013 on isportsweb.com:
The New York Yankees had a strong regular season in 2012 as they won 95 games and the AL East pennant by 2 games over Baltimore. Joe Girardi’s team snuck past the Orioles in the ALDS in a full 5-game series. All of those warm, fuzzy feelings were quickly evaporated though as they scored just 6 runs in a 4-game sweep at the hands of the Tigers. New York had a +136 run differential a season ago, which was the best mark in the American League. They were powered by an offense that continued to churn out a bunch of runs. The 804 runs they plated was 2nd only to Texas across all of baseball. The Yankees pitching staff, headlined by CC Sabathia, was a very middle of the road unit. Their best pitcher was probably Rafael Soriano but he now suits up in Washington D.C. Brian Cashman seemed hell-bent on keeping his team’s payroll right around the $189M luxury tax line, possibly to prepare to attack next year’s free agent market, or just because they’re sick of paying the bulk of MLB’s luxury tax each year, which will now be the burden of the Dodgers and their $230M payroll. By doing so, they had to drop their team payroll over $20M. That meant retaining and/or bringing in a host of veterans on short-term deals. How exciting do you find the names Kevin Youkilis, Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda, Travis Hafner, and Ichiro? Yeah, me neither. Gone are Soriano, Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, and Alex Rodriguez’s hip and PED issues will likely keep him from the field for much of 2013. If nothing else, the Yankees have the look of an old, worn down team. That doesn’t mean they can’t make the playoffs. They’re the Yankees after all. But it won’t be the foregone conclusion that it often has been in years past. 3 Up                                                                      Best Case Scenario for 2013 Despite not boasting one of the more electrifying offenses in baseball, the Yankees will still score plenty of runs thanks to the power bats of Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, and Curtis Granderson, as well as the undying leadership of Derek Jeter. Brett Gardner is back to spin clouds of dust on the base paths and Austin Romine appears to be on the doorstep of taking charge of the catching duties. But the Yankees will go as their starting rotation goes. How much health can Girardi expect from guys like Pettitte and Kuroda? Can Ivan Nova return to prominence? Is Phil Hughes ready to take the next step? Despite the abundance of questions, the best-case scenario is the Yankees pulling another rabbit out of their hat and winning the gauntlet that is the AL East. I don’t see this team having the overall talent to make a deep October run, but don’t be shocked if they find a way to sneak into the party. Most Important Yankees Derek Jeter Until Derek Jeter finally pulls the pinstripes off that final time, he will always be the most important Yankee. After a gruesome ankle injury in the playoffs v. Detroit, he is making his way back with his sights set on Opening Day. Don’t bet against him. Jeter has the credentials and the charisma to lead one of the weaker Yankee rosters in years to play above their heads. Jeter will turn 39 this year yet still managed to hit .316 a season ago with 15 homers and 99 runs scored. He can still rake. Girardi is going to need him to take the field virtually every day and help will this team to a few victories that they might not otherwise deserve. CC Sabathia has racked up 2,564.1 big league innings since breaking in with Cleveland back in 2001. The big lefty will turn 33 this season and isn’t really showing many signs of slowing down. He struck out exactly 197 hitters in 2009, 2010, and again in 2012. He hasn’t won less than 15 games since 2006 and his 3.38 ERA in 2012 was his highest since ’05. In other words, the guy is a rock. A true #1. On a team with some serious age in Pettitte and Kuroda and some reason to doubt the reliability of Nova and Hughes, Sabathia will need to turn in yet another vintage season. If for some reason he doesn’t hold up from a health perspective (very doubtful given his track record) then the whole show could fall apart in a hurry. Potential Breakout Players Offensively, catcher Austin Romine should get a long look in camp. If he does enough he just might stick with the big club. If he doesn’t, he’ll still get the call at some point. Assuming his back is all the way healthy, and with the departure of Martin this offseason, he might get his shot in his age-24 season. In his last full season in the minors (2011) he hit .279 with a decent .343 on-base %. If he were somehow fortunate enough to get 400+ at-bats I think Yankee fans could expect power approaching double-digit homers and a .260’ish average. When Jesus Montero was shipped to Seattle, the main prize coming to the Big Apple was power right-hander Michael Pineda. 2012 was lost to Pineda after tearing his labrum and undergoing shoulder surgery. He is targeting a June return, which might be really good timing if things don’t go as hoped with the rest of the rotation. In his lone big league season of 2011, Pineda went 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA and 1.10 WHIP while striking out 173 hitters in just 171 innings of work. If he can return to form then Girardi would effectively have his #2 talent in place behind Sabathia. Watch Pineda’s progress throughout the spring and early summer. If he gets up to full speed and has some good rehab starts in the minors he will almost certainly be suiting up in the Bronx at some point in 2013. 3 Down Worst Case Scenario The Yankees are much like the Orioles in that they haven’t done a whole lot to get better this offseason. However, these were the 2 teams that finished atop the AL East, so they figure to be strong contenders. But factor in Toronto’s power play this winter along with an elite pitching staff in Tampa and this should truly be a four horse race for the division crown. With that in mind, it is conceivable that New York could finish 4th, most likely ahead of Boston, and miss the playoffs altogether. A lot would have to go wrong for such a fate to creep up on the Yankees, a team that still rosters Jeter and Mariano Rivera, but it is possible. Areas of Concern Mark Teixeira Age. It’s really quite incredible to scan down the list of birthdays littering the Yankees’ likely roster. Kuroda is 38, Pettite 40, Rivera 43, Sabathia 32, Jeter 38, ARod 37, Teixeira 32, Youkilis 33, and Ichiro 39. It’s no secret that players break down when they reach these ages and many of these guys already have started that process. Injuries will play a major factor in New York this summer, more than most teams to be sure. If the roster is in constant upheaval then you can expect the win-loss record to show just that. If Ivan Nova doesn’t take one of the rotation slots and make it is his own this spring, then expect David Phelps to step up. The problem is that there isn’t much depth beyond these guys. 39-year old Derek Lowe is hoping to get his mojo back in camp, but that seems doubtful. New York is really rolling the dice on Kuroda and Pettitte remaining upright. Kuroda should be fine. As for Pettitte, well, good luck with that. Who Needs to Bounce Back From a Down 2012 Curtis Granderson, meet Adam Dunn. Adam, Curtis. What happens when a guy hits .232 with a .319 on-base %, but cranks out 43 homers, yet K’s a career-high 195 times? He gets his stat line confused with none other than the Big Donkey himself. 2007, the year in Detroit when Granderson hit .302 with 38 doubles, 23 triples, 23 homers, and 26 steals is but a distant memory now. Last year he managed just 18 doubles, 4 triples, and 10 steals. One of the big storylines of 2011’s season was the great strides made by Granderson against left-handed pitching. Under Kevin Long’s tutelage Grandy hit .272 against lefties with a .347 on-base %. Last season, his numbers regressed to his ways of the past. He hit just .218 with a .304 on-base %. If Granderson could somehow find a way to become dangerous with his legs again (which tends to follow an every other season pattern – good news for 2013), while making more consistent contact, the Yankees’ offensive attack would be dramatically improved as a result. Another player who just didn’t provide what was expected of him in 2012 was Mark Teixeira. When was the last time he hit just 24 homers in a season? The answer, aside from last year, is never. He did miss 30+ games due to injury, which feeds back into the overall concern of this team. His days of hitting near .300 are in the rearview mirror but he still has the ability to crank out 35 homers and 100 RBI’s. With more uncertainty than usual in New York this season, Tex needs to find a way to stay on the field for over 150 games and produce serious power numbers. [Follow me on Twitter @isportsJoe]

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