OK, there it is. I said it. Now let’s that have swirl around in our collective Yankee palates for just a moment. Admit it, deep down in the crevices of the hearts of Yankee fans we’ve all given it some thought lately. Andy’s gone. Derek’s getting old. Jorge’s already so old he won’t catch anymore. The Killer Bs are too far away to save us this year. Even the good lord himself showed some troubling trends last year. Bartolo Colon. Freddy Garcia. The Summer of Meat (h/t Brock Cohen). The name of the game is pitching, and the Yanks just don’t have much heading into this year, at least not in most of their rotation unless you’re one of those people who believes AJ Burnett AND Phil Hughes will be better in 2011 than they were in 2010. I’ll give you one, but for both I’ll have to see it to believe it.
Sure, I just painted a pretty grim picture. In any season, there will be a fair share of pleasant surprises. Nobody (except maybe Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi) thought Brett Gardner would be as good as he was last year, and he played most of the season with a bum wrist. In 2009 Phil Hughes went from a struggling starter to a lights out setup man mid season. In 2008 Mike Mussina had one of his best showings as a Yankee, after everyone thought he was done the year before. But while there are always surprises on the upside, there will also always be the unforeseen injury and/or decline in performance that hinders a team as well. Who would have predicted Derek Jeter would have the worst season of his career in 2010 coming off his 2009 campaign? Who would have predicted A-Rod would spend the past two seasons missing a month each year after being a picture of health up to 2008? Maybe Ivan Nova becomes the next Chein Ming Wang. Maybe Russel Martin turns back the clock to the player he was in 07-08. Can you count on either? No.
And what can we really expect out of Derek? His strong 2009 showing made us quickly forget his down 2008, and the downward trend line that was emerging. Joel Sherman addresses this in his column from this morning:
In an attempt to rebound, Jeter underwent a batting boot camp recently with hitting coach Kevin Long to continue alterations to Jeter’s stance and swing that began late last season. Long and the Yanks are confident Jeter will produce better results in 2011. Should he return to the land of .300 hitters, then discussions of the end can be tabled for at least another year. But what if .270 last year was not a blip, but a first step toward .250?
Imagine how grim Jeter’s march to the 74 hits for 3,000 would be. The tension of the negotiations would infiltrate the season as Joe Girardi would be forced to decide if (when?) to drop Jeter toward the bottom of the lineup and possibly even begin to give away some of his playing time, perhaps to prospect Eduardo Nunez.
The return of Jeter’s offense is one way the Yankees can compensate for worrisome starting pitching. But Jeter turns 37 this year, and the only full-time shortstops to excel offensively at that age or older were Luke Appling and Honus Wagner. Jeter can begin showing in spring if he can defy age and history.
The Yankee lineup compares favorably to that of the Red Sox, but the two rotations aren’t close. Further, the rest of the division doesn’t feature any easy outs anymore. With the signing of Vladdy and Buck at the helm, you can’t count on the O’s for a nice, fat lopsided divisional record anymore. The Rays certainly took a step back, but added Damon and Manny and are still talented and dangerous enough to figure to be a winning team. The Blue Jays made the move of the offseason unloading Vernon Wells’ contract, and that’s on the heels of unloading the Alex Rios deal last year. The Jays very quietly won 87 games last year, and with their new found added financial flexibility they figure to be able to make the moves that could put them over the top, perhaps as soon as this year’s trade deadline. The projection systems have the Yanks around 90 wins this year, which puts them back in the pack with the rest of baseball’s Wild Card contenders. That’s a dangerous position to be in.
With all this being said, I still think the Yanks have a solid shot at making the playoffs. If the top 3 are pitching well heading into October, or they land a big starter sometime this season, they could look much different in a playoff setting than they do currently. But we as Yankee fans have come to assume October baseball as something of a birthright, and this year has all the markings of a team that could take a step back. That’s nothing new, even in the Yankee dynasty years of the 30s and 40s had their dry spells where they needed to retool. After winning the WS in 1928, from 1929-1946 the Yanks had three 3-year stretches where they didn’t even make the playoffs, finishing 3rd or 4th some years. Those were teams that included players like Ruth, Gehrig, Dickey, DiMaggio and Berra. Look through some of those years when they fell short. Or those teams from the 1980s through the mid 90s. When they fell short, just about every year the lineup was there but the pitching wasn’t. Just like 2008, and maybe this season as well.