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Feb 062011

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.

Let’s be honest, odds are overwhelmingly against Derek. The Yanks need to pull the baseball equivalent of an inside straight in poker to win the division, and maybe even just to win the Wild Card. Imagine if one of the top 3 Yankee pitchers misses a month (much less the year) with something innocuous like a pulled hamstring running to cover 1B. Worse yet, imagine its CC. Now your rotation becomes AJ-Hughes-Nova-Colon-Mitre for the next 4-6 weeks (hyperventilation bags are located above your seat to the left). You need nearly perfect health from the top 3 starters AND a bounce back year from AJ Burnett to make the Yanks the wild card favorite. Phil Hughes needs to build upon his success from last season, not regress or pitch the same. He enjoyed absurd run support last year that’s unlikely to continue. Let’s also not forget that Phil doesn’t exactly have a spotless health history. AJ has been healthy the past 3 years, but only made 30+ starts in one of his 9 seasons before 2008. Betting on perfect health from any area of your team, especially when it comes to pitching, is the type of wager that only a fool would make.

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.

29 Responses to “Pssst…..”transition year””

  1. I agree that the Yankees will need a lot of luck to win the division, however I think they are the favorite for the wild card, even if everyone (AJ, Phil, Nova, Garcia) pitches exactly the same as last year. The only loss of the offseason that had any value to last year’s team is Pettitte, and they upgraded other parts of the team. The two spots that Nova and Garcia/Colon will be taking were held by Pettitte and Vazquez who produced a combined 2.1 WAR last year. If CC and Hughes and AJ do exactly what they did last year, and Nova and Garcia, who were both above replacement last year, produce 0.0 WAR, then the Yankees will only lose a little over two wins. Considering both the upgrades to the bullpen and the additions of Andruw Jones and Russell Martin, together with possible decline and regression from older players, I would project the Yankees as a 92 win team right now.
    Concerning the division, it’s probably not any better than it was last year. The Red Sox and Orioles improved, but the Rays got worse and the Blue Jays, while improving there team’s position for the future, lost Wells, Marcum, and Buck, as well as their two best relievers.
    It might be a transition year for the Yanks, in that it’s Posada’s last year and they’re waiting for the young pitching to develop, but this years team is only marginally worse than last years, when they won the wild card by 6 games.  (Quote)

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    Steve S. Reply:

    All of that is fair, but as I said in the piece this team is an injury to a starter away from falling deep into the pack, in which case all bets are off.  (Quote)

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    Paulf Reply:

    They’re an injury to CC Sabathia from falling deep into the pack, as they were last year. Most teams can’t survive losing their ace for an extended period of time.  (Quote)

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    Steve S. Reply:

    The Sox and Phillies can, which is why the Yanks aren’t in their class.  (Quote)

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    brockdc Reply:

    I disagree that the Sox can. SF can. Philly can. But if Boston loses Lester, they’re in trouble.  (Quote)

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    Craig Reply:

    I agree here. Boston’s rotation could be as bad as the Yankees’ rotation. They have Lester and Buchholz who look like they could be a problem. Beckett, Lackey and matsuzaka don’t scare me though…but I will say that those three have a better shot at stepping up than the trio of Burnett, No. 4 and No. 5.  (Quote)

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    Zack Reply:

    Indeed, if Lester goes down, the Red Sox will be in trouble as well.  (Quote)

  2. I would count on both Hughes and AJ improving. Why the hell wouldn’t they? AJ had a career-worst season, and Hughes is a young kid with upside. One improving is the definite, two is the likely.

    You know who else is an injury away from a crappy rotation? The Red Sox. Imagine if they lose Lester. Then they’ve got a couple of questions, too.

    And in 2008, the problem was the offense, and it’s not even close. They won the WS the next year despite allowing 26 more runs!  (Quote)

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    Paulf Reply:

    Agreed about 2008, people always look at the ugly names in the rotation in 2008, but the pitching wasn’t that bad (thanks Joba and Moose).  (Quote)

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    T.O. Chris Reply:

    I would say that 1 improving is the likely and 2 improving is possible but nothing is definite in sports, especially in baseball.

    Everyone seems to live in this world where players do nothing but get better each and every year of the early parts of their careers, there is a team, with bats on the other side trying to make adjustments to Hughes and they will he just has to re-adjust and that isn’t always a quick process. I actually think it’s much more likely that Hughes has a very similar year peripheral wise than either improving drastically or falling drastically.  (Quote)

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    T.O. Chris Reply:

    Sorry I tried to make this all one post but this damn touch screen messed me up.

    I would say that 1 improving is the likely and 2 improving is possible but nothing is definite in sports, especially in baseball.

    Everyone seems to live in this world where players do nothing but get better each and every year of the early parts of their careers, there is a team, with bats on the other side trying to make adjustments to Hughes and they will he just has to re-adjust and that isn’t always a quick process. I actually think it’s much more likely that Hughes has a very similar year peripheral wise than either improving drastically or falling drastically.

    Hughes has pitched well these last two years in two different roles but let’s not act like he has been doing it perfectly, he has been getting away with being very wild in the strikezone and relying on pretty much just 2 pitches, we saw last that the league made an adjustment in the second half of the season so Hughes is going to have to be dedicatedto finding his own adjustment and thus the cycle continues.

    Anyone can have a solid first go round in a rotation it’s what you do after the league has had a good long look at you that determines your future, I think Hughes can and will make these adjustments but I feel he is going to stuggle in the first half before turning it on in the second. I have a feeling his year will be a lot like last season but in reverse and with less run support. I expect 13-16 wins out of Hughes but no more.  (Quote)

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    Craig Reply:

    Too many people are jumping to conclusions with Phil Hughes. I definitely don’t think that 2010 is the best that he has to offer, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if he took a slight step back as he adjusts to the adjustments that the league makes.  (Quote)

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  3. Completely agree with your Toronto assessment. Unloading wells made them exceedingly more dangerous because of what it offers them in terms financial flexibility. I can see them going all-in and snagging Carpenter or Prince Fielder at the deadline if they think they have a shot at the wild card. We all know they can mash, but hey’d be even scarier had they not unloaded Marcum and his 1.15 WHIP.  (Quote)

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    Paulf Reply:

    We don’t know that they can mash. They lost Wells, Buck, and (less crucially) Overbay. We don’t know how good Arencibia will be, and they need both Bautista to keep up his performance and rebound years from Hill and Lind. They were 6th in the AL in runs scored despite leading in HR’s, so I’m not sure it makes sense to expect them to be much more than an average to slighty above average offensive team next year.  (Quote)

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    bexy Reply:

    That, and they’re not trading for Prince Fielder unless the Brewers are terrible and out of it by a lot at the deadline. They’re (as in MIL) clearly going for it this year.  (Quote)

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    Steve S. Reply:

    I’m not that familiar with their farm system, but they always seem to have a good arm or two on the way for an internal fix. Kyle Drabek immediately comes to mind, pitched in AA last year, so could arrive this year. And if they have the pieces to make a deal then there’s another avenue as well.  (Quote)

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  4. I think there’s a decent chance the offense could be better this year. I don’t expect a big rebound from Derek, but I do expect an improvement there. Granderson could better his numbers a bit as well. Adding Montero for any more than 200 ABs should improve the offense as well.
    As for the pitching, I think Hughes has learned the importance of using his change and could get better. AJ is very likely to improve, even if only a little.

    By the way, a lot of people predicted Gardner would do as well as he did, and even a little better. ( not just here, but at other sites as well.)  (Quote)

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  5. If you give the Red Sox every benefit of the doubt and the Yankees none, well, then of course winning the division will be a long shot. However, keep in mind that the Yankees were one game away from the league’s best record last year with an awful AJ, even worse Javy, and Mosely, Mitre, etc. filling in for Andy, who only threw 130 innings. It’s very possible that an improved AJ along with Nova and Garcia could be better than what they would be replacing.  (Quote)

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    Eric Schultz Reply:

    But why let facts get in the way of a compelling narrative?  (Quote)

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    T.O. Chris Reply:

    This is definitely a pessimistic look at the season but for Yankees fans the goal shouldn’t be just making the playoffs but winning the WS and while I do believe we are the favorite for the WC I don’t believe we have any chance at winning the World Series, so in that respect it is a “transition year”, for any other team it wouldn’t be but our goals are always higher than the rest.

    I believe we have the rotation neccesary (with health) to make the playoffs but in a short series I don’t think we have much of a chance against SF, Philly or Boston just because they all have the ability to negate our CC edge and we saw last year we can’t rely on him to win every game he pitches because no one can come through everytime.  (Quote)

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    bexy Reply:

    If you make the playoffs you always have a chance at winning the WS. Look at the 2000 Yankees, the 2006 Cardinals, many others.

    I agree the Yankees don’t seem to have a lot of room for error. I just can’t think of who would be better than them. The only team that might, at this point, is the Rays, and the Yankees aren’t the only team without a lot of room for error. Of course, as william said, when you give the Red Sox all the benefit of the doubt (and don’t even address the flaws/advantages of other potential playoff teams in the AL) and the Yankees none, well.

    Also re: projection systems, the Rays were supposed to win like 88 games last year.  (Quote)

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    Eric Schultz Reply:

    Good point bexy. Once you make the playoffs, even the worst team has a chance. The key is getting there first.  (Quote)

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    T.O. Chris Reply:

    Sure they would have a chance but under that same logic so did the Twins last year and look how quick we ran them out…. Some teams just don’t have as good a chance as others and I believe our chances once in to be very small, could they win it all this year? Yes, is it going to happen? I wouldn’t put money on it and if we don’t win it all then it would be fair to label any Yankee team that didn’t win it all as a transition team, a team transitioning to win the World Series, which for this team is all anyone cares about or accepts.

    It may not be fair to say any Yankee team that doesn’t win the WS is a failure but it is and the players and fans know it, that is the standard the league holds us to, it’s the standard the fans hold the team to and it’s the standard the players and managent hold themselves to.  (Quote)

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  6. The number of teams that weren’t given a chance to win it all (after making the playoffs) and did so anyway is pretty high over the last 25 years or so. 87 & 91 twins, 88 LA, 97 & 2003 Marlins. I even recall how the 2000 Yankees weren’t supposed to have enough left in the tank to win.
    Bill Parcells said it best: when you get to the dance, anything can happen. (Probably not the exact quote, but what he meant.)  (Quote)

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    T.O. Chris Reply:

    Football isn’t a real good analogy for the baseball postseason because in football you don’t have to be the best team to win you just have to get hot at the right time, playing a best of 7 usually tilts the advantage to the better overall team. Sometimes a teams pitching staff or lineup can catch fire and blaze through a “better team” but for the most part I believe the better team wins in a baseball series a majority of the time as oppose to the 1 game format of football which leaves more room for a better team to lose.  (Quote)

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  7. All of that is fair, but as I said in the piece this team is an injury to a starter away from falling deep into the pack, in which case all bets are off.  

    Not unique to the Yankees. Only Philly or SF could survive that, and even then if SF lost Lincecum for a while I’m not sure how they’d do. Then again, their division is full of crap.  (Quote)

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  8. It just hit me. Every photo I’ve ever seen of Sergio Mitre has him looking forlornly at the the baseball as if to say, “Why hath you foresaken me, baseball?”  (Quote)

    [Reply To This Comment]

    Eric Schultz Reply:

    can you blame it for forsaking him?  (Quote)

    [Reply To This Comment]

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