It’s been the spring of Yankee discontent, with Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira landing on the disabled list and even general manager Brian Cashman breaking his leg. This comes on top of a winter where the loss of Alex Rodriguez for the first half of the season and an autumn where A-Rod’s sudden inability to hit was the hot topic of conversation. What does it all add up to in the Bronx? TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage today will focus in on the Yankees, touch base elsewhere in the Big Apple with the Mets and look at how both teams are likely to measure up against their projected win totals in Las Vegas.
Let me begin by acknowledging that I don’t like the Yankees. Which is a mild way of saying I consider them one of the genuinely diabolical organizations in the history of western civilization. When I try my hand at sober analysis, I’m usually splintered between overrating them out of a mix of fear or trying to prematurely proclaim their veterans past prime.
I’ll cover myself on the last point right away—after years of projecting Andy Pettite’s demise, I’m ready to throw in the towel and say there’s nothing left to do but wait for his performance to tell me so. And coming off a 2.87 ERA in 2012, that hasn’t happened yet. Certainly the same goes for Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter. There are likely to be issues with how much time any of this trio can log, but when they’re on the field, they’re going to be effective.
The issue is going to be how long this veteran core, along with several others, can stay on the field. Pettite missed much of last summer with a broken ankle. Jeter left the American League Championship Series with the same and of course, Rivera tore his ACL. Now we have Granderson with a broken forearm and Teixeira with a wrist injury.
I think it’s safe to say Granderson will be fine and back as expected, but what about Teixeira? Wrist injuries are notoriously difficult to predict, particularly when it comes to gauging how long it will take power to come back. Teixeira is already a player in steady decline—his on-base percentage has dipped each year since 2008 and his slugging percentage since 2009. Then add in that Pettite is 40 years old, Rivera is 43 and Jeter at 38. If this lineup is all healthy at once, they’re very good. But is projecting perfect health for any extended period even realistic?
The age problem is further exacerbated by the solutions at two corner spots. The Yanks re-signed Ichiro Suzuki to play right field. Ichiro is 39, and although he hit .322 after coming over at the trade deadline last season, his overall body of work for the last two seasons is extremely poor. Kevin Youkilis is 34. I’m a Red Sox fan and I’ll always love the guy—it’s not his fault the Yanks were his only viable offer in the offseason—but his body has been breaking down, and he’s missed substantial time each of the last three years. Youkilis needs to be at first base where the wear and tear won’t be as bad, but his role in the Bronx is to cover for A-Rod. And when it comes to the triple play of age, health and performance decline, Rodriguez is a topic all his own. Finally, ace pitcher C.C. Sabathia has logged in the 200 IP neighborhood every year since 2002 and started to show some faint signs of wear and tear by the end of last season.
Based on my admitted loathing of this team and the tenor of this article, you might conclude that I’m joining in the media pile-on of the Yankees. Actually no. I don’t like the way this spring is unfolding, because there’s so much focus on the Yankee problems, as outlined above, that the potential positives are getting ignored. And even when you decide to cut corners financially and get by on a $200 million payroll, there are going to be some positives.
Let’s start with the fact that all the veterans we just named are pretty good—in fact, very good in most cases. They might not all be healthy at once, but it’s unlikely they’ll be injured at the same time either. Then add in second baseman Robinson Cano, who had the best year of his career a season ago. Cano set a career high in home runs, with 33 and also in walks, with 61. He’s always been a good hitter and now has matured into a reasonably patient one. Brett Gardner is healthy and provides speed at the top of the order. He missed much of last year and declined sharply in 2011, but even in his “decline” year, he still had an OBP of .345. The Yanks can live with that and if Gardner gets back to 2010 levels, he’ll be someone special.
There are some intriguing possibilities in the rotation here as well. David Phelps got 11 starts last year and posted a 3.34 ERA. Ian Nova struggled, but he’s young and only a year removed from 16 wins and a 3.70 ERA. Phil Hughes might not have become the ace he was hyped as when he came out of the minors, but he’s a steady middle-rotation arm. Hiroki Kuroda had the best year of his career last year—even if he doesn’t replicate his 3.32 ERA, a veteran with an ERA in the 4s in a ballpark like Yankee Stadium is more than adequate. And what if Michael Pineda can make it back in June, get in form and give the Yanks a live young arm after the All-Star break?
The bullpen will be fine—Rivera is healthy and determined and David Robertson leads up a reasonably deep corps of arms in front of him. This is an area Joe Girardi has consistently excelled in as a manager, in squeezing the most out of his bullpen.
So there’s still a lot that can go right for the Yankees and they’re only going to be without Teixeira and Granderson for a month. I know it’s a tough division and I’m not sure where I’ll ultimately pick New York to finish. What I am saying is don’t sleep on them. They can get in contention, and if they sneak into the playoffs and have their veterans all get healthy at the end…well, that’s what the Baltimore Ravens just did isn’t it?
Las Vegas is really down on the Pinstripes, with an win prop of 86. I find that absurdly low. In truth, that’s my low end for this team. The fact a team that spends $200 million-plus is allowed to pass itself as an underdog is outrageous, but that’s how spring training 2013 has unfolded.
REBUILDING IN QUEENS
The Mets have been doing the right thing the last couple years, trying to get younger, shed payroll and position themselves to make a run again in the near future. Right now this team is living proof that sometimes doing the right thing really sucks. There’s a lot of players here working their way into positions, the farm system is good, but competing in the NL East is still a year or two away.
Terry Collins can still build his lineup around third baseman David Wright, and on the other corner of the infield, Ike Davis is a talented young power hitter. The middle spots need offensive turnarounds from Daniel Murphy at second and Ruben Tejada at short. Both are young, but both saw their offensive production decline in 2012. That trend needs to reverse immediately, because the outfield is an even bigger question mark. Lucas Duda, Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Mike Baxter are all works in progress—though you have to like Baxter’s .365 OBP in 179 at-bats. Overall, this lineup only has two regulars who are 30 or older. One of them is Wright, a genuine star, and the other is catcher John Buck. And Buck is just keeping the seat warm for Travis d’Arnaud, the prize acquisition in the R.A. Dickey trade.
New York still needs to get younger with their pitching. Their fortunes are too dependent on the shoulder of Johan Santana, and thinking Santana will be healthy for even 25-30 starts is even more unrealistic than projecting good health for the Yankee veterans. Frank Francisco, the 33-year-old closer is also dealing with some elbow problems and new starter Shawn Marcum has shown a tendency to be good for about a half a season then run out of steam.
All’s not lost though. Jonathan Niese has established himself as a nice young starter and 23-year-old Matt Harvey posted a 2.73 ERA in ten starts last year. If Dillon Gee can show some consistency, the Mets will have a good group of arms to build around. The bullpen is also deep, with Bobby Parnell more than capable of taking over for Francisco and Brandon Lyon leading up a decent cast of vets behind him.
New York showed up and competed last year and I hope this team is winning the respect of its fans. Their win total in Vegas is only 74, and like the Yankees, I think that’s a number on the very lowest end of the spectrum. I’d take the Mets to go Over—not a winning season yet, but close to it and they’re on the right track.