New York Yankees Preview

In a major league baseball era where one-third of the teams qualify for postseason play, the organization with the most distinct financial advantage of any in sports was not one of them in 2013. The New York Yankees lived through a season filled with injuries, drama and underachievement, en route to an 85-win season that left them home for October. After a busy offseason, are the Yanks ready to come back strong? The Notebook Nine, our key talking points about the Pinstripes, are what follows…

*The opinion of the smart money is split on Yankee propsects, depending on what the question is. If it’s about the betting odds to win the American League pennant or World Series, then Las Vegas is pretty high on New York. The 6-1 odds to win the AL are behind only Detroit. The 10-1 price tag for the World Series is behind only Detroit, St. Louis and the Los Angeles Dodgers. But if you shift the question to total wins, the Over/Under is 86. And that’s a number that’s behind not only Detroit, but Boston, Oakland, Texas, Tampa Bay and the LA Angels just in the American League.

*For the first time since the strike season of 1994, the Yankees begin a season without Mariano Rivera in their bullpen and it will be the first time since 1997 that Rivera hasn’t been the closer. While asking one to duplicate Rivera’s career feats would be unreasonable, it’s very feasible that new closer David Robertson could deliver a year of an ERA below 2.50 and closing over 90 percent of his save chances. Robertson’s ERAs as the eighth-inning man the last three years are 1.08, 2.67 and 2.04 respectively. He can pitch.

*The bigger issue is what happens to the pen overall. Robertson moving to the ninth inning, means the eighth is now vacant and there’s a whole lot of question marks. Shawn Kelley is in line for the job, but has yet to distinguish himself in the major leagues. Matt Thornton is a nice veteran lefty, but he’s 37-years-old and is more a situational guy. Adam Warren and David Phelps, two decent young arms, need to come through. This is also an area that manager Joe Girardi has done a nice job with over the years, plugging pitchers into spots where they can succeed.

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*Nothing helps a bullpen more than a rotation that chews up innings and in that regard, C.C. Sabathia is the most important person on the 2014 Yankee roster. The big lefthander had the worst year of his career in 2013, with a 4.78 ERA. Can the ace come back strong? It’s a fair question. He’s 33-years-old and has worked at least 180 innings every season since 2001 (with most of the years being well over 200). He started to show some wear and tear on the body in the 2012 season. I expect him to pitch better than he did last year, but whether he can be a true ace again is what bears watching.

*The Yankees made the biggest splash on the offseason pitching market when they won the bidding for 24-year-old Japanese phenom Mashahiro Tanaka. Now they have to hope he’s more Yu Darvish than Daisuke Matsuzaka. Tanaka joins a rotation that includes Ian Nova, who made 20 starts last year with a 3.10 ERA and Michael Pineda, who hasn’t pitched since 2011. There’s a ton of potential here, but just as many question marks. All of which makes Hiroki Kuroda’s consistency—just pencil him in for 30-plus starts, 200-plus innings and an ERA in the 3.30s—more comforting for Girardi.

*Question marks roll on with the infield, where every position has plenty to wonder about. Derek Jeter comes back for his final season with everyone watching to see how he’ll hit and if his lower body will hold up under 162 games of playing shortstop. Kelly Johnson hasn’t had a good year since 2010, is primarily a second baseman, but will stand in for A-Rod at third base this year. Brian Roberts hasn’t had a healthy year, much less a productive one, since 2009, but replaces departed Robinson Cano at second. And Mark Teixeira, who had already been showing a gradual decline at this time last year, comes back after missing 2013 with wrist surgery. Unlike the pitching staff, these are all pure doubtful areas, not questions mixed with tantalizing potential.

*New York made three free-agent signings that will significantly strengthen their everyday lineup. While giving centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury a 7-year/$149 million deal was insane, Ellsbury makes the Yanks better and his departure makes the Red Sox worse, at least for the short-term. Brian McCann shores up the catching position and will be good for a minimum of 20 home runs, and decent on-base & slugging percentages. Carlos Beltran might be 36, but he shows no signs of slowing down and will provide a good blend of power, on-base percentage and leadership in right field.

*Alfonso Soriano electrified New York for a brief stretch last season after he was acquired from the Chicago Cubs, getting insanely hot as the Yanks made a brief surge in August. Soriano will have at least one stretch like that this season, where he’ll carry an offense. But he’s notorious for a lack of plate discipline and low on-base percentages, unlike the power hitters the Yankees had on their best teams of recent years. Pencil him in for a slugging percentage in the high .400s, an OBP in the lower .300s, one two-week stretch where he’s on SportsCenter every night and a whole lot of quieter moments when Yankee fans curse him out.

*Let’s conclude by bringing this back to the Captain. I think the question marks about Jeter’s ability to produce and what his body can still handle are real, but one thing there is no question mark about is his capacity to lead and inspire. It’s something the Yankees surely missed last season and this year, he not only comes back, but has the drama of his final season spurring this team on. There’s nothing in sabermetrics that tell us how much value this has.

All of which is why I would pick the Yankees to go Over 86 on their win totals. They won 85 games last year and you can’t tell me that signing Beltran, Ellsbury and McCann, plus getting Jeter back, isn’t enough for one more win. New York definitely gets into the high 80s, with the fate of the starting pitching determining where the ceiling is.

It could be anywhere from 88 wins and home for October, or 102 wins and homefield advantage. TheSportsNotebook will make its final picks in that regard on March 31, just prior to the first games of the new season.