An inside look at MLB's American League East teams
After years of making flashy purchases, the New York Yankees hunkered down after last season, treading carefully in the market with an eye on their 2014 payroll. Baseball's new collective bargaining agreement gives the Yankees significant financial incentive to keep their payroll under $189 million that season, and they plan to do it. The reasoning is sound — every other champion has spent less than the Yankees on payroll, so why waste money? But the composition of their roster looks thin in certain spots, and old throughout. The Yankees handed one-year contracts to Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Hiroki Kuroda, and signed Kevin Youkilis for a year to spell the injured Alex Rodriguez, at least initially. It’s not an inspiring group, and it’s lacking key contributors like Russell Martin, Rafael Soriano and Nick Swisher. But this is still a team that won 95 games last season and should remain a force in the AL East.
The Yankees doubled down on their 2012 rotation, bringing back Kuroda and Pettitte on one-year contracts to slot behind their ace, CC Sabathia, and in front of 16-game winner Phil Hughes. Ivan Nova and David Phelps are options for the fifth spot, and the Yankees are eager to finally see what they have in Michael Pineda, who missed all of last season with shoulder trouble that could cost him at least the first two months of 2013. Sabathia persevered through elbow discomfort last season and had minor elbow surgery in late October. Other American League aces have surpassed Sabathia in prominence, but there is no one the Yankees would rather have on the mound. Kuroda will be 38 this season, but he made such a seamless transition to the AL last year that he seems to be a sure thing. Pettitte turns 41 in June, and his stamina bears watching. While last year’s broken fibula was a freak injury — it came from a line drive — the fact remains that Pettitte has made just 12 regular-season starts in the last two years. Hughes, who turns 27 in June, should be squarely in his prime. If he’s going to reclaim his All-Star form of early 2010, now is the time. But a back injury has put him on the shelf for what will likely be the first few weeks of the season.
This was supposed to be Rivera’s first year of retirement, but he tore his ACL in a freak injury while shagging fly balls last May and decided to make this his final year. Rivera is 43, but remarkably, his skills have never diminished. To avoid a most awkward parting with the classy franchise icon, the Yankees need him to be the Rivera of old and leave on top, especially after losing their top insurance policy, Soriano. Even without Soriano, Rivera has a top setup man in David Robertson, a strikeout specialist who may have peaked in 2011 but was plenty effective last season, with 81 punchouts in 60.2 innings. Injuries have kept the once-electric Joba Chamberlain from reaching even 30 appearances in either of the last two seasons, but he’s still good for a strikeout per inning and should team with veteran David Aardsma or Cody Eppley as effective righties in middle relief. Lefties Clay Rapada and Boone Logan give manager Joe Girardi some solid matchup options.
Derek Jeter’s gruesome season-ending ankle injury in the ALCS casts him again as an aging icon, obscuring what a dynamic season he had at age 38. Jeter led the majors in hits, with 216, his most since 1999, and even added 15 homers, a figure he had topped just once since 2005. He turns 39 in June, so the offense will go sometime, but that time does not appear to be soon, and the injury should not impact him in the batter’s box. The more important concern is how much the surgery will affect his range in the field, which was already limited and has been well below league-average for years. His double-play partner, Robinson Cano, has no such concerns. Cano, 30, starts his ninth season with the Yankees and his first as a potential free agent. Cano is coming off a career-high 33 homers and .929 OPS, and won his second Gold Glove while finishing fourth in the AL MVP race. He came under some criticism for failing to hit in the clutch, finishing below 100 runs batted in for the first time since 2009.
If the Yankees could dial back the clock five years, they’d have two of the best corner infielders in the game, with another on the disabled list. Alas, it is 2013, not 2008, and Youkilis and first baseman Mark Teixeira appear to be past their prime. Rodriguez, meanwhile, is working to regain strength and agility after offseason surgery on his left hip. He’s scheduled to come back no sooner than June, a lengthier DL stint than he had in 2009 because of the need to repair a bone impingement. To that end, Youkilis was a smart buy on a one-year deal. Teixeira struggled at the end of the season with a calf injury, and he still has four years remaining on his eight-year, $180 million contract. A wrist injury suffered while taking some practice swings in the spring hoists another red flag.
You want left-handed hitters with speed? The Yankees have them, with Brett Gardner in left, Curtis Granderson in center and Ichiro Suzuki in right. Granderson, of course, is more of a power hitter now than a stolen base threat; with 43 homers last season and just 10 steals, he has become the ultimate Yankee Stadium player. Granderson is a top run producer but has a serious problem making contact, with 195 strikeouts in the regular season and 16 in 33 plate appearances in the postseason. But his homers, strikeouts and steals must wait while he recovers from a broken arm suffered when hit by a pitch during his first at-bat of the spring. Gardner missed almost all of last season, but thankfully for the Yankees, the injury was to his elbow, not the legs that scampered to an AL-best 49 stolen bases in 2011. The Yankees are eager to get Gardner and his .355 career on-base percentage back in the lineup, even if he is a very similar player to Suzuki, as a lefty singles hitter. Suzuki, who hit .322 in 67 games for the Yankees, returns with a two-year contract at age 39.
In a sure sign that their world is quite a bit different these days, the Yankees let Martin sign with Pittsburgh without bothering to match his two-year, $17 million offer. That might seem like a lot considering Martin’s .211 average last year, but he hit for decent power and handled the pitching staff well. What’s worse, the Yankees seemed to have no real backup plan, simply turning over the position to reserves Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli while they wait for their vaunted catching prospects to develop.
The Yankees have so many older players needing rest, they really wish they could have more than one DH spot. They’ll begin with Travis Hafner in this role, but will rotate Teixeira, Jeter and Rodriguez (when he returns) in and out. The Yankees are eager to give Eduardo Nunez more playing time, and if his fielding misadventures continue, DH makes the most sense. The Yanks’ tighter budget will result in a considerably weaker bench. Jayson Nix started nine games or more at four positions last season is attractive due to his versatility. Outfielders Matt Diaz and Ben Francisco were added to the mix in the offseason. An intriguing option could be Cuban defector Ronnier Mustelier, who has impressed this spring and can play third base.
Girardi’s stock phrase is “I believe in my guys,” but his faith has limits, and that should be encouraging for Yankees fans. Girardi’s greatest challenge is getting the most from aging superstars, and by benching Rodriguez and others in the playoffs, he showed a realization that big names cannot produce big results forever. Expect Girardi to deftly move his creaky veterans in and out of the DH spot and continue to work closely with Brian Cashman, who enters his 16th season as GM. Cashman recognizes the need for the Yankees to eventually get younger, but with a mandate to win every season, he’ll keep searching for impact veterans on short-term deals.
The Yankees won’t come right out and say it, but they’re going through a transition. The old guard can’t hang around forever, and their presence restricts the club’s flexibility on the field and in the payroll. But while the Yankees aren’t as feared as they once were, there’s still enough punch here to put them in the AL East mix, and the pitching looks solid. A division title is no certainty, but it’s still within reach.
RF Ichiro Suzuki (L)
Longtime Mariner hit .394 in final 16 games to earn two-year contract in winter.
SS Derek Jeter (R)
A hit machine, but serious ankle injury suffered in postseason could further hinder range at short.
2B Robinson Cano (L)
Only American League player to score 100 runs in each of the last four seasons.
1B Mark Teixeira (S)
His .997 AL fielding percentage is best in league history for a first baseman (min. 1000 games). An injured wrist may force him to miss all of April.
CF Curtis Granderson (L)
Has 61 homers at home, 47 on road, since joining Yanks in 2010, but he strikes out a ton. Hit by a pitch in his first plate appearance of the spring that left him with a broken arm and a place on the DL until May.
3B Kevin Youkilis (R)
After .233 average for Boston, hit just three points better after being dealt to the White Sox. He will see some time at first while Teixeira is on the mend.
DH Travis Hafner (L)
Although exclusively a DH, he hasn’t been healthy for a full season since 2007.
C Chris Stewart (R)
Yankee pitchers had a 3.41 ERA when working with this well-traveled veteran.
LF Brett Gardner (L)
Elbow injury ruined last season; led the American League in steals in 2011, with 49.
C Francisco Cervelli (R)
Returns to backup role after spending almost all of 2012 in minors; has hit .271 in his time in the bigs.
INF Eduardo Nunez (R)
They know he can hit and run. Weakness is fielding, so DH spot fits — at least until A-Rod returns.
OF Melky Mesa (R)
The only Melquisedec to make it to the major leagues. That’s why they call him Melky.
OF Matt Diaz (R)
Career .324 hitter vs. left-handed pitching has battled thumb problems recently.
LH CC Sabathia
Only pitcher in the majors with at least 15 wins in each of the last six seasons.
RH Hiroki Kuroda
His 16 victories in first season with Yanks were a career high, including his 11 seasons in Japan.
LH Andy Pettitte
Has made 140 starts without a complete game, longest active streak in MLB.
RH Phil Hughes
Won 16 games in 2012 and 18 in ’10 but only five in dreadful ’11 season. A bulging disc this spring has added to his misery.
RH Ivan Nova
Allowed 87 extra-base hits, a single-season record for a Yankees pitcher.
RH Mariano Rivera (Closer)
Only other Yankee to earn a save after age 40 — Jim Kaat, in 1979.
RH David Robertson
His seven losses in 2012 were most by Yankee reliever since Jeff Nelson in 1997.
RH David Phelps
Held opponents to a .209 average as a reliever in his first season in the majors. Will be the first option to fill in for an injured starter.
LH Clay Rapada
Allowed only 29 hits in 38.1 innings in first season as a Yankee; lefties hit .186 off him.
LH Boone Logan
His 80 appearances in 2012 led the majors and set a record for a Yankees’ lefty.
RH Joba Chamberlain
Missed Yanks’ first 102 games recovering from elbow and ankle injuries.
RH David Aardsma
Has faced just five batters since Sept. 19, 2010.