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Yankees reload for Derek Jeter's final season
As is always the case it seems, there is no shortage of big stories in the Big Apple. Long-time shortstop and captain Derek Jeter is retiring after the season. Alex Rodriguez became a one-man bizarre reality show before reluctantly taking his 162-game medicine. And, oh yeah, the Yankees lost their best player to free agency when Robinson Cano signed with the Seattle Mariners in December. On the field, the way the Yankees’ roster is constructed, with aging, big-name players prone to injury and little help from the farm system, seasons like 2013 are bound to happen. The roster folded in on itself under an avalanche of injuries, and it took lots of front-office scrambling simply to field a team. The miracle is that the Yankees stayed in contention until the final week, and found a way to win 85 games. The departure of Cano does not help matters, but the influx of several dynamic free agents will make the Yankees dangerous again, as long as they have better health than they had last season — which, of course, is no sure thing.
The Yankees’ rotation posted a 4.08 earned run average last season, ranking 18th in the majors. And that included Andy Pettitte, who gave the team a mostly solid 30-start performance in his farewell campaign. Of course, it also included Phil Hughes, who struggled on his way out of the Bronx. So the club wasted little time over the winter in bolstering the group with the addition of one of the best pitchers in Japan in recent years, Masahiro Tanaka. After posting a 24-0 record last season, Tanaka was eager to show off his talents in the U.S. In addition to Tanaka, the front end of the 2013 rotation returns to the Yankees in CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova. Sabathia had the most wins on the staff, but Kuroda was the better pitcher until his late-season fade. Sabathia went 14–13 with a career-high 4.78 ERA and allowed the most earned runs in MLB. His average fastball velocity, 91.3 mph, was the lowest of his career. The Yankees must hope that, with a full season since his elbow clean-out in 2012, Sabathia can find more high-level consistency, like Kuroda showed for much of the season. Kuroda was 0–6 with a 6.56 ERA in his last eight starts, but his ERA was 2.33 through mid-August. He is 39, but if the Yankees manage his innings better, they could prevent another late-season collapse. Nova’s wicked curveball, which he uses more and more, helped him shake a wobbly start to the season and finish strong. For the back end, the Yankees are counting on Michael Pineda to be back after two years of shoulder problems and minor-league ineffectiveness. That’s a risky bet. Pineda’s career is on the line as he tries to prove he is healthy and can be effective once again. They have David Phelps, Adam Warren and David Huff around to compete with Pineda for the last spot.
The scene on the Yankee Stadium mound in late September, when Pettitte and Derek Jeter removed Mariano Rivera from his final appearance in the major leagues, was an emotional highlight that will resonate for many years. Now, the team must move forward with David Robertson in the role. There are worse fallback scenarios; Robertson has a strong strikeout rate, a track record of success in pressure situations, and the lessons absorbed from pitching alongside Rivera for six years. The bridge to him is a much bigger issue. In a free-agent market that yielded three-year contracts worth $5 million or more per season for Joe Smith and Boone Logan, the Yankees, perhaps, were wise to pass. But that leaves them with a bullpen riddled with questions beyond Shawn Kelley, Preston Claiborne and lefty Matt Thornton, 37, who signed for two years to replace Logan. Youngsters Cesar Cabral, a lefty, and righthander Dellin Betances will be given opportunities to impress during the spring.
The Yankees took exception to Cano’s assertion that they disrespected him during free agency, pointing out that they did offer to pay him $25 million per year for seven years. But even the Yankees have limits, and they were not as desperate as Seattle to hand over a 10-year deal to a player already past his 31st birthday. So Brian Roberts takes over at second base, after signing with the Yankees over the winter. The two-time All-Star spent 13 seasons in Baltimore and three times hit as many as 50 doubles in a season. But injuries have limited him to 192 games over the past four seasons, hitting just .246. Across the bag is Jeter, or so the Yankees hope. Jeter turns 40 this June and was limited to 17 games last season with continuing problems caused by his broken ankle. It’s unwise to ever doubt an all-time great, but it is natural to expect a regression, perhaps a significant one, for a player at Jeter’s age who essentially missed a full season and faced questions about his range on defense, even when healthy. But it’s highly doubtful Jeter won’t exit this game with style and success.
Mark Teixeira missed almost all of last season after tearing the tendon sheath in his wrist while swinging a weighted bat preparing for the World Baseball Classic last spring. Teixeira finally succumbed to surgery, and at 34 in April, he should be able to resume his career as one of the most productive switch-hitters in the game. The Yankees should be realistic, though; since posting a .963 OPS in 2007, Teixeira has experienced a decline in OPS every year since. He remains a well above-average defender at first base, with five Gold Gloves in his career. Kelly Johnson takes over for Rodriguez at third. He is prone to striking out, but as a lefty with power, he’s a safe bet to hit 20 or more home runs. He has made just 16 appearances at the hot corner — all of them last season with Tampa Bay — but showed decent range.
The Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year, $153 million contract, taking away a sparkplug from the rival Red Sox and teaming him with Brett Gardner in the outfield. As left-handed hitters with exceptional speed, Ellsbury and Gardner are very similar players and add a different dynamic to an order that should have thunder in the middle. Ellsbury may slow down near the end of the deal, but for now, he and Gardner give the Yankees a tandem that should rattle plenty of pitchers and restore the Yankees’ position as a high-powered offense. In right field is Carlos Beltran, whom the Yankees snapped up within hours of losing Cano to Seattle. The Yankees wanted Beltran for only two years but committed to him for three and $45 million. Beltran, who turns 37 in April, showed with the Cardinals that he has plenty of high-quality baseball left in a possible Hall of Fame career. He will require regular time off and should see some time at DH.
The Yankees badly miscalculated after the 2012 season, letting Russell Martin sign with Pittsburgh for the relatively affordable price of two years and $17 million. Rather than wait for reinforcements from the farm system, the Yankees splurged on Brian McCann for five years and $85 million. They made McCann their top priority, valuing his lefty power bat, his success with young pitchers and his no-nonsense demeanor, which fits well with the Yankees’ serious self-image. Expect McCann, a seven-time All-Star in his 20s, to have a strong start to his 30s as an anchor in the middle of the lineup.
The Yankees never could have expected 17 homers and 50 RBIs in 58 games last season from Alfonso Soriano. But that’s what they got after re-acquiring Soriano in a trade with the Chicago Cubs, and the acquisition of two prominent outfielders in the offseason means that the Yankees can stash Soriano at DH now and then. Most likely, Soriano will continue to strike out a lot with a low on-base percentage, but he seemed invigorated by returning to New York and still has difference-making power. The Yankees’ fourth outfielder will be Ichiro Suzuki, but he could be dangled as trade bait. Manager Joe Girardi will sort out playing time at second and third among Johnson, Roberts, Eduardo Nunez and Brendan Ryan, giving the Yankees better depth, on paper, than they had for most of last season.
Hal Steinbrenner showed considerable restraint in sticking with his scouting and player development team despite its lack of results in recent years. He also retained Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman after the team failed to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Team executives find Steinbrenner harder to read than his bombastic father, George, but he has grown into the role atop the Yankees’ hierarchy and clearly understands the importance to the brand of spending big on marquee names. Cashman’s pro scouting department is highly regarded and generally finds one or two low-cost impact players every year.
The Yankees have enough players in the latter stages of their primes to form a relentless lineup. If they stay reasonably healthy, they will contend in the AL East.
CF Jacoby Ellsbury (L)
Hopes to join Ruth, Lyle, Boggs, Clemens and Damon as ex-Red Sox to win a ring with the Yanks.
SS Derek Jeter (R)
Turns 40 in June, but led league in hits just two years ago before his ankle betrayed him.
RF Carlos Beltran (S)
Has postseason OPS of 1.128 in 51 games. Now on his sixth team in the major leagues.
1B Mark Teixeira (S)
Dropped the weighted bat from his workouts after a wrist injury wiped out almost all of his 2013.
C Brian McCann (L)
Seven-time All-Star fills catching void and could see spike in power numbers in the Bronx.
DH Alfonso Soriano (R)
Averaged just 12.9 at-bats per homer for Yankees, a pace that seems unrealistic to sustain.
LF Brett Gardner (L)
Skill at working deep counts leads to strikeouts, but excels on defense and on the bases.
2B Brian Roberts (S)
Fun fact: He was the last batter at the original Yankee Stadium (grounded out to first).
3B Kelly Johnson (L)
Should hit at least 20 homers for Yankees, but strikes out a lot.
C Francisco Cervelli (R)
Handles staff well, but missed time with injury and drug suspension in 2013.
INF Brendan Ryan (R)
Defensive whiz should replace Jeter late in games; will that be awkward for the Captain?
INF Eduardo Nunez (R)
Supersub should get lots of starts at third base and plenty of time elsewhere.
OF Ichiro Suzuki (L)
Glut of left-handed-hitting outfielders could prompt Yanks to trade him.
LH CC Sabathia
Accepts his responsibility to return to ace status after subpar year.
RH Masahiro Tanaka
The 25-year-old Japanese import features a nasty splitter.
RH Hiroki Kuroda
Yanks must find ways to rest him during season to keep him fresh in September.
RH Ivan Nova
Re-established his status as a mid-rotation anchor with strong second half.
RH David Phelps
First order of business for the former 14th-round pick: reducing walk rate (3.6 per nine innings).
RH David Robertson (Closer)
Moved locker last year to be next to Mariano Rivera and learn from the game’s greatest closer.
RH Shawn Kelley
Strikeout specialist (71 in 53.1 innings) comes in handy with men on base.
RH Adam Warren
Former fourth-round pick is in the mix for a starting role; could be ready for next step.
RH Preston Claiborne
Slumped at the end of the 2013 season, but was rare farm-system find.
LH Matt Thornton
Held lefties to a .235 average last season for the White Sox and Red Sox.
RH Michael Pineda
After losing two full seasons to shoulder woes, Pineda’s once-promising career is on the line.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Eric Jagielo, 3B
The Yankees, who have looked to Alex Rodriguez (for better or worse) at third base for a decade, might have gotten his long-term successor in Jagielo, who hit .266/.376/.451 over 51 games for Staten Island in the New York-Penn League. Damon Oppenheimer, the Yankees’ scouting director, told MLB.com that Jagielo was a “physical left-handed hitter with plus power” — in other words, precisely the kind of hitter who can thrive at Yankee Stadium. Jagielo turns 22 in May, and he needs more time in the minors. But Jagielo, the Big East Player of the Year in 2013 at Notre Dame, has experience with the wood bat, hitting 13 homers in the Cape Cod League in 2012. Jagielo was the first college position player taken in the first round by the Yankees since John-Ford Griffin in 2001. Incredibly, the last college position player drafted by the Yankees in the first round to actually play for the team was Thurman Munson, chosen fourth overall in 1968.
RHP Ty Hensley (20)
Missed all of last season after surgery to repair labrum in his hip. Big righthander has a high ceiling but needs to stay healthy.
OF Slade Heathcott (23)
Steadily climbing the ladder; .349 career OBP is good, but has shown little power.
C Gary Sanchez (21)
Posted .364 on-base percentage in 23 games at Class AA after hitting 13 homers in 362 at-bats for High-A Tampa.
OF Tyler Austin (22)
Hit .322/.400/.559 in 2012, but wrist injury hampered him last season and again in Arizona Fall League.
OF Mason Williams (22)
Progress stalled after promising ’12; hit just .153 in 17 games at Class AA.
C J.R. Murphy (22)
Mariano Rivera’s final catcher is now blocked by Brian McCann (and probably Sanchez, too).
RHP Rafael De Paula (23)
Yanks’ only Futures Game representative had a 6.06 ERA in 11 games for High-A Tampa.
Beyond the Box Score
Wasting no time The Yankees had their busiest offseason day in years on Dec. 6. In the morning, they learned they had lost Robinson Cano to the Mariners for 10 years and $240 million. In the afternoon, they re-signed Hiroki Kuroda for one year and $16 million, and at night, they signed Carlos Beltran for three years and $45 million. Also during the day, they lost outfielder Curtis Granderson — whom they were not trying to retain — to the Mets for four years and $60 million, while officially announcing Kelly Johnson’s one-year, $3 million agreement. And how did general manager Brian Cashman start that action-packed day? By rappelling down a 22-story building in Stamford, Conn., with Bobby Valentine, of course.
Dwindling viewers The Yankees launched the YES Network in 2002, and it instantly became an overwhelming success. But ratings plunged last season, with the Yankees’ aging, injury-ravaged roster failing to reach the playoffs. The Yankees lost 31.2 percent of their viewers on YES compared to 2012, losing about 111,000 viewers per game and leaving an average of about 244,000. Even in 2008, when they previously missed the playoffs, the Yankees’ games still attracted an average of 405,000 viewers. Now we know why the Yankees were so aggressive this offseason.
Human vacuum Shortstop Brendan Ryan spent less than three weeks with the Yankees last September, but they fell so hard for his glove that they signed him for two more years. Reliever Shawn Kelley, his teammate in Seattle and New York, described Ryan’s slick fielding: “I was telling everybody when we got him, you’ll see balls that, normally your whole career, you just assume are hits, and it’s like: ‘Oh wait, he got to it. Oh wait, he threw it. Oh wait, he got the guy out!’ Think about him doing that for six months, and the runs he saves over a season. If something gets by him, you know: ‘O.K., they earned that hit. If he couldn’t make the play, that’s my fault.’”
Player/publisher Derek Jeter doesn’t like to look beyond his playing career just yet, but in November he made an exception. Jeter announced that he was starting his own publishing imprint, Jeter Publishing, a partnership with Simon & Schuster. Jeter told the New York Times that the venture would combine his interests in business and in books, film and TV. “I think this sort of sets the blueprint for post-career,” he said.