Tampa Bay, FL, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher CC Sabathia (52) warms up before the start of a spring training game against the Philadelphia Phillies at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE
If I had written a season preview for the Yankees last year, I probably would have done it in crayon and scanned it in. I'd draw a picture of Bartolo Colon eating Ivan Nova's strikeout rate while using Freddy Garcia's tendon to whip the servants carrying his rickshaw. It was something of a triptych. It would have been more of an artistic statement than an analytical breakthrough, but it would have stood for something, dammit. The Yankees' rotation was going to be terrible, and that's before we knew that Phil Hughes was going to have a horrific and mysterious season.
And then everything was okay. Better than okay, really. Nova's sinker was good enough to work without missing bats. Colon had his first season with more than 100 innings pitched since 2005, which is also when Garcia had his last season with an ERA under 4.00 and more than 100 innings. And somehow it all worked. The Yankees' rotation allowed 4.06 runs per game, which was good for third in the American League.
It was a drunken unicycle ride through a construction zone, and somehow the Yankees made it home unscathed, waking up in their comfy, cozy bed without any idea what really happened. They also figured that they probably shouldn't try the same strategy again. The Yankees' offseason was focused on improving the rotation, and they did so with an impressive 1-2 combo move in December, trading for Michael Pineda and signing Hiroki Kuroda within a few hours of each other. The Yankees' weakness suddenly became yet another strength. The projected rotation:
Where last year the Yankees looked like they were absolutely counting on Phil Hughes, here they're going to put him in the back of the rotation and keep Freddy Garcia around just in case. There's so much more to like about this rotation than the one that finished last season. A.J. Burnett isn't skulking around, giving up dingers. The health of Colon and Garcia isn't something they have to count on this time. Kuroda brings as much cost certainty as you can buy without a multi-year contract; Pineda has as much upside as any pitcher who threw in the majors last year, even with the nonsense about him not making the rotation. Nova would have to be an anomaly to continue being as successful with better command or an improved strikeout rate, but he should still be plenty good.
And CC Sabathia is still amazing.
So the Yankees are much, much better, right? At least, they're more reliable and predictable than the team that won 97 games last year (with a Pythagorean record of 101-61, no less), right?
Well, sure. Except the other part of last year's season preview would have had to do with the offense getting older. As in, there there was no way that the Yankees could continue to avoid aging like they've been doing for most of the last decade. I suppose age finally dragged Jorge Posada down below like he was one of the bad guys from Ghost. It was about time. But the lineup is still predominantly on the wrong side of 30. Put in a different way, here's a breakdown of the Yankees hitters into three categories:
Expect to improve
You might put them all into different categories, which is fine. But wherever you put them will betray just how optimistic you are about the Yankees. Jeter had a fantastic second half last year, but he'll turn 38 in June. Rodriguez's knees are questionable and his numbers have declined for five straight seasons now. Granderson shouldn't be bad, mind you, but any time a player boosts his home-run totals by more than 25 percent, it's probably a good guess that they'll come back down the next year.
I'm pretty comfortable in leaving that top category empty, too. Maybe Teixeira has a rebound season -- it's not like he's 43, after all -- and maybe Gardner's 2010 was more indicative of his real talent level. There are a lot of things that could happen in the Yankees' favor.
But the point is that there isn't a lot of room for upside and positive surprises. It's still an elite offense, and I'm not suggesting that the Yankees are going to wake up in August and be the Astros without Carlos Lee. I'm just thinking that even with the pitching upgrades, the offense might slip enough to allow the Yankees to win 90 to 95 games compared to 95 to 100. I'm sure that sad violin you hear right now is being played by the Pirate Parrot, lamenting the Yankees' possible collapse.
But a slip to 90 wins would be devastating in the AL East, where the Rays are a young, complete team, the Red Sox should still have an elite offense, and the Blue Jays are quietly improving. And the Orioles. The Yankees aren't the overwhelming favorites in the East -- the Rays are too close to allow for that -- but I wouldn't argue with anyone who picked them to win the division. It's a strong, deep team. But it seems like there's more that can go wrong this year. You know, like last year, when the rotation was being held together by twine and plaster. And the year before that, when the team was counting on four over-35 players to be huge contributors to the lineup. And the year before that when …
Eh, I should probably just shut up and pick the Yankees every year. History seems to be on that pick's side.
Coulda Shoulda Woulda (Move they didn't make)
It's almost admirable that the Yankees are finally respecting the luxury tax, but settling for Raul Ibanez is weird. In all of baseball, all the 30 kingdoms, there wasn't a left-handed option available for cheap who would be a better bet than a 40-year-old coming off a sub-.300 OBP? I would have preferred old friends like Johnny Damon or Hideki Matsui.
Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos should be better equipped to help the big-league rotation in the event of emergency or stink. Considering that those are the majors-ready prospects the Yankees have right now, it's a little strange that they were willing to part with Jesus Montero in retrospect. They'll need pre-arbitration salaries for the next couple of years to get under the luxury tax; there's a chance that they'll have most of them in the rotation.
An ESPN game on Sunday. Maybe two. Improved pitching with a slight dip in offense, leading to somewhere between 90 and 96 wins, so down just a bit over all from last year.