2011 Season Forecast: New York Yankees

Last Five Seasons:
2010:  95 – 67
2009: 103 – 59 (World Series Champs)
2008:  89 – 73
2007:  94 – 68
2006:  97 – 65

Runs Scored: 859 (Tops in the AL)
Runs Allowed: 693 (5th in the AL)

Based on this, the Yankees could have won the division with 98 wins…

2010 Recap:

Picked by many to repeat as AL East and World Series champs, the Yankees just missed by a game of winning the east, and had their starting rotation held up (or had they acquired Cliff Lee) they might have won the series, too.

The Yankees got off to a hot start, taking 15 of 22 in April, and having winning records every month until September, when they went 12 – 15 and were run down from behind by the Rays.  To be honest, they peaked after a long winning streak at 86 – 50, but actually collapsed to the finish line.  Had they missed the playoffs, it might have been given the same treatment as a Mets September, but for some reason, the Yankees were given a pass for going 9 – 17 down the stretch.

If I were them, I’d be nervous.

During the season, in addition to the run of the mill waiver claims and what not, the Yankees acquired Austin Kearns for spare parts from Cleveland, later picked up Kerry Wood at the trade deadline for two more minor leaguers, and gave up two decent prospects (Mark Melancon and Jimmy Paredes) to the Astros to pick up Lance Berkman.  Wood played pretty well, Kearns was just a backup, and Lance Berkman acted like he wanted to be somewhere else.

Starters:

The Yankees rotation is led by the remarkable C.C. Sabathia, who provided yet another season as a Cy Young candidate.  Philip Hughes took a big step forward by winning 18 decisions in 29 starts, but as a pitcher was just mildly better than the average starter.  Andy Pettitte heads to retirement following a remarkably good 21 starts, winning 11 of 14 decisions.  However, the #2 starter, A.J. Burnett went 10 – 15 with a 5.26 ERA – 25 runs worse than the average starter over 186.2 innings.  And Javier Vazquez was equally poor, despite the 10 – 10 record, with his 5.32 ERA.  Vazquez suffered as a flyball pitcher in Yankee Stadium, giving up a homer every fifth inning he pitched.  Dustin Moseley and Ivan Nova were tolerable when given chances to start – in fact Nova may earn a rotation spot in 2011.

However, the pitching is thin for 2011 in general.  The Yankees twice failed to get Cliff Lee to town (maybe the fans in Yankee Stadium should have been nicer to Lee’s wife).  Vazquez is now a Florida Marlin, Andy Pettitte has retired to Texas, and even Kerry Wood returned home (he’s pitching for the Cubs).  Sabathia returns, as does Burnett (he HAS to be better than last year), and Hughes will get 32 starts to see if he’s still got the magic.  That leaves Ivan Nova, Sergio Mitre, and former rotation stalwarts Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia – who are years removed from their better days.  I’m not a huge Garcia fan anymore, but he actually was tolerable as a fifth starter for the White Sox last year.  On the other hand, he won 12 games in his 28 starts despite a 4.64 ERA, served up a lot of homers, and only struck out 89 in 157 innings.  Vazquez came with much better credentials and stunk up the joint.  Ivan Nova or Sergio Mitre will have to step forward – and Mitre has enough innings under his belt to suggest he’s not the answer.  So that means Nova is likely to get a shot at being the #5 guy.

Bullpen:

Mariano Rivera continues to amaze as nears AARP status – a 1.80 ERA, 33 saves, and just 55 base runners in 60 innings.  Joba Chamberlain didn’t completely own the 7th or 8th inning, but there are still things to like, including a great K/9 rate and improved control.  Boone Logan and Damaso Marte served as solid one-out lefties, and David Robertson was decent in 61.1 innings.  Kerry Wood was impressive in his two months.

Looking ahead, Rivera returns for another go, but Rafael Soriano was imported from Tampa to provide an 8th inning ace and potential replacement closer.  The rest of the pen contains the familiar faces of Robertson, Logan, and Chamberlain, as well as newly added Pedro Feliciano.  Hopefully, these guys are ready for a step up in workload.

Catching:

Jorge Posada and Francisco Cervelli provided decent enough catching, even if teams ran rampant on Posada when he caught.  Posada can still hit some, so he will be moved to the DH role, which means that Cervelli will cede a few innings to Russell Martin.  Cervelli is a decent backup – no power, some defense, a fair batting average.  Four years ago, Martin was a solid defensive catcher and run producer, that is until Joe Torre ran him into the ground.

Infield:

The Yankees have an interesting mix of current and aging superstars. At third, you have the declining Alex Rodriguez, who is getting more comfortable at third base as his batting statistics fall off from his MVP level (and steroid supported) play.  At short is the captain, Derek Jeter.  When he hits .320, Jeter is the most productive shortstop in the AL despite his defensive flaws (range, really, is his only flaw and it’s really getting problematic – so stop giving him the gold glove when he hasn’t ever deserved one).  Last year, he hit .270 and the team let him know, through an ugly contract negotiation, that they noticed his decline was both offensive and defensive.  At second, you have the remarkably talented Robinson Cano, who is as good a fielder as can be found in the AL and light years ahead of any second sacker when batting, too.  At first, you have Mark Teixeira, who struggled to get out April, but still managed 33 homers, 108 RBI, and got on base at a .368 clip.  That’s a solid off season.  Backing them up is Ramiro Pena, who has little power but some defensive skills – much like Eduardo Nunez, who is the sixth infielder.

I’d like to think that Jeter can bounce back for one more .300 season.  If he does, that bodes well for his chances at 3500 hits and the Yankees continuing to make playoff runs.  Realistically, that’s not going to happen.  Same with Alex Rodriguez, who is barely making 30 homers per year, misses a month of games each year now, and also hit .270 instead of .310.  Playing in Yankee Stadium is also masking some of their decline; if Jeter had hit .255 with 7 homers, would anyone give him a chance of a comeback?  Cano should be able to duplicate his 2010 season, but last year was a significant step forward to superstardom.  And Teixeira will not have another April like last year.  The issue is that all four are generally durable (even A-Rod, with his hip, has never missed 60 games in a season) and now, with all but Cano at least two years into their 30s, the chances of someone missing a significant amount of time is going up.  I can’t help but think that this is the year – and neither Pena nor Nunez can hit enough to make up for that kind of loss.

Outfield:

The trio of Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson, and Nick Swisher return after all three provided solid production in 2010.  Of the three, Gardner has the greatest chance to produce more in 2011.  He could be moved up in the lineup (he should be the leadoff hitter), which would give him more opportunities.  Until then, he’s the best centerfielder playing left field on the team, and he’s the best #9 hitter in baseball.  Granderson found his power stroke near the end of the year, but he’s only marginally better than average because he doesn’t quite hit .250 anymore.  Swisher is coming off a career year in batting and slugging and remains a surprisingly good defensive outfielder.  Austin Kearns and Randy Winn are gone (thankfully), but they have imported aging slugger Andruw Jones to help out here and be the right handed counterpart at DH.  Greg Golson may be the best defensive option as the alliterative fourth outfielder; Golson or Colin Curtis.

DH:

Last year, Marcus Thames was the surprise hit of the team, launching 12 homers in 212 at bats, batting .288, and generating more runs per 27 outs than even Teixeira.  In 2011, look for Jorge Posada, Andruw Jones, and one or more of the others (Rodriguez, Swisher, Granderson, or even Jeter to pick up a few at bats here.

Down On the Farm:

It all starts with Jesus Montero, who is an expanded set of defensive skills away from being the next great Yankee catcher.  In AAA Scranton/Wilkes Barre, Montero hit for more power, was more selective, and – at 20 – is just about ready.  Eduardo Nunez got his first cup of coffee after tying Montero for the team lead in batting, stole 23 bases in 28 attempts, and played a steady shortstop.  At 24, he could step in and help out.  The top pitcher was Ivan Nova, who went 12 – 3 with a 2.86 ERA, showed good control, and was reasonably solid in his Yankee debut.  David Phelps moved up through two levels, going 6 – 0 in 14 starts at AA Trenton, then 4 – 2 in 11 starts at AAA – with great command and a sub 3.00 ERA.

Trenton featured first baseman Brandon Laird, a 23 year old who hit 23 – 90 – .291.  Hector Noesi went 8 – 4 with a 1.09 WHIP and an 86/18 K/BB rate.  Another pitcher making a step up was Adam Warren, who whipped through three levels since his 2009 draft (4th round), and has been impressive with his command and control at all three levels.

Corbin Joseph was a 4th round pick out of Franklin, TN in 2008 and hit .302 in A+ Tampa.  He’s a slight second baseman who seems to be developing a little power as he ages.  Another young prospect is Jose Pirela, a Venezuelan burner who plays shortstop and hit 13 triples for Tampa.  He may be fighting Joseph for a shot at the second base job in three years.  Among the top arms were Pat Venditte (4 – 1, 1.73, 85/14 in 72.2 innings), Dellen Betances – a Brooklyn native who clobbered Tampa opponents (8 – 1, 1.77, 88/19 in 81 innings), and Mexican teen sensation Manny Banuelos, who had 79Ks in 59.2 innings and seems to be ready for a full trip in AA Trenton.

Forecasting 2011:

It’s hard to pick against the Yankees because (a) the outfielders are all in their prime, as is Teixeira, and (b) the veterans they have are all still very productive.

On the other hand, this might be the year things fall off.  The Yankees won’t be getting MORE production in center or right fields.  They won’t be getting MORE production from second base, shortstop, or third base.  They won’t be getting MORE production behind the plate.  The only spots where improvement might be seen is left field – but that would be at the expense of another position.  I think the offense will still be good – but not 859 runs of good.  More like 780 runs – a top five offense rather than a #1 offense.

Then you have the defense, which could slip a little at four or five positions.  I’d swap Granderson and Gardner, which would help, but you never know if the Yankees would do that since Granderson is only 30.  You’d ALMOST want to switch A-ROD and Jeter – but I’m not certain that after the hip surgeries A-ROD can cover short anymore.  In fact, nobody in New York can cover short – which makes a lot of the pitchers look worse than they have to.  At least Jeter is still solid at turning two.

That brings us to the pitchers.  If Sabathia, who came to spring training in WAY better shape than he had been, were to miss any chunk of time, this team could fall off the map.  Hughes is good, but not great, Burnett isn’t dependable and is one slump away from being sent to the Pirates or something.  Your fourth and fifth starters are rookies or retreads.  I think the Yankees will allow a few more runs than in 2010 – maybe 40 more.  That puts the team around 780 runs scored and just 725 allowed, which converts to 87 wins.  And wait until the Steinbrenner boys see THAT number…

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2009 Season Forecast: New York Yankees

New York Yankees
2008: 89-73 (3rd AL East, 8 games back)

The General Motors of baseball – throwing good money into superficial things and veterans only to wind up with nothing because they never really invest in the core of the team, just dressing up what they have and making another run.

Well, this year, by golly, we’re going to spend top dollar on the best players available and fix things!  The Yankees spent a half billion on two pitchers and a first baseman (and Nick Swisher).  That they bought CC Sabathia was not a surprise.  That they risked a lot of money on A.J. Burnett was not totally out of character.  However, to have given the rest of the bank to Mark Teixeira seemed like one big check too many – on a team loaded with big checks.  Let’s see if they spent it on the right things.

Did you know?  Something like 20 of the 86 players mentioned in the Mitchell Report played for Joe Torre?  Ah, but that’s just beating a dead horse.

Looking Back on 2008

The Yankees got off to a slow start, winning 14 of 29 in April, but seemed to play better through the rest of the spring and summer.  Most months were about 15 – 12 – not great months – which left the team behind the Red Sox and Rays for most of the summer.  The pitching fell apart in August, leading to another losing month – but not a 10 – 20 month, just a 13 – 15 month – before actually playing really well down the stretch in September.  The problem was that by then, they were too far out of the race.

Part of the problem was injuries.  Deteriorating knees (and operations on both of them in the last two seasons) cut into Hideki Matsui’s playing time and offensive contribution.  Chien-Ming Wang tore a tendon in his foot in June and was shut down for the rest of the year.  Catcher Jorge Posada’s shoulder required surgery.  For a while, he tried to play through it – but he couldn’t throw and eventually couldn’t hit.  As it was, his batting was well off his amazing 2007 season.

Part of it was that some of the younger guys didn’t produce.  Robinson Cano seemed lethargic at the beginning of the season and hit so poorly in April that nobody noticed he hit about .280 or better the rest of the way.  Ian Kennedy was given a shot at the starting rotation and left after nine starts with an ERA over 8.00.  Phil Hughes took over, pitched a little better – which still wasn’t good enough – and then left with a broken rib.  Melky Cabrera had such a poor stretch, he lost his job in centerfield, coming back only when it was obvious that Matsui couldn’t play the field.

The rest is that the best players weren’t at top form.  Alex Rodriguez was good, but off from his 2007 MVP numbers.  Derek Jeter was rather ordinary, with fewer doubles and homers cutting into his overall production.  The Yankees added Xavier Nady, who didn’t exactly set the world on fire when he arrived, and Ivan Rodriguez, who looked old at the plate.  Johnny Damon and Bobby Abreu played well – but there were a lot of holes at the bottom of the lineup for too much of the season.

Tell me about that offense

It’s rough when your “off season” is 35 homers, 103 RBI, batting .302 with 18 stolen bases in 21 attempts, but that’s what life is like for A-Rod.  Now, Alex Rodriguez will be dealing with a different kind of “off season” – as in his admission for using steroids, and now choosing to undergo surgery on a hip that began troubling him last fall.  Derek Jeter has superficially good numbers in a high batting average, but didn’t do much else last year.  He is much like Michael Young for Texas.  Playing nearly every day and batting at the top of the lineup, he gets a lot of at bats so the numbers look superficially better.  However, Jeter generated just 5.4 runs for every 27 outs – above average but not WAY above average.  As mentioned, Cano was awful in April – so much so that he finished as a below average producer.  He hardly ever walks, so unless he hits .320, he’s not much of a force.  Last year, he walked just 26 times, so made a lot of outs.  Jason Giambi had a decent year – don’t mind the low batting average (.246), he hit 32 homers and still gets on base a lot.

In the outfield, Johnny Damon was very productive.  He hits for a little power now, still is an effective baserunner, and has become more selective at the plate.  Bobby Abreu, even now, remains a very productive hitter, with decent power, some speed, and a good eye.  At some point, we may have to ask ourselves if Bobby Abreu is a Hall of Famer.  After that, however, you have a few more weak links.  Matsui is still productive, though his power is waning and his speed is gone.  Xavier Nady was okay – hit a few homers in Yankee Stadium, but otherwise had bland numbers.  Step down again to Melky Cabrera, who didn’t quite make it to .250, had little power, and doesn’t run well enough to make up for not being on base.

Behind the plate, Posada lost nearly 100 points in his batting average with his shoulder bothering him.  This forced the Yankees to play Jose Molina, who hit .216 with little power.  When that didn’t work, New York imported Ivan Rodriguez, who hit like Molina and didn’t throw very well.  Chad Moeller didn’t impress people with his bat either.

Unlike Yankee teams in the past, you had at least three holes in the lineup (second base, centerfield, and catcher), and with two other off seasons, and little help at DH, the offense was rather ordinary.  The Yankees finished seventh in runs scored in the American League.

Defensively:

Not very good.

Let’s start with the admission that it’s very likely that Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are negatively affected by the fact that opponents will let more left handed hitters play in Yankee Stadium than most other parks.  STILL, that infield is rather porous.  Jeter’s range rating the last three years has been -9.4, -12.3, -9.1.  A-Rod? -8.5, -6.1, -5.6.  At least he’s gotten better – and he cut down on his errors last year.  If the disparity were true, then Cano should be way above average, right?  He’s good, but not great.  4.2, 6.5, 5.4.  The NET of Jeter and Cano remains below zero – meaning that the infield is letting a lot of balls through to the outfield.  Giambi, who battles as best he can, is no Albert Pujols with the glove.

The end result is that if you had a ground ball pitcher, like Wang, he’s actually hurt by not having anybody behind him who can really scoop up grounders.  Wang has been successful not because of his defense, but rather because usually the team scores a lot of runs for him.

In the outfield, Cabrera wasn’t good enough, and Damon can’t cover center anymore.  Damon is still pretty good in left – but if Matsui is his backup, that’s a problem because Matsui can’t run at all.  Abreu in right is no longer a mobile outfielder.  Most days, the Yankees were playing five guys in the field who were defensive liabilities – and then you had Posada trying to catch.

Molina was actually very good against the run, allowing just 56% of the baserunners to make it – well above the league average and the best rate in the league.  Pudge did better in Detroit, but is finally showing signs of getting long in the tooth behind the plate.

Now Pitching…

Mike Mussina was great – nearly 30 runs better than the average pitcher despite having no defense behind him.  Getting 20 wins for the first (and only) time in his career was a wonderful way to leave the game – and the Yankees will miss him.  After that, the only other pitcher to make 30 starts was Andy Pettitte, and he was okay – about seven runs better than the average pitcher.  By the way – look at the hits per nine data for these two and you’ll see that the defense isn’t that strong behind them.

After that, you have Wang, who was good for two months, and Joba Chamberlain, who looked great in his 100 innings.  This year, look for Chamberlain to get 30 starts and 180 innings – if so, he could be amazing, or he could get hurt.  The rest of the staff was pretty weak.  Darrell Rasner was given 20 below average starts.  We talked about Hughes and Kennedy having poor runs.  Sidney Ponson was ordinary in 15 starts, and Carl Pavano was trying to remember how to pitch in his seven starts.  So, you had basically 2.5 good pitchers in the rotation – and for this division, that’s not enough.

The bullpen, though, was solid.  Mariano Rivera was the best reliever in baseball last year – 27 runs better than the average pitcher in just 70 innings.  Brian Bruney, Kyle Farnsworth, Edwar Ramirez, and Jose Veres were excellent in support roles.  Most people just didn’t notice because the Yankee gloves didn’t help these guys out.  Sure – there were a few duds, but nobody in the pen was really that bad, and none were as bad as an Ian Kennedy.

Forecasting 2009:

So, let’s summarize.  The problems to address were:

A) Find some starting pitching, especially since their best pitcher retired.
B) Get a better gloves in the outfield and probably at first base.
C) Get more offense out of centerfield, catching spots and hope for some veterans to bounce back some.  Also, don’t lose too much offense when Giambi and Abreu leave the team.

I think they did it.

Let’s look at the rotation, as it now features CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Pettitte, Wang, and Chamberlain.  To be honest – that’s a force compared with what the Yankees had last year.  This could easily be 60 runs better than in 2008.  The bullpen needs Rivera to be healthy, but I think the rest of the bullpen will be okay.  Rivera won’t be as good as last year – even if he’s healthy and good – so let’s take 15 runs back from the starters.  The good news is that the bullpen may need to be used less than before.

Offensively, Nady is not Abreu.  Cabrera is fighting with Brett Gardner for the centerfield slot – and frankly, I’d let the burner Gardner play.  At least you’d have to improvements in the outfield defensively.  The pitchers would appreciate having Gardner in center, for sure.  The defensive improvement would be another 20 runs.

With A-Rod gone for a couple of months, having to play Cody Ransom or somebody else for two months (or, if worse comes to worse) longer means losing 60 runs of offense.  Granted Teixeira will be a nice addition, but is he that much better than Giambi?  Hopefully, he’ll make the defense look a little better.  If Jeter and Damon hold steady, and Cano has a better season – I’d still look for the Yankees to score 50 fewer runs than in 2008.

If the Yankees finish with 740 runs scored and 645 runs allowed, they might win about 92 games.  That puts them in line with the Rays, who also look to win that many games.  My take on it is that the Rays won’t get to 92, which puts the Yankees in line for the wild card slot.  And, if they make the playoffs, they would have the front line pitching to compete all the way to the World Series.  I don’t think they are better than Boston, but they could win a short series.

Down on the Farm…

You may not have heard of Cody Ransom, but with A-Rod out, you will.  Ransom led Scranton/ Wilkes-Barre (AAA) with 22 homers.  However, he hit only .255 and struck out enough to think he won’t be much better than, say, a rough Jim Presley…  And, he’s not a prospect – he’s 33.  The best hitter, though, was probably Brett Gardner.  Gardner is a burner with no power, but he walks and bunts and could help the pitching staff with his defense.  The pitching staff is filled with people you’ve probably heard of before – Kei Igawa, Kennedy, Hughes, and the like.

AA Trenton doesn’t have much to brag about, but Phil Coke is a pitcher you might see once in a while.  Coke has slowly moved through the minors, but at AA Trenton he was 9 – 4 with good K/W numbers.  Coke got a shot at AAA and even saw time with the Yankees and pitched very well in 14 innings.  At best, he’s a long shot to pitch long relief and may start the season in AAA.

Catcher Jesus Montero batted .326 with power, leading the Charleston River Dogs (A+) in RBI.  He’s just 19, and figures to be a replacement for Posada by 2011.  I’d pick him as the top prospect on the team (Baseball America says he’s #6 in the system).  Baseball America says Brooklyn’s Dellin Betances is a better prospect – he’s a 20 year old pitcher who had big strikeout numbers for Charleston, but he looks like he needs to gain more control of the strike zone.  Still – look for the Yankees to trade him in a future July deal.  Betances is 6’ 8” and about 250 pounds, so he must be intimidating.  Zachary McAllister is working his way up quickly, winning 14 with a 2.09 ERA at two levels, finishing at Tampa (A+) last year.