Yes, the additions of Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda do wonders for the rotation, not only improving it at the front, but providing depth, such that a reasonable amount of wear and tear should not force Freddy Garcia to take the mound in Game 2 of the ALDS. The bullpen should remain among the best in the league, especially if Joba Chamberlain returns to something approaching full strength by midseason. The signing of Pedro Feliciano and the low-risk invitation handed to Hideki Okajima give the Yankees LOOGY alternatives to the controlled madness of Boone Logan.
However, the loss of Jesus Montero also means the Yankees are once again posting a lineup that has no players younger than 28, and no regulars in the pre-arbitration phase of their career. The inevitably declining range of the Yankee infield could be a rude awakening for Kuroda, whose career groundball rate is substantially higher than any other Yankee starter. More importantly, discouraging three-year offensive trends for Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Mark Teixeira suggest that all may have entered the decline phase of their careers, even though the organization is still on the hook for a combined $296.5 Million.
Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, and Brett Gardner have stepped into the void, but, with the exception of Cano, have not proven their ability to post annual All-Star level performances. Gardner suffered a rather severe late-season skid in 2011 (.216/.312/.304 in his final 60 games) and Granderson’s biannual regressions are well documented.
More important than the Yankees “on-paper” weaknesses, however, are the apparent strengths of their competitors, especially in the American League. The Angels landed the best player in the game this offseason, while bolstering a rotation which was already among the best in the league (3rd in in WAR, 2nd in ERA, 2nd in IP) with the signing of C. J. Wilson. Their offense was putrid in 2011, but Albert Pujols will not be the only addition they make this spring, as megaprospect Mike Trout and former MVP-candidate Kendrys Morales also join the roster, and the Jeff Mathis era comes to an end (which, regardless of how you feel about Hank Conger and Chris Iannetta, is addition by subtraction).
Then, of course, there are the Rangers, two-time reigning AL Champs who remain in negotiations with both Yu Darvish and Prince Fielder, a source of irresolvable panic for the fans of all other teams. Yes, the Rangers lost their “Ace,” but they also elected to put their most talented pitcher, Neftali Feliz, in the rotation, where he joins a growing collection of young power arms, any one of which could fill the void left by Wilson. In 2011, they came within one game of the Championship despite the fact that neither Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz, nor Mike Napoli played as many as 125 games. It seems wishful thinking to expect the Rangers to be less fortunate in 2012.
In the AL East, there still resides a Red Sox team which everybody believed was the bee’s knees at this time last winter. Certainly, their rotation provokes much more skepticism this time ’round, but the roster is still more-or-less identical. Is there any chance Carl Crawford doesn’t rebound? Does anybody think Andrew Bailey is a big step down from Jonathan Papelbon? Will anybody notice J. D. Drew’s absence?
More frightening for the AL East is the fact that the 91-win Rays have yet to play all their cards. They have half-a-dozen starting pitchers, each of whom could pitch near the front of 80% of the rotations in the league. Every other team covets the Rays arms, and the positional flexibility of Sean Rodriguez and Ben Zobrist means Andrew Friedman could chase the best hitter available on the trade market, regardless of where he plays.
Sadly, none of the five teams discussed in this post can represent the AL Central, which means, even in an expanded playoff field, one of these teams will be left out of the postseason (and another will go home after one game). The Yankee are no closer than anybody else to avoiding that fate…but, like the Rays and the Rangers, they are still clearly capable of getting better.
The tangential benefit of the rotation makeover was the creation of a set of expendable assets which Cashman can use to improve the current roster; namely, Phil Hughes or Ivan Nova, two young starters who have had success at the major-league level. Following the signing of Hughes to a team friendly one-year contract, he is probably even more valuable than Nova. Despite the fact that Nova has been much better over the last year-and-a-half, is younger, less expensive, and less apparently injury-prone, Hughes has the “top prospect” pedigree which is mouth-watering to many GMs. He is, at least superficially, falling out of favor with his current franchise. The “change of scenery” logic will be very inviting.
A Modest Proposal
I know this will be unpopular, but hear me out…
Is there any reason the Yankees shouldn’t invite Manny Ramirez to Spring Training?
The case for Manny is entirely based upon his flare for the dramatic. For a prorated league minimum salary, you offer him the opportunity to finally play for his hometown and he gets a chance to stick it to two of his former teams. Sure, he won’t be available until after he serves his suspension, but he provides an infusion of energy at midseason and, if he’s got anything left, is superior to any of the other affordable alternatives at DH. If he doesn’t have anything left, he gets cut after a few weeks…no harm done. I just don’t see what the Yankess have to lose.
Moreover, if the Yankees commit to a rotation cast of low-risk DHs (mixed with resting regulars), they can reserve their remaining resources (both monetary and personnel) for midseason renovations, like acquiring David Wright.