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Yankees Pick Perfect Year For RestraintPosted on January 2, 2013 at 09:38 AM.
More than any other team in professional sports, the New York Yankees define the word polarizing. The Yankees’ brand is the most popular in the world. Yet, as much as the brand leads in merchandise sold and worldwide popularity, there is a seemingly equal number of people who have an intense dislike for the New York baseball club. For the Yankees, there is no in between.
That polarizing balance is also played out in the media. When the Yankees sign a group of premier free agents like they did in the winter of 2008, they are scorned for their ability to buy players and buy championships. When they fail to win a title, they are mocked and used as an example of the cliche that money doesn’t necessarily win championships. Not surprisingly, this winter has put the Yankees in the crosshairs once again. Because they have failed to bring in or even pursue the big names of winter and also lost out on retaining their own free agents like Russell Martin, Nick Swisher and Eric Chavez, the Yankees are being portrayed as a team tightening the budget and one that is no longer able to spend. Even more, they are being portrayed as a team in severe decline and one that looks like an underdog heading into the season.
It is odd to see the Yankees sitting out of most free agent negotiations. These are the New York Yankees, the club that gets any player at any cost. There has been talk about a budget for a while now, but each year, General Manager Brian Cashman has been able to ask Hal Steinbrenner for a bit more to reel in the player Cashman believed he needed. Mark Teixeira was landed when Cashman thought he was done spending on CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett. This winter, the Yankees are holding strong to a budget in an effort to get below the luxury tax before next season. That goal has kept the Yankees out of the winter spotlight.
But, given their roster composition, that is exactly where they should be.
The Yankees are a team in transition. They still have their three core players--Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte--under contract. Jeter will be entering his age 39 season and coming off of ankle surgery. Rivera will be 43 while Pettitte is 42 years old. For the latter two, 2013 is likely their last season in the Major Leagues. Jeter doesn’t have many years left. The core of the Yankees offense features Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, and Mark Teixeira, all who are over the age of 30. They will be supplemented by Brett Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki, two fleet footed outfielders. Their ace, CC Sabathia, will be 32 years old this season. This is a team that can still be competitive, but very much on the verge of breaking up due to retirements, injuries, and expiring contracts. In short, this wasn’t the year to invest in the long term because of the uncertainty moving forward.
Instead of investing in a long term deal with Zack Greinke or Josh Hamilton, Brian Cashman chose to re-sign his own starting pitchers. Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte were brought back on one year contracts for a combined $27 million. With Sabathia, Kuroda, Pettitte, Phil Hughes, and likely Ivan Nova, the Yankees will be returning their entire rotation for 2013. Although Kuroda and Pettitte are older, both pitched well last season and have shown no signs that they can’t repeat that in 2013. Hughes made it through a season with his health in tact and the Yankees could even see Michael Pineda return at some point this season. Instead of paying one pitcher like Greinke, Cashman bought two pitchers with a certain track record on short term deals. If either shows decline, Cashman won’t be saddled with a bad contract.
With a stellar, useful bullpen, Cashman has a starting rotation that projects to be one of the most durable in the league. Rather than commit long term with Greinke or overspend on the likes of Edwin Jackson or Jeremy Guthrie, the Yankees have their second and third starter signed on a year commitment. It gives them more flexibility next season when the vision of their team may be more clear and it all but guarantees that they’ll get value for the money they are paying.
Perhaps the most shocking part of their offseason has been the lack of activity while addressing the offense. The Yankees lost their starting catcher to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Russell Martin hit 21 home runs while posting a .713 OPS. It seemed like a foregone conclusion that Nick Swisher was going to leave despite posting an .837 OPS, second highest amongst everyday players. And, they learned that Alex Rodriguez will have hip surgery and miss at least the first half of the year. Despite those losses, the Yankees have signed Kevin Youkilis to a one year $12 million deal. They re-signed Ichiro Suzuki to a two year deal worth $13.5 million, handing him Swisher’s job and giving left field back to Gardner, who missed most of 2012 due to a wrist injury. And, they recently signed 35 year old outfielder Matt Diaz to a minor league contract in the hopes that he can rediscover his power against left handed pitching.
That’s been it.
Do the Yankees really believe they can contend with the team they are about to field? They have lost 94 home runs due to the departures of Martin, Swisher, Chavez, Raul Ibanez, and Andruw Jones. Add Alex Rodriguez’s 18 home runs and the Yankees have seemingly lost 112 of their league leading 245 home runs they hit last season. For a team that is still built around the home run, losing that much production and only replacing it with Kevin Youkilis seems like a recipe for a lost season in the name of saving money. This isn’t the Yankee way.
But, it’s the smart thing to do.
The Yankees will enter the season with rookie Austin Romine and veterans Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli as their catching core. It seems odd considering that Mike Napoli and AJ Pierzynski were both free agents. But, Napoli still isn’t signed by the Red Sox because of his hip problems. Pierzynski did have a career year at age 35. That career year, however, was so far above his track record that he will likely fall well short of that. Most teams agreed with the Yankees as Pierzynski only received a one year, $7.5 million deal from the Texas Rangers. Signing the name wasn’t the wise move, especially since signing Napoli, who is 31 years old, would’ve required a long term deal. And, neither veteran catcher are strong defensively. With Russell Martin getting overpaid by Pittsburgh, the Yankees are choosing to be shrewd with their catching position because it is an area within the organization that has depth with prize prospect Gary Sanchez still a couple of years away from being ready.
Romine likely gets first crack at the starting job. The 24 year old was injured for most of 2012, but he is said to be an above average defensive player with developing power. He may not hit at the Major League level, but his defensive skills could make him an asset. With the veteran Stewart a strong defender, the Yankees should have a strong defensive presence behind the plate. Because they will be more dependent on their pitching staff, this is a necessity.
Because of that reliance on pitching, the Yankees are putting together a stronger defensive team. With Suzuki, Granderson, and Gardner in the outfield, the Yankees should have one of the best defensive outfields in the league. Curtis Granderson does not rank well according to most metrics, but Suzuki and Gardner have been elite defenders, which should minimize Granderson’s shortcomings. Around the infield, Teixeira and Cano should be slightly above average, even at a year older. Jeter’s range and defensive proficiency has always been questioned. This year will be no different. Kevin Youkilis isn’t an elite defender, but he is close to being a replacement level defender, which is actually an upgrade from Rodriguez at this point in his career. Cashman could’ve signed Mark Reynolds to play third base because of his power or he could’ve overpaid to retain Eric Chavez. But, Reynolds is one of the worst defensive third basemen in the league and Chavez can’t play everyday. Both would’ve been poor investments for the money they would’ve required. Youkilis won’t hurt on defense and he will help with the new Yankees’ offense.
One of the biggest criticisms of the 2012 Yankees was that they were too dependent on the home run. While that wasn’t a valid criticism, it certainly won’t be one this year. Suzuki replaces Swisher as the everyday right fielder. Gardner reclaims his job that was, for the most part, manned by Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones. Whoever catches for the Yankees won’t match Martin’s home run total. They will be a team more dependent on working the pitch count and getting on base. Kevin Youkilis is in decline, but he is still one of the most patient hitters in the game. And, even in his worst season, he posted a .336 OBP. Suzuki posted a .340 OBP during his time with the Yankees. Brett Gardner has a career .355 OBP. Even with a defensive-only catcher, the Yankees everyday lineup will have seven batters (including Eduardo Nunez in a full-time DH/SS role) who posted at least a .330 OBP average last season. Only Curtis Granderson and the catching position can’t lay claim to that.
With that type of patient lineup, the Yankees will score runs. They may not reach 800 runs again, but they don’t have to considering that they only gave up 668 runs last season and that they improved their defense. It is often forgotten that this is a team that won 95 games last season and went to the American League Championship Series.
The division is tough. The Blue Jays made all the splashy moves and look to be a heavy favorite. But, they have flaws too. Their bullpen is suspect, Jose Bautista will have to prove healthy, and Edwin Encarnacion will have to prove his 2012 wasn’t a fluke. The Orioles were a magical team, but they’ve done little to improve. The Red Sox are improved, but have just as many questions as the Yankees. The best team, the Tampa Bay Rays, still are loaded with pitching talent, but have offensive questions. The Yankees aren’t a favorite, but they are no worse than the rest of the division. The division is tough, but it is a division full of good, but potentially flawed teams.
The Yankees didn’t spend or make headlines this season, but they are going to field a competitive team. Unless they get hit hard with injuries, they are not a sub .500 team. They will compete for the division crown. The team will function differently than in recent years, but it is a team with a solid pitching staff and a lineup that will produce base runners, thus scoring opportunities. They look certain to avoid the luxury tax and even more certain to not be locked into more veteran contracts that likely won’t pay off. It was the right time and year for the Yankees to sit out of the free agent game. Now, Cashman can field a team capable of winning the division and decide what to do with Granderson and Cano while seeing what his veteran core does in terms of retirement and regression.
It is the perfect year for restraint.
BORN: April 17, 1975 (41)
JOINED: Oct 26, 2003 (12 years, 247 days ago)
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JOINED: Oct 26, 2003 (12 years, 247 days ago)
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