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2014 AL East Preview: New York Yankees

The 2014 season is almost here! As we continue to sit through Spring Training games, Camden Chat will spend the rest of this week previewing the O's foes in the AL East. Second up: The New York Yankees

Mike Carlson

2013 was not a banner year for the Yankees. Before the season, in effort to avoid luxury taxes, the front office imposed a plan to get the team payroll below $189 million dollars and let go of Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Eric Chavez and Rafael Soriano. The team also signed Kevin Youkilis and traded FOR Vernon Wells to mend holes in the lineup. As if the lineup weren’t without holes already, Derek Jeter suffered a series of setbacks with the ankle injury he sustained in 2012 playoffs and missed the most of season, A-Rod played only 44 games and was not his old self (0.5 fWAR), Ichiro showed age with his bat (71 wRC+), Curtis Granderson broke his hand… twice, and etc. All the misfortunes and agings gave Yankees one of the most underwhelming offensive showings in recent history with 10.4 combined fWAR’s from positional players, which was 24th in the ML. Not what you want to see when you invest a top three payroll on a team, eh?

The pitching was solid. Their 18.5 team pitching fWAR was 5th in the MLB last year. Kuroda showed an All-Star caliber performance before fading out for the final month of the season, Nova seemed like he figured things out in ML, Pettitte had a solid final season, etc. But the staff ace Sabathia had his worst season and Phil Hughes, who the Yanks were counting to repeat the solid first-half 2010 season, had a below-average showing and was let go by the Yanks in the past offseason.

When it was all said and done, the Yankees ended up with 85-77, tying with the Orioles in the AL East and failing to reach playoffs. However, the team also ended up with -21 run differential, which is 15th-worst in franchise history, which indicates that the Yankees played worse than the +.500 record they ended up with.

The Yankees vowed not to repeat the subpar 2013 showing and unleashed their financial prowess this offseason. They boosted the offense by giving out big contracts to C Brian McCann, OF Jacoby Ellsbury and OF Carlos Beltran. Also, they handed out a massive 7-year, $155 million contract to 25-year old Masahiro Tanaka (with an opt-out after 4th year). All the signings add up to +$460 million worth of commitment, which is a lot of money. The [lan to keep the payroll under $189 million is good as dead and shows that the team would rather pay the luxury tax than to see attendance and TV rating falter from under-performance.

The offseason wasn’t without losses either. The obvious one is Robinson Cano signing a whopping 10-year contract with the Mariners. The Yankees, who were not willing to go past 7-8 years in retaining their star infielder, let go of Cano (whose last four seasons recorded 6.4, 5.3, 7.7 and 6.0 fWARs). 3B Alex Rodriguez was also suspended for the entire season, leaving a hole in hot corner as well. While the team signed cheap replacements (Kelly Johnson at 3B and Brian Roberts at 2B), it is highly improbable that they’ll be able to find replacements in same level of production. The team also lost Andy Pettitte (3.2 fWAR) and, of course, Mariano Rivera to retirement.

Injuries were a big part of the faltering Yankees last year and while there have not been a major injury alert yet, it is something to be wary of. First off, as we know, Brian Roberts hasn’t been able to stay off the disabled list. Fans and promoters better hope that Derek Jeter stays healthy this season. The 39-turning-40 shortstop is coming off an injury-marred season and because of the age, the Yankees will put him in a bubble wrap (aka they will put him as a DH once in awhile and put defensive replacements quite often). Francisco Cervelli has a history of unlucky injuries and based on his small-sample power surge in 2013, Yanks hope that it doesn’t bite him this season. And of course, there’s Mark Teixeira who only played in 15 games last year due to wrist injuries. Jacoby Ellsbury also has a history of injuries (though most of them seemed to be flukey) and because he relies on his speed a lot, he needs to keep his legs in check. Even though both were healthy last year, McCann and Beltran both have injury histories and especially for Beltran, he is also aging. The Yankees are not a young team and the old players of 2013 are even older this year. If the Yankees surmount to too many injury bugs again, it’ll be hard to survive in a tough AL East competition.

What are the Yankees strengths going into 2014? Their outfield bats upgraded from Wells - Gardner - Ichiro on the 2013 Opening Day to Gardner - Ellsbury - Beltran (with Soriano fitting in at corner spot). The speed combo of Gardner and Ellsbury will save a lot of runs and the hitting has gotten much better. Adding McCann also helps - he should enjoy the short porch in right field with the pull-happy swing approach. Jeter (if he replicates something similar to his 2012 production) and Teixeira should be upgrades to their 2013 replacements in terms of offense, so that’s another bright spot. A lineup with forces like Gardner/Ellsbury/Beltran/McCann/Soriano/Teixeira in the top 7 spot (with Jeter probably hitting second) will produce more runs than last year’s Yankees and can be quite potent. The rotation is full of question marks (as I’ve written here) but it has upsides.

Downside? As recently as 2012, Yankees boasted A-Rod - Jeter - Cano - Teixeira infield. Now, it figures to be Kelly Johnson - Jeter - Roberts - Teixeira. The loss of Cano will sting because of his star-level production. And even if A-Rod did not shine in his brief 2013 return, he put up a 113 wRC+ - the Yankees would love that kind of offensive performance fit somewhere in the lineup. Kelly Johnson hasn’t crossed more than 110 wRC+ since 2010. Also consider that Johnson had never played 3B as a primary position and Jeter accumulated -13 defense rating in last two seasons as a starter - the left side of the infield has a potential to be very detrimental to pitchers.

The bullpen also poses some problem. After Mariano’s retirement, the Yankees also lost Boone Logan to the Rockies. The only four relievers that are guaranteed a spot are David Robertson (the likely closer), Shawn Kelley, Matt Thornton and Preston Claiborne. While Robertson has been one of the best relievers in the league in last few years, Kelley isn’t exactly a name that reminds you of a shutdown set-up man (low strand rate of 71.4% hurt him last year. If it goes back to the career average of 77.5%, his 2013 would've looked much better) and Thornton has been on a downhill of his career (his K-rate since 2010 here on the green bar). They are expected to choose names like David Phelps, Dellin Betances, Cesar Cabral and Vidal Nuno to include to bullpen and besides Phelps, they don't have much ML experience. Many expected the Yankees to add one or more pieces to bolster the bullpen but the team didn’t. We will see how that works out but it does not inspire too much confidence for now.

Fangraphs project the Yankees to go 83-79, which is two wins lower than their 2013 record. It is based on their expectations on how much runs the Yankees will score (4.36 per game) and allow (4.25 per game), which aren’t too different from each other and calculates to + 17 run difference, which leads to higher than .500 team record but probably not a playoff-worthy team. The team is in win-now mode and the odds are that they could try to mend the lacking hole with a trade or two. But with some glaring weaknesses (infield, bullpen, etc.), the team will need key veterans to step up a notch to compete for division title. My prediction? I think they could do better than a 85-77 record but not by much. The team could make some impact in division title and wild card race, but actually getting a spot in the playoffs, that remains to be seen.

All the statistics have been referenced from unless stated otherwise.