Five Questions: New York Yankees

The Yankees have won eight straight AL East Championships, but last year it took them until the penultimate day of the season to clinch, winning the division only with the aid of a tiebreaker, a tiebreaker that, in a vicious bit of irony, failed to award them home field advantage in the ALDS, but nearly seven months later allowed the Red Sox to claim Hee Seop Choi off waivers just ahead of the Yankees.

The Yankees and Red Sox have been in a virtual tie for the past three seasons, and over the past four have split 90 head-to-head matchups, including fourteen ALCS games. It would seem that the AL East coin is bound to come up tails one of these years, but as opening day approaches, the Yankees appear ready to make it nine in a row. The answers to these five questions explain why.

1. Will this be the best opening day lineup Joe Torre had in his eleven seasons as Yankee manager?

The following is Joe Torre’s projected opening day lineup with their HITTER* projections:

Pos  Name              OBP   SLG
CF   Johnny Damon     .345  .440
SS   Derek Jeter      .386  .461
1B   Jason Giambi     .413  .539
3B   Alex Rodriguez   .385  .577
RF   Gary Sheffield   .380  .520
LF   Hideki Matsui    .370  .484
 C   Jorge Posada     .375  .469
2B   Robinson Cano    .310  .450
DH   Bernie Williams  .330  .380

Last year’s opening day lineup included Tony Womack (.249/.276/.280) and an even less productive Bernie Williams (.249/.321/.367). The year before it was Enrique Wilson (.212/.254/.325) who dragged things down with Kenny Lofton in the Bernie spot (.275/.346/.395).

Going back further, 2002 was spoiled by Rondell White (.240/.288/.378) and Shane Spencer (.247/.324/.375), 2001 had the left field version of Chuck Knoblauch (.250/.339/.351) and just one OBP over Derek Jeter’s .377 (Bernie at .395). Prior to that, some combination of Scott Brosius (.230/.299/.374 in 2000), Chad Curtis (.243/.355/.360 in 1998), Mariano Duncan (.244/.270/.308 in 1997) and Joe Girardi (.272/.317/.361 overall from 1996 to 1999) prevent Torre’s Dynasty-era clubs from competing with this year’s starting nine.

The 2003 opening day lineup, however, presents a solid challenge to the current Yankees order:

Pos  Name              OBP   SLG
2B   Alfonso Soriano  .338  .525
SS   Derek Jeter      .393  .450
1B   Jason Giambi     .412  .527
CF   Bernie Williams  .367  .411
LF   Hideki Matsui    .353  .435
 C   Jorge Posada     .405  .518
3B   Robin Ventura    .344  .392
RF   Raul Mondesi     .330  .471
DH   Nick Johnson     .422  .472

Ignoring the fact that these men are hitting in the wrong order (Jeter, Nick Johnson, Jason Giambi, Jorge Posada, Alfonso Soriano, Hideki Matsui, Williams, Raul Mondesi, Robin Ventura would have worked much better), the worst hitter here is Ventura, who outproduced the ‘06 projection for Williams. Assuming, for the sake of simplicity, equal playing time for all nine players, the projected ‘06 lineup averages a .366 OBP and a .480 SLG, while the 2003 line-up averaged a .374 OBP, but just a .467 SLG. Converting those to GPA, we get .2847 for ‘06 and .28505 for 2003. Edge 2003, but considering the fact that we only have projections for ‘06, that’s too close to call.

Looking beyond opening day, we know that neither Ventura nor Mondesi made it past the trading deadline with the 2003 Yankees, resulting in downgrades at both positions—Aaron Boone (.254/.302/.418) at third and a platoon of righty Juan Rivera (.266/.304/.468) and lefty Karim Garcia (.305/.342/.457) in right field. Meanwhile, the weakest position in the 2006 lineup could be upgraded immediately should Torre see fit to make Andy Phillips (whom HITTER projects at .260/.340/.480 if given a full-time job) his designated hitter (not that we’re holding our breath). Edge 2006, but …

*How I Think ThEy’ll Rake

2. Is this the worst bench Joe Torre has ever had?

If Phillips starts and Bernie rides pine, the answer is absolutely, but with Phillips’ bat and defensive versatility (he’s a strong defender at the infield corners, can spot in the outfield corners and was once a starting second baseman in the minors) in the dugout, it’s a bit less clear.

The Yankees will break camp with a five-man bench, but when the need for a fifth starter arrives on April 15, they’ll trim it back to these four:

R – Andy Phillips (1B/3B)
R – Miguel Cairo (INF)
L – Bubba Crosby (OF)
R – Kelly Stinnett (C)

When the Yankees lost the 2004 ALDS after leading three games to none, a lot of the criticism the team received focused on their week bench and Joe Torre’s reluctance to use the few useful players he had. That bench was Lofton (outfield), Crosby (outfield), Wilson (infield), John Flaherty (catcher) and, until John Olerud stepped on his own bat, Tony Clark (first base). Cairo at his worst is no worse than Wilson was for the Yankees (faint praise indeed), Stinnett and the ‘04 version of Flaherty are a wash, and Crosby has shown no significant change in his game in the last two years, despite a September 2005 hot streak that was almost entirely singles and fooled many a Yankee fan. Phillips, by virtue of being able to play third base, is an improvement on Clark, but the shorthanded ’06 bench has no answer for Lofton, who was unfairly buried by Torre in ‘04.

Last year the Yankees bench was Tino Martinez (first base), Womack (outfield), Crosby (outfield), Mark Bellhorn (infield), and Flaherty (catcher). Despite the extra player, this group actually fails to measure up to this year’s four-man bench, in large part because Womack and Flaherty combined to be 38 runs below average, while Phillips alone provides more punch than Tino’s last gasp and the re-pumpkined Bellhorn combined, and Crosby’s speed is sufficient to compensate for the only aspect of Womack’s game that had any value. Still, this is a cripple fight if there ever was one. The days of Darryl Strawberry, Tim Raines, and Cecil Fielder are long gone.

The one encouraging note is that the Yankees could improve their bench simply by using what they have in Triple-A. Some combination of outfielders Kevin Reese and Kevin Thompson and infielders Russ Johnson and Felix Escalona could improve upon the punchless Cairo/Crosby combo (as well as replace the seventh man in the bullpen), though the improvement would be marginal at best. With Gary Sheffield, Posada, Giambi and Iron Man Matsui another year older, the Yankees are one 60-day DL stay from a major blow to their offense.

This would lead one to believe that the Yankees will go after a bench bat at the trading deadline, preferably a lefty who could spell Phillips against righties in the unlikely scenario that he becomes the everyday designated hitter. That is until one looks at the reliability of their pitching rotation …

3. Spring training isn’t even over yet and the Yankees have two starters ticketed for the 15-day DL and two more hoping to overcome injury scares by opening day. Is there any chance that their rotation won’t completely collapse by the All-Star break?

Coming into spring training, the Yankees believed they had seven starters: Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina, Carl Pavano, Shawn Chacon, Chien-Ming Wang, Jaret Wright and Aaron Small. Pavano has yet to see game action, as he continues his indefinite rehab from the ailing mangina that took him out of the rotation last June. Small, who was immediately identified as an odd-man out and ticketed for long relief, will start the season on the 15-day disabled list due to a hamstring pull. Wright, who seemed to discover a miracle cure for his curve ball in his last spring start thanks to some advice from Mike Mussina, hasn’t pitched since that revelation due to back spasms brought about during fielding practice. Wang, meanwhile, left his last start after taking a hard Curtis Granderson grounder off his push knee (one of the many risks involved in being an extreme groundball pitcher).

That leaves the Yankees with three starters, one of whom is 42 and has a bad back and a bum knee, another who is 37 and has missed significant time each of the last two seasons due to elbow pain, and a third who pitched like crap in Colorado before experiencing an inexplicable run of luck on balls in play down the stretch (a .240 BABIP as a Yankee against a league average around .300).

It sounds dire, but in reality it’s not quite that bad. To begin with, Wang appears to be fine, leaving just his tender shoulder as a background concern which has not reared its head since his strong return to action last September. Johnson, despite his age and injuries, remains one of the most reliable pitchers in baseball, ranking fourth in the majors in innings pitched over the past two seasons and tied for third in games started. Chacon, adjusting to life at sea level, has used his devastating curve and impressive change-up to post an 8.59 K/9 this spring, reducing his reliance on balls in play (all sample size and spring competition caveats apply, of course).

Also, as stated above, the Yankees don’t need a fifth starter until April 15, and won’t need one again until April 29. They could well have both Small, who has already resumed throwing, and Wright, who may not even require a DL stay, ready for action by then. Meanwhile, Johnson, Mussina, Wang and Chacon, in that order, are set up to start the season as a four-man rotation.

The key to the Yankee rotation, however, is the promising trio of 25-year-old starters lurking in Columbus, any one of whom could emerge as a permanent part of the major league rotation the way then-25-year-old Wang did last year. The ace of this bunch—which also includes Darrell Rasner, a waiver wire gift from Jim Bowden, and lefty Sean Henn, who pitched well in 16 starts for Columbus last year—is Matt DeSalvo.

Originally signed as an undrafted free agent, DeSalvo is an undersized, soft-throwing righty who does nothing other than get men out. In his minor league career he’s posted a 2.62 ERA, struck out 9.15 men per nine innings, and allowed just 6.64 hits per nine. With DeSalvo, Rasner and Henn on hand, the Yankees rotation becomes 10 deep and, much like last year, could actually finish the year stronger than it is now without the team having to acquire another pitcher.

4. Brian Cashman used his own free agency to wrestle control of the Yankees front office this offseason. What was the best move that resulted?

Cashman made his greatest strides by cutting loose the extremely old and extremely useless. Getting not one, but two useful minor leaguers for Womack was a minor miracle. Cutting lose plagues such as Flaherty and Ruben Sierra (Kevin Brown went away on his own) also went a long way toward plugging the persistent production leak on the Yankees bench. But the best moves Cashman made were signing Kyle Farnsworth and Octavio Dotel to set up Mariano Rivera. Once Dotel returns from Tommy John rehab in June, they could combine with Rivera to give the Yankees the best bullpen Big Three they’ve had during Torre’s reign, and the best endgame they’ve had since Rivera and John Wetteland in 1996.

5. Assuming the Yankees make their 12th straight postseason, do they have what it takes to make it back to the World Series?

Having just one more stopper in the pen could have made the difference in the 2003 World Series and 2004 ALCS, and that’s exactly what the Yankees will have with Farnsworth and Dotel. Last year, however, the Yankees lost the ALDS not because of their dreadful bullpen, but because Randy Johnson punted his Game 3 start. Given the strength of their lineup and the back of their bullpen, if Johnson decides to show up for the postseason this year, the Yankees could very well pick up their 40th AL flag.

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