Five questions: New York Yankees

If the Dodgers are an outing, and the Red Sox are a culture, then the Yankees are a religion, a brand. Last year, I went to the day-night doubleheader subway series games between the Mets and the Yankees. I hadn’t been to Yankee Stadium since I was a kid, and I was struck by how carefully the Yankees management cultivates and guards its brand. If it isn’t already, it should be studied in business schools.

More than any other team, the Yankees enforce a mythos of Yankee Stadium as hallowed ground rather than entertainment venue. You are not allowed to put your feet up on the empty seat in front of you in Yankee Stadium. Going to the bathroom during the seventh inning stretch when “God Bless America” is about to play is highly suspicious. Red Sox fans are the Soviets. Mets fans are younger brothers—occasionally annoying but usually irrelevant. And all other visiting fans are warily eyed foreigners from nameless countries. And then there are the Yankees broadcasters.

As suffocating and enraging as this all can be for others, for the Yankees and Yankees fans it is the foundation of a symbiotic relationship. The fans give their (often deeply cynical) love, pay the high ticket prices, buy tons of merchandise, and tout the team, and in exchange the Yankees invest more in their players and take winning more seriously than any other team. Some teams maximize profits by fielding a team of scrubs. Most other teams maximize profits by promising a more or less competitive team each year. The Yankees strive for championships in a maniacal way, at times beheading their coaches with Henry VIII-like frequency.

The Yankees missed the playoffs last year for the first time since the 1994 strike season. Entering the new year and a new stadium (built to be the same as the old stadium but with more luxury boxes), there are question marks nearly everywhere. But the real question is “so what?”

How do you like ‘dem apples?

With the Yankees having watched all of the playoffs on TV, this was not an offseason for complacency. The pocketbook opened and out came $423.5 million to lock up C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira to long-term deals. One can only wonder what would have happened if we hadn’t been in a recession.

Sure, a lot of money came off the payroll this offseason as well, with Bobby Abreu, Jason Giambi, Mike Mussina and Carl Pavano gone and Andy Pettitte re-signing as a free agent for less money, but no other team would have or probably could have spent as aggressively as the Yankees did.

If we ignore age for a second (see below for that), a possible midseason lineup looks like: Derek Jeter, Johnny Damon, Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui, Jorge Posada, Xavier Nady, Robinson Cano and Brett Gardner.

That’s a pretty nice lineup. Probably the most conspicuous change is the switch at the top. Supposedly, Jeter is batting lead-off to keep him from grounding into so many double plays. Sure enough, Jeter had a groundball rate of 58.3 percent while Damon had only a 43.7 percent. Combine that with Jeter’s declining speed and you get that he grounded into 45 double plays last season. Of course, putting Jeter at the top means that your leadoff man probably won’t steal the 29 bases that Damon did last year.

Having Teixeira (.308/.410/.552) at first base instead of Giambi (.247/.373/.502) or Giambi’s late-inning defensive replacement is a major upgrade offensively and defensively. He’ll also help keep the lineup’s average age from crossing the 35-year-old threshold this season.

Beyond the addition of Teixeira, the biggest potential increase in offense could come from Cano. Fans and many fantasy players are hoping that last year’s disappointing numbers were a statistical fluke from an otherwise talented and much hullabalooed (next coming of Rod Carew?) hitter. Sure, the BABIP was down 40 points, while the line drive rate remained steady, but we’ll see.

Yankees rotation: good, better or best?

With a rotation of Sabathia, Burnett, Chien-Ming Wang, Pettitte and Joba Chamberlain, the Yankees have certainly upgraded from last year, even after losing a 20-game winner in Mussina. Perpetual prospects Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy will start the season in Triple-A.

Of course, as with any rotation, question marks abound. After throwing 250 innings the past two years, will Sabathia’s arm fall off? Can Burnett stay healthy? Is Joba ready for a full season of starting pitching? These are unresolved issues that most other teams would like to have, but they will keep Yankees fans and coaches on tenterhooks for much of the season. Much also has been made of the lack of postseason success for all but Pettitte. While I don’t put much stock in small samples, I’m sure there will be a few fans calling in to the radio stations, complaining about their gift horse’s teeth.

So, there’s no doubt that the rotation is good and definitely much better than last year’s. But the question is, will it be better than the Red Sox and Rays rotations and be the best in the majors? On paper, as of now, probably yes. But there’s a lot to like about each of those rotations. And that’s what makes things interesting: After adding two marquee names to the rotation and getting back their former ace from injury, the Yankees’ rotation is not head and shoulders better than their closest rivals’, even though those teams’ top four starting pitchers remain unchanged from last year.

How many outfielders does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

For all the major free agents added this offseason, the outfield is still a mess. The spring saw battles in center between Gardner and Melky Cabrera, and likely platoons in right between Nady and Nick Swisher and eventual platoons between Matsui and Damon.

The team is still hungering for a center fielder, though it seems Gardner will get the chance to make his case for the lion’s share of the at-bats. Swisher failed to make his case during spring training and now Joe Girardi seems ready to give Swisher the Stephon Marbury treatment. So, Nady seems to have locked down right field and rightly so. He is a substantially better hitter and outfielder than Swisher. Damon will man left field, while Matsui may spell him occasionally once he is cleared to play in the outfield (likely after June).

Still, it is surprising that such a highly touted lineup has no superheros in the outfield. Gardner is really the only player with likely upside. Nady and Damon are, at best, known quantities.

Just how old are you?

The Yankees are old. By September, Jeter, Damon and Matsui will be 35, Rodriguez 34 and Posada 38. Their youngest everyday player, Gardner, will be 27. Mariano Rivera turns 40 later this year. With Pettitte, the average age of their rotation will be over 30. Both young and old face durability questions. Now that Teixeira will be playing first base regularly, Posada will either catch or DH. But Posada’s a marginal catcher defensively now and not likely to be better at DHing than Matsui. In either case, on Posada’s off days behind the plate, Jose Molina‘s .216 batting average will spell either Posada or Matsui in the lineup. And even he will be 34 in June.

When Rodriguez comes back from the DL and hip surgery (how appropriate a symbol for aging is hip surgery?) he’ll be back at third base, where he will do his best to cover for Jeter’s appalling range at short. Damon moved from center to left, after the rigors of center proved too much for him. Gardner should be fun to watch in center, for a change.

What if the unmentionable happens?

Rivera’s continued dominance in the ninth inning remains likely, as long as he is pitching. The rest of the bullpen is the worry. Brian Bruney was intriguing last year before bowing out with an injury. But now, he seems to have lost some miles off his fastball. Damaso Marte is slotted for lefty-specialty. Phil Coke may be slightly interesting. But, the fact remains, Rivera is irreplaceable for the Yankees. If he goes down, those starters better work real deep into games.

As long as Rodriguez comes back healthy and in good form by mid-May, most of the Yankees’ question marks can be shrugged-off. With an otherwise full complement of players, this team should be able to withstand, say, a month or two without Posada, extra days off for Damon and Matsui, or even an extended absence from Burnett. The one question that will keep Brian Cashman and Girardi up at night is Rivera. Besides him, the bullpen is the weakest link, and the one place where the Yankees compare poorly with the Rays and the Red Sox.

The Yankees have always thought of themselves as exceptional—the team that need only learn from its own mistakes, not those of others (did they learn anything from Tom Hicks’ contract with Rodriguez?). Last year’s mistake was putting too much faith in a weak starting rotation. However, they need only look across town to the Mets to find the ghosts that may haunt them this season. If Rivera goes the way of Billy Wagner, the Yankees, like the Mets last year, may wish that all their games ended after six innings.

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