Five questions: New York Yankeesby Shane Tourtellotte
March 07, 2013
The Yankees are a team facing both directions at once. They had the best record in the American League last season at 95-67, won a playoff series (they'll pretend the Detroit nightmare never happened), and carry the perpetual expectation of playing in October, and even November. But the team is seriously aging, and ownership philosophy has moved away from throwing money at any problem that appears in order to keep winning.
There is a turn coming in Yankees history. The overarching question is whether that turn is coming this year, but that would leave me four questions short. I'll start with some underlying questions instead.
Could I be the Yankees' starting catcher?
Probably not, but only because I hate squatting. However, with Yankees' starting backstop Russell Martin snapped up in free agency by the Pirates (ponder that statement: I'll be getting back to it), they have question marks behind the plate, and their options there are iffy enough that Jorge Posada had to deny any interest in a comeback. Yes, really.
The current favorite is Chris Stewart, last year's backup, in his age-31 season. Stewart has a career 59 wRC+, so bad that the only way he isn't batting ninth is if you're doing a Tony LaRussa second-leadoff move with speedy Brett Gardner. His value is defensive, though the numbers come primarily from his 2011 stint with the Giants. He threw out 39 percent of base stealers then (league average was 28), but only 23 percent with the Bombers last season (average of 25).
His hidden value may come from pitch framing, which Jeff Sullivan in this article says is very good in a fairly limited sample. Stewart may actually put up good numbers, only counted in the pitchers' stats.
Next on the depth chart is Francisco Cervelli, age-27 season. His 1.0 fWAR as half-time catcher for New York in 2010 wasn't enough to forestall the Russell Martin pickup, and he was down to a mere 2 PA last season. He's a sub-par defender but can actually hit, at least against left-handers (lifetime 125 wRC+ vs. LHP; 72 vs. RHP). The value of this platoon is diminished because Stewart has splits nearly as wide the same way (but see question 2). Cervelli is no lock for the roster, and being named in the Biogenesis papers only makes his position wobblier.
The dark horse is prospect Austin Romine (age-24). He lost much of 2012 to back trouble—ominous for any athlete, doubly so for a catcher—or he might have been the favorite this spring training. He's still a possibility, with hitting that projects about equal to Cervelli's for 2013 and defensive abilities more in line with Stewart's. The official Yankees plan is to start him in Triple-A this year, but Romine understandably hopes that the future is now, or at least April. Bobby Wilson (age-30), the Angels' backup last year, got a minor-league deal and is a distant fourth contender.
Stewart and Cervelli are out of options, so they could be lost on waivers if left off the roster. That points to them being the platoon to start the year, with chances to play themselves off the team and make way for Romine.
The Yankees may not have great options at catcher, but they have pieces... and two of them may fit a very different puzzle.
Are southpaws the team's kryptonite?
Five of the Yankee's projected starters for 2013 are left-handed batters (with Mark Teixeira a switch-hitter). When there was a seemingly crying needed for righty balance in an all-lefty outfield, they signed lefty Ichiro Suzuki for two years, then picked up negligible righty Matt Diaz on a minor-league deal. When pundits called for them to at least find a righty DH, they signed lefty Travis Hafner. Will the list to port be an exploitable weakness?
If nothing else, other teams have tried to exploit it. Last year, when New York generally had four lefty batters, they faced southpaw pitchers in over 35 percent of team plate appearances, against a little less than 30 percent for the league. That trend should continue: seven of the AL East's 20 projected rotation pitchers are lefties, so those frequent opponents are set up to parry the Yankees' quest for the short porch in right.
The Yankees do have a counter, one that was accidental in 2012 but might just be intentional this year. Right-handed Yankee regulars had some huge platoon splits last season. Alex Rodriguez hit 207 points of OPS better against lefties than righties; Russell Martin was at 237; Derek Jeter was at 218. For comparison, the average split for righty batters last year was 50 OPS points better versus lefties than righties.
Rodriguez's and Martin's splits were out of line with career numbers (A-Rod's especially so), but Jeter's split margins the last four years have been 193, 239, 280, and 218. With Russell gone and A-Rod out for much or all of 2013, though, the brass may be trying to recreate those numbers. They signed Kevin Youkilis at third base, whose split margins the last three seasons have been 448(!), 223, and 185. They're also leaning toward the Stewart/Cervelli catching platoon, and their career platoon split margins are 140 and 168 respectively. (Long-shot Bobby Wilson's is 269, in a 447 PA career.)
This could be the method to the Yankees' madness: balance the adverse lefty-lefty matchups with righties who (relatively) destroy lefties, preferably for multiple years so the regression risk is minimized. Could it work? It sure didn't keep them from 95 wins and the division crown last year.
Team co-owner Hal Steinbrenner says the Yankees are still looking for right-handed bats. If they do pick one up, take a close look at his splits. They may tell a story.
Can the Yankees heal, and stay healthy?
Maybe, and no. No team doesn't have to worry about avoiding or recovering from injuries, but the Yankees have more concerns than most. Alex Rodriguez is out for at least half the season rehabbing from hip surgery; left fielder Brett Gardner and closer Mariano Rivera missed most of 2012 with injuries; young stud pitcher Michael Pineda—gained at the cost of high-end catching prospect Jesus Montero (see question 1 above)—had labrum surgery, missed 2012, and will be back in June 2013 at the earliest.
And there was Derek Jeter breaking his ankle in Game One of the ALCS, the most painful moment of the 2012 playoffs not involving an infield fly.
Jeter's on target to play Opening Day, but maybe at reduced capacity, and that reduction to his speed and defensive range might be permanent. Pineda's a big question mark, as with anything close to a pitcher's rotator cuff. Mariano's been so consistent for so long that, even with the combination of freak injury and Father Time, I'd feel like a sucker betting against him: Mo will let us know when Mo's finished. Gardner's a good bet for full recovery, enough so that there was talk of switching his great defense to center field... even before incumbent Curtis Granderson broke his arm, ironically locking him in at CF when he returns. (Not enough reps in left to switch, The Powers That Be say.)”
This is the "no" part of the answer at work, the injury bug biting early and often. Grandy's out a month-plus of the regular season; Phil Hughes has a bulging disk in his back that may keep him inactive for Opening Day; Kevin Youkilis (five DH stints the last three years) has already been kid-gloved out of exhibition games for cramping in his left side; and now Mark Teixeira has a wrist strain that will sideline him into May.
The Yankees are already getting unlucky with injuries in 2013. The odds, and recovery prospects, are skewed more against them by a common factor affecting most of the team.
The New York Yankees are so old ... (How old are they?)
Rather than stretch out the Johnny Carson/Match Game reference until it snaps, let me show you exactly how old the expected Yankees front-line players will be in 2013.
Position C 1B 2B 3B SS LF CF RF DH SP CL Age 31/27 33 30 34 39 32 29 39 36 32,38,41,27,26 43
(Projected rotation is CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes, and Ivan Nova.)
The only players in that chart not on the wrong side of the aging curve are two back-end starters* and the (presumed) backup catcher. 12 of the 16 will be at least 30 years old, and Gardner will join them in August. The two leading candidates to fill in for Granderson are Juan Rivera, 34, and Matt Diaz, 35. If and when A-Rod comes back, you can replace the "34" at third with a "37", though he may actually be 38 by then.
* If Hughes cannot start the season, his probable replacement is David Phelps, age 26. No big change in age composition.
Being old doesn't necessarily make you bad. It puts you at bigger risk of a year-to-year decline, especially deep into the 30s, and raises prospects of an outright collapse. It makes you more vulnerable to injury, makes rehab likelier to be longer, and makes full recovery less certain. It means you have to be luckier for everything to hold together and to perform at peak levels. The Yankees have not been lucky yet this spring training.
As currently constituted, the 2013 Yankees remind me disturbingly of the 2012 Phillies. They've been successful for several years, but are old, with a couple key players starting the year on the DL. In an increasingly competitive division (you can make a case for anyone in the AL East this year, possibly excepting Baltimore), it looks like they still have the horses to finish on top again, maybe.
In 2012, the Phillies stumbled badly out of the gate, then had super-ace Roy Halladay get injured and have his worst season since 2000. They had to scramble hard to finish at .500. With a couple bad breaks, there's potential for the Yankees to follow the same path. If you want an exact parallel, I will note that CC Sabathia, a Halladay-like workhorse, did have two short DL stints in 2012, plus off-season elbow surgery. Uh oh.
This wouldn't be so worrying if there were a fallback plan ... but is there one?
(First, for those of you needing the Match Game fix I seemed to promise, here you go. "The New York Yankees are so old, they have a _____ dispenser in their dugout." Have fun in the comments.)
Who can fill the holes?
Granderson's likeliest fill-ins at left field, Rivera and Diaz, are scrap-heap pickups on minor-league contracts. Two other candidates, Zoilo Almonte and Melky Mesa, are farmhands getting old for their level. (Almonte, 24, topped out at Double-A last year; Mesa, 26, got 2 PA with the Yankees last September.) One intriguing possibility is age-28 Cuban defector Ronnier Mustelier, who's gone from Rookie to Triple-A in a season and a half. None projects confidently to above-replacement performance.
(The good news: they're all righties, except Almonte who switches. And Matt Diaz does have a career 188-point platoon split. Hmmm ...)
Teixeira’s potential replacements all hail from the remaining gauzy-thin bench. Eduardo Nunez, Jayson Nix, and Dan Johnson are basically replacement players (Nunez and Nix career, Johnson from 2008 on). As for added help from the farm, of the top 10 prospects in the Yankees system as judged by Baseball America, only three have played as high as Double-A.
Worse, one of them, "Killer B" pitching prospect Manny Banuelos, is missing all of 2013 with Tommy John surgery. His B-mate, Dellin Betances, walked himself into a demotion from Triple-A to Double-A, and put up a lackluster 4.15 FIP in his 56.2 IP at that lower level. The backup plan for the rotation right now is David Phelps, and he may already be subbing for Phil Hughes to open 2013. Joba Chamberlain says he could start again, but manager Joe Girardi and GM Brian Cashman mocked that idea into oblivion.
The Yankees have a strong front line that, if intact, could win the division again. They're already out of the running for good luck, so their fate depends on whether they get so-so luck or lousy luck. So-so luck would put them in a playoff dogfight lasting until the final week of the season. My money is on lousy luck.
And speaking of money ...
Bonus question: is it possible to simultaneously pinch 18,900,000,000 pennies?
The Steinbrenner brothers are serious about getting their team under the $189 million luxury tax line for 2014. It's colored their off-season, with a number of one-year deals (Kuroda, Youkilis, the obvious Pettitte and Rivera), a pass on trying to retain Russell Martin, Rafael Soriano, or Nick Swisher, and nothing approaching a blockbuster free-agent signing. It may also limit any trading-deadline moves they could make, meaning they might stand still in a playoff race while rivals are jockeying ahead.
The full effect, of course, will be in 2014. They're already conducting triage in choosing between free agents Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano to re-sign—and there's some suggestion that, if they can't extend Cano soon, they'll pass on both! These are not your father's Yankees, literally for Hal and Hank.
If you want a scarier comparison for this team than the 2012 Phillies, how about the 1965 Yankees, going from Webb and Topping to CBS? New ownership, its eyes drawn more to the ledgers and less to the standings to judge success? That club went from Game Seven of the World Series to 10th and last in the American League in two seasons. One can squint and see history repeating, or at least paraphrasing, itself.
Fans of the pinstripes may have cause to rue those huge contracts still paying out. And on that subject ...
Double bonus question: will the Yankees be able to void A-Rod's contract over Biogenesis?
They tried wriggling free of an albatross contract with a PED user once before, in Jason Giambi, and it didn't work. Reports say Yankees lawyers have combed the contract for language they can use, but the truth is, the only effective escape hatch would be an explicit PED clause. If they had that, they wouldn't need to look for it. Therefore, they're stuck with Rodriguez, his distractions, and all the luxury tax implications.
References and Resources
Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, MLB Depth Charts, MLB Trade Rumors, Pinstriped Bible
Shane Tourtellotte is a long-time, occasionally-nominated science fiction writer, currently living in Asheville, North Carolina. He will tell you all about the baseball novel he’s shopping if you give him an inch.