The rebirth of the Yankees

As Cleveland dispatched the Yankees’ hopes of World Series glory into the cold October night the pundits were penning their obituaries of a remarkable New York dynasty.

Alex Rodriguez was a dead cert to opt out of his mammoth 10-year deal so he could harvest a new fortune elsewhere (which he did even before Boston got the last out in the World Series). Closer Mariano Rivera and catcher Jorge Posada were aging veterans who were not certain to be offered acceptable contracts. Pitchers Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte were headed back to Texas to mull over possible retirement with their families. There was even speculation on some blogs that Bobby Abreu‘s option wouldn’t be exercised

As THT’s Jacob Jackson speculated a few weeks ago many believed the 2008 Yankees would look very, very different to their 2007 brethren.

The clues have been there for a while. For some time Brian Cashman has been making noises about keep a lid on treasure chest and building from within; a process that was expected to take a few years. Red Sox and Blue Jays fans were salivating at the prospect of contending for a division with a Yankees team focused two or three years out.

Indeed Cashman has been methodically restocking the farm with pitching talent. Philip Hughes contributed strongly in 2007 and was a candidate to lead the rotation in 2008. Joba Chamberlain had shut down almost every batter he’d face since his call up to the bigs and was being mooted as a potential replacement for Rivera or as someone who could bolster the rotation. Add in Ian Kennedy, who some believe can be as good as Phil Hughes, and the future direction of the franchise is one based on young, powerful arms—which is very different to team that marched off the field in the October gloaming.

Then BAM.

Before you could say Hank Steinbrenner, Abreu’s option was exercised, Posada and Rivera agreed new deals and a mammoth 10-year $300 million-plus contract was dangled in front of the mercurial A-Rod. The 2008 Yankees suddenly had a tinge of 2007 about them. Then last week came the whopper: the Yankees were in trade talks with Johan Santana.

Suddenly the winter looks a little more bleak in Toronto and Boston. Let’s spend some time analysing the potential of this ball club in 2008.

Some assumptions

Okay, this column will delve into the realm of fantasy and speculation. Let’s for a minute assume that Santana does indeed make the hop to the Empire State. What will the Yankees have to give up? It is a tough call as it partly depends what the Twins can get elsewhere. At a minimum it is safe to assume that one of New York’s elite pitching prospects and, perhaps, a few young hitters could be enough to get the trade done. For the sake of argument we’ll assume that Phil Hughes and Melky Cabrera head over to Minnesota. Based on recent media reports this is eminently believable.

We’ll make two final assumptions: One, after inking A-Rod to a new contract the Yankees won’t add to their front-line roster. And two, Pettitte will re-up at $16 million.

Hitting

The first choice line-up won’t look too different to last year. Apart from Melky, who we have assumed will be part of any deal for Santana, the starting nine are as you were. My Markov model had the New York starters at 24 wins above average in 2007, assuming they played every minute of the season. In fact, last year Yankees’ starters played in 78% of plate appearances and contributed 19 wins above average.

Now that includes a couple of exceptional seasons from A-Rod and Posada—both of whom are likely to regress next year. But we can also expect some of the Yankees who underperformed, Jason Giambi or Johnny Damon perhaps, to out perform taking up some of the slack (a phenomenon known as regression to the mean).

Fortunately for us, I have had a sneak preview of the 2008 THT player forecasts—they will officially be released in the New Year as part of our preseason book. I’ve used these to work out the expected wins above average we can expect from the starting clan. Based on our projections, collectively these players are 20 wins above average with the bat. That is a 101 win team right there.

What about the bench?

Here the news is less positive. The best hitter is switch-man Wilson Betemit, who has plate discipline in spades and has shown sporadic power with both the Braves and the Dodgers. It is likely that Betemit will become a utility infielder and he should see a fair few PA. Other than that the bench remains thin withAndy Phillips and Eric Duncan the best remaining hitters!

The farm will struggle to lend a hand. The two best hitters, Austin Jackson and Jose Tabata, are at best a year away and more likely two. My research showed that in 2007 the average AL bench would have won 59 games had it played every PA of every game. The Yankees 2007 bench was above average and would have won 66 games, although that was on the back of better than expected production from Andy Phillips and Josh Phelps.

Projecting a bench is never easy because replacement players are easier to come by and front offices are happy to trade on the margins of the roster up to the start of the season. Assuming the Yankees can piece together a 59 win bench that is used in 22% of PA we get an offense that is 11 wins above average in total.

These numbers don’t take into account leverage—namely that the best players are more likely to be in the more crucial situations of late games but this effect is partly dampened by the presence of more bench players in extra-inning games.

Fielding

According to John Dewan’s plus/minus system the Yankees were the eighth worst team with the leather in 2007, a staggering 37 runs below average largely thanks to a weak middle infield (read Derek Jeter) and a languid outfield.

I haven’t got the individual data nor do I have projections so translating this to a likely 2008 projection isn’t trivial. Given the starting nine won’t change that much I feel reasonably confident in saying that the Yankees will lose two to three wins on the back of shoddy glove work next year.

Pitching

Although the batting line-up won’t have changed too much the pitching staff will have, particularly the starters. Given the Santana trade gets done a possible rotation on April 1 reads: Santana, Pettitte, Wang, Chamberlain, Kennedy. That is a formidable five, but as Jeff Sackmann has shown teams really need sixth, seventh and even eighth starters to help them navigate an entire baseball season, and it is here where the Yankees could fall short, having to rely on the likes of Kei Igawa, who was brutal on the mound in 2007.

Leaving the issue of injury aside for a minute, the front five could easily be worth 10 wins above average depending how you project the two rookies. If we assume that the staff will suffer a couple of injury knocks and we need to a few hundred IP from a journeyman or two (who would be below average starter), we are probably looking at 4-6 WAA.

The Yankees’ bullpen was one of the weaker in the AL last year and recorded a WPA of 1.7 (the average bullpen was 2.4 wins to the good), and that included some smart performances from Chamberlain and Rivera. Again, like the bench it isn’t straightforward to project how many wins the bullpen will contribute. Rivera is a year older and his performances less predictable and Chamberlain will move to the rotation so already the relief corps are looking weak.

Expect the Yankees to make a couple of canny trades to try to fill some holes but with limited success. We’ll peg the pen as below average and only contribute 1 WAA (accounting for leverage, which we must when analyzing bullpens).

All together now

This is what we have:

                    WAA
Hitters             11
Fielding            -2
Rotation            5
Relief              1
TOTAL               15

And that gives a 96 win talent team. To put that in context our analysis last year had the Yankees as a 95-win ballclub, which was the best in the bigs by some way (Boston was second on 91 projected wins).

Many in the baseball world have been a little surprised at the Yankees’ aggressiveness this off season and many were predicting that 2008 would mark a rebuilding of the Pinstripes. The addition of Santana will likely make or break this team. If he dons a NY uniform they’ll be favorites to unseat the Beaneaters as AL East, and possibly World Series, champs.

It looks as though the Yankees are still maintaining a “win now” mentality. Perhaps Hank Steinbrenner is desperate to deliver one final World Championship before his dad passes away. Either way it will make for another exciting AL East next year.

References & Resources
Thanks to Baseball-Reference for its invaluable stats database.

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