Stakeholders - New York Yankees
From now through the beginning of the regular season, we will not be posting in-depth round-tables previewing each division like we have in years past. Instead we will feature brief back-and-forths with "stakeholders" from all 30 teams. A collection of bloggers, analysts, mainstream writers and senior front office personnel will join us to discuss a specific team's hopes for 2010. Some will be in-depth, some light, some analytical, some less so but they should all be fun to read and we are thrilled about the lineup of guests we have teed up. Today it's Cliff Corcoran on the New York Yankees.
Patrick Sullivan: The Yankees just won the World Series and had a terrific off-season. I know championships are the goal but in some ways, it seems like we are in the midst of the true Golden Age of New York Yankees management. They seem to draft well, make good trades, understand defense and on-base and they selectively leverage their financial heft. Candidly, as a Red Sox fan it sucks. Can we kick things off with a brief State of the Franchise on the Yankees?
Cliff Corcoran: Coming off a world championship, the Yankees have brought in Javier Vazquez, who finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting last year, to replace the 6.92 ERA they got out of the fifth spot in the rotation last year. They have also replaced the 36-year-old Johnny Damon, who had become a butcher in the field, with the 29-year-old Curtis Granderson, who is no worse than average in the outfield. They traded a handful of prospects to get those two players, but still have the best pure hitting prospect in the game, Jesus Montero, ready to start the year at Triple-A, a few solid catching prospects on the way up should the defensively-challenged Montero not stick behind the plate, and a still-solid supply of pitching talent throughout the system topped by blue-chippers Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes who will battle this spring for the final major league rotation spot. The Yankees lack organizational depth behind their starting lineup, but with Granderson, Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher, and Brett Gardner, the majority of their every-day starters will be in their 20s on Opening Day (though Teixeira turns 30 in mid-April), and with CC Sabathia, Chamberlain, Hughes, David Robertson, Alfredo Aceves, and their organizational depth, they have their share of young pitching as well. Most importantly, as you say, the organization, led by Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner, is finally putting smarts behind its spending, exploiting not just their financial wherewithal on the free agent and trade markets, but the draft and amateur international markets, waiver wire, independent and international leagues, and doing so with a heady mixture of scouting and performance analysis. The Yankees as an organization still have their flaws, and Cashman has made his share of mistakes, but they are getting fewer and farther between as the impulsive, reckless, and fractured operating methods of the George Steinbrenner era fade into the past. The only things standing between the current Yankees and another dynasty are the similarly well-run Red Sox and Rays.
PS: Let's discuss Vazquez. His peripherals are almost always excellent. His stuff is awesome. He is coming off just a ridiculous 2009. And yet between his first stint with the Yanks and some comments his onetime manager Ozzie Guillen made about him, there seems to be some basis to question how well he will perform under pressure, and in particular in the AL East for the Yanks this year. I tend to put less stock in such things than most but in Vazquez's case, there seems to be a little something to it. What do you think?
CC: I don't put much stock in that sort of thing either. It's important to remember that Vazquez's only All-Star appearance came as a Yankee in 2004 after he went 10-5 with a 3.56 ERA in the first half of the 2004 season. He had shoulder problems in the latter half of that season, but didn't tell anyone until years later. Perhaps his decision to hide his injury was a response to the pressure he felt having just signed a four-year, $45 million extension that positioned him as the future Yankee ace, but that's conjecture. Returning to the Yankees this year, he's the fourth starter in Joe Girardi's rotation and is playing out the final year of a deal he signed with the White Sox two years ago for a team that just won the World Series without him. There's was probably more pressure on him in Atlanta last year, where he was a central part of the Braves' misguided attempt to contend ahead of schedule.
I'm less concerned about Vazquez's response to pressure than I am about the disconnect between his stuff/peripherals and his results. In his 2010 Gold Mine, Bill James posits that Vazquez's inconsistency is due to his heavy reliance on his changeup, a pitch which can result in a lot of missed bats but gets hit hard when the hitter knows its coming (Yankee fans, think Edwar Ramirez). It's an interesting theory, and might be cause for some concern given the fact that the Yankee staff seems to have changeup fever with A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes trying to develop the pitch this spring, but James' pitch frequency statistics are suspect. James' numbers disagree with Fangraphs', which isn't necessarily damning in and of itself, but another item in James' Yankee chapter says that Hughes didn't throw a single cutter in 2008, when I know for a fact he featured the pitch in his last start of that season. Vazquez does seem to be something less than the sum of his parts in a typical season, and I certainly don't expect him to repeat the career year he had in the weaker league last year, but as a mid-rotation starter, he's a major asset, and, as I said before, replacing what he's replacing, he's a huge upgrade.
As for Ozzie Guillen, he didn't like Nick Swisher either . . .
PS: One of the fascinating stories about the World Champion 2009 New York Yankees was the bounce-back production they got from older players. It would have been hard to predict the seasons that Hideki Matsui, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Johnny Damon managed. Damon and Matsui move on, Granderson and Johnson enter the fold, but is there any concern about drop-off this year? Even a guy like Nick Swisher had a career year. Are the additions of Granderson and Johnson (and Vazquez and Winn, for that matter) enough to compensate for the guys who figure to fall back? Or is this wishful thinking from a Red Sox fan, and Jeter, Posada, Swisher and others will pick up right where they left off in 2009? I guess this is all a very long-winded way of asking if the 2010 Yanks are better or worse than the 2009 edition.
CC: There will be some regression, no doubt, but I think it will be minimal. I expect the outfield to break even. Swisher hit .226 with a .394 slugging percentage in the new Yankee Stadium last year. That should correct itself and thus balance any regression in his .585 road slugging percentage. Brett Gardner and/or Randy Winn should be able to do what Gardner and Melky Cabrera did last year, if not more. Curtis Granderson, because of the big upgrade he represents on defense, should break even with Damon even before you factor in a potential rebound from his weak 2009 production, which is a distinct possibility given his his move to a ballpark that's not only friendlier to hitters overall, but much friendlier to left-handed power hitters. Mark Teixeira's 2009 was typical for him, and Robinson Cano just now rounding into the player he should be for the next five years or so.
The real concerns are Jeter, who will be 36 in June and is coming of one of his best seasons, Posada, who at 38 is coming off one of the best seasons ever by a catcher 37 or older, and DH, where the Yankees replaced a solid season from Hideki Matsui with the fragile Nick Johnson, whose power or lack thereof is also something of a concern. However, they should have an extra month of Alex Rodriguez to compensate for that, the bullpen should be at least as good, and if everyone stays healthy in the rotation (a big if with A.J. Burnett in there), they could make up for the rest of that regression if not more than that with the addition of Vazquez.
There's no doubt that the 2009 Yankees won it all because a lot of their coins came up heads, but I think they have far fewer question marks going into this season and thus stand a good chance to be almost as good if not even slightly better than they were in their championship year.
PS: Good or bad, is there anything about the 2010 edition of the Yanks that will surprise? Think Brett Gardner will start to be more appreciated? Things seem pretty set in terms of the makeup of that roster but since you follow the team more closely, I wanted to ask you if there is anything the rest of us should be on the lookout for.
CC: Well, there's a distinct possibility that Curtis Granderson could become a platoon left fielder who hits in the bottom half of the order, which might surprise a lot of people who generally regard him as an All-Star centerfielder and leadoff man. I'm pretty sure he'll hit in the fifth, sixth, or seventh spot for most of the season, or at least until Johnson goes down with an injury, and I think there's a very good chance he'll be shifted to left in deference to Gardner's superior defense. The platoon thing is less likely, but definitely possible if he continues to struggle against lefties in the early going, especially if he's in left field and Marcus Thames makes the team (which I think he will). As a full-time center fielder, Gardner could steal 50 to 60 bases and win a Gold Glove, though the latter is much less likely with Franklin Gutierrez in the league. Beyond that, I think David Robertson and Mark Melancon will emerge as a formidable, homegrown short relief duo by the end of the year, which might surprise those who don't pay much attention to non-closer relief prospects. Beyond that, I don't think there's much potential for surprise. The team's assets and liabilities are pretty well known outside of New York.
PS: Well this has been great, Cliff. Want to wrap with an AL East prediction?
CC: I think the Red Sox are baseball's most improved team heading into the 2010 season. Not only did they add the ace of the other team to reach last year's ALCS to an already strong rotation, but they've improved six positions with the additions of third baseman Adrian Beltre, center fielder Mike Cameron, and shortstop Marco Scutaro, a full-season of Victor Martinez behind the plate, the defensive upgrade of Jacoby Ellsbury in left field, and the ability to platoon Mike Lowell with David Ortiz at designated hitter. Add in a full season of Clay Buchholz, a possible rebound by Daisuke Matsuzaka, and a full season of Daniel Bard in the bullpen, and the Red Sox have the potential for a staggering amount of improvement over a team that won 93 games a year ago. Given the Yankees' potential for regression and injury, particularly with Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Nick Johnson, I think all of that improvement will allow the Red Sox to edge the Yankees in the division (followed by the Rays, Orioles, and Blue Jays in that order), but the race should be close enough that a bit of fortune, good or bad for either team, could tip the balance.
That's, generally speaking, the same prediction I made last year: Sox win division, meet Yanks in ALCS, so take that for what you will.
PS: Thanks, Cliff.