Rejoice, ladies and gentlemen! There’s only 19 days until pitchers and catchers report to the Yankees complex in Tampa, Florida to begin Spring Training and get ready to kick off the 2013 season. We can all agree that last season ended poorly with a staggering sweep in the ALCS, but, as every spring, we look forward to new chances, new players and some Yankees baseball. While the Yankees have made the big free agent splashes or mega-trades that some would like to see, the team heads in to the new season with a solid core. That said, there will be some key departures from 2012, leaving some areas of question for the Yanks.
At first blush, readers may think I’m crazy for putting the bullpen as a potential area of concern for the Yankees. In 2012, in 440 IP, the bullpen was pretty awesome. With a 3.43 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP, the bullpen helped to fortify a rotation that, while successful, was plagued by injury for large swaths of the season. The ‘pen also had an 8.92 K/9 and 440 Ks, and just under a hit (404) per inning. With Joba Chamberlain returning for a full season, and David Aardsma waiting in the wings (he lost all of 2012 recovering from Tommy John surgery), and the rest of the key pieces, including the great Mariano Rivera returning, it would be fairly easy to say that the bullpen would be an area of strength. However, they have lost Rafael Soriano, who was a huge piece of the bullpen and had a spectacular season. Even with the return of Rivera, it would be too easy to assume that, at age 43 and coming off an ACL tear, will automatically return to form. It would surprise me if he did, but would it really be that surprising if he struggled, particularly with no built-in back-up like Soriano?
Robertson’s strengths seem to play more to the role of a set-up man, and Joba has shown that he can be erratic — not exactly ideal for a closer. Again, depth in and of itself is not an issue — the Yankees have depth in the area if everything goes smoothly, but the issue could be if Mariano struggles, combined with any other injury. There really is no good replacement in case Rivera’s health fails, and it could compromise the rest of the bullpen.
For all the consternation about the rotation heading into 2012, the rotation was a strength for the Yankees. At times it was stretched thin — evidenced by a brief, one-game cameo appearance by Adam Warren as a starting pitcher — but the starters pitched to a combined 71-50 record with a 4.05 ERA. Considering the rough start Phil Hughes had, the disastrous year by Ivan Nova, and the need to pitch Freddy Garcia a bit, all in all these are some really respectable numbers. In 1001.1 IP, the starters gave up less than a hit per inning (997), with a WHIP of 1.27 and a very solid 7.89 K/9 ratio. Again, however, injuries plagued the rotation, which is comprised of two guys over age 35 in Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda; an ace coming off elbow surgery with a ton of innings of his left arm in CC Sabathia, and the always-confounding Phil Hughes.
It will be incumbent on Hughes to continue the success he had from June through the end of the season. While I’ve been a longtime supporter of Hughes, he will need to gain consistency that has lacked him a bit, particularly given the other variable. Pettitte missed time due to a broken ankle in 2012, which should save his arm, but it always remains up in the air with a pitcher of his age. Similarly, CC’s arm has a lot of miles on it, and may already be showing signs of wearing down a bit. (Notice I said “a bit,” I did not say “he’s terrible.” Big difference.)
With a showdown coming between Ivan Nova and David Phelps for the fifth rotation spot (presumably whomever loses will either be the long-man or starter in AAA, though I think the latter might be safer to assume) and the loss of Freddy Garcia, if the Yankees were to lose a pitcher for any prolonged period of time (such as in July, 2012) it might burn them pretty badly. Outside of Warren, there is no depth in the system close enough to filling the void at the big-league level just yet. The division has gotten tougher with the healing of the Jays, and the Rays will always be competitive, and you can’t count out a team that has pockets like the Red Sox. The keys will be for the Big Man to keep that left elbow healthy, and for consistency among Hughes and Kuroda, something both occasionally lacked early in the season.
The DH Position
To this point, the Yankees still haven’t necessarily found someone who can “regularly” fill this role. The Yankees have long used this position to give players half-days while keeping the bats in the lineup (which is helpful to keep all the players fresh), but haven’t had that “full-time” DH, such as the Red Sox have in David Ortiz. However, Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones have each served admirably in this role in 2012.
While Jones had a poor year, he did hit .289/.378/.632 with 10 RBI and three homers when used purely as a DH. Given the injury to Brett Gardner, Jones was used in the field a lot more than anticipated, which probably really skewed his numbers for the worse. Meanwhile, Ibanez had a very respectable year on the whole. As a DH, Ibanez hit .283/.340/.565 with seven homers and 22 RBI. Again, given the amount of time he was used in the field, this probably hurt his numbers, too. Overall, the two primary DHs accounted for 15 homers and 32 RBI, which isn’t necessarily significant given the rest of the lineup. However, that won’t be the same lineup we’ll see in 2013, and therein lies the problem.
The Yankees lost big offensive production with the losses of Nick Swisher and Russell Martin, though the numbers Kevin Youkilis will put up are projected to mirror the 2012 Alex Rodriguez. With the loss of the other offensive cogs, it would seem to be an area of weakness as the Yankees head into Spring Training with a vacancy at that spot in the lineup on the days the rest of the lineup will be in the field. There doesn’t seem to be very many options either, as Scott Hairston, one of the last guys who could fill the void and spell the OFs, just signed with the Cubs on a two-year deal.
Overall, there isn’t reason to panic. There were much bigger questions heading into 2012, and that worked out just fine, post-season implosion aside. The Yankees are still a good team, and there is always a player or two who will step up. There are still holes, but no team is perfect, and the season itself doesn’t start in 19 days. The Yankees still have just over two months to solidify the roster, and there’s nothing saying that, with the roster, the pocket book, and the craftiness of Brian Cashman, they won’t have just as good a chance as anyone else to go for #28 in 2013.