The Yankees and their four greatest teams that almost were
Drawing to a Pair of Aces
That 2009 Yankees team sure was a fun one. After missing the playoffs in 2008, the Yankees used the money from expiring contracts to infuse the Core Four—Jeter, Posada, Pettitte, and Rivera—with talented free agents. In walked starting pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, along with 1B Mark Teixeira and RF Nick Swisher.
Previous years had seen them sign FA’s Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon and now both would enjoy their last good year in the majors. When the team was done being constructed, it had a potent mix of veterans, mid-career guys, and young players, including 2B Robinson Cano, LF Melky Cabrera, and C Francisco Cervelli. All three were 26 or younger.
And the team did not waste the talent. After a sluggish April filled with some tough losses, the team took off and won a league-best 103 games. They completed their march to win title 27 by going 11-3 in the postseason. Teixeira and Jeter finished second and third in the MVP voting (behind Joe Mauer), while CC finished fourth for the CY Young (winner, Zack Greinke).
That team, however, could have been a lot better. And that’s because of the team’s best pitcher and player, Chien-Ming Wang, fell to a non-pitching injury.
Why I Hate Interleague Play
Wang has been largely forgotten by Yankees fans but he was arguably the best pitcher in baseball from 2006 to 2008. He won 19 games each in those first two years and, even though he collected only 8 victories in 2008, he still had the most wins over that three-year stretch of any pitcher in the AL. He even came in second in the CY Young voting in 2006 (Johan Santana).
2008, however, saw Wang suffer a needless injury: He hurt his foot running the bases during an inter league game. The Yankees assumed he would recover and Chien-Ming was the 2009 opening day starter, over CC. That start was horrible, as were all future starts, and Wang was finished as an effective starter.
Of course, the Yankees did not know that in the off-season so, when they built their club, it was with the vision that Wang would lead the staff. Think about that. Wang would have been the number one starter, and it is safe to project 18 wins and an ERA of 3.70. That pushes CC, with his 19 wins and 3.37 ERA to second in the rotation, and A.J. (4.07) to third.
Who the Hell is Sergio Mitre?
And there are 18 games in particular that show the possible difference. Nine were started by Sergio Mitre and his 6.79 ERA, while the now-compromised Wang started the other nine. Only the 2009 Chien-Ming pitched to a 9.64.
If the Yankees had had the same Wang they had from ‘06-’08 and only lost to a fluke injury, those 18 games might have come out a lot different. Even if they won half of those games, their record would have been 112-50. Now that’s an all-time team.
I also think it’s fair to speculate they would have lost fewer games in the postseason, with the best one-two pitching combination in the playoffs. Had that team won 112 games and lost only once in the postseason, they might go to the Mount Rushmore of teams; maybe.
And I think that would have been true in 1979, as well.