5 Big Questions Facing the New York Yankees

| by Hardball Times

In many ways, the Yankees are baseball’s most unusual franchise. They are both defined by success—27 World Series titles, forty American League pennants, etc.—but also, by at least one school of thought, haunted by it. Many voices claim that the team (and its fans) consider, or should consider, any season that does not end with a World Series title a disappointment.

That is an absurd point of view, of course, but it doesn’t stop people, especially those on talk radio, from promulgating it. In the spirit of trying to raise the discourse, my Five Questions article for this year will feature the popular talk radio format, but with more reasonable questions and (hopefully) better thought out answers. So now that we’re back from our station break, let’s go to the first caller:

My Dad asks, “I always say pitching wins championships. What does that say about this team?”

With the success of the Giants in the playoffs last year, and the “Year of the Pitcher” in general, the notion that great pitching is the key to victory is rising to even greater heights. While that notion might be overrated, it is true that a strong starting staff can cover a multitude of sins elsewhere on the team.

For the Yankees, that raises some interesting questions. At the top of the rotation, CC Sabathia figures to continue to be an ace; his first two seasons in New York averaged a 20-8 record with a 3.27 ERA in 234 innings. Despite offseason knee surgery, Sabathia projects to maintain a similar level of performance. Any significant drop-off or injury would be a major blow to the team.

After Sabathia, question marks begin. Phil Hughes, who was fighting for a starting job in spring training last year, is penciled in as the No. 2 starter. In his first full season starting in the majors, Hughes won 18 games.

But he faded badly in the second half, posting an ERA near five after the All-Star break and seeing his strikeouts per nine innings drop by almost a fifth. The Yankees will be hoping that, with a full year under his belt, he can continue to miss bats into August and September.

CC Sabathia gets ready for the 2011 campaign. (Icon/SMI)

In 2009, A.J. Burnett made the Yankees look smart for signing him to a five-year contract by posting one of the best seasons of his career.

In 2010, the “other” Burnett came out as, after posting a 1.99 ERA through his first six starts, Burnett was a disaster, going 6-15 with a hideous 6.16 ERA.

With Andy Pettitte’s consistent performance now gone to retirement, the team needs 2009 Burnett to come back from wherever he was hiding last year.

As of this writing, the assortment of pitchers competing for the fourth and fifth spots in the Yankee rotation has not quite been resolved.

Ivan Nova seems to be the leading contender for the fourth spot on the strength of his performance in ’10, although his minor league career—including a fondness for the walk—raises red flags.

Meanwhile, a collection that includes Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, and Sergio Mitre is in competition for the fifth spot—and the fourth, should Nova falter.

The smart money is on whichever of the pitchers breaks camp not finishing the year in the rotation, so it seems likely the role of the minors will be a crucial one.

Which brings us to…

Jonah, from NYC, asks, “What’s with the minor leaguers? Trade bait? Help later in the year?”

Even leaving aside their highly-regarded catching prospect Jesus Montero—more about him later—the Yankees have an excellent minor league system, arguably the best they have had in recent memory.

In particular, lefty Manuel Banuelos impressed virtually everyone associated with the team, with comments from the likes of Joe Girardi (“impressive”) to Russell Martin (“doesn’t seem like he’s only 19”) and the ever popular “veteran scout” quotes.

Banuelos and fellow youngster Dellin Betances (2.11 ERA in 85 minor league innings last year) are ticketed for Double-A but remain popular names as both trade fodder and rotation solutions for the second half of the season.

Of course, Montero is not the Yankees’ only catching prospect. The team also has Austin Romine, who is considered a far stronger defensive catcher than Montero, but whose bat is slower to develop. Farther away, but arguably the best bet to be the long-term successor to Jorge Posada is Gary Sanchez, whose bat (.936 OPS in his first minor-league season) and defensive abilities make him a strong bet to stay behind the plate and justify his $2.5 million dollar signing bonus.

Will, from Washington DC, asks, “What can we expect of Derek Jeter?”

After a contentious contract negotiation—albeit one that never seemed to suggest that Jeter was going to leave the team—the Captain re-signed for three years and $51 million. Barring an injury or dramatic collapse in performance, Jeter will become the first man to record 3,000 hits as a Yankee and continue on his path to climbing the all-time hits list.

He seems likely to crack the top 20 all-time in hits this season and has a good shot, over the life of his contract, to pass Paul Molitor for the most hits by a right-handed American League hitter. If Jeter can average 150 hits a season for the next four years (assuming he exercises his 2014 player option), he will move into the top five in hits all time, passing names like Willie Mays, Honus Wagner and Tris Speaker.

For 2011, such lofty goals will go to the background as Jeter tries to regain the form that saw him hit .334 in 2009. Given his advancing age and well-known defensive shortcomings, it seems unlikely that Jeter will ever return to his MVP-caliber form, but a rebound should be expected. If Jeter can manage a .750 OPS for the team, it will be a more than enough performance out of a shortstop on a contending team.

Matt, from Staten Island, asks, “Talk all you want about the starters, who's going to catch?”

Last season, Francisco Cervelli started 80 games at catcher for the Yankees, good for the team lead, with Jorge Posada just seven behind. With Posada shifted to a full-time DH role, and Cervelli currently sidelined with a broken foot, it seems unlikely that those men, who accounted for more than 97% of the Yankees catching starts last season, will combine for even a third of the start this year.

The next great Yankee? Jesus Montero takes a cut. (Icon/SMI)

In their place, free agent Russell Martin was signed to help bridge the gap between Posada and whichever of the Yankees' many catching prospects fills the void.

For 2011, if Martin can stay healthy, he should be able to provide acceptable performance from the catching position.

Likely to be backing him up will be super prospect Jesus Montero.

After destroying minor league pitching to the tune of a .314 average and .882 OPS—earning himself Baseball America’s number four ranking before last season—Montero is seemingly being groomed as Martin's caddy.

Though Montero’s bat projects well, questions about his defense have plagued him. At one point, Montero had thrown out just 13% of base stealers.

Whether through hype or genuine improvement, the Yankees claim they are now satisfied that Montero can handle defensive duties.

If his bat truly lives up to its minor league reputation, and his defensive gains are real, it would not be a shock for Montero to take the job from Martin before the season ends.

Richard, from the couch where I wrote this column, asks, “Is this team a contender?”

The short answer? Yes. The Yankees offense projects to be among the league’s best, if not the best. Several players—including Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira—are strong hitters for any position and bring impressive defense.

And if the team’s bullpen—including new signings Rafael Soriano and Pedro Feliciano—stays healthy, it should feature at least five above-average arms.

But there are many question marks, not only in the rotation, but also with the outfield, where Brett Gardner will be looking to maintain the gains he made in 2010 while Curtis Granderson seeks to find the form that earned him a tenth-place finish in the MVP voting in 2007.

As of this moment, a reasonable view would have to place the Yankees a step behind the Red Sox, who are considerably improved from last year. But owing to the wild card, the Yankees only need be better than the Rays and whichever of the Central and Western contenders fail to win their division.

Second place in the East and a wild card title seems the likely finish for the club. That’s enough to put the Yankees in the playoffs, and once they are there, we will see if they can add to the success that defines the franchise.

Questions, comments and thinly veiled threats can be mailed to Richard on the back of a twenty dollar bill or e-mailed to him at [email protected]

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