Time To Go To Work

The “Hot Stove” has officially been turned off as pitchers and catchers officially reported to the New York Yankees’ spring training facilities in Tampa, Florida.  Barring any last minute additions or trades the 2010 Yankees’ squad has been set.  Gone are Johnny Damon (free agent – unsigned), Chien-Ming Wang (not resigned – signed by Washington Nationals), Melky Cabrera (traded to Atlanta Braves) and Hideki Matsui (not resigned – signed by Los Angeles Angels) from the 2009 championship squad.  In the off season the Yankees traded for OF Curtis Granderson (Detroit Tigers), signed DH/1B Nick Johnson (Florida Marlins), traded for SP Javier Vazquez (Atlanta Braves) and signed OF Randy Winn (San Francisco Giants).

Adding Granderson to the outfield corps was an instant boost in defense, but he’ll also be judged at the plate where Johnny Damon excelled batting either in front of or behind Derek Jeter.  Last year Damon hit behind Jeter and delivered.  His numbers were .282/82/24 for average, RBI and home runs.  He also had .365 on base percentage.  Damon was also very instrumental in the Yankees winning their first World Series championship in nine years, as he batted .364 and had an on base percentage of .440.

Damon also had the single highlight moment in the World Series.  In Game 4, with the score tied 4-4 in the top of the ninth inning and Philadelphia Phillies closer Brad Lidge on the mound Damon stole second, popped up and outran 3B Pedro Feliz (who was covering second on a defensive shift put on for batter Mark Teixeira) to an unprotected third base.  The move seemed to unhinge Lidge who hit Teixeira allowing Alex Rodriguez to come to the plate.  A-Rod delivered a 2-out double to left field scoring Damon and putting Teixeira at third.  Catcher Jorge Posada smacked a 2-run single to left, which doomed the Phillies to their fate.  Instead of possibly tying the Series at 2 games apiece the Yankees took a commanding 3-1 lead, and ultimately the Series in six games.

On Granderson’s side of the ledger he is only 28 (Damon is 36) and he is defensively head and shoulders above Damon in this stretch of Damon’s career.  Granderson hits for power.  Last season he knocked out 30 home runs and drove in 71.  Of concern is his .327 OBP, which was lower than Damon’s.  His batting average was 33 points lower as well.  However, throw out Granderson’s overall numbers for last year and he is offensively on par with Damon in all the pertinent categories.

The one move that has everyone scratching their heads is not resigning World Series MVP Hideki Matsui to a one-year contract.  Matsui wanted to come back to the Yankees, and it was reported he would’ve taken a one-year deal, around $7 million to make it happen.  Nonetheless, the Yankees jettisoned the man affectionately known as “Godzilla” and signed ex-Yankee Nick Johnson to a one-year deal for nearly the same money.

In the six years Matsui played in New York he averaged a .292 BA.  He averaged 23.3 HR per year, and that’s including an injury shortened 2008 season when he only hit nine round trippers.  Matsui also nearly averaged 100 RBI per year.  That’s a lot of firepower to let walk away.  The liability with Matsui is his knees, which have both been surgically repaired.  The injuries have basically relegated Matsui to a DH role.

Johnson, on the other hand, can play first base where he has a career .992 fielding percentage.  Johnson also has a better on base percentage than Matsui, and a comparable slugging percentage.  Where Johnson lags is in the power numbers.  He has played two more seasons than Matsui and has 51 less home runs.  He has also plated 218 less runs.  It will be interesting to see where manager Joe Girardi places Johnson in the Yankee lineup in order to effectively use him.

Next on the list is Javier Vazquez, who returns to the Bronx after being traded away following the 2004 season.  Vazquez was part of a three team trade, which sent OF Melky Cabrera to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for Vazquez.

Vazquez had a mixed season in his one and only year with the Yankees.  In the first half of the campaign Vazquez went 9-5 with an ERA of 3.42 (as of June 29).  Vazquez’s performance earned him his first and only all-star appearance.  After July 1 Vazquez developed shoulder problems and his ERA averaged 6.78 for the remainder of the year.

In the 2004 playoffs Vazquez was a mess.  He gave up 12 earned runs in 11.1 innings earning Vazquez a one-way ticket out of town via trade.

Vazquez enters the 2010 season hoping to build upon the best overall season of his career.  Last year Vazquez pitched to a 15-10 record.  He attained career bests in win percentage (.600) and ERA (2.87).  Over the past three seasons he has struck out 200 or more batters and has pitched 200+ innings in nine of the last ten seasons.  The ability to eat up innings at the back of the rotation made Vazquez very attractive to New York.

The Yankees are hoping to catch lightning in a bottle and hope the pitcher they saw in the first half of 2004 and all of last year in Atlanta is the guy they traded for.

Lastly, the Yankees signed free agent Randy Winn to a one-year deal to play outfield.  Winn comes to New York by way of San Francisco.  His career numbers are very good.  Touting a lifetime average of .286 Winn plated 50 or more runs in each of the past 4 seasons.  He will probably share playing time with Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner.

Many observers think the Yankees are making these short term deals in order to make a run at Tampa Bay’s Carl Crawford who becomes a free agent after this season.

As for the rest of the squad there are question marks as well.  Posada is 37 years old entering the new season.  He has been the full time catcher since 2000.  In 2008 Posada, after signing a big 4-year contract, made two trips to the disabled list for the first time in his career.  He had surgery on his throwing shoulder, and only played in 51 games.  Last year Girardi rested his catcher often in order for Posada to make it to the finish line.  He responded positively by hitting .285 with 22 home runs and 81 RBI.  One has to believe that Girardi will continue to rest Posada as often as he can so he can have his bat late in the season.

A-Rod is expected to have a monster year this year.  He had the first significant injury of his career when it was discovered he had a torn labrum in his right hip.  Rodriguez had corrective surgery and after missing the first 31 games of the season came back to hit 30 home runs and knock in 100 RBI.  In his last game of the 2009 regular season A-Rod hit two home runs and drove in 7 runs in one inning to reach the 30/100 plateau for the 12th season in a row.  He finally broke out of his playoff slump by hitting .378 while driving in 18 runs and hitting 6 home runs in 15 playoff games.

The biggest, potential, distraction to the upcoming season will come from Yankee captain Derek Jeter.  Jeter has been the face of the Yankees ever since he came up to the big club for good in 1996.  Jeter is coming off one of his best seasons, hitting a team high .334, while belting 18 home runs and driving in 66 runs all from the lead off position in the lineup.  He also scored 107 runs and came in third in the MVP balloting last year.

Jeter is entering the last year of his ten-year, $189 million contract and if he has another year close to last year the Yankees will be put between the proverbial rock and hard spot.  Last season Jeter earned his fourth Gold Glove award as well as the Silver Slugger award for being the best hitter at the shortstop position.  He also broke Lou Gehrig’s Yankees hit record and is only 253 hits from reaching the 3,000 hit mark to become the only Yankee in history to do so.

The list of accomplishments goes on an on.  Jeter is a 10 time all star, was the 1996 Rookie of the Year.  He was the 2000 ALCS and World Series MVP and he has had 7 seasons of 200 or more hits.  Without a doubt when Jeter hangs up his spikes he can punch his ticket into Cooperstown as a first ballot hall of famer.

The quandary for the Yankees is what to do with Jeter after this year.  He will turn 36 on June 26 of this year.  He is at an age where playing shortstop becomes more and more difficult.  The Yankees have to determine how much longer can he play there and how long of a contract will they give him.  Jeter has stood by and watched Mariano Rivera, Posada and A-Rod receive huge pay raises.  In a climate of economic strife will Jeter get the money he deserves or will he be offered less because of the market.

The Steinbrenners and Brian Cashman better have a big bottle of aspirin ready.  They’re going to need it.

Lastly, the pitching looks to be solid again this year.  With CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett and Andy Pettitte anchoring the top and middle of the rotation Vazquez’s presence should improve it as well.  Fighting it out for the fifth spot will be Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain.  Both have struggled as starters and pitched well as relievers.  It should be a terrific duel during spring training.

The bullpen will also add concrete support.  Alfredo Aceves, Damaso Marte, David Robertson, either Hughes or Chamberlain handing the ball to Rivera should all have good seasons.

The 2010 squad appears poised to defend their title going into the new decade.  The road will not be easy.  They play in the toughest division in baseball.  Boston, Baltimore, Toronto and Tampa Bay have all added depth to their teams and all have their sights set on the Yankees.  Other teams looking to knock off the Yankees are the Detroit Tigers, Minnesota Twins, Los Angeles Angels, Chicago White Sox, Texas Rangers and the Seattle Mariners.

Fasten your seatbelts it’s going to be a bumpy and exciting ride to the finish line.

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