Expecting the New York Yankees to be a part of the post season is nothing new. And Yankees fans, as well as the organization expect nothing less with a payroll around $200 million. This Yankees team of 2011 once again is expected to contend and be a part of October baseball but it will not be an easy task.
When the Yankees take the field in the Bronx next Thursday afternoon for their season and home opener again the Detroit Tigers part of the “Core Four” will not be there, Andy Pettitte has retired which left a void in the pitching staff. Jorge Posada has been regulated to the fulltime DH, Derek Jeter is a year older and on the verge of his milestone 3,000th career hit coming off a career low season in batting average and on base percentage.
And Mariano Rivera is still the closer with no signs of being an aging 41-year old pitcher. But the biggest acquisition of the off-season was Rafael Soriano the 32-year old right hander who had an American League leading 45 saves with Tampa Bay last season. In essence the Yanks have two closers and a perfect set up man out of the pen with Soriano.
In fact, the Yankees may have the best pen in baseball if they stay healthy. Soriano, in 64 games with Tampa posted a 1.79 ERA with 57 strikeouts. And that important pitching stat, WHIP (Walks, Hits, Innings Pitched) a 0.80 ERA stands out.
Despite the outspoken objections from GM Brian Cashman about spending $43 million on his contract, in the end Soriano in the pen makes the Yankees tough to beat in later innings that are close. Manager Joe Girardi can get seven innings from his starter and it is a perfect set up.
In addition the other key element to the pen was picking up Pedro Feliciano, the former cross-town NY Met. The lefty specialist led Major League pitchers out of the pen with most innings pitched the past two seasons with that important 1.37 WHI P ratio in eight seasons with the Mets.
But Feliciano, as well as pen mate Joba Chamberlain have been tending to minor arm problems this spring. Chamberlain may not come up north when the Yanks break camp but the pen is still solid with right hander David Robertson.
Sergio Mitre was dealt to Milwaukee. He figured to be in plans of a back end to a suspect starting pitching rotation. But that door now has been open to Bartolo Colon or Freddy Garcia, two veterans and non roster invitees that have stepped up this spring.
Cashman put his emphasis during the off-season and failed to get the prize, Cliff Lee who signed to pitch for Philadelphia. The Yankees don’t have the veteran Pettitte, have to hope A.J. Burnett rebounds from 10-15 and 5.26 ERA. The velocity and control for Burnett have looked good working with new pitching coach Larry Rothschild, so there is every reason for optimism that Burnett will bounce back.
Phil Hughes is capable of winning 15 games, and it appears that the youngster Ivan Nova may have a role in the rotation in April when there is a need for five starters. Then there is CC Sabathia, the ace, now in his third year of his contract in pinstripes. Sabathia, 21-7 last season shows no signs of losing his command and strength, is capable of throwing 200 innings and going deep into games.
But what defines the 2011 Yankees is their versatility and awareness once again that they came up short in 2010. The veterans such as Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Posada, as well as the manager Girardi know anything less than an appearance or winning of the World Series is a failure.
So the mission since leaving the field and losing to Texas in the ALCS last October is try and forget how close they got to defending championship number 27, and get number 28 back to the Bronx. Ownership, Cashman, Girardi and the Yankees believe they have the nucleus to do that, and will also be looking at a solid year from Jeter, Alex Rodriquez, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and company though it appears Granderson will begin the season on the disabled list.
Posada may be in the last year of his career and the catching duties go to Russell Martin. The former Dodger has been hindered by injuries, and Yankee Stadium could get his home run ball back to form. Rodriguez is having a strong spring and in mid season form, putting smiles on the face of Girardi because A-Rod is having no distractions from a bad hip and off the field headlines.
The Yankees expect Robinson Cano, perhaps the best second baseman in the game to have another MVP type season coming off a career best 29 home runs and 109 RBI season, going along with his .319 average. The question is whether Jeter or Brett Gardner will lead off and that may be an early season experiment for Girardi. Teixeira will get his usual 25 or more home runs, and the Yankees picked up veteran Andruw Jones He can start and also provide production off the bench along with crafty outfielder Vernon Maxwell.
They may be older. This Yankees roster that begins the long campaign next week is the second oldest in baseball. Though the wave of talented youngsters in the organization could be making stops in the Bronx at some point this season including rookie catcher Jesus Montero, considered one of their top prospects. And Eduardo Nunez, the 22-year old got a taste of the big club last season and is a versatile infield backup.
The Yankees are a potent lineup and will hit the long ball. Even Nick Swisher, an occasional starter, DH and off the bench can hit for power, 29 home runs and 89 RBI last season. They always do at their ballpark in the Bronx which is made for their power. That combination of Rodriguez, Teixeira, and Cano is always a threat, capable of hitting 25 or more home runs.
Gardner and Jeter, they get on base and what follows could be a lot of runs scored again. Of course they have to stay healthy, and the Yankees starting rotation is a question. Cashman still has some spending power, and is the case every year, the ability to pick up another player or two can change the complexion of an impending push for another pennant run in the Bronx.
Boston is the team to beat in the AL east and on paper could take it all. Tampa Bay, though diminished by free agency, still is a threat, and Baltimore will be that much better. But the Yankees are still a team to be reckoned with, a 90 or 95 win season is not out of the question. And if injury free, they get enough runs, and Girardi goes to a reliable bullpen.
In the end it comes down to that starting pitching. All in all, Boston will take the division and the Yankees will have another playoff run. It will be tough and hard, but good enough to prevail taking the AL wild card.
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