2014 New York Yankees Team Preview
"I am dead set against free agency. It can ruin baseball." - George Steinbrenner
The Boss is smiling somewhere right now.
Following an 85-77 season -- the franchise's lowest winning percentage since 1992 (.469) -- big changes were imminent.
While most organizations would be pining over the loss of a star in Robinson Cano, who signed a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Mariners, the Yankees diversified their portfolio and added talent at several key positions.
In sum, the Yankees shelled out $415 million guaranteed in multi-year contracts this offseason.
It started with the defection of Jacoby Ellsbury from the rival Red Sox in early December, and culminated with the arrival of Masahiro Tanaka from Japan in late January. The signings in between included a five-year deal for former Braves catcher Brian McCann, and a three-year pact with former Cardinal Carlos Beltran.
Even with the spending spree, there are a number of questions to be answered with this year's version of the Bronx Bombers.
At second base, Cano's departure leaves an undesirable cast to compete for playing time at the keystone. The full-season suspension of third baseman Alex Rodriguez has left the team vulnerable at a key position as Opening Day approaches, while the Yankees are currently positioned to move Kelly Johnson to the hot corner.
Filling the shoes of Mariano Rivera is a tall order, and it remains to be seen if David Robertson will capably handle the ninth inning, which has been a non-issue since 1997, other than a 2012 campaign that was truncated when Rivera suffered a torn ACL. In the rotation, the Yankees still lack depth, but could receive a big boost with a rebound from CC Sabathia at the top, and a healthy Michael Pineda in the No. 5 spot.
The net gains in free agency should ultimately make the Yankees better, but will they return to the postseason?
Re-signed Derek Jeter to a one-year, $12 million deal.
In the end, 2013 was a totally lost season for Jeter, as he never really bounced back from the fractured ankle he suffered in the 2012 postseason, and he was plagued by a series of leg injuries when he did try to return. There haven't been many 40-year-old starting shortstops at any point in major league history, but Jeter is only one year removed from a four-win season in 2012, when he hit .316 with 15 homers. Much like his long-time teammate Mariano Rivera, Jeter is likely to be highly motivated to put up one more good year before calling it a career. Don't expect many steals at this point, but Jeter could still put up decent average and runs scored numbers in 2014. Just be careful not to overpay for his name value
Signed Brendan Ryan to a two-year, $5 million deal.
Ryan is the definition of an elite glove, light bat shortstop and he didn't do anything to change that designation in 2013, providing outstanding glove work but posting just a .550 OPS while filling in for Derek Jeter toward the end of the season. The Yankees re-signed Ryan for 2014 as insurance if Jeter isn't able to be their everyday shortstop, but even if Ryan does find his way into some extended playing time, he's much more valuable to the Yankees for his defense than he is fantasy owners, even in a hitter-friendly home park.
Signed Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year, $153 million deal.
Ellsbury once again proved to be an impact hitter atop Boston's lineup with game-changing baserunning skills in 2013. He did nothing to hurt the big payday he got this offseason. Everything he does will pale in comparison to his MVP-caliber season in 2011 - the 32 bombs he hit that season are an outlier - but Ellsbury slugged .426 and had a .781 OPS last season, second-best of his career in both categories. Moving into a more hitter-friendly home park, it will be very interesting to see if the short porch in right field enables Ellsbury to provide additional home-run power in 2014.
Signed Brian McCann to a five-year, $85 million deal.
Upon his return from offseason shoulder surgery in early May, McCann was blazing hot, with six home runs in his first 16 games. He had 12 homers by the All-Star break despite missing the first 30 games, but fizzled after the intermission, slashing just .220/.296/.384 over his final 177 at-bats. Still, McCann finished with 20 home runs, marking his sixth consecutive season reaching that number. McCann's 9.7 percent walk rate was in line with his career average (9.5 percent), but his strikeout rate jumped back up to 16.4 percent, up from 12.5 percent in 2012. At this point, the baseball world knows who McCann is; a powerful, pull-hitting, veteran backstop with above-average on-base skills. It's a perfect fit for both the Yankees, who relied on the likes of Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart last season, and McCann, as the short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium should keep the power numbers coming. Further, he'll have the flexibility to work as a DH on days where the Yankees want to give him a respite from catching.
Signed Kelly Johnson to a one-year, $3 million deal.
Johnson put together a roller coaster season of hot and cold at the plate. After a slow start to the season, he was fantastic in May, hitting .330 with a 1.022 OPS in 25 games that included seven of his 16 home runs on the season and 26 RBI. He cooled off in June before heating up again in July and then seeing his role diminish toward the end of the season. He offers solid power and hits left-handers quite well as a left-handed bat. He offers versatility defensively with his ability to play left field as well as multiple infield spots. The Yankees are currently positioned to give Johnson regular at-bats at third base, but there are questions about his ability to adequately handle the defensive responsibilities of the position.
Re-signed Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year, $16 million deal.
Kuroda was brilliant for the first three quarters of the 2013 season, but seemed to hit the wall in his last eight starts, giving up 34 earned runs over his last 46.2 innings. The 38-year-old right-hander was believed to have considered a return to Japan to close out his career, but he instead returned to the Yankees with a one-year deal in December. Expect early-season numbers that look a lot like his final 2013 stats - ERA in the low-to-mid 3.00s, a good WHIP, and a decent strikeout rate - but beware of a similar late-season fade given his age.
Signed Carlos Beltran to a three-year, $45 million deal.
Beltran had another terrific year for the Cardinals, putting up a .296/.339/.491 line and slugging 24 home runs across 600 plate appearances. He hit the ball hard on a consistent basis, posting the highest line-drive rate (23.9%) of his career, but he also delivered his lowest career walk rate (6.3%). Beltran will almost certainly suffer with a move out of one of baseball's best lineups, but should benefit from the opportunity to serve as a DH after signing with the Yankees as a free agent in December. Moreover, he'll be set up for a potential boost in power against right-handed pitching given Yankee Stadium's aforementioned short porch.
Signed Matt Thornton to a two-year, $7 million deal.
Thornton finished off the 2013 season with Boston after the White Sox traded him in July. A useful lefty arm out of the pen, Thornton was very hittable in his time with Boston and was left off the postseason roster. The Yankees signed Thornton in December after Boone Logan landed a three-year deal with Colorado, leaving the veteran to work as part of the bridge to the ninth inning in the Bronx in 2014.
Signed Scott Sizemore to a minor league deal.
Sizemore was slated to be the A's starting third baseman in 2012, but he tore the ACL in his left knee on the first day of spring training and missed the entire season. He returned in 2013 as a platoon partner for Eric Sogard at second base but tore the ACL in the same knee in his second game of the year. Sizemore showed nice pop in his bat during his 2011 stint with the A's (11 homers in 305 at-bats), but one must wonder now if the once high-level prospect can return after two full missed seasons. He'll compete for a roster spot with the Yankees in spring training after signing a minor league deal in January.
Signed Brian Roberts to a one-year, $2 million deal.
Lingering concussion symptoms were the leading cause in Roberts logging just 115 games from 2010-2012. After a healthy spring training, a hamstring injury derailed him for a good chunk of the first half in 2013. It was a pleasant surprise that Roberts was healthy during the entire second half, but Roberts is now just a shell of the player he was at his peak. Roberts averaged 34 stolen bases from 2003 through 2009, but he ran just four times in 2013. At 36, power will not be a strength. Roberts signed with the Yankees after becoming a free agent, and he'll compete for the starting job at second base (or a share of it as part of a platoon) as the Yankees move on from Robinson Cano this season.
Signed Masahiro Tanaka to a seven-year, $155 million deal.
When Tanaka signed his 2013 contract with Rakuten in the Japanese Pacific League, he expressed his desire to move to MLB prior to qualifying for free agency. He went on to have a legendary 2013 season, going 24-0 and leading the Rakuten to its first NPB championship. His video game numbers (24-0, 1.27 ERA and 183:32 K:BB in 212 IP) in 2013 are well documented, but what might get overlooked is that those numbers aren't really out of the ordinary for Tanaka. In 2012 he missed a few starts with some muscle strains, but he still managed a 1.87 ERA in 173 IP, with 169 strikeouts against just 19 walks. Tanaka passes the eyeball tests as well. He is a sturdy 6-2, 200, and features three pitches that project as above average: a fastball that runs from 90-96 mph, a sharp splitter at 85-90 mph and a sweeping slider. His only concerns are his workload in Japan -- Tanaka threw 160 pitches in Game 6 of the Japan Series before closing the clincher -- and a strikeout rate that has dropped in each of the last three seasons, from 9.6 K/9 in 2011 to 7.8 in 2013, but those aspects appear minor given his body of work. While Tanaka's new home park isn't the best environment for a pitcher, it hasn't limited fellow Japanese native Hiroki Kuroda from having two strong seasons in the Bronx. All signs point to Tanaka also making a strong transition to MLB.
Projected Lineup (v. RHP/LHP)
1. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
2. Derek Jeter, SS
3. Carlos Beltran, RF
4. Mark Teixeira, 1B
5. Brian McCann, C
6. Alfonso Soriano, DH
7. Kelly Johnson, 3B
8. Brian Roberts, 2B
9. Brett Gardner, LF
On paper, this lineup looks much more like a typical Yankees club. Health is the biggest hurdle, with Jeter and Teixeira coming off of major injuries, and Roberts' lengthy injury history. There is very limited depth at key positions as well, which is a driving factor in Johnson's move to third base.
1. CC Sabathia (L)
2. Masahiro Tanaka (R)
3. Hiroki Kuroda (R)
4. Ivan Nova (R)
5. Michael Pineda (R), David Phelps (R), Adam Warren (R), Vidal Nuno (L)
Pineda should have the inside track to the fifth starter job this spring, but the much-hyped trade between the Yankees and Mariners that sent Jesus Montero to Seattle a few years back has largely been a bust for both organizations. Phelps is the most polished of the other three options, while Warren and Nuno could end up in the bullpen if they don't end up winning the final starting spot. Pineda might be given additional seasoning at Triple-A if he struggles this spring.
Closer: David Robertson - While the Yankees have been cautious about anointing Robertson the heir apparent to Mariano Rivera, Robertson's performance over the past several seasons certainly justify giving him the job. All of Robertson's peripheral statistics back up his more obvious high strikeout rate and low ERA; his BABIP against in 2013 was .293, and his 6.8% HR/FB was fairly consistent with his career norm. If the fact that the Yankees haven't guaranteed Robertson the closer job knocks a few dollars of his draft day value, jump in and enjoy the numbers of this potential top-10 closer provided that clear-cut veteran option is not obtained before spring training.
Key Bullpen Members: Shawn Kelley and Matt Thornton
Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:
David Robertson has the skills necessary to shut down the opposition in the late innings, it's just a matter of how well he handles the pressure of replacing a legend. Even if he falters, the fallback options here are hardly ideal candidates to replace him, although it should be noted that some of the pitchers vying for the final spot in the rotation will be headed into the bullpen on Opening Day. Most likely, Robertson's skills carry him toward the upper echelon of rotisserie closers.
Are you on the mark, Teixeira?
Health is a major concern for Teixeira, as he was limited to just 15 games last season before undergoing season-ending surgery on his wrist in July. Now entering his sixth season in New York, there are questions as to his true talent level as he approaches age-34. Even without the ability to beat defensive shifts, Teixeira could prove to be a viable, cheap source of power, but wrist injuries can significantly sap a player's power and there is a fair amount of risk here if he struggles to progress through a regular workload in Florida during spring training.
Jeter's Swan Song
Jeter has decided that the 2014 season will be his final campaign as a player, and the Yankees will benefit in a big way if he can get back to his pre-ankle injury levels. The Captain was unable to contribute much last season, playing just 17 games and going 12-for-73 (.190) in his limited time on the field. Now with an elite glove at the ready to back him up, Jeter may see more preventative maintenance in the form of days off than in the past. He's fallen far enough in early drafts where there is profit potential, especially if he returns to anything resembling the line .316/.362/.429 line (15 homers, nine steals) that he delivered two seasons ago.
If healthy, a formidable lineup top-to-bottom, an enviable trio atop the rotation, and an underrated closer.
An aging roster that still lacks depth at key positions. The bullpen may lack quality arms outside the late innings, and the farm system is still average at best.
Rising: David Robertson – see above.
Declining: CC Sabathia -- Sabathia was the target of media criticism during his subpar 2013, when he gave up the most earned runs of any pitcher in the American League. Sabathia appeared significantly slimmer than usual, and it seemed as though he didn't adjust well to his new body type, but it's hard to know how much of Sabathia's struggles were a blip on the radar screen and how much he may have actually declined thanks to the heavy workload he's sustained throughout his career. The ace-like numbers are probably a thing of the past for Sabathia, but he could certainly be in line for something of a rebound season. Keep an eye on his velocity in spring training, as Sabathia lost a full mph off his fastball for the second straight season. Even with a bounce back, the ceiling here is not as high as it once was.
Sleeper: Kelly Johnson – As noted above, Johnson will get an opportunity for a heavy dose of playing time as the Yankees' primary third baseman. Left-handed hitters in Yankee Stadium often benefit from the dimensions of the park, and Johnson will likely follow suit.
Supersleeper: Michael Pineda -- The much-hyped trade of Jesus Montero for Pineda has not worked out for either team at this point. With Pineda, the issue has been injury rather than skill degradation, and while it's hard to get excited about a pitcher that has missed two full years with shoulder troubles, Pineda is still just 25, and could very well bounce back with the electric stuff that made him so exciting to watch back in 2011. In his return from injury, Pineda made 10 starts over three levels in the minors last season, carrying a 10.0 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9 over 23.1 innings at Triple-A. The poor track record of health makes him something of a lottery ticket, but the payoff could prove to be a big one if he's able to return to something resembling his pre-injury form at the big league level this season.
Gary Sanchez, C -- Sanchez is likely the Yankees' No. 1 prospect again thanks in part to a disappointing 2013 season from Mason Williams. He's shown good power throughout his minor league career and held his own in a 23-game stint with Double-A Trenton late in 2013. It seems unlikely that Sanchez will stick behind the plate, and he still needs to develop more discipline as a hitter, but there's a ton of upside in his bat, even if he ends up as a first baseman. The Yankees will have more time to sort out their plan with Sanchez after signing Brian McCann to a long-term deal during the offseason.
Slade Heathcott, OF -- Heathcott, the Yankees' first-round pick in 2009, still has plenty of potential but has seen his development slowed significantly by two separate shoulder surgeries. When healthy, he represents an interesting power/speed combination, though the speed is a bit ahead of the power at this point (he stole 15 bases in 2013, after stealing 17 in just 215 at-bats in 2012). This will be a key year in Heathcott's development; he may start at either Double-A or Triple-A, and if his health allows him to start to develop in-game power, he could see the majors as soon as 2015
Mason Williams, OF -- Williams' prospect status lost a good bit of its luster in 2013, thanks to mediocre on-field performances (he hit just .261 in High-A, and only .153 in a 72 at-bat sample in Double-A) and to off-field troubles, capped by a DUI arrest. The 22-year-old Williams has excellent speed, but is a poor basestealer, consistently being caught approximately 40 percent of the time throughout his minor league career. He also doesn't show great hitting mechanics, as he tends to shift his weight forward too early, which can sap his power potential. Williams can be an elite defender in center field, and he still has the tools that scouts get excited about, but he needs to take a step forward in his return to Trenton in 2014 to regain the hype.
Eric Jagielo, 3B -- Jagielo, one of the Yankees' first-round picks in the 2013 First-Year Player Draft, is a fairly polished college hitter with good power potential. He hit six homers in 218 at-bats for short-season Staten Island and seems likely to start 2014 with Low-A Charleston. Jagielo is a decent defender at third, though a move to left field or first base may come down the line. His major asset is his bat, and if he shows further development, he could only be another year or so away from grabbing a spot in the Yankees' lineup.