By: Michael Abitabilo
As a lifelong Yankees fan, I’ve had numerous Mets fans ask me various iterations of the same question. It usually sounds something like this: “DRRR YANKEES DRR BORING WAHH METS WAAHH WINNING DRRRR WAHH PAYROLL PLAYOFFS!!??” Allow me to translate: that is Mets-fan speak for, “Does it get boring to root for the winningest franchise in professional sports?” My response has always been the same: of course not! Truth be told, that answer has been somewhat disingenuous over the past few years. For a variety of reasons, I have been less and less excited for the start of each of the past few baseball seasons.
This season, though, is different. The 2014 Yankees have piqued my interest more than any team since the 2009 squad that went on to win the World Series. 2009, of course, was the last time the Yankees went on a major off-season spending spree like they did before this year. But we all know by now that spending lavishly on free agents does not guarantee on-field success. So while I don’t know whether the 2014 Yankees will bring home the 28th World Series in franchise history, I do know that this team will be interesting. Here are the top four reasons why:
1. The New Guys: For many years, the Yankees had a very consistent feel to them. From the stability in managers (only two since 1996), to the Core Four, to A-Rod and Cano, each year’s team has felt very similar to that of the year prior. This year, though, things are different. Three of the Core Four have retired, Robinson Cano signed a 35-year, $40-bajillion contract with the Mariners, and A-Rod – hmm, I can’t seem to remember what happened to A-Rod. After signing free agents Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, Brian Roberts, and Masahiro Tanaka (more on him in a moment), the Yankees’ will look and feel vastly different for the first time in recent memory. Indeed, this year’s opening day lineup has eight different players in it than last year’s. It should be fun to watch these players – especially Ellsbury and McCann – grow into their roles as the next generation of leaders on this team. We don’t know if they’ll be better, but we do know they’ll be different.
2. The Captain’s Curtain Call: Derek Jeter’s storied career is coming to an end. Last year, many teams around the majors showered Mariano Rivera with gifts to recognize his outstanding career. It will be interesting to see if teams go back to that well – not to mention somewhat ironic based on Jeter’s notorious history of providing gift baskets to his paramours. (Yeah Jeets!) But there are other interesting facets to Jeter’s Last Stand. How will his surgically repaired ankle hold up? If he struggles at the plate and in the field, will he continue to play every day and hit near the top of the order? What if he returns to form and puts up a season reasonably similar to his last full year in 2012 when he led the league in hits; would he reconsider his decision?
3. The Starting Rotation: The Yankees starting rotation appears to present an interesting dichotomy: they arguably have one of the deepest rotations in the league, yet there are legitimate questions about all five starters. IF all goes well, CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, Masahiro Tanaka, and Michael Pineda could be a fearsome fivesome. But, we have to wonder: can Sabathia be successful with diminished velocity? Were Kuroda’s late-season struggles last year the result of fatigue, or signs that the 39-year old is on the decline? Can Nova be a consistently reliable major league starter? And that brings us to the two individuals I believe to be the biggest wildcards for the Yankees this year, Tanaka and Pineda.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that in 2012, I vastly overpaid for Pineda in a fantasy baseball auction. I was pumped to watch him rack up wins and strikeouts for both my fantasy and favorite teams. Then his shoulder imploded, and it appeared the trade that brought him to New York might turn out to be a disaster for the Yankees. (It’s probably no coincidence that 2012 was my last season as a fantasy baseball owner.) In a rare double twist of fate, though, Jesus Montero (the ballyhooed prospect for whom Pineda was traded) followed up two sucky seasons by getting really, really fat. (Montero is so bad, Mariners’ General Manager Jack Zduriencik was quoted as saying “I have zero expectations for Jesus Montero. Any expectations I had are gone.” Wow.) Pineda has spent nearly two years rehabbing his arm and finally appears to be healthy. With expectations lowered and any pressure associated with the trade having been alleviated, the big right-hander enters this season as the team’s fifth starter. I’m sure someone well-versed in analytics could present this better than me, but if Pineda can pitch more like a three than a five, he could become a huge asset for the Yankees. [Insert Jesus Montero huge ass joke here].
And then there is Tanaka. It’s rare that a baseball team has the opportunity to sign a 25-year old ace pitcher as a free agent, and so when the Yankees announced they had signed Tanaka to a seven year, $155 million contract, I was ecstatic. I mean, just look at these numbers:
I don’t know much about this Rakuten team – they must play in the National League – but this guy is a bona fide stud!!
. . .
Wait, I just realized Tanaka has NEVER THROWN A PITCH IN THE MAJOR LEAGUES? Oh boy.
All kidding aside, the Tanaka signing was an expensive gamble, but one the Yankees had to take. Essentially, if Tanaka does not turn into the team’s ace, the deal will be considered a bad one, at least financially. But the Yankees are the Yankees, and so they can always rely on the “It’s Only Money” defense. Aside from the economics of the deal, though, Tanaka’s success is imperative to that of the Yankees, particularly in light of the questions surrounding the rest of the pitchers in the rotation.
4. Everything Else: Can Mark Teixeira regain his form? Can David Robertson succeed as the first full-time closer not named Mariano Rivera since 1996? Who else is even in the bullpen? Can Alfonso Soriano pick up where he left off in his time with the Yankees last year? Will Ellsbury and Gardiner terrorize teams with their speed on the base paths? Can Kelly Johnson play third base in the major leagues? Will the Gardiner/Ellsbury/Beltran outfield be as defensively sound as we think? Can Roberts, McCann, Ellsbury and others stay healthy? If the need arises, would Andy Pettitte do the Roger Clemens Half Season Thing™?
So there you have it. If you are or have ever been a Yankees fan, there are plenty of reasons to be intrigued by the 2014 season. My official prediction? 88-74, second in the AL East, wildcard playoff birth. But remember, as John Sterling might say (235 times or so), you can’t predict baseball, Suzyn.
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Mike Abitabilo is the co-founder of the Read Zone, and once watched Wade Boggs go horseback riding.