Keys to the Kingdom
‘Tis the season of the cracking of the bat and the popping of the leather. Yes, MLB Spring Training is finally here, and yesterday the Yankees began their string of exhibition games. As it is, the Bronx Bombers dropped both of their first two Grapefruit League games to Pittsburgh, losing 6-5 Wednesday and 8-2 today – though we all know final scores are probably the least important stat when it comes to Spring Training.
It’s all about fine tuning and getting ready for April, when the scores count and the Yanks embark on their quest for World Series title number 28. Yankee Captain Derek Jeter, who as we all know announced his retirement after this upcoming season, declared today that he wants to go out a winner:
“We’re the last team standing and we win the championship.
That’s the only way I envision it ending.”
In order for that happen, a lot has to go right. First of all…
CC Sabathia needs a bounce-back campaign
Last year CC Sabathia faced arm problems, really for the first time ever in his career. The Yankee ace lost 13 games in 2013 and only won 14, coming off 2012 when he won 15 – a far cry from the 21 and 19-win seasons he put up in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Last season Sabathia’s ERA was 4.78, the highest earned run average he’s ever posted in his career.
If you’re the type of analyst who likes to throw wins and ERA out the window, here’s something to chew on: Sabathia let up 28 home runs in 2013 – another career-high for a single season. If that isn’t enough, here’s something else to consider: Sabathia served up more taters than Phil Hughes last season, the former homer-happy Yankee and now-Minnesota Twin. Hughes allowed 24 hitters to leave the yard last year compared to Sabathia’s 28.
Yes. You know it’s bad when you’ve given up more long balls than Hughes.
There’s no debating the fact that Sabathia needs to turn it around; be the ace the Yankees bought him for prior to 2009, or at least be close to what he was. It’s not too much to ask, mostly because he’s already proven the type of anchor he can be to a pitching staff.
To his credit, Sabathia slimmed down and lost some weight. According to Michael Kay of YES, Sabathia came into Spring Training last year just under 300 lbs., whereas this year he showed up around 275 and visibly thinner.
Obviously Sabathia is taking serious steps towards getting back to form, but he needs to cut down on the home runs and be clutch this year if the Yankees want to be that last team standing.
Stay healthy, New York
You cannot predict injuries. It’s a fact of sports life. In recent times the Yankees have had a ton of hard luck when it comes to injuries, and they haven’t been able to field a complete team.
New Yankee Jacoby Ellsbury has failed to appear in 100 games in two of the last four seasons because of injuries. In 2010 the speedy center fielder only played 18 games and in 2012 he played just 74, thanks to fractured ribs as a result of an outfield collision (’10) and a collision on the base paths trying to break up a double play (’12).
In between he’s been as solid as they come, though. 2011 was Ellsbury’s best season to date. With 32 home runs, 105 RBIs, a .321 batting average, 212 hits, and an All-Star nod, he was arguably the best all-around player in the American League. Being the runner-up for the AL MVP award, while taking home a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger, is only a testament to how fantastic he truly was in ‘11.
That begs the question, which Ellsbury will be showing up in 2014? The perennial All-Star or the injury prone player who gives up his body en route to disabled list stints?
And Ellsbury is just one example.
To supplant Herculean second baseman Robinson Cano, who split for Seattle, the Yankees signed Brian Roberts – a 36-year-old second sacker once feared by all as a Baltimore Oriole, but has only played 192 games over the last four seasons on account of injuries. (Roberts managed to play 77 games last year, 17 in ’12, 39 in ’11, and 59 in ’10).
Doing the math, Roberts has missed 456 games over the past four seasons; DL stints and concussions have eaten him up. Keep in mind, specifically, he ruptured a tendon behind his right knee last April vs. Tampa Bay attempting a steal of second base.
Knowing all that, will Roberts be a comeback player and offer reliability, or will he simply be unproductive and relegated to the disabled list for a large chunk of the season?
The question marks of Ellsbury and Roberts are of course piled on top of apprehension about Jeter and Mark Teixeira. Jeter (39, 40 in June) as we all know is coming off ankle injuries that limited him to 17 games in 2013, while Teixeira (33, 34 in April) is coming back from wrist problems that only allowed him to play 15 games last year.
How each of these players respond is obviously a “to be determined” but at the same time there is no crystal ball in existence to let us know if they’ll be able to grind out the entire season injury-free.
The bullpen has to be effective
It’s fair to say the Yankees’ bullpen was probably their weakest link last year, even with the legendary Mariano Rivera at the back end closing everything out – which really tells you the whole story. This writer keeps asking himself,
“If the bullpen wasn’t that good with Rivera last year, what can we expect without him this year?
David Robertson, as of now, is expected to succeed Mo in the closer role, which is scary to think about. If you recall in 2012 when Rivera’s season ended on May 3 on the warning track in Kansas City, Robertson was plugged into his spot as closer, but he didn’t cut it.
In just his second save opp a week after Rivera went down, Robertson failed to protect a 1-0 lead over Tampa Bay, giving up a three-run homer to Matt Joyce. He later gave up another run and the Yankees went on to lose, 4-1. Robertson called it afterward “the worst feeling in the world.”
Luckily in 2012 the Yankees had the option of using Rafael Soriano in Robertson’s stead – an option that worked out well, given that Soriano saved 42 games in Rivera’s absence.
Now, similarly, the Yankees have signed former Oakland A’s closer (and 2009 AL Rookie of the Year) Andrew Bailey, albeit to a minor league contract. Bailey has 89 saves to his name in his short career, with experience as a closer, making him the logical choice to succeed Rivera over Robertson.
Bailey, like a lot of other Yankees, has a history with injuries. In 2012 he had reconstructive surgery on his right thumb, and just last year an MRI revealed he had a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder.
It’ll come down to whether or not Bailey can make it back from injury and be a shutdown pitcher like he once was. For now though, the Yankees have a premiere setup man in Robertson – and that’s about it, because Robertson isn’t a proven closer.
At least not yet.
Looking outside the back end of the bullpen, the middle relievers need to step up too. Shawn Kelley and Preston Claiborne are going to be two important pieces to the bullpen, along with newcomer Matt Thornton, the tall order who’ll replace Boone Logan (now with the Colorado Rockies) as the main southpaw out of the ‘pen.
Sources are saying former top Yankee pitching prospect Dellin Betances will be vying for a spot in the bullpen this spring, as it’s already been established by Yankee GM Brian Cashman that he will be a reliever in the long run. Betances could either prove to be a key middle reliever or long reliever, yet he has to pitch well enough for the Yankee brass to have faith in him – and well enough to keep himself off mopping duty.
The Opening Day bullpen is likely going to come down to whichever relievers are effective during Spring Training, and the point stands: they have to be effective, whoever they may be when camp breaks.
Masahiro Tanaka has to adapt
Nobody is expecting Masahiro Tanaka to go 24-0 and post an ERA under 2.00 in his rookie season, but if there is one thing the new, prized Japanese import must do, it’s get acclimated to the MLB style. His numbers in Japan were far better than a lot of the other Japanese-born pitchers who’ve come over from the land of the rising sun, meaning he could potentially have a huge year, but the average fan might not realize a couple of things.
First off, pitchers in Japan throw only once a week, whereas here in the states, Tanaka will have to toe the rubber once every five days. Not only that, but the NPB in Japan also uses smaller-sized baseballs compared to an official MLB rock, therefore an adjustment needs to be made in that respect.
The biggest difference will be the hitters Tanaka faces. Monsters such as David Ortiz, Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout and Prince Fielder will probably pose bigger threats (and are more intimidating) than the more tactical batters he went eye-to-eye with in Japan.
Though one could argue Tanaka won’t be fazed by the Goliath-like giants he faces here in the U.S., given his cool demeanor and calm presence at his introductory press conference.
While it’s perfectly fine to expect Tanaka to succeed – and he will – it’s reasonable to presume he will go through his growing pains. Adjustment is the biggest part of his game.
We’ll get our first live look at Tanaka on Saturday afternoon in the Yankees’ exhibition vs. the Phillies.
They have to make each other better
The key to any successful team is chemistry. Most of the 2014 Yankees will be first-time teammates, not having played with each other before. While some like Jeter, Teixeira and Brett Gardner have been together for a few seasons, newbies like Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran have not had a chance to jell as teammates.
If you look back to 2009 – and the Dynasty years, for that matter – a player could have an off-night, but the rest of the team would be on. For example,
In 1998, Tino Martinez might have an “0-for” night, but Jeter, Bernie Williams, Scott Brosius, and Paul O’Neill would be firing at will, and the Yanks would win. The next night Jeter could have gone 0-for-4, but Martinez and everyone else would still be en fuego.
Those teams were the masters of picking each other up.
If the 2014 Yankees can perfect that same art, they’ll be as lethal as any team in baseball.
And the kingdom will be theirs.