Spring is here and a new baseball season is on the way. I was hoping after last year’s disappointing playoff loss to the Tigers, the Yankees would upgrade their starting pitching and outfielders and they’ve met my hopes halfway. The outfield looks the same as last year excepting the addition of free agent Raul Ibanez from the Phillies. Ibanez is coming off his worst year since becoming a full time player in 2002 and since will turn 40 in June, I can’t see how he is going to reclaim his hitting prowess. At best, I expect Ibanez to be a useful left handed DH off the bench to replace the retired Jorge Posada and could be productive as a part time player, but the fact that the Yankees didn't sign any big money free agents or make any trade deadline deals last year makes me wonder if the Sons of Steinbrenner are going to be willing to settle for occasional playoff runs and line their pockets with the franchise's profits instead of trying for championships.
The starting pitching was significantly revamped with the subtraction of A.J. Burnett and the additions of 37 year old Hiroki Kuroda from the Dodgers, 23 year old Michael Pineda from the Mariners, and 39 year old Andy Pettitte from retirement. Kuroda ($11 Million) and Pettitte (a minor league contract) came cheap, but Pineda represented a major gamble because he cost potential once in a generation slugger Jesus Montero. Montero is a 22 year old slugging catcher who showed a lot of power in limited playing time in New York last year. There’s some questioning whether Montero will ever be a capable major league catcher, but no question about his bat. Pineda has a 99 mph fastball and struck out a batter an inning in his rookie season last year, but the Yankees record in keeping young pitchers healthy is highly suspect (Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes) and already Pineda will start this season on the disabled list with tendonitis in his shoulder. Yankee GM Brian Cashman has been a conservative trader in the past so I’m willing to give him the benefit of a doubt on this out of character Pineda deal. Old-timers Kuroda, Pettitte, and Freddie Garcia should be enough help for ace CC Sabathia to get the Yankees to the playoffs, but in order to win the championship, top shelf pitching is needed and Pineda has the potential to be a once in a generation pitcher if his arm and head can handle the stress of pitching for the Yankees.
The Yankees should be able to win the American League East division again this year as the competition has fallen off a bit. The pesky Tampa Bay Devil Rays have lost some veteran players and aren’t inclined to spend any money on free agents, relying instead on their excellent farm system to keep the major league roster stocked with talent. This strategy seems to work for about 5 years until the farm system runs dry and the success of the major leage teams leads to low drafting position. Tampa Bay has had poor draft positions for the last 5 years and I think their run is nearing an end unless they decide to spend some of their money to keep their star players. The filthy Red Sox fired the only manager in the last 90 years to win a World Series and then their genius General Manager, Theo Epstein, bolted for the Cubs. The Red Sox upper management were stung by reports of the players having chicken and beer parties in the clubhouse during games at the end of last season and reacted by hiring disciplinarian Bobby Valentine to manage the team. Valentine has had reasonable success as a manager including taking the Mets to the playoffs in 1999 and a World Series appearance in 2000. The Red Sox look to be starting the year with ace pitcher Josh Beckett and new closer Andrew Baily on the injured list. That’s good news for this Yankee fan, since a slow Red Sox start may cause the veteran-laden team to revolt against their new manager.
The Yankees other rivals for the American League pennant have spent millions of dollars to improve themselves this offseason. The 2 time league champion Texas Rangers have spent $51 million to acquire Yu Darvish from the Japanese leagues and then signed him to a modest $60 million 6 year contract, while the California Angels paid $240 million for 10 years of Albert Pujols’ services and the Detroit Tigers paid $214 for 9 years of slugger Prince Fielder. All the free spending has led the Cincinnati Reds to sign the 2010 MVP Joey Votto to a 10 year $220 million deal, which will now be the new benchmark for young sluggers. 2011 MVP Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers hasn’t signed to a long term deal, but he barely escaped a 50 game suspension for having his testosterone level 20 times normal on his drug test when the Fed Ex office was closed and the sample sat in the testers refrigerator for the weekend. Braun will have to prove his impressive statistics over the past few years weren’t a product of chemistry before he cashes in. The explosion in free agent spending has also been generous to pitchers with the Giant’s matt Cain being rewarded for last year’s 12-11 record with a $100 million dollar 5 year contract extension.
As a Yankee fan, I know that the biggest payroll doesn’t equal World Championships, but I can understand both the Angels and Tigers big money payouts. The Angels will likely be overpaying Pujols over the last half of his contract, but they should be able to sell out their stadium and have expectations of a championship in the short term. They’ll also get the publicity benefits of Pujols 500th and 600th home runs and if Pujols is really 32 years old (players from the Dominican Republic tend to lose a few years off their age when trying to get to the major leagues) he should be able to make a run at Hank Aaron’s steroid free home run record of 756 and Barry Bonds drug aided 762 homers.
The Tigers purchase of Fielder is the sign of a team with a rich owner (Little Ceasers magnate Mike Illitch) trying to get over the top after last years near miss, but I can see this particular purchase backfiring. The Tiger’s home park is less hitter friendly than Miller Park in Milwaukee so I expect Fielder’s power numbers to suffer and if his self-image is tied too closely to being one of the league leaders in home runs, he might become an all or nothing slugger in his quest to overcome the large dimensions at Comerica Stadium in Detroit. While Fielder is young, he also weighs 275 pounds. The massive sluggers that remind me of Fielder are Mo Vaughn and Fielder’s dad Cecil. Both men’s careers were effectively over at the age of 32, possibly from carrying way too much weight. Fielder is only 27 so the Tigers can rightly expect to have at least a few years of top-flight play from their new first baseman.
Major League Baseball added a fifth playoff team this year so now the 2 teams that don’t win their division will play each other in a one game playoff to continue on in the playoffs. The assumption is that the extra game will provide the television ratings and excitement that were provided by last year’s regular season end, when the final playoff team in each league wasn’t settled until the final plays of the Baltimore-Boston and Atlanta-Philadelphia games. What the baseball decision makers forget is that drama can’t be manufactured and if the same scenario as last year played out, there would be no drama in the end of the regular season because all the affected teams would have clinched their playoff berths.
Baseball still has the fewest teams of all the major sports making the playoffs (10 vs. 12 for football and 16 for basketball), but it also has by far the longest season. The extra playoff team will no doubt give an extra few weeks hope for perennial losers like the Royals and Pirates that they can somehow claw their way into the playoffs as the last team but the end result will be to allow big money teams like the Red Sox, Tigers, Angels, Phillies, and yes the Yankees another opportunity to get into the playoffs on an occasional off year. At some point the novelty of the play-in game will lose its luster and baseball will take the next step in rendering the longest regular season in all sports more meaningless by expanding the playoffs yet again. I expect the Yankees to be able to get in the playoffs with at least the 5th best record in the league and then there postseason fate will come down to whether the Pineda gamble has given them a second stud to go along with Sabathia.