Friday, March 30, 2007

New Jork Jan-kees Beisbol

I have been previewing Yankees seasons since the Internet was a few computers linked to Al Gore's hive mind. Indeed, in April of 1996 I wrote that "the departure of Yankee hero Don Mattingly will be eased by the young talent of rookie shortstop Derek Jeter" and that "the Yankees will improve upon their wild card finish in 1995." Pretty good for a sixth grader, eh?

Eleven years later the Yankees have won four world championships, but none in the past six seasons. This caused the front office to open up the franchise's massive wealth (remember, of the title teams, only the 2000 Yankees led the league in payroll). Jason Giambi, Mike Mussina, Gary Sheffield, Jaret Wright, Carl Pavano, and others were signed without regard for expense. The farm system was sacrificed for the likes of Javier Vazquez and Randy Johnson. Then, in the offseason following a disappointing exit at the hands of the Angels in 2005, a change. Brian Cashman was given free reign over the payroll and personnel. Though Johnny Damon was signed to a large contract, it was not the "beat all other offers with more money" kind of signing from years past. During the season, Cashman traded a couple of bags of balls and Matt Smith to the Phillies for Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle.

This off-season, the Yankees conducted three trades involving aging, deteriorating veterans. And they traded them away. While perhaps the bounty could have been more diverse than the six right handed pitchers received in exchange for Randy Johnson, Gary Sheffield, and Jaret Wright, the shift in roster building approach is the most exciting news out of Yankeeland in years. Homegrown talent Robinson Cano, Chien-Ming Wang, and Melky Cabrera joins the core of homegrown talent from the late 90s dynasty (Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and the returning Andy Pettitte). It poses a problem for Yankee-haters: while I don't expect them to stop their jealous hate, they will have to change their attacks. Should the Red Sox sign Roger Clemens, they, and not the Yankees, will have the highest payroll in baseball. By June and the likely call-up of phenom Phil Hughes will give the Yanks a roster that is nearly half home-grown. Which other big-market teams can claim that?

Taking off the rose-colored glasses for a minute, there are weaknesses to the 2007 squad. The pitching staff lacks that "ace" that is always treasured- but Wang will return in April to join a strong core of Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte. The performance of Japanese import Kei "Quest" Igawa and Carl "I'm not made of glass, I swear" Pavano remains to be seen. I feel that the pitching staff is better than last years', and that staff was far enough above terrible to allow the Yankees offense to slug its way to a tenth consecutive division title.

The lineup, meanwhile, remains largely intact. The futility at the plate of Doug Mientkievicz (almost got it right on the first try. I before e.) will take the role of Bernie Williams' recent futility, or Tony Womacks' before him. Like Williams and Womack, I have a feeling that Mientkievicz will be replaced by midseason, either by Josh Phelps playing full-time or Jason Giambi returning to the field more often. The rest of the lineup is strong, with the typical all-stars at every other position. The bullpen is much stronger than last years', and deeper as well, so when Joe Torre decides to take some right arm hostage (see Proctor, Scott; Sturtze, Tanyon; Quantrill, Paul) there will be adequate replacements.

The biggest threat to the Yankees' AL East streak is injuries in the wrong places. The team would suffer greatly with an injury to Jeter, Rodriguez, or Posada, as there are few replacements in the minors. However, infielders can be had via trade (using the RHP surplus built up by Cashman), which leaves back-up catcher as the primary weakness for the Yankees. So the biggest weakness is a "might/maybe" injury to an aging, but healthy catcher- it sounds like a recipe for a repeat performance as the best team in (regular season) baseball in 2007.

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