Winter report card: New York Yankees
With just a couple weeks before pitchers and catchers report, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2012, and I’ll revisit and adjust their grades to account for late-winter deals as spring training begins.
For all previously published report cards, click here.
New York Yankees
2012 Results: 95-61, 1st place in AL East (Hot Stove Preview)
Key departures: 3B Eric Chavez, RHP Pedro Feliciano, RHP Freddy Garcia, OF Raul Ibanez, OF Andruw Jones, RHP Derek Lowe, C Russell Martin, IF Casey McGehee, RHP Rafael Soriano, OF Nick Swisher, RHP Cory Wade
Key arrivals: OF Matt Diaz, DH Travis Hafner, 1B Dan Johnson, RHP Jim Miller, OF Juan Rivera, LHP Josh Spence, C Bobby Wilson, 3B Kevin Youkilis
The Yankees won their third division title in the past four years in 2012, and reached the playoffs for the 17th time in the past 18, but their shocking exit via an ALCS sweep by the Tigers seems to have set the tone for their offseason. Like an aging hitter left vulnerable to the breaking stuff because he’s cheating on the fastball by starting his swing early, the Yankees can’t seem to decide if they’re keeping aging their core together for one more run or preparing themselves for a future where their payroll may not be so unrestrained.
Looming a year from now is a $189 million luxury tax threshold which, under last year’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, would not only reset their marginal tax rate from 50 percent to 17.5 percent but also allow them to receive significant rebates with regards to revenue sharing, though perhaps not as significant as previously believed. After last year’s $209.8 million payroll, they now have $206.75 million committed for 2013, but just $81.6 million committed for 2014. With one exception, all of the contracts that general manager Brian Cashman has dished out this winter — to Hafner, Kuroda, Pettitte, Rivera and Youkilis — have been one-year deals; Suzuki’s two-year, $13 million deal is the exception. Yet the team still has a few glaring holes in the lineup, not to mention an unsettling lack of hitters whose careers are trending in the right direction.
The most notable example is at third base, where New York was already prepared to be without Alex Rodriguez until at least after the All-Star break due to his mid-January surgery to repair his left hip labrum. Last week’s report of his connection to a Miami clinic supplying illegal performance-enhancing drugs may lead to a suspension under the game’s Joint Drug Agreement, but that’s far from a sure thing, and the likelihood is that his 50-game sentence would be served during his rehabilitation, as those of Edinson Volquez and Freddy Galvis were (dream on if you’re expecting a buyout, retirement or exile to a penal colony).
In his absence, the 33-year-old Youkilis will serve as the regular third baseman. He’s coming off a year in which he missed time due to a lower back strain — the fourth straight season he’s wound up on the disabled list — and hit just .235/.336/.409 with 21 homers in 509 plate appearances, setting career lows in both batting average and on-base percentage. The alternatives weren’t much to write home about, but even so, his $12 million salary seems exorbitant given his decline and fragility.
That problem/solution combination at least make sense. The same can’t be said for the catching situation in the wake of Martin’s surprising departure for Pittsburgh via a two-year, $17 million deal (more on which below), or in rightfield, where Cashman let Swisher depart for Cleveland via a four-year, $56 million deal. It’s not that further investment by the Yankees in the 32-year-old Swisher — who hit .272/.364/.473 with 24 homers in 624 PA last year — was necessarily the right way to go given the possibility of both Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson being free agents next winter. It’s that they haven’t replaced him with another mid-lineup bat, and that they shelled out for two years of the 39-year-old Suzuki, who hit a torrid .322/.340/.454 in 240 PA after being acquired last summer but who’s clearly in decline, with a .277/.308/.361 line over the past two seasons, including .283/.307/.342 in 443 PA against lefties.
Thus he needs a platoon partner, but the two choices the Yankees have come up with, Diaz and Rivera, may not be up to the task any longer; it’s telling that both were brought in via minor league deals. Diaz, who turns 35 on March 3, hit just .222/.280/.333 in 118 PA for the Braves last year, and his .281/.328/.426 line against lefties over the past three seasons owes plenty to a robust 2010 that hasn’t been repeated. Rivera, 34, hit .244/.286/.375 in 339 PA for the Dodgers last year and owns a similarly mediocre .270/.329/.434 line against lefties over the past three years. The Yankees passed over Scott Hairston, who’s younger (32) and owns a somewhat more robust .263/.308/.464 line against lefties in that timespan, including a .550 slugging percentage in 199 PA last year; his two-year, $5 million deal with the Cubs was somehow more than what the Yankees could afford. For want of a nail . . .
In a rare showing of resourcefulness, the team signed the 36-year-old Hafner to an incentive-laden one-year, $2 million deal to serve as the designated hitter against righties. Last year, he hit .228/.346/.438 with 12 homers in 263 PA for the Indians and missed nearly three months due to in-season knee surgery and a bulging disc, the latest in a litany of injuries that have limited him to an average of 86 games over the past five seasons. His pull tendency should play well given the short rightfield porch in Yankee Stadium; he owns .278/.385/.470 line against righties over the past three seasons. Expect New York to rotate some of its aging position players such as Youkilis, Rodriguez and Derek Jeter (who’s recovering from a season-ending ankle injury that required surgery) through the DH slot, particularly with a southpaw on the mound. Eduardo Nunez (.298/.332/.436 since 2010 against lefties) or Jayson Nix (.248/.313/.424 in same) would be the likely fielding replacements and Hafner’s de facto platoon partners.
The pitching moves are more straightforward. Kuroda, who turns 38 on Feb. 10, signed a $15 million deal. In moving to the Yankees after four years with the Dodgers, he survived predictions of AL East-driven doom to post a 3.32 ERA in a team-high 219 2/3 innings while maintaining a 3.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio for the third straight year. The 40-year-old Pettitte signed a $12 million deal after shaking off a year of retirement and pitching even better than in his abbreviated 2010 campaign (2.87 ERA, 8.2 strikeouts per nine), albeit in even less time (12 starts, 75 1/3 innings) due to his late signing and a fractured fibula.
The Yankees will cross their fingers and hope the two of them can hold together for another season behind CC Sabathia, who is coming off surgery to remove a bone spur in his elbow after throwing just 200 innings, his lowest total since 2006. Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova will round out the rotation, with David Phelps waiting in the wings, and Michael Pineda possibly factoring in at some point in mid-summer as he returns from surgery to repair a torn labrum.
The bullpen will have a familiar look, with the 43-year-old Rivera returning from a torn ACL that knocked him out in early May after just nine appearances. He signed for $10 million and will retake the closer role, with Soriano opting out of the final year of his three-year deal and heading for the Nationals. At the other end of the fame and job security spectrum are the 30-year-old Miller and the 25-year-old Spence, two of the more interesting pitchers whom the Yankees signed to minor league deals. Miller is a journeyman who threw 48 2/3 innings for the A’s last year after totaling just 14 2/3 prior; he put up a 2.49 ERA despite less-than-sterling peripherals, but what’s intriguing is the .136/.237/.272 line to which he held lefties in 93 PA. Spence made just 11 appearances for the Padres in 2012 after making 40 the year before; he owns a 3.15 ERA, 9.2 strikeouts per nine and a .158/.247/.237 line in 86 PA against lefties. Small sample sizes, both, but with continued success, either could become a secondary weapon alongside lefty specialist Boone Logan.
Unfinished business: Fronting for the backups Martin’s departure is puzzling, as is the lack of a corresponding response from Cashman to bring in a veteran starter. Thus the Yankees’ catching corps now consists of Chris Stewart, Francisco Cervelli, Austin Romine and Wilson, none of whom has ever served as a major league regular. Stewart, 30, was Martin’s backup last year, hitting .241/.292/.319 in 157 PA and throwing out 23 percent of would-be base thieves. Cervelli, the Yankees’ backup catcher from 2009-2011, owns a lifetime major league line of .271/.339/.353, but his erratic throwing, which included 14 percent caught-stealing rates in both 2010 and 2011, and a whopping 15 throwing errors in 131 games in that span, led him to be banished to Triple-A last year. Romine, 24, is a defensively sound backstop who was limited to just 31 games in 2012 due to an inflamed disc in his lower back; he played nine games for the Yankees in 2011. Wilson, 29, spent years clinging to the Angels’ roster as a third catcher to allow for the flexibility of Mike Napoli, but it’s difficult to see what the fuss was about given his .211/.277/.292 line in 201 PA last year. That said, he did throw out 29 percent of stolen base attempts, and had the majors’ lowest rate of missed pitches (wild pitches plus passed balls) of any catcher with at least 400 innings, with 0.18; Stewart, by comparison, was at 0.41 in 395 innings, just shy of the cutoff.
By now, the free agent market isn’t very enticing, with Rod Barajas (.206/.283/.343 with 11 homers, not to mention a six percent caught stealing rate) the closest thing to starter material. Any fortifications would have to come from outside, so it’s surprising that Cashman didn’t try harder to swing a deal with the A’s when George Kottaras was recently designated for assignment. One trade candidate is the Rockies’ 37-year-old Ramon Hernandez, who has been supplanted by Wilin Rosario and is coming off a .217/.247/.353 line, but he also costs $3.2 million, the type of money Cashman is apparently loath to spend. A trade for the Reds’ 24-year-old Devin Mesoraco, who fell out of favor last year while hitting .212/.288/.352 in 184 PA, would presumably take more resources given his age and former status as a prospect.
Preliminary grade: D+. At a weighted average age of 32.7 years, the Yankee lineup was the oldest in the AL by nearly three full years, and yet they seem to have taken steps to get even older this winter while leaving significant holes in their lineup. Without a few more fixes — fixes that should be easy given this team’s resources, but which are suddenly agonizingly hard to come by — this may well be the year where age catches up to them and leaves them on the outside looking in.