New York Yankees: See you in October


 

Al Downing

Best known for throwing Hank Aaron's 715th home run in 1974, Downing was also the first African-American to pitch for the New York Yankees. Debuted in 1961, he was up for good in 1963, when he was 13-5 with a 2.56 ERA in 25 starts. Pitched 200 innings four straight years; was an All-Star in '67 when he was 14-10 with a 2.63 ERA. Won 78 games in nine seasons with the Yankees before a mid-life crisis baseball-wise; he was traded three times around a 5-13 1970 season (bringing Danny Cater to the Yankees, who brought them Sparky Lyle; and dealt once for Tito Francona, Terry's father). In spring training of '71 he was dealt to the Dodgers, and he had his best season for them. He won 20 games for L.A. in '71 with a 2.68 ERA and finished third in the Cy Young voting and 10th in the MVP voting. Pitched six more seasons for the Dodgers and won 26 more games, gradually losing his spot in the rotation. Did start for the Dodgers in '74 World Series; loss to Oakland was his third straight, and last, in Series without a win. Won 123 games in career that spanned parts of 17 seasons; lifetime ERA was 3.22.

I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: Dante Bichette is 48, or a year younger than Jamie Moyer. But when you see the Bichette name this summer it won’t be for dad, second in the NL MVP voting in 1995, but son Dante Jr., who is a 19-year-old third baseman for the Yankees. Bichette won’t be up for at least a couple more years (if he’s not traded), but he ought to be arriving before Alex Rodriguez gets to Barry Bonds’ home run record. Bichette homered twice in Saturday’s spring training game, and hit .342 last summer during an MVP season in the Rookie Level Gulf Coast League. When dad hit .340 and 40 homers in Colorado in 1995, his value was so inflated he had a WAR of only 0.3. Son’s numbers will be legit.

What is this man doing here? The Yankees invited Bill Hall to camp, presumably for his versatility — he’s played every position but catcher and first base in his 10-year career. Unfortunately for the Yankees, Hall is just as versatile on offense, where he can make outs in any number of ways: strikeouts (3.5 for every walk, and 104 for the 2010 Red Sox in just 344 at-bats), on the bases (40 caught stealings in 102 attempts), or double plays (he’s not so bad here, probably because he doesn’t make enough contact). Hall hasn’t batted more than .247 since 2007, and the occasional extra-base hit (.436 slugging) seems rarer and rarer as summer goes on. Ask a Red Sox fan.

What he said: Yankees GM Brian Cashman on Michael Pineda’s injury: “He can’t be damaged goods because there is no damage. Seattle sent us a healthy pitcher.” What he meant: “You think we’re stupid? We sent them a catcher who can’t catch.”

Outlook: The Yankees will probably win the AL East, but that’s not enough. They might win the AL pennant, but that’s not enough. They might even win the World Series, but if they don’t it will be excitement as wasted as the occasional misfired John Sterling home run call (“It is high, it is not so deep”).

There’s two possible outcomes for the Yankees this year: winning the World Series is one, and everything else is tied for second. This is the burden of an annual $200 million payroll, 27 World Series already won, a roster of All-Stars and a fan base that is all sure (of the 25 Yankees expected to go north, 16 have been picked for the All-Star Game at least once).

The Yankees were unusually measured this offseason, adding three players of note: pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, signed as a free agent at $10 million can’t be any worse than the departed A.J. Burnett; Miguel Pineda, acquired by trade for Jesus Montero, should be better and slimmer than Bartolo Colon; and outfielder/DH Raul Ibanez, signed for just more than a million dollars, or a season’s worth of limo fares, is soon to be 40, younger than Jorge Posada. He’ll be a better baserunner, too, if he ever gets on.

Pineda will start the season on the disabled list, and there’s a certain irony to that. The Yankees are one of the oldest teams in baseball — at least 14 who open the season are 30 years of age or older — and the youngest player is hurt before the first pitch is thrown. Not a good omen.

Age has two enemies even more hated than the Red Sox — injuries, and depreciation of skill. The Yankees were fortunate in the first regard last year. Alex Rodriguez missed 63 games  and Derek Jeter had a short stint on the DL (which seemed to revive him), but five other Yankees played 150 games or more.

But Yankees not named Mariano Rivera weren’t as fortunate talentwise, where numbers plummeted even as salaries remained constant. Consider:

  • First baseman Mark Teixeira, 32 in nine days, hit .248, 33 points under his career average, and his .835 OPS was 69 points less than his career average. That made two straight years of middling numbers — he batted .256 with an .846 OPS in 2010. 2012 salary (ESPN.com): $23 million.
  • Third baseman Alex Rodriguez, 37 on July 27, played only 99 games last year and had his worst year ever (given, of course, that bar is set in the third deck). A-Rod hit .276 and slugged just .461 — he hadn’t slugged less than .500 since 1997 — and like Teixeira, his numbers mirrored 2010 (.270, .506, .847 OPS). Rodriguez has stolen just four bases in each of the last two years; his previous career low was nine. 2012 salary: $32 million.
  • Derek Jeter defied time and hit .327 for the second half of 2011, but still came in at .297, 16 points below his career .313 average. His decrease in power was more stark — he slugged .388, 61 points less than his career .449, his OPS was just .749. Like the others, his 2011 numbers more closely resembled 2010 (.270, .370, .710 OPS), than his career’s (.313, .449, .832). 2012 salary: $14.7 million.

It’s worth noting that even in some stages of decline, the Yankees infielders are plus players. They may not be as good as they once were, or as good as their salaries are, but they’re better than almost all of their contemporaries.

Combine that with MVP-caliber years from Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano, a third straight great season from CC Sabathia, and great bullpen years from Rivera and David Robertson, and the Yankees won 97 games last year (if you’re a Joe Girardi hater, baseballreference.com’s Pythagorean sample says the Yankees should have won 101 games last year).

The Yankees should win as many again this year. But the only thing that really matters is if they win the last one.

Team song: Randy Newman: It’s Money That Matters

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2 Responses to New York Yankees: See you in October

  1. Jeff Navin says:

    All the infielders – with the exception of Robinson Cano – should start no more than 130 games this season. That will keep them healthy and provide at-bats for Eduardo Nunez and Eric Chavez.

    • Makes sense in theory. Problem is Chavez has averaged barely 30 games a season over the last four, and injuries seem to have robbed his power. And Nunez does do a lot of things well — he stole 22 bases, had 25 extra-base hits, hit .265 last year — but fielding isn’t one of them. Made 20 errors. My mother the Yankee fan grew to curse his name. Of course, that’s why bench players are bench players

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