2015 New York Yankees: Why their expectations run ahead of reality

Bill Stafford

Bill Stafford was a native of the Catskills who helped extend the Yankees dynasty until injuries prematurely ended his career. Stafford joined the Yankees in 1960 and pitched effectively in the last two months, mostly as a starter. His 2.25 ERA earned him six World Series relief innings, in which he allowed just one run. He was 14-9 in 1961 and 1962 as a member of the Yankees rotation as they won the Series both years. Stafford had a 2.68 ERA in ’61 and threw three shutouts and eight complete games; his 14th and final win of ’61 was more famous for Roger Maris’ 61st home run. It was the only run of a 1-0 Yankees win in which Stafford pitched six shutout innings to prepare for the World Series. Stafford started Game 3 of the Series to a no-decision in 6.2 innings, allowing two runs and trailing to a 2-1 deficit. The Yankees tied it on Johnny Blanchard’s homer in the eighth and won it 3-2 on a Roger Maris home run in the ninth. The next year Stafford pitched 213.1 innings to a 3.67 ERA, and won Game 3 of the Series on a complete game four-hitter, taking a Felipe Alou ground ball off his leg. That prevented him from pitching again in the Series. Stafford lost his spot in the rotation in ’63 when he fell to 4-8 with a 6.02 ERA because of injuries, and was an important reliever in ’64 (5-0 with a 2.67 ERA and four saves) when the Yankees won their last pennant of the era. The Yankees traded him to the Kansas City Athletics in a five-player deal in midseason 1966 — Fred Talbot, of Ball Four fame, went the other way — and Stafford lost his last five decisions with the A’s. By age 28, he had made his last major-league appearance. Career numbers: 43-40, 3.52 ERA, 18 complete games, six shutouts, nine saves, 785.2 innings, 103 ERA+, .673 OPS against, 1-0 with a 2.08 ERA in 21.2 Series innings, 7.1 WAR (3.6 in ’61).

On deck: Adam Warren won the competition to be the Yankees’ No. 5 starter this spring, which wasn’t so hard once Chris Capuano got hurt. Holding on to it will be more difficult. The Yankees’ top prospect is Luis Severino, a 21-year-old from the Dominican Republic, who has drawn comparisons if not who’s your daddy references to Pedro Martinez. Severino is unlike anyone in the Yankees’ rotation: he’s not injury prone, like Michael Pineda, expensive like CC Sabathia, unheralded like Warren or damaged like Masahiro Tanaka. Severino might soon be better than all of them, Tanaka with a healthy elbow excepted. Last year he started the season at low Class A and finished at AA, effective at every stop. He made 24 starts, fanned 127 in 113 innings and put up a 2.47 ERA — the highest part of it coming at the lowest level. Severino pitched twice in spring training this year and fanned five in 2.2 in innings, though he did allow six hits. He’s likely to start the season in Trenton, but finish it in New York.

Trivia: Brian McCann led the Yankees in home runs last year with 23. Who was the last catcher to lead the Yankees in home runs? Answer below.

What he said: Yankees part-owner Hank Steinbrenner: “We have to win. New York expects a winner and so do we.” What he meant: “If not, heads will roll, and it won’t be mine.”

Outlook: Manager Joe Girardi says the World Series is the Yankees’ goal in 2015, and “that’s why you play.” No word from Herm Edwards, but maybe it’s true everything is bigger and better in New York. Even the delusions of grandeur.

The Yankees won 84 games last year and were lucky to do that. They were outscored for a second straight season, were 20th in MLB in runs scored and 18th in team ERA, and then did little in the offseason other than dealing for a pitcher with a career 4.07 ERA and 15-35 record and re-signing an infielder who batted .162. Given Girardi’s managerial successes of the last two seasons, maybe the Yankees are asking too much.

Girardi did say the Yankees have to keep their middle of the order healthy — the pitchers go without saying — and therein is the rub.

It’s possible to envision a scenario in which the Yankees succeed in 2015, win a bad division and go beyond. But it means good health and the Yankees aren’t likely to have it, no matter how ardently they toast it.

Spring training isn’t over and already: Jacoby Ellsbury, who missed half a season in 2012 and virtually a whole one in 2010, has an oblique problem; Mark Teixeira, who missed almost all of 2013, bounced a ball off his knee; Didi Gregorius, who’s never been good enough to play a whole season, hurt his wrist; Chris Capuano, who re-signed with the Yankees for $5 million on the premise of being the fifth starter (after being released in 2014 by the Red Sox and sold by the Rockies), had a quad injury and is out till May; and Masahiro Tanaka started spring training with a partially torn ligament in his elbow.

That’s a fifth of the roster with one ailment or another before April, and so far the paragons of fitness are Alex Rodriguez, who’s almost 40, didn’t play last year and had his hips surgically mended, and pitcher Michael Pineda, who has made 13 starts in the last three seasons and been kicked out of one of them for having pine tar on his neck. No word on what substance was affecting his body parts higher up than that.

Even more foreboding, though, might be the March struggles of reliever Dellin Betances, whose velocity has reportedly been down as his spring ERA (7.11) is up.

The Yankees’ bullpen could be one of MLB’s best, even with David Robertson departing — if it stays healthy. But Betances pitched 90 innings last year, and only Carlos Torres among pure relievers pitched more. Only two others pitched even 80 innings — Betances pitched one fewer inning in 2013, despite making six minor-league starts. There’s reason to be concerned about Betances’ fastball, depsite what Jonathan Papelbon thinks of the radar gun (“Why do you guys care about velo so much, man?” Papelbon said in a memorable speech last year. “Is that — does that matter? You think that matters?” It might, and Papelbon then cited Roy Halladay, whose velocity dropped precipitously before his injury-forced retirement, sort of proving the point he was arguing against.)

Betances will combine with Andrew Miller, whom the Yankees signed instead of Robertson, which was a great plan for 2014. This year is less certain. Miller fanned 103 in 62.1 innings with a 2.02 ERA last year, after an injury shortened a promising 2013. Otherwise, Miller has a career 4.91 ERA and 269 walks in 492.2 innings, mostly as a failed starter.

The good news for the Yankees is Pineda has been healthy all spring and dominant (17 strikeouts to 1 walk), and Nathan Eovaldi of the 15-35, 4.07 career as a Marlin, has been what they hoped: 13.2 innings, 14 strikeouts, no walks, one run.

The better news is they haven’t been hurt — yet. But the Yankees will start the season with eight regulars at least 30 years old, and older players mostly do two things — get hurt or depreciate. Neither will help.

Trivia answer: Matt Nokes was the last catcher to lead the Yankees in home runs when he hit 24 for the Yankees in 1991. Nokes had one more than Kevin Maas, four more than Roberto Kelly and five more than Mel Hall. As you might have guessed by those names, the ’91 Yankees finished 71-91 and fifth in the seven-team AL East.

Team song: Will Ackerman: Last Dance

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