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March 11, 2004

Breaking Balls

Handicapping the Yankees

by Derek Zumsteg

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I've been looking for a gap in the Yankees armor this year, hoping to see where they might stumble and miss the playoffs. And, uh, it's not looking really good for me.

It's pretty easy for most teams. Despite the efforts of new GM Bill Bavasi, the Mariners can be taken apart pretty quickly: Edgar Martinez out for the season? Quinton McCracken subs at DH, and the offense dies. Bret Boone blows out his knee why playing weekend roller-hockey? Hello, Willie Bloomquist! An injury to Randy Winn or Ichiro Suzuki? Mmm, McCracken...we just can't get enough.

The Yankees have problems, but there's not much that causes a collapse. Last year we could look at the middle infield and see the lack of depth as a spike-filled pit, and when Derek Jeter got a knee dropped on his shoulder, in they fell. This year, a Jeter injury means the best shortstop ever goes back to his natural position. Sure, someone has to play third, but it's not that hard to scrape together a stop-gap solution. Heck, they were about to do it before they decided to blow the doors off and bring in Alex. Aaron Boone the Honest could be back in time to bring adequacy to the position. Second base looks bad, but:

  1. Anyone who thinks Jose Vidro or reasonable facsimile won't be there by the end of the season is nuts
  2. It's not as if it's going to get worse as the season goes on, and we're looking to weaken the team

There are a couple, though. There's Jorge Posada, for instance. The difference between Posada and John Flaherty...it's like the difference between Posada and Flaherty. Catchers take an enormous amount of abuse, and they're always going to be injury risks. Posada's PECOTA projections have a strong cautionary message to them: his collapse rate, the chance his production will drop by a quarter or more, is 23.5%, and his attrition rate, the chance his plate appearances will drop off severely, is 12.5%. Seems pretty severe... except that compared to his similar-hitting guys of a similar age, that's not so bad. The outfielders particularly have much, much lower attrition rates (5% or about there), but PECOTA doesn't see Posada as a significantly greater risk to stop hitting than his peers.

And don't forget about Jason Giambi. When I was growing up in a lower lower-middle-class suburb of Seattle, for much of the year I would get home from school and watch cartoons (because it rains most of the fall, all of the winter, and most of the spring). We had only one station, KSTW, that showed cartoons, and they bought Superfriends for $1 and showed it every year until the tapes wore out. There was one episode ("Superfriends, Rest in Peace") where the Legion of Doom finally gets their act together and kills off those stupid Superfriends. And I watched it, awed and stunned, unable to believe that not only was I finally seeing these moronic superheroes get what they deserved, but that the writers would dare to push the envelope this far. And then, Lex Luthor, in his moment of triumph, holding the weapon that brought about his victory, says "Well, I won't be needing this anymore" and tosses the Noxium crystal away, which proves to be his undoing.

Steinbrenner is Luthor. The tossed-aside weapon is Nick Johnson, who I fully expect to have a monster season for the ages. If only he'd been tossed to the Blue Jays or Red Sox. PECOTA seems blind to Giambi's knee, but considering the careers of those who've suffered similar injuries, don't we have to think there's a good chance this will be it?

And that's pretty much it. Remove those two guys all season, though, and the team's down over a hundred runs over what they'd likely be able to cobble together on short notice. (Of course, they'd still field a top-10 offense. Dang it.)

The outfield's flexible, if not stellar on both sides of the inning: Hideki Matsui can sub into center if both Bernie Williams and Kenny Lofton are out. If the baseball gods finally do get around to stepping on Sheffield (and maybe they're just running a backlog because so many bad, bad things happened in the '70s and '80s).

The pitching staff doesn't see much unusual risk to cheer spirits. Mike Mussina and Javier Vazquez look as safe as a pitcher gets. Kevin Brown a little more, but as many playoff teams have proven before them, you get to and succeed in the playoffs with a short rotation. Even if no one else pans out at the back end and one of those three has their right arm fall off on the mound, they'd still field a 1-2 punch that matches up with anyone.

So for everyone worried their team's going to be good-but-not-great, and might miss the division pennant, between the Yankees and Red Sox things do look dim. The Yankees, at least, look like a team unlikely to fall apart in catastrophic fashion.

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