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November 6, 2009
New York Yankees
Baseball Prospectus' Pre-season Projection: 99-63, first place
A-Rod got his first ring, while Jeter, Posada, Rivera, and Pettite got their fifth. Can they all do it again?
Buster Olney of ESPN.com's Take
What went wrong: With all the tickertape fluttering over the Yankees in their parade, it's easy to forget that they actually did have some hurdles to overcome in 2009, from Alex Rodriguez's steroid stuff and hip injury to the loss of Chien-Ming Wang to the erratic showing of Joba Chamberlain. But mostly, everything went right, with CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira doing exactly what they were hired to do and immediately lifting the team to its 27th championship. The Yankees have an excellent core of players, a farm system that continues to improve, and, with the latest title, reason to believe that their already strong revenues will grow.
Biggest puzzler on the drawing board: They will likely retain either Hideki Matsui or Johnny Damon, but they have to patch and plug the back end of their rotation. Joe Girardi was heavily criticized for the rotation choices he made in the postseason, but internally, the Yankees felt they really had almost no options beyond the Big Three of Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Andy Pettitte; Chamberlain didn't develop any consistency as a starter, and Wang and Ian Kennedy got hurt. The Yankees are expected to offer arbitration to Pettitte, and will probably again prepare both Chamberlain and Phil Hughes as possible starters next spring-but eventually, one or both will have to be locked into the rotation. Short of that, the Yankees will need to go out and get another starting pitcher, and while the Yankees really don't have any hard plans to spend big money on free agents this winter, rival teams think John Lackey will be there for the taking for the Yankees, if they are willing to commit to a deal of five years for the right-hander. No matter what they decide, the Yankees will undoubtedly go into 2010 as the favorites to repeat as World Series champions.
The Baseball Prospectus Take
PECOTA predicted the Yankees to have the best record in baseball, and that was precisely what happened. It suggested that the pitching would be a bit better than it turned out to be, and the offense a bit worse. Instead, the offense exploded, leading baseball in scoring thanks to the addition of Teixeira, continued good work from Damon, big comeback years from Jorge Posada, Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter, Nick Swisher, and Matsui, and an unexpectedly large contribution from Alex Rodriguez, who made a shockingly rapid and productive return from hip surgery and steroid controversy. They were also aided by a new ballpark that rewarded power, which the Yankees had in spades.
The Yankees were 13-15 without A-Rod, and had already gone 0-for-5 in games against the Red Sox. His return roughly coincided with the beginning of the team's second in-season bullpen reconstruction project in two seasons, with Hughes excelling as the eighth-inning set-up man, a role that might have been too constricting for his talents but nonetheless solved the intractable problem of how to bridge the gap from the starters to closer Mariano Rivera, the best closer in baseball (as per expected wins added, or WXRL). The bullpen straightened out to the point that the unit as a whole also ranked first in WXRL. These changes helped the Yankees gel around the All-Star break, and they rolled from there, going 55-26 in the second half of the schedule and blowing past Boston.
The only remaining problem, which the Yankees never quite licked, was the starting rotation after the top three starters. Wang was ineffective, then lost to injury, while Chamberlain was inconsistent but serviceable, at which point the the second set of "Joba Rules" were applied and he completely fell apart. Fortunately for the Yankees, the sprawling postseason schedule allowed them to use the top three starters exclusively, and also let them lean heavily on Rivera when Hughes and the other relievers seemed to develop a case of stage fright. Between the deep lineup and the veteran competence of the starters and closer, the Yankees emergence from the postseason dogpile as champions was no surprise.-Steven Goldman, Baseball Prospectus
Key stat: 30.7
The Yankees are an old team, particularly among the position players; 30.7 is the average age of the hitters, weighted by playing time. The Yankees were the oldest team in their league and third-oldest in the majors. Posada tuned 38 in August. Jeter, entering his contractual walk year, will be 36 in June, and Rodriguez will turn 34 a month after that. Damon and Matsui, either of whom might be retained, will both be 36 next season. On the pitching side, Pettitte (unsigned) is going on 38, and Rivera-upon whom so much depends-will soon turn 40 and is also heading into his walk year. The Yankees have accomplished great things with this core of talent, but they may soon run the risk of having it age out from under them. Unfortunately, while their farm is on the verge of producing some useful players, very few prospects turn out to be a Jeter, Posada or Rivera, and that's the level of talent the Yankees will soon need to replace.-Steven Goldman, Baseball Prospectus
ESPN.com Rumor Central
Free Agency: If you think New York is incapable of landing the top free agent pitcher two years in a row, then you haven't been paying attention to baseball since Shoeless Joe got in trouble. Bottom line, as Buster has told Rumor Central: most GMs think if the Yanks want Lackey, they can get him.
Depth Chart: So if Rivera can't pitch forever, and Chamberlain seems perpetually tied to pitch counts, many think it's time to simply let Hughes be a starter and keep Joba in the pen. Whatever happens, don't think Girardi wants another season where it all seems in flux.
Who 2 Watch 4: Austin Jackson, CF
While Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner supply a solid-but-unspectacular center-field combination, at some point Austin Jackson is going to enter the picture as well. An outstanding athlete who turned down the opportunity to play hoops at Georgia Tech in order to pursue baseball, Jackson spent all year at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre while batting .300 with 24 stolen bases. Improved plate discipline and a bit more power could have him leapfrogging the current two-headed monster in short order.-Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus
The Bottom Line
The Yankees finally won an elusive fifth championship with a team built around Jeter and his aging cohort, with a manager who was once a teammate. They spent over $200 million to get there, but unlike past spending sprees, this one was intelligently conducted-bringing them Sabathia and Teixeira where they once were signing the likes of Carl Pavano and Doug Mientkiewicz and filling out the roster with reanimated cadavers like Ruben Sierra. They also refrained from throwing millions at (or trading prospects for) veteran relievers, even when the bullpen failed, which is usually the first resort of general managers more likely to end up as a talking head on a baseball panel show than on the winners' podium.
The challenge for general manager Brian Cashman and Girardi in defending this title will be to do so without recourse to their financial means. The free agent market is weak, and their payroll may be testing even their generous limits. They'll also need to do it without subtracting too much from the team's strengths to help its weaknesses. For example, freeing up the designated hitter spot for Posada so the agile Francisco Cervelli can catch more often would perhaps be a moderate boon to the pitching and defense, but would effectively substitute Cervelli's bat for Matsui's, a huge downgrade. There is also the future disposition of starter/relievers Chamberlain and Hughes, and who among their many free agents to re-sign. Uneasy lies the crown; it will be a happy winter for the Yankees, but a hard one as far as the questions they need to answer.-Steven Goldman, Baseball Prospectus
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .