The Yankees sit in an uncertain position after a disappointing 2013 campaign that saw them finish in a tie for third place in the AL East and miss out on October baseball. In addition, the team’s -21 run differential last season shows the Yankees were fortunate to win as much as they did, something GM Brian Cashman acknowledged a few weeks ago.
The club’s frustrating year led to a busy winter for the Yankees, with the organization spending money on a number of veteran players to re-tool their squad. As a result, the Yankees will showcase an improved team in 2014, though big questions remain. New York’s core is still among the oldest in baseball, and the competitiveness of the AL East means a return to the postseason is far from certain.
2013 Season in Review:
Injuries and a mediocre offense limited the Yankees to 85 wins in 2013, ultimately causing them to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson, and Mark Teixeira all missed significant time, a reality that left the Yankees offense in a sorry state for much of the season. In their place, the likes of Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells, Chris Stewart, and an aging Ichiro all performed at below league-average levels, leading to an offense that scored just 650 runs and posted a wRC+ of 85 (both of which were the club’s lowest totals since 1990).
New York’s struggles on offense drew attention away from what was one of the better pitching staffs in baseball. Yankee hurlers finished the season with a 96 FIP- (fifth in the AL), allowing just over four runs per game. Hiroki Kuroda delivered his second straight impressive season in the Bronx, compiling a 3.56 FIP and one of the lowest walk rates in the game. Behind Kuroda, Andy Pettitte pitched effectively again at the ripe age of 41, while Ivan Nova returned from early season injury to amass 2.5 WAR in just 139.1 innings. These performances were enough to make up for the struggles of CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes, though not enough to carry the team’s woeful offense into October. In his final major league season, Mariano Rivera performed just as we had come to expect, posting a 3.05 FIP and saving 44 games. Ultimately, though, not even Rivera’s farewell tour could propel an old and depleted Yankees roster into the postseason.
Key Offseason Moves:
To no one’s surprise, the Yankees were big spenders this winter, signing a number of high-priced free agents to long-term contracts. In one of the offseason’s first major signings, the Yankees knotted up Brian McCann to a five-year, $85 million deal. McCann should go a long way toward improving the club’s production at catcher after Yankee backstops combined to hit .213/.287/.298 and compile just 0.9 WAR in 2013. As Harry Pavlidis and Dan Brooks noted recently, McCann’s value is not just tied up in his bat either, with the 30-year-old consistently ranking among the best pitch framers in baseball.
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Less than two weeks later, the Yankees made another big splash, signing former nemesis Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year, $153 million contract. Ellsbury will give the Yankees the type of top-of-the-order threat they sorely lacked last season, and with his speed, above-average defense in center field, and contact ability, will add some much-needed flair to New York’s roster.
The team’s biggest offseason acquisition, however, might just prove to be Masahiro Tanaka, who arrives in America after seven seasons in Japan. The right-hander isn’t quite the talent Yu Darvish was when he made the transition from Japan, but Tanaka is no slouch, posting an ERA below 2.00 for three straight seasons in Nippon Professional Baseball. If Tanaka can pitch as well as his $155 million contract indicates, he will go a long way toward aiding a Yankees rotation that suddenly looks thin with the uncertainty surrounding CC Sabathia, and Andy Pettitte’s retirement. At the very least, watching major league hitters try to figure out Tanaka’s top-notch splitter should make for fun viewing.
One to Watch:
For the second straight season, the Yankees will say goodbye to a legend, as Derek Jeter begins his final major league campaign. There is no denying Jeter’s Cooperstown-worthy credentials—13 All-Star appearances, 3,316 hits, a .381 lifetime OBP—but the Yankee captain will also be crucial to the team’s success in 2014. New York’s infield depth is razor thin, and if Jeter can’t stay healthy, the club’s offense could suffer again as a result. With no viable backups at first, second, or third base, the Yankees need Jeter to stay healthy. Plus, after 19 big-league seasons, it would be a shame to see Jeter struggle through an injury-riddled year as he says his goodbye to baseball.
Yankees By the Numbers:
Despite their busy offseason, the Yankees’ future is uncertain at best. In their 25-and-under talent rankings, Baseball Prospectus recently ranked the organization 28th out of the 30 MLB clubs. The Yankees have a dearth of young talent, as they continue to invest in aging players on the free-agent market and their farm system struggles to develop any impact players of note. At 25, Tanaka is among the youngest players on the team’s roster, and without him, Baseball Prospectus would have ranked the Yankees dead last in 25-and-under talent. That is an eye-opening reality, and it puts even more pressure on the club to win now after spending big this offseason.
2014 Team Outlook:
With McCann, Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran in the fold, the Yankee offense should be back to its high-scoring ways. But this team still faces numerous questions heading into the 2014 season. Will the pitching staff hold up if Sabathia’s decline continues and Tanaka struggles to adapt to life in the majors? Can the Yankees really contend in the AL East with an infield that lacks depth and star power after the departure of Robinson Cano? Will Derek Jeter stay healthy and play well enough at shortstop? Can David Robertson replace Mariano Rivera, and, perhaps more importantly, who will fill Roberston’s former role in the eighth inning?
The Yankees face far more question marks this season than they are used to. If everything breaks right, the club can contend for a playoff spot. But if injuries again ransack the roster and the team’s veterans show their age, it will likely be another disappointing season in the Bronx. They will be better than they were last year, but that doesn’t mean the Yankees will be any better off when October arrives.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.
Alex Skillin is a writer and editor at Beyond the Box Score and also contributes to SB Nation's MLB newsdesk. He writes, mostly about baseball and basketball, at a few other places across the Internet. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexSkillin.