The Yankees topped the Tigers, 6-3, in an exciting opening day victory at Yankees Stadium. Bombers starter C.C. Sabathia matched the Tigers’ flamethrower Justin Verlander with a quality performance over six innings, but Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira and the team’s bullpen stole the show.
Down 1-0 in the bottom of the third inning, Mark Teixeira crushed a Verlander fastball into Yankees stadiums right field upper deck, driving in three runs. While the Tigers would eventually get to Sabathia and tie the game at 3-3, Granderson’s spectacular play in centerfield helped limit the damage early on. A couple of innings after his highlight-reel, diving catch in the outfield, Granderson hit a go-ahead solo homerun off of (former Yankees) lefthander Phil Coke.
Though Sabathia’s start wasn’t spectacular, the Yankees bullpen was. Three different pitchers–Joba Chamberlain in the seventh inning, Rafael Soriano in the eight, and Mariano Rivera in the ninth– pitched consecutive one-two-three innings, and needed only 39 pitches (combined) to do so. in his Yankees debut, Rafael Soriano followed Chamberlain’s shutdown seventh inning with an impressive performance of his own. On 14 pitches, Soriano pitched a clean eighth inning while adding his first strikeout in pinstripes. Rivera followed with a flawless ninth inning and his first save of the 2011 season (560th of his career).
Beginning this offseason with reports and controversy surrounding their interest in free agent ace pitcher Cliff Lee, and ending their Spring camp with an overhauled rotation and with plenty of optimism in their crop of prospects, the Yankees are set to compete for their 41st American League Pennant this season. While their front office did fall short of signing Cliff Lee, and while one of the most beloved pitchers in franchise history, Andy Pettitte, hung up his spikes, the Yankees’ parade of sluggers, superstar veterans, top-tier management and deep pockets will make them a formidable opponent for the powerhouse (and favorite to win the AL East) Boston Red Sox to compete against.
LF Brett Gardner
SS Derek Jeter
1B Mark Teixeira
3B Alex Rodriguez
2B Robinson Cano
DH Jorge Posada
RF Nick Swisher
CF Curtis Granderson
C Russell Martin
Gardner and Jeter ‘Set the Table’
The Yankees will move shortstop Derek Jeter back to the number-two hole in the lineup and will slot speedy outfielder Brett Gardner in as the full-time leadoff man. Gardner had a breakout season on both sides of the ball last year, posting a .383 OBP, 47 stolen bases, and 4.0 WAR overall while rating as the best defensive leftfielder in baseball. While his platoon splits (.252 average vs. LHP’s) suggest that he’ll still have trouble against tough lefthanders, number-two hitter Derek Jeter’s career .906 OPS against southpaws remedies this problem. Though Jeter has proven himself as a sold leadoff man, he’ll return to the two-hole–the spot he’s spent the majority of his career hitting out of. Hitting between Teixeira and Gardner, should allow Jeter to excel at what he does best– getting on base and scoring runs.
The Meat of the Order
With annual All-Stars and MVP-contenders Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano hitting three-four-five, the middle of the Yankees’ lineup is the best in baseball. All three batters have 30 homerun-power and each of them regularly ranks among league leaders in nearly every (statistical) offensive category. While Teixeira and Rodriguez both had down seasons in 2010, both sluggers still hit at least 30 homeruns and drove in at least 100 runs, and both are talented enough to rebound with monster performances in ’11. Alex Rodriguez is now two years removed from hip surgery, and has said that he feels as healthy as ever. This winter, Teixeira, who annually suffers from a slow start to his seasons, has made a concerted effort to put an end to his streaky hitting.
Given the chance, Robinson Cano would rate as one of the games best clean-up hitters. With Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez hitting in front of him however, Cano will have to settle for the title of best five-hitter in baseball. An all-around player, his sparkling defense, .319 batting average, .914 OPS and 73 extra-base-hits last season won him both a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger and helped him finish third in the American League MVP race. His swing is near-perfect and his athleticism makes him a premier second baseman. He turned 28 years-old in October and with his game is firmly entrenched in his prime years, he should make another run at the AL MVP in 2011.
The Bottom of the Yankees’ Batting Order is as Potent as Any Team’s
The bottom of the Yankees order is rounded out with designated hitter Jorge Posada, right fielder Nick Swisher, centerfielder Curtis Granderson and catcher Russell Martin. Posada, Swisher and Martin are all adept at getting on base, and they all consistently maintain on-base-percentages between %36 and %38. While he’s a starkly different batter when facing southpaws, against right-handed pitchers, Granderson has a career .890 OPS and racks up extra-base hits. After sitting out a handful of games this spring with a strained oblique, Granderson was named the Yankees’ opening day starter in centerfield and turned heads with his inspiring performance on Opening Day.
Posada Moves from Catcher to Designated Hitter
After starting 1,450 games at catcher in pinstripes, thirty-nine-year-old Jorge Posada will take over full-time DH duties in 2011. In nine out of his past eleven seasons, Posada has posted an OPS above .800 and has hit twenty or more homeruns eight times since 2000. With age and shoulder surgery causing a decline in his overall production since his immense 2007 campaign, Posada’s game could pick up now that he’s moved from behind the plate and focusing on driving in runs.
Plenty of Depth at important Positions
Though the Yankees’ offseason was relatively quiet– at least in comparison to that of the Boston Red Sox– General Manager Brian Cashman did a fined job addressing the team’s (lack of) depth. Andruw Jones, arguably the era’s top centerfielder, still offers plenty of glove and homerun pop. Jones’s career .863 OPS against lefties makes him a nice complement to Curtis Granderson in centerfield, and he’ll come in handy in a division heavy on premium southpaw pitchers– David Price, Jon Lester, Ricky Romero…
With Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter both pushing 36 years old, the team’s infield depth will be particularly important heading in to 2011. Defensive-wiz middle infielders Ramiro Pena and Eduardo Nunez can fill-in nearly anywhere on the diamond, and both have more than enough base-running speed to spare the aging hips/knees of Jeter and Rodriguez as pinch runners.
Newly signed veteran third-baseman Eric Chavez has a trophy case filled with Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers. While Chavez is still just thirty-three years old, numerous injuries and back surgeries have limited him to part-time duty. As a left-handed bat with pop, and because he can still offer some solid defense at the infield corners, he fits the Yankees needs well. His solid performance this spring convinced manager Joe Girardi to give him a spot on the team’s opening day roster.
The offseason addition of Russell Martin gives the Yankees’ an embarrassment of riches at catcher. Beyond Posada and Martin, the Yankees have the best crop of catching prospects in the big leagues– by a large margin. Jesus Montero, Austin Romine, and Gary Sanchez are all top prospects, while Francisco Cervelli has proven himself as a sold back up. While Montero and Romine will begin the season in the minors, they both have the talent to be premier catchers in the big leagues.
Yankees Shallow Rotation: Pitching a Problem
After losing one of the top pitchers in the organization’s history, Andy Pettitte, to retirement in February, the Bombers are left with one of the shallowest rotation among contending teams in the American League. Making the rotation even thinner, the team decided to part ways with Javier Vazquez, who disappointed in his second stint in New York, but still managed to provide the team with quality innings during the first half of the season.
While staff leader C.C. Sabathia remains one of the premier pitchers in baseball–leading the big leagues in wins and strikeouts since his debut in 2001—the rotation faces a bevy of questions overall. Number-two starter A.J. Burnett will have an increased amount of responsibility placed on his shoulder, even though he’s coming off of a career-worst season in ’10. Number-three starter Phil Hughes, who did a fine job in his breakout season last year, even making the AL All-Star team, seemed to crumble under a heavy workload in the second half of 2010. Reports that Hughes’ velocity had been uncharacteristically low (http://hardballtalk.nbcsports.com/2011/03/25/scouts-stunned-by-phil-hughes-lack-of-velocity-this-spring/) throughout his recent exhibition starts are certainly worrisome as well.
In comparison to the top three starters, the bottom of the Yankees rotation drops off considerably in terms of talent and reliability. The four and five spots will be manned by rookie sinkerball Ivan Nova and veteran righty Freddy Garcia (http://sports.yahoo.com/mlb/news?slug=ycn-8156371). Nova’s promising debut last season, coupled with his highly impressive performance this past spring suggest he could surprise with a valuable 2011. Freddy Garcia, who (clearly) is at the tail end of his solid career probably won’t end the season in the Yankees rotation, but could at least fill in long enough for the Bombers to acquire a better option.
After turning heads with their camp performances, top pitching prospects Manny Banuelos, Andrew Brackman and Dellin Betances proved that they’re only a few steps from the big leagues. Banuelos particularly, who took home the James P. Dawson Award earlier this week, could end up in the Yankees rotation—as a twenty-year-old—by mid-summer. Otherwise, the young lefty could headline a package of arms in a deal to add a top-tier starter to the rotation.
Revamped, “Lock-Down” Bullpen
With the addition of 2010 AL saves leader, Rafael Soriano, and workhorse lefty Pedro Feliciano, the Yankees’ bullpen has developed into the best in the big leagues. Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer in the history of the game, and at 41 years old he’s as dominant as ever. Soriano o will slot in as the games’ best set-up man, while Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson and Feliciano will make up a formidable group of middle relievers. With dominant performances in the Dominican Winter League and in Spring Training, veteran hurler Bartolo Colon impressed Manager Joe Girardi enough to earn a spot as the ‘pen’s long reliever.
The Yankees bullpen isn’t just talented and well rounded, but it’s deep as well. With Feliciano beginning the season on the disabled list, the Yankees will simply rely more on southpaw Boone Logan who posted a 2.93 ERA through forty innings with the team last season. hard-throwing, veteran Luis Ayala dominated opposing hitters this past spring, posting a .79 ERA , .209 BAA and good groundball rates through 11 innings. Making the team as a non-roster invitee out of camp, Ayala seems to have regained his step after losing much of the past three seasons to injuries.
Youngsters D.J. Mitchell, Hector Noesi, Adam Warren, Ryan Pope and David Phelps are all pitching in the upper levels of the minors (to begin the season) and they all have Major League futures. Hard-throwing righties Brett Marshall and Graham Stoneburner are only a step behind the others, and both have the stuff to pitching in the back-end of a big league bullpen.
While Pedro Feliciano and Francisco Cervelli will begin the season on the disabled list and reliever Damaso Marte is likely out for the season, the Yankees are surprisingly healthy heading in to 2011. Alex Rodriguez’s hip has finally healed, C.C. Sabathia begins the season in great shape and with a stronger right knee, and both Joba Chamberlain and Jorge Posada seemed to have recovered from the shoulder problems that limited their production throughout the past two seasons. While Curtis Granderson’s strained oblique generated some buzz this offseason, his fantastic Opening Day performance quieted any injury concerns.
Stiff Competition in the AL East
The Yankees remain one of the games powerhouses, but their division rivals, the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays are just as powerful—if not more. While they lost superstar outfielder to the Red Sox (via free agency) this offseason, the Rays still feature some of the games top talents. Pitcher David Price had a breakout season in 2010 and nearly took home his first Cy Young Award. When he’s on, Price is arguably the top left-handed pitcher in the game, and is certainly comparable to a younger C.C. Sabathia. The Rays’ rotation is rounded out with superb young talents in Wade Davis, James Shields, Jeff Niemann and Jeremy Hellickson. Hellickson is baseball’s top right-handed pitching prospects, while Davis has the premium stuff to pitch at the front of a rotation. The Rays’ crop of pitching prospects, led by lefty Matt Moore gives the team even more pitching depth.
Even Longoria, top outfield prospect Desmond Jennings and newly-signed veteran bats Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez give the Rays a potent offense to pair with their premium rotation. Longoria is one of the top players in the game—on both sides of the ball—while Ramirez and Damon both have enough juice left in their swings to produce runs at an above-average clip. Desmond Jennings, Ben Zobrist, B.J. Upton and Sean Rodriguez are all premium athletes, offering plus speed and good production at the plate.
The Red Sox Are the Favorite to Win the AL Pennant
Though the Rays are one of the top teams in baseball, the Red Sox are the top team in baseball. By signing annual MVP candidates Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford this offseason, the Red Sox now feature the most well rounded team in baseball. Offensively, Gonzalez will combine with All-Star sluggers David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis and J.D. Drew to drive in massive run totals, while burner Carl Crawford will join premium table-setters Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury to wreak havoc on the bases.
Even the team’s bench, led by All-Star outfielder and Gold Glove winner Mike Cameron, is among the games’ best. Utility infielder, Jed Lowrie, like Cameron, would be starting for nearly any other team in the Bigs. The Sox have their team captain and a three-time All-Star slotted in at back-up catcher, while their fifth outfielder, power-armed Darnell McDonald produced a .766 OPS in 117 games last season.
Rotation-wise the Red Sox outdo the Yankees even further than the Rays do. While Sabathia tops any of Boston’s starters, the Sox rotation projects to be one of the best in recent history. All-Stars and 2010 Cy Young Award contenders Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz will be followed by John Lackey, ’07 ALCS MVP Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Both Lester and Buchholz should appear on the 2011 AL Cy Young ballot while the other veterans still have All-Star experience and stuff.
Projected W-L Record: 96-66, AL Wild Card
While the Red Sox are the heavy favorite to win the American League East, the Yankees aren’t far behind. Though the Red Sox have the superior pitching rotation, the Yankees match Boston in every other facet of the game. While the Bombers will more than likely take home the AL Wild Card, they could still win the East if everything breaks right—particularly if they can add a top-tier starter at the trade deadline. A major difference maker for the Yanks’ is their stocked farm system. With premium talents like Jesus Montero, Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, Austin Romine and Eduardo Nunez to go along with a deep supply of second-tier prospects, General Manager Brian Cashman has the bargaining chips to bid for a Francisco Liriano, C.J. Wilson or (even) Felix Hernandez.