By Ed Valentine of Pinstripe Alley, and Jeff Sullivan
The New York Yankees did not stand pat after winning their 27th World Series title in 2009. General Manager Brian Cashman added starting pitching in Javier Vazquez, on base ability in Nick Johnson, and range in Curtis Granderson, and did not let sentimentality get in the way of dumping veterans Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui.
So the big question, of course, is: can the Yankees repeat? The answer - naturally - is a resounding "maybe," as there are a number of variables that have to break the right way in order for anyone to win a championship. The Yankees, however, certainly have the right mix of talent, meaning they're hoping against bad luck and untimely aging. Let's take a closer look at their roster.
The changes here have been well documented. Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui and Melky Cabrera are out. Curtis Granderson, Nick Johnson and Brett Gardner are in. The Yankees likely won't skip a beat. Granderson is younger, cheaper and more athletic than Damon. He could be a huge star in the Bronx. Johnson is not Matsui, but he is a terrific hitter when healthy. If he gets hurt, though, the Yankees do have other options, like the potent Marcus Thames. Gardner for Cabrera is a wash, and Gardner could be fun to watch with his speed.
The biggest question here is when will age finally begin to catch up with Jorge Posada (39) and Derek Jeter, who will be 36 this season? It has to at some point.
Here's a fun game for you to play at home: try to identify the Yankees' worst starting position player. Who's you pick? The young, speedy outfielder with the ability to get on base and catch everything hit in his direction? Or is it the injury-prone DH with the career .402 OBP? This is almost an embarrassment of riches. This team doesn't have a hole anywhere around the field - as it shouldn't - and while the depth could be a lot better, specifically in the infield, a whole lot of things would have to go wrong for the Yankees to find themselves in trouble, here. There just isn't an easy out to be found, and the glovework should be improved.
The big news here is the back of the rotation. The Yankees acquired Vazquez from the Braves to give them the depth they lacked in 2009. Hughes took the fifth spot in the rotation away from Joba Chamberlain. He will have an innings limit, like Chamberlain did last season, and that will be interesting to watch.
Something worth noting is that all three of Sabathia, Pettitte, and Burnett took a step back in 2009 from what they did in 2008. They each added some walks, and Sabathia and Burnett lost a few strikeouts as well. It's possible that this was a ballpark effect - that they recognized they were pitching in a launchpad and altered their approaches - but it's also possible that they simply got worse, as Pettitte and Burnett are well beyond 30 and Sabathia threw a lot of innings between 2007 and 2008.
And that's where Javy Vazquez comes in handy, because despite Vazquez's previous experience in New York, he's a phenomenal pitcher who finally pitched up to his stuff in 2009. Vazquez has always been blessed with a spectacular four-pitch repertoire, and last year with Atlanta he posted a career-best K/BB, at 5.4. He struck out more than nine hitters per nine innings, and walked fewer than two. Going from Atlanta to New York will take a bit of a toll on his numbers, and at 33, he's not about to get better, but Vazquez is one of the most effective and durable starting pitchers in baseball, and his addition is a bigger deal than many have admitted. When it's all said and done, Vazquez could very well end up being the ace of this staff.
The story here, of course, is that Chamberlain is in the pen. His stuff -- and his demeanor -- have always seemed better out of the bullpen. We will just have to wait and see if this is a permanent move for him.
Rivera, of course, is still Rivera. When will his age finally catch up with him? Someday, but probably not yet.
The criminally underrated arm in here is that of David Robertson, who uses his sneaky, overhand fastball to just blow batters away. He doesn't have the most impressive velocity in the world, topping out in the mid-90s and living closer to 91-92, but throughout his entire career, he's proven himself unhittable at every level. He racked up 215 strikeouts in 152.2 innings in the minors, and so far in the bigs, he's at 99 in 74. Robertson's command can betray him at times, and he's not yet among the best relievers in baseball, but he's going to pick up a lot of big outs for this relief corps as he continues to earn more and more trust.
In The System
The young guy most likely to make a splash at the major league level this season is right-handed reliever Mark Melancon. He got some big-league experience last season, but is poised to become a key part of the bullpen by season's end. Everyone is waiting to see prized prospect Jesus Montero. His bat is big-league ready, but his defense isn't. Can he catch? We'll see.
It will be interesting to see if home runs continue to fly out of the new Yankee Stadium at an alarming rate this season. The place earned the nickname 'Coors Field East' last season. ... the old Yankee Stadium is nearly gone. ... Joe Girardi will wear No. 28 this season. He had worn 27, since the Yankees were gunning for their 27th World Series title.
Can the Yankees win back-to-back titles? Impossible to predict, as there are so many variables. They should be a front-runner at season's end, though. In many ways, this team looks better than the 2009 version. Good health, and the ability of their aging stars to hold off Father Time, will have a lot to do with the outcome of 2010.