Can the Yankees win without their best player?

Scott Halleran

Robinson Canó's gone, but the Yankees have added three big-time players already this winter. Do they have enough to bounce back from their worst season in decades?

Whilst considering the big changes afoot in the Bronx this winter -- the additions of Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and now Carlos Beltrán; plus the subtraction of Robinson Canó -- it's important to understand JUST HOW FAR THE YANKEES HAD TO GO.

Unless you were paying a great deal of attention (which is to say, more attention than I was paying), you might have missed just how dreadful the Yankees were.

Yes, they won 85 games. That doesn't look so terrible.

But they were lucky to win 85 games. The Yankees were actually outscored by 21 runs. With just an average distribution of runs scored and allowed, the Yankees would have gone 79-83 rather than 85-77. Now, you might believe that Pythagorean (or Pythagopatean) records are bullshit, but we've got thousands of team-seasons in the ledger, and the evidence is overwhelming: Run differential tells us more about a baseball team than wins and losses.

Here's why I'm bothering you on a Saturday, though ... the Yankees were lucky to be outscored by 21 runs. For way too many years, I've been in the habit of looking at the run differentials and then moving along to the next thing. Even though I've known better for just as many years. Even better than runs scored and allowed? The little bits and pieces that contribute to runs scored and allowed.*

* You can actually look at the little bits and pieces that go into the little bits and pieces, if you work for the right people. But that's a weighty subject for another day.

Those little bits and pieces will give you what Clay Davenport dubbed "2nd Order Winning Percentage" ... and if you're a Yankees fan, you might want to cover your eyes for this next bit ...

Last season the New York Yankees had the little bits and pieces of a 71-91 team. If you're a regular Yankees fan, you might have figured the Yankees needed to add just five or six wins this winter to become competitive again. If you're a sophisticated Yankees fan, you figured maybe a dozen wins this winter. Congratulations! Now you're super-sophisticated! And you know the Yankees need to come up with TWENTY more wins, qualitatively.

Can this be done in one winter? It's both difficult and rare, but the Red Sox came up with 25 more wins between 2012 and '13. You might not be blown away by Ellsbury, McCann, and Beltrán ... until you realize whose plate appearances they'll be getting next season.

Nine Yankees finished 2013 with more than 250 plate appearances. Two of them (Canó and Brett Gardner) were really good. The other seven combined for approximately zero Wins Above Replacement. Not average. Replacement. Basically, seven of the Yankees' nine hitters were the Houston Astros. Which might seem impossible, until you remember that Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez and Curtis Granderson were all supposed to play, but rarely did.

The Yankees will be a LOT better with McCann behind the plate. They'll be a LOT better with Beltrán in the lineup, whether in right field or DHing. They'll be a LOT better with Ellsbury in center field. They'll be a lot better without Ichiro Suzuki, Vernon Wells, and Chris Stewart in the lineup.

The Yankees should also benefit from a full season of Alfonso Soriano, and the returns of Jeter and Teixeira. It's not clear who's going to play third base ... but the answer cannot be worse than the Jayson Nix/David Adams combination that was so dreadful before A-Rod returned to the lineup. I don't think it's a stretch to suggest the Yankees will be better at seven of nine positions, all except second base (where Canó will be missed) and left field (where Gardner will probably do what he usually does).

Which doesn't mean they're set. They've lost Mariano Rivera, a great relief pitcher. More worrisome, they've lost a great second baseman. They need somebody good to replace Canó; a replacement, but not a replacement player. And they need Jeter or Teixeira to bounce back with a good season (both would be nice, but that might be too much to ask). Oh, and they need to find someone for Andy Pettitte's old rotation slot.

Even with all that, the Yankees aren't Opening Day favorites in the A.L. East. But the loss of Robinson Canó is far, far, far from disastrous. Given a bit of luck and a healthy rotation, these Yankees will be just fine without their erstwhile best player.

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