When the New York Yankees
fall short of winning the World Series, their season is a failure. Such is life in baseball when you have a two hundred million dollar plus payroll. The New York Yankees
of 2006 will face the same pressures that they have played under for the last couple of years, as owner George Steinbrenner begins to counts the seasons since his last world title. If this year’s New York Yankees squad is going to make George have to start over from zero in 2007, they will need to get better starting pitching from some veteran hurlers, as they cannot hope for some of their lesser names to duplicate their 2005 results.
The Yankees took the American League East yet again in 2005, the eighth consecutive division title for the Bronx Bombers. They actually were tied with Boston at 95-67, but won the division by virtue of a 10-9 head to head edge over the despised Red Sox. They then proceeded to bow to the Angels, a team that they cannot beat in the postseason, in five games in the playoffs. General Manager Brian Cashman, once thought headed to Philly to take the vacant GM position there, returned and his biggest move simultaneously helped the Yankees and hurt Boston big time. Manager Joe Torre, back for his eleventh season as skipper, brings his astute handling of the media and the egos in the clubhouse with him in search of his fifth championship.
Interleague play sees the New York Yankees battling the teams from the National League East in 2006, including a home and home set of series with their back page and cross town rivals, the New York Mets. The Yanks start the year on the road in Oakland and then visit the Angels for a trio of contests before returning to New York. 11 of their first 14 games are away from the Bronx. As for the Red Sox, the Yankees play them 8 times in May; they only meet in two series for the rest of the year after June 8th.
The return to dominating form for 6′ 10″ lefty Randy Johnson may be asking a lot, considering he is 42. But if Johnson can simply be more consistent, the Yanks will be in good shape. He was not his usual self last year despite a 17-8 mark and 211 strikeouts in 225 innings. He benefited from exceptional run support and seemed to lose some velocity off his fastball. He still gets it up there at 92 miles an hour, but his slider was not as sharp as it has been. He made 34 starts; Torre hopes that Johnson’s first year in pinstripes got him used to the big stage’s spotlight.
Mike Mussina, no spring chicken himself at 38, went 13-8, but spent time on the disabled list late in the season. He became only the 20th pitcher in major league history to post 10 or more wins for 14 straight years, but the right hander relies now more on deception than on power. He gave up 20 more hits than innings pitched, but when he has his command he is as good as anyone in the game.
Carl Pavano spent much of the year on the DL with right shoulder tendonitis and never got untracked after signing as a free agent from Florida. He was only 4-6 and he was hit hard and often. The right hander has been battling a sore back this spring; it may be foolish of the Yankees to count on him for a banner campaign.
Jaret Wright was in much the same boat as Pavano, an expensive signing that failed to produce. Wright was oft hurt during his 5-5 season. During one stretch, he was hit by line drives and even by a broken bat, making him wonder if perhaps he should have stayed in Atlanta. He may very well wind up in the bullpen if he continues to scuffle.
The unexpected contributions of journeyman Aaron Small more than likely got the Yankees into the playoffs. He went 10-0 after coming up from Columbus; he had an ERA of 3.20 and gave up only 71 hits in 76 innings. To expect him to pitch to this level would be ludicrous. Small is valuable though as a spot starter and long reliever.
A mid-season pickup from the lowly Rockies, where he was 2-17 in his previous 19 decisions before joining New York, Shawn Chacon pitched brilliantly as a Yankee. He went 7-3 with a 2.85 ERA, setting up his outstanding curveball with his plus fastball to keep hitters off balance. He is having an exceptional spring and figures to nail down a rotation spot. Another surprise was Chien-Ming Wang, a Taiwanese righty who, like Small, came from AAA and pitched effectively. His 90-95 mph sinker induces tons of ground outs, and he is a gifted fielder. He should be in the rotation along with Chacon, leaving Pavano and Wright to vie for the fifth spot.
The loser of that competition will go to the bullpen, where the greatest closer ever resides. Mariano Rivera is coming off perhaps his best season; he converted 43 of 47 saves to up his career total to 379, fifth highest all time. He pitched to a ridiculously low 1.38 ERA and his career ERA of 2.33 is more than 2 runs less than the rest of all of baseball during his illustrious career. He does however tend to have his most anxious moments against Boston. However, longtime nemesis Bill Mueller is now with the Dodgers.
The set up man on paper is going to be newly acquired Kyle Farnsworth, who boasts a fastball that has been clocked at 100 mph. With the Braves last year, he gave up some damaging home runs in the playoffs; whether he admits it or not, he is not a true closer. But if he can become what Rivera was for John Wetteland in 1996- an overpowering bridge to the ninth inning- the Yankees will have solved a major problem. Tom Gordon was becoming less and less reliable in this role and New York let him go to Philly in the off-season. Fireballing right hander Octavio Dotel, coming off elbow surgery, was signed in hopes of giving Torre another option. A former closer, Dotel, when right, can throw 95. This would leave yet another righty, Tanyon Sturtze, time to recover from a “dead arm” and be ready to contribute. He can go short or long and is a key component of the bullpen, along with Mike Myers. The 36 year old lefty specialist gave up only 30 hits in 37 innings with the Red Sox last year. He joins another lefthander, Ron Villone, who struck out 70 in 64 innings pitching for Florida and Seattle.
Jorge Posada, who owns 512 RBI in the last 6 seasons, the most for any catcher in baseball during that period, is a switch hitter who is on the down side of his career. His numbers declined in 2005, but his throwing has actually improved with time. He nailed 39 of 129 runners attempting to steal, but he is not proficient in blocking low pitches. He has more power from the left side. His backup will be Kelly Stinnett, who hit 6 homers and batted .248 for the Diamondbacks last year. The Yanks will be the seventh team he has caught for.
The Yankees infield is loaded with talent, starting at first with the rejuvenated Jason Giambi. His 2005 season began with him doing everything but coming right out and admitting steroid use in his previous seasons. He struggled mightily at first but got untracked and began to hit. His wonderful batting eye allowed him to walk 108 times, helping him to a .440 on base percentage. He clobbered 32 home runs and knocked in 87, as his balky knees did not bother him as the year wore on. Defensively his range is limited, but he is adept at scooping up low throws. His backup will be career minor league Andy Phillips, at least until he proves once and for all that he cannot hit big league pitchers.
2005 was a year of unexpected finds for the Yankees; left hand hitting Robinson Cano is another prime example. Brought up from the minors, he began to hit and never really stopped. His .297 average led American League rookies and he hit .335 on the road. For the entire season he hit 14 home runs and pushed 62 runs across. As a defender, the 23 year old from the Dominican Republic actually got worse as the season wore on. He gets caught in between hops and does not yet have a feel for the position.
Derek Jeter, the shortstop, has 1,924 hits in his ten year career, and he hit an AL best .354 at home in 2005. Acknowledged by many as the best base runner in the game, he reached the 200 hit plateau for the fourth time and hit .309 with 19 homers and 70 RBI. He has lost a bit of his range at short but remains a sure handed glove man. The intangibles he brings out on the field as the Yankee captain make him indispensable.
Next to Jeter in the infield is Alex Rodriguez, the reigning MVP of the league. He put up his usual monster numbers, with a .321, 48 homer, 140 RBI season, but went 2 for 15 against the Angels in the playoffs, further increasing the scrutiny that the New York media gives perceived “chokers”. Until he does something of note when it most counts, A-Rod will not rid himself of this monkey from his back, one that threatens to turn into King Kong if he fails again in the spotlight. His 240 home runs and 631 RBI are the most in the majors in the past 5 years, but he also strikes out a lot, 139 times in 2005 alone. He has made himself into a Gold Glove caliber fielder at third in just 2 seasons.
The outfield is manned by a trio of impressive bats but defensively it may be one of the worst in baseball. Johnny Damon took the Yankee money and sent all of Boston into a tizzy when he signed with the New York in the off-season. The free agent cut his long hair and shaved his beard in order to comply with the Yanks’ clean cut image. His poor throwing arm will be overlooked if he can replicate his Red Sox stats- a .316 average, 29 game hitting streak, and 117 runs scored. He was the second hardest batter in baseball to double up last year. He gives the Yankees the true leadoff hitter that they have lacked the past few seasons.
In right field the Yankees will trot out hard hitting Gary Sheffield on most days. He hit .364 with runners in scoring position, helping him send 123 runs over home plate last season. His incredible bat speed generated 34 homers; he has hit 449 in his lifetime with over 1400 RBI. The Yankees hope his shoulder troubles are behind him. He has easily the best arm of all the New York outfielders.
Hideki Matsui embarks on his fourth Yankee season. The left handed Japanese star hit an amazing .354 vs. lefties last year with 23 homers and 116 runs knocked in. His 192 hits were his most as a Yankee and counting his days in Japan he has played in 1,787 games in a row. Defensively he is adequate at best; his quick release somewhat compensates for a below average throwing arm.
The key men off the bench in 2006 will be Miguel Cairo, who can hit .250 while playing every infield position and Bubba Crosby, a hustling outfielder who makes the most of his limited talent. Bernie Williams will be the DH on most days. The switch hitter, now in the twilight of a great run as a Yankee, is in the top six in several New York categories, including games played, at bats, doubles, runs scored, walks, and homers. He has slowed considerably, but could stay fresh by not playing the field every day.
With Johnson, Jeter, Rodriguez, and Rivera, the New York Yankees have four certain Hall of Famers in their dugout. Giambi, Sheffield, Williams, and even Mussina will merit Hall consideration when they are done playing. Expect the Yankees to once again take the American League East over Boston. If they run into the Angels in the playoffs, look out. If they don’t, they more than likely will make 2006 the year in which they win their 27th World Series!