Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
February 24, 2002
BASEBALL: 2002 Yankees Preview
Originally posted on Projo.com
BASEBALL IS BACK!!!!!!
And, just in time to keep us all from getting too enthused about this, let's start with the obvious: thanks to an offseason spending spree, the clear preseason favorite to win the 2002 World Series is . . . the Hated Yankees.
Do you doubt me? Let's ask a few questions, shall we?
1. Who has baseball's best infield?
Really, it has to be either the Yankees or Texas. The Indians ditched Robby Alomar, and the A's lost Giambi. (By the way, is it just me, or with the facial hair gone and the Yankee uniform, doesn't Jason Giambi look like a puffed up Chuck Knoblauch?) The Mariners have a weak hitter at short, and are dependent on Bret Boone hitting .330 again, plus it's unclear how Jeff Cirillo will hit now that he's returned to sea level (my bet is about .285). The Giants are weak at the corners. Nomar and Tony Clark might be healthy, but even then, the Sox still don't have a solid second or third baseman. The Mets have assembled a fine unit, but one that features two big health question marks -- one of whom is an even worse fielder than Giambi -- as well as the worst-hitting everyday player since Bill Bergen. The White Sox and perhaps Cardinals might offer competition, but an awful lot has to break right for the Cards to have an infield that stands up to Giambi, Jeter, Soriano and Ventura.
How do the Yanks stack up with Texas? Let's split the infields in two, and compare the 2001 batting lines (I'm assuming Lamb doesn't have to worry about Herbert Perry taking his job):
PA=Plate Appearances XO=Caught stealings plus GIDP
On the top line, when you consider the hitter-friendly environment of The Ballpark at Arlington and the fact that a 37 point advantage in OBP beats a 30 point advantage in slugging any day, you have to give the edge to the Yankees, at least on last season's numbers. The bottom line is a rout favoring Texas - Frank Catalanotto went on a long tear last season, and with the departure of Albert Belle, nobody in baseball gets hotter when he's in the groove than Frank Catalanotto - but that's more than a little misleading when you consider that Mike Lamb played only half the time and was coming off a season of hitting .278/.373/.328 as an everyday player.
I'd call it a close call, but the Yankees can point to one guy having an off year (Jeter), and one who gives every sign of continuing to improve (Soriano), while Lamb and Catalanotto are the least likely of the eight players to repeat their 2001 stats, and Giambi is younger than Palmiero (both are likely to be off a little from last year). Robin Ventura may not be the star he was, but he should more than step comfortably into Scott Brosius' shoes at third, and like a lot of Latin ballplayers, Soriano may have a lot of room to grow precisely because he's still learning plate discipline and some of the other basics that American players will never learn if they haven't grasped them by the major league level.
Of course, with Jason Giambi and Derek Jeter at two slots and still-raw Soriano at another, the Yankees' infield defense won't make anyone forget the 1982 Cardinals, while Rodriguez is a fine shortstop and Palmiero is a fine first baseman (and yes, he now actually plays the field unlike in 1999). I will predict that, with Giambi at first, throwing errors by all three of his mates will rise this season. But Jeter did cut his errors almost in half last season, and as we saw in the playoffs his lack of range and propensity for errors are partially compensated for by his alertness and willingness to back up the play in key situations.
I'd take the Yankees, if nothing else because I'm not convinced that the defensive edge at short and first isn't outweighed by the other two positions, because Jeter is due for a better year, and because I have a little more faith in Ventura than in Lamb. Besides, who really knows where Catalanotto will play this year? If the Yankees don't have the best infield in baseball, they're awfully close.
2. Who has baseball's best starting rotation?
Well, there's Mussina, Clemens and Pettitte, and after that there will be a scramble among David Wells, Sterling Hitchcock (who has been promised a rotation spot), and Orlando Hernandez, with Ramiro Mendoza available as always for spot duty. The talented Ted Lilly will be consigned to middle relief, which suggests that the Yankees are reverting to their bad old ways with young pitchers; after Ron Guidry, Ron Davis and Dave Righetti, the Yanks went years without developing a young pitcher of much value and sticking with him before the current crop of Pettitte, Rivera and Mendoza came along (thirteen years with nothing to show but Bob Wickman, Scott Kameniecki and Dennis Rasmussen is not a recipe for championships). But that's the price of win-now baseball, and you can't fault the Yanks for expecting to contend this year. That's a heck of a 3-man rotation, with the possibility that one of Wells or Hitchcock will rebound as a solid number 4 (my money's on Wells).
Not the Yankees? Then who? The D-Backs have a heck of a 1-2 punch, but even if Curt Schilling stays healthy all year again, the rotation gets iffy in a hurry after that. Check out Voros McCracken's "Defense Independent Pitching Stats" - a measure that looks only at strikeouts, walks and homers on the theory that hits allowed are too dependent on defense and luck to be a reliable year-to-year tool for evaluating pitchers - and you will notice that McCracken's system rates Miguel Batista as a decidedly mediocre pitcher (4.63 DIPS ERA last season) whose good ERA is unlikely to repeat this year (by contrast, several of the key Yankee starters, most dramatically Andy Pettitte, allowed more hits than they should have been expected to based on the number of balls in play, although that may simply be another way of saying the team had defensive problems). Anyway, McCracken's numbers just validate the general experience that guys who come out of nowhere to have a good year as a spot starter, but don't strike people out or have great control, tend to be flukes. And Rick Helling may be a horse, but his days of being a big winner look over.
The Braves? Again, question marks after the top two guys, even if you don't think that the deterioration of the 36-year-old Tom Glavine (career high in walks and homers despite fewer IP, lowest K total since 1989, and nearly a hit an inning allowed) is a cause for concern. Jason Marquis is promising and Kevin Millwood might bounce back and Albie Lopez might hold up as a rotation starter - I've never been a fan of Lopez as a starter - but that many what-ifs is too many.
The Mariners? Sele is gone, and while I've liked Paul Abbott for some time, he's hardly a guy who goes 17-4 every year. Jamie Moyer just turned 39, and John Halama is coming off a rough year. This could be a tough staff, and there is help on the way in the form of Joel Piniero and (more likely in 2003 than 2002) Gil Meche and Ryan Anderson, but beyond Garcia and Moyer there are a lot of unanswered questions.
In the end, the A's may have the best rotation, but the difference between Oakland and the Yankees is fairly tight. I'd take Mussina over any of the Oakland starters, but the top 3 are just about even. That leaves Corey Lidle and Erik Hiljus vs. a bunch of guys with a lot of mileage on them, which may favor the Yankees in October (see ALDS Game 4 for details), but not over the long season.
Either way, you have to put the Yankees, again, extremely close to the top. Nobody else blows them away.
3. Who has baseball's best closer?
Yeah, it's still Mariano. Do we really need to argue about this? Rivera carried his heaviest workload since 1996, and took maximum advantage of the tweaks to the strike zone. And the rest of the bullpen might not be the best in baseball - there's the Mariners, for one - but it's a deep pen with the likes of Stanton, Karsay, Mendoza, Randy Choate, and the losers in the battle for rotation spots.
4. Who has baseball's best catcher?
Despite the fact that there are two of the all-time great catchers still active and in their primes, there isn't one catcher in the majors who gives you the total package. Piazza and Posada are relatively weak defensive catchers - Piazza can't throw, and Posada is just as bad plus he has trouble catching the ball. Ivan Rodriguez, who has squatted his way through 1,326 major league games, can no longer be counted on to stay in the lineup. And let's not even talk about what has happened to Jason Kendall. But after Piazza and Rodriguez, you really have to put Posada down as the #3 catcher in the majors at the moment, a serious hitter who shows up for work every day.
5. Who has baseball's best center fielder?
One more time, the answer might not be "the Yankees," but then again it might be. Last year, Jim Edmonds was probably the best, followed closely by Bernie and Carlos Beltran; this year I'd probably still rather have Andruw Jones than anyone else despite a lackluster 2001, and Griffey might always bounce back to 50-HR form. Williams doesn't stand far out of a crowded pack that also includes Mike Cameron and maybe even Richard Hidalgo, but there's no way to make a really clear-cut argument for anyone as better than Bernie.
6. Do these guys have any weaknesses?
That leaves us with only the corner outfield slots and DH as the Yankees' "weaknesses." But Rondell White is a star-quality hitter and a respectable enough glove when he's healthy, John Vander Wal is a professional hitter who hit .313/.500/.412 in road games last season. And then you've got Nick Johnson, a prospect who once posted a .523 on base percentage in the minor leagues. These guys aren't anything you can bank on -- Vander Wal's 36 and coming off his first season as a regular, White and Johnson have gruesome injury histories, and Johnson wasn't quite the same last season after returning from a year missed to hand injuries. (There's also Shane Spencer, who's not terrible and has some value as a part-timer, but most every team can at least plug in a guy of Spencer's quality at these positions). But bear in mind that (1) at least the Yankees have options that MIGHT pay big dividends, (2) these are the easiest slots on the roster to fill in July if you need to and have money to burn, and (3) this is the WEAKEST part of the team.
Some people will predict that the Yankees will miss Tino, O'Neill and Brosius because they brought in a bunch of people who haven't won it all. Maybe in October, but for now I don't buy it. There are still plenty of people around here, from Joe Torre on down, with gobs of big-game experience, and Rivera is still here.
If you're looking for a ray of hope, I can offer you two words: Age and Injuries. The Yankees' free agent acquisitions, even though they were guys in their thirties, made them younger, but this is still an old team full of guys who the Yankees could ill afford to see break down. For all their resources, the Yankees still lack depth, particularly in the infield, although the free agent signings of FP Santangelo and Ron Coomer at least give some potential upgrades on the Clay Bellinger Show. If the Yankees had a run of injuries like the Red Sox did last year -- like losing Jeter for 5 months and Mussina for half the season -- they would probably miss the playoffs. More likely is losing a little here and there: White and Johnson break down, Bernie misses 30 games, Ventura's cranky shoulder costs him still more effectiveness at the plate and hurts his throwing, Rivera gets a tender elbow and needs to be shut down for two weeks, the 39-year-old Clemens has another year like 1999, Stanton or Mendoza misses three months, the guys at the back of the rotation just can't pull things together like they used to. None of these things are all that unlikely, and collectively they could humble the Yanks.
But you want a preseason favorite? Look no further than a team that can boast that it's at or near the top of the game in so many different areas. Like it or not, the Yankees are still with us.