Just two years ago, the 2007 New York Yankees reached the playoffs with 94 victories despite a mediocre pitching staff, because the offense averaged six runs per game. The 2009 edition should reach a similar level of success, but it is likely to happen because of, not despite, their pitching.
This season, it is the lineup that is filled with question marks. Fortunately for the Yankees, a starting rotation loaded with both star potential and depth should allow them to overcome any run-scoring hiccups, with a bullpen filled with strikeout pitchers set to finish opponents off.
In CC Sabathia, the Yankees send their best Opening Day pitcher to the hill since Ron Guidry, if not Whitey Ford. Sabathia’s presence alone means the Yankees start any potential playoff series with a huge advantage.
But if Sabathia falters, he is supported by Joba Chamberlain, who actually posted a nearly identical ERA during his 12 starts to Sabathia’s 2008 mark. Few teams will be able to match Sabathia in October—none can match a healthy Sabathia and Chamberlain.
Reliable ground-baller Chien-Ming Wang occupies the third spot in the rotation. No longer forced to stretch into an ace, Wang can provide reliable innings and offer a sinker/slider contrast from the repertoires of the strikeout pitchers above him.
In the fourth slot is A.J. Burnett, who could struggle to live up to the five-year, $82 million contract he signed this winter. However, Burnett is more than qualified to be a fourth starter, and should he get injured, Phil Hughes looks ready to step in.
Andy Pettitte may be the best fifth starter in baseball. Pettitte was better than his 2008 numbers indicated. His ERA rose to just above league average for the first time in his career, but he still provided 204 innings of good pitching—for a fifth starter, outstanding work. And should his batting average on balls in play return to normal, his ERA should drop considerably.
As for the bullpen, it starts, as it has for well over a decade, with Mariano Rivera. In a career filled with nothing but outstanding performances, 2008 was the 39-year-old’s best—a 1.40 ERA, and just six walks in 70 2/3 innings against 77 strikeouts. It is assumed that eventually, Rivera will slow down—but there certainly aren’t any signs of it at this point. Even this spring, in six innings, he did not allow a run or a walk and struck out ten.
But while any bullpen fronted by the best closer of all time would be formidable, this Yankee group is filled with high-upside strikeout pitchers. Brian Bruney, Jonathan Albaladejo, Phil Coke and Edwar Ramirez could all turn into formidable weapons, while Jose Veras looks to build on 2008, and Damaso Marte is a lefty who can crossover and get righties out as well. The Yankees elected to go without a long man, and given the strength in the starting rotation, such a choice is unlikely to hurt them. That’s not a group prone to exiting in the third inning very often.
As for the hitting, there are questions all around. On the infield: Can Jorge Posada stay healthy and catch 120-130 games after shoulder surgery? If not, the catching falls to Jose Molina, and the offense suffers drastically. Can Robinson Cano recover his 2007 form, when he posted a line of .306/.353/.488, or will he continue his 2008 pace of .271/.305/.410? Will Alex Rodriguez, upon his return from hip surgery, be able to hit like he has in the past? And while Derek Jeter hit .300 last season, he slugged just .408, his lowest mark since 1997. Is this the beginning of the end for Jeter as a frontline player?
The outfield has similar question marks. With Xavier Nady in right, an average hitter and below-average fielder, how much can the Yankees reasonably expect? Center fielder Brett Gardner is an on-base machine in AAA, but posted a .228/.283/.299 line in his major league trial last year. Is he ready? In left field, Johnny Damon, an outfielder whose game relies on speed, is 35 years old. Can he be the force he was in 2008, or will injuries slow him as they did in 2007? And designated hitter Hideki Matsui had two knee surgeries last season. Just how much he has left is an open question.
Incredibly, a team that scored 968 runs in 2007 has just one offensive player who seems question-free—first baseman Mark Teixeira, who wasn’t even on the team two years ago. Still, with the kind of pitching the Yankees will throw at the league every day, they don’t need every question to have a positive answer. If just a few of the offensive players continue or return to form, New York will have the pitching to contend with a division that includes the past two American League champions (Boston and Tampa Bay).
And if the Yankees make it to October, unlike in past years, their pitching should be their salvation, not their undoing.