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2014 Season Preview: New York Yankees

The Yankees bought almost the entire upper-tier of the free agent market, but it still might not be enough to bring them back to October.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Any consideration of the Yankees offseason has to begin with the fact that New York just missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008. The 2013 Yankees hung around in the wild card race for most of the season, thanks to a strong performance from their rotation and more than a little luck, but they were not a good team. They allowed 21 more runs than they scored, giving them a Pythagorean record of just 79-83. Injuries ravished the offense; they lost Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter for almost the entire season and Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez missed the majority of games as well. The group that took the field simply could not score runs. Yankee Stadium helped disguise just how bad things were, but by the park-adjusted weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), the Yankees offense was 15 percent worse than average and the third worst offense in the game.

The Yankees entered the offseason looking to do exactly what they did after the 2008 season- spend big to rebuild instantly. That plan was made more complicated by the looming departure of their best player, second baseman Robinson Cano, who hit the free agent market along with pitchers Hiroki Kuroda and Phil Hughes. Still, the Yankees executed the only play in their playbook perfectly, committing more than $400 million dollars to free agents this winter. However, unlike their pre-2009 offseason, this buying spree has not made them the favorites and another October spent watching from the sidelines is still a strong possibility.

Additions: Jacoby Ellsbury, Masahiro Tanaka, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, Kelly Johnson, Brian Roberts, Matt Thornton, Scott Sizemore, Andrew Bailey

At some point, the Yankees decided that their money would be better spent bringing in as many of the top free agents available as possible instead of re-signing Robinson Cano. McCann was the first of the top free agents to sign with New York and he is arguably the most important piece to their overhaul. Yankee catchers hit just .213/.287/.298 in 2013. After watching Jorge Posada and Russell Martin man the position for years, New York could hardly be expected to live with the combination of Chris Stewart and Austin Romine for another year. McCann is a plus defender and his left-handed swing is a perfect fit for his new home park. Offensive production from the man behind the plate has been a hallmark of the modern Yankees dynasty and McCann is a worthy successor to that legacy.

The outfield received a face-lift in the form of free agent signees Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltan. Ellsbury brings elite speed, solid on-base skills and some pop to the leadoff spot and he has matured into an above average center fielder. His injury history is often cited as a concern, but colliding with other players is probably not going to be a persistent issue. Still, at seven-years and $153 million dollars, Ellsbury is a risky bet for the Yankees, long term. He has played poorly around those injuries and his ability to maintain his production as his speed fades is a serious concern. Beltran will need Ellsbury’s help in field now that his range is rapidly narrowing to a single point of light like an antique television set, but his bat still packs plenty of pop. Provide they all stay healthy, the outfield of trio Beltran, Elllsbury and Brett Gardner supported by Alfonso Soriano and Ichiro has the potential to be the best in the game.

With Ellsbury, Beltran, McCann and a host of buy-low infield replacements on board, the Yankees turned their attention to the rotation. They shunned the middling options available to them and held out for the only player with true impact potential. The Masahiro Tanaka saga wasn’t lacking in twists and turns, but like so many drawn-out, overwrought dramas, it ended predictably, with the Yankees tossing out the highest bid, a whopping seven-year, $150 deal. Tanaka is a difficult to project as any player in the game for the 2014 season, but since he just 25, the Yankees can live with an adjustment period this season if the final product is the top-of-the-rotation arm in they believe he will be.

Loses: Robinson Cano, Phil Hughes, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Chris Stewart, Curtis Granderson, Travis Hafner, Joba Chamberlain

The Yankees signed four of the top five free agents this offseason, but they passed on the best player available. Robinson Cano led the Yankees in fWAR from 2009-2013, but his insistence on a massive 10-year deal was too much to ask from a team that was finally feeling the effects of handing out those kinds of contracts with abandon. Letting Cano walk is the right move in the long run, but with a porcelain figurine of Brian Roberts slated to be the everyday second baseman, the immediate results could be hard for fans to handle.

Apart from Cano, the players the Yankees will miss most in 2014 have not gone on to other teams, but to life beyond baseball. The addition of Tanaka should help ease the pain of life beyond Andy Pettitte, but the Yankees made little or no effort to replace the irreplaceable Mariano Rivera.Top setup man David Robertson will step into the ninth inning, but that simply pushes the hole one spot down the line. The 2014 Yankees bullpen is not lacking in options, with Adam Warren, David Phelps, Shawn Kelley and Dellin Betances all capable of serving key roles, but after years of having the only sure things in the game pitching the final frame, the Yankees have hardly any sure things to turn for any role in the bullpen this year.

Players to Watch

Everyone will be watching as Derek Jeter says goodbye to the game this season, but while the Yankees are celebrating his legacy, they desperately need him to play up to level of performance that has earned him all of these honors. Jeter has been incredibly consistent throughout his career, but he has never had to come back from an injury that cost him most of a season and trying to pull that off at age 39 is asking a lot of a player, even if that player is one of the greatest ever. The Yankees don’t need Jeter to be a superstar in his final year, but they need him to stay on the field and contribute average or better production one last time if the team is going to bounce back offensively.

Similarly, the loss of Mark Teixeira’s bat was huge last season and the Yankees need their switch-hitting first baseman to return and be a force in the middle of the lineup once again. Teixeira will turn 34 in April and even apart from the difficulty of returning from a serious injury, there are reasons to be worried about his production this coming season. From 2005-2009, Teixeira consistently produced batting averages on balls in play over .300, but in 2010 that rate dropped to .268 and it has not topped .250 since then. Since Teixeira walks at an elite rate, hits for prodigious power and strikeouts around the league average rate, he has managed to be productive despite this fall off. However, with fewer balls in play going for hits, there is not much room for decline in his skills. A loss of power (a reasonable possibility, given the wrist injury) or a jump in strikeout rate could create a difficult situation at first for the Yankees.

In the rotation, there are no shortages of question marks. CC Sabathia has lost several miles on his fastball and now has to adjust to pitching without the overpower stuff that made him one of the game’s top pitchers. Masahiro Tanaka will be adjusting to a new schedule and more imposing lineups. Hiroki Kuroda has been excellent over the past three seasons, but he is 39-years-old. There is tremendous talent in this group, but little depth and plenty of risk. Apart from Tanaka, the one player that could step forward and become a permanent solution for this aging rotation is Michael Pineda. The former-Mariner did not endear himself to Yankees fans following the trade that sent Jesus Montero to Seattle. He showed up for Yankees camp in poor shape and immediately injured his shoulder, putting him on the sidelines for the entire 2012 season and most of 2013. Now that he has won a starting spot out of camp, he has the opportunity to redeem himself. Pineda was one of the hardest throwing starters when he last pitched in the majors and while his upper-90’s velocity may never return, his fastball has looked strong enough this spring to play at the big league level. In 15 innings this spring he has a 1.60 ERA and 16 strikeouts against just one walk. He still just 25-years-old, so if he can overcome the injury and establish himself as a strong mid-rotation arm this season, the Yankees rotation will begin to look a good deal less shallow than it does now.

Best Case Scenario

The Yankees might be the most extreme boom-or-bust club in baseball this season. If the players they will slot into everyday roles this April can stay healthy through September, this team could easily battle the Rays and Red Sox for supremacy in the AL East. Buying low on guys like Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts could work out perfectly. Jeter and Teixeira might shake off their injuries and help power this new lineup to the top of the leaderboards. The rotation could be one of the most underrated in the game, with Sabathia and Tanaka forming a powerful one-two punch and Kuroda, Ivan Nova, and Pineda all pitching well-above average. The bullpen could be much deeper than it appears and Robertson could take the crown from Rivera and establish himself as the next great closer in the Bronx. If all these pieces fall into place, the Yankees could return to the World Series for the first time since 2009.

What Could Go Wrong

Or everyone could get hurt. The free agent signings this winter didn’t make the Yankees a young team by any stretch of the imagination. The team they built this winter is incredibly talented, but it also extremely top-heavy. Two key position players are returning from injuries that cost them almost the entire 2014 season. Brian Roberts has not played a full season in three years. At age-30, Brian McCann has 8,820 innings behind the plate weighing on his knees. The backup plans for many of the big stars are cringe-worthy and many of stars are at an age when decline is the rule and not the exception. A few serious injuries or drastic declines and the Yankees dreams of competing in the AL East could vanish in an instant. The farm system has very few impact players near the majors and that fact not only makes it hard for this team to find internal upgrades, but it places them as underdogs in any mid-season trade scenario.

Final Thoughts

When the Yankees bought up all the best free agents back in 2009, they instantly became favorites in their division and one of the best teams in baseball. This season, that same strategy has earned them a PECOTA projection of 83 wins and a 30 percent chance of making the playoff, the seventh-best odds in the American League. The market this offseason didn’t offer the same kind talent that the 2009 market offered and that will probably continue to be the case in the future. If the Yankees are going to continue to make the playoffs every year, they will have to adapt better than they have so far. There is no reason they can’t use their overwhelming financial advantages to dominant a world where the best players rarely reach free agency. Letting Cano walk and signing a four-year, $54 million extension with Brett Gardner may be signs that they are adjusting some, but they still appear to be behind the curve. If the Yankees play to their projections this season and fall short of the playoffs again, another round of massive deals still might not be enough to turn things around. At some point, this team will need to embrace a new model or the unthinkable with come to pass; the Yankees will need a rebuilding year.