Friday, March 28, 2014

I've Got Til 5! - Questions Going Into 2014

There is a lot of pessimism surrounding the Yankees. Not just this season, but every season. Whether you're following the Yankees on Twitter, or just talking about them with somebody at your local tavern, you're bound to hear some sort of complaint regarding the front office, the manager, a coach, or a player. That's not to say such pessimism isn't warranted, but oftentimes it goes too far.

Take this coming season for instance. There are plenty of questions revolving the 2014 Yankees. But you have to keep in mind that it's the same every season, and it goes for every team. Whether we're talking about a perennial loser such as the Houston Astros, or a team that's always in the thick of things like the St. Louis Cardinals, nobody is certain about what the future of the team holds.

Although there's no question about whether or not they have some hot fans.

Without much thought I came up with seven questions going into this season. But this column is about lists of five, so I had to cut a couple of things. Then I remembered that this is my column, so I can do whatever I want. So here are those two questions I cut from the official list of five...

Will Masahiro Tanaka be as good as advertised?

Between 2014 and 2019, Tanaka will make $22 million a season. Last season, according to Fangraphs, only 14 pitchers in Major League Baseball were worth that much or more (can you believe four of them pitched for the Detroit Tigers?). Hiroki Kuroda was the Yankees top guy in that category, and his value last season was only $19.1 million.

Of course, by the time we get towards the end of Masahiro's deal, chances are the top pitchers will be making quite a bit more than $22 million a year. Heck, Clayton Kershaw will be making $30+ million in each of the last six years (2015-2020) of his contract with the Dodgers.

Either way, the team has made a large gamble on Tanaka, and everybody has to be wondering whether he'll live up to his potential. So why didn't that question make the list? Simple... we won't know the answer to that question for years. That is a question that can't be answered simply going by what he does in 2014. Dasuke Matsuzaka was good in his debut season in MLB, and was great in his sophomore effort, but fell off the face of the Earth after that. While Tanaka > Matsuzaka, we can't get ahead of ourselves.

Will the Yankees make a big trade?

With the depth the team has at catcher, and many other teams looking to acquire a young backstop, it seems like a big trade is inevitable. But like with Tanaka... let's not get ahead of ourselves. Depth can disappear pretty quickly, as all it takes is an injury or one of those young catchers to have a poor season. Say McCann gets injured, meaning Cervelli is our primary catcher. At that point John Ryan Murphy is called up as the second catcher with the big club. Austin Romine wasn't lighting MLB on fire, so his value isn't "all that" to begin with, and the team may want to hold onto Gary Sanchez in case McCann's injury turns out to be serious. Just like that, the catching depth is gone.

On top of that, it seems like we're looking for a big trade to happen every year, and every year we're left with nothing. Or maybe not "nothing", but something small or uninteresting will happen like a trade for a middle reliever or an aging player that we can only hope will produce.

Furthermore, there's a chance that one or more of Kelly Johnson, Dean Anna, Brendan Ryan, or Brian Roberts could surprise us and erase the team's need for a middle infielder or third baseman. I'm not counting on that, but putting that together with the other two things I talked about above, and this question was cut.

Just like how Lou Brown did not cut Roger Dorn.

With all that said, here is my official list of five questions the Yankees have going into the 2014 season...

1. Will Derek Jeter go out with a bang or a whimper?

Seeing as how he was still recovering from breaking his ankle in the playoffs the previous season, I think you can totally eliminate the 2013 season when evaluating Derek Jeter. Even though he didn't play those 17 games in the beginning of the season before he was fully recovered, and was then put on the DL for the remainder of the season, it's pretty hard to sit out for 9 months and then come back and be the same player Derek was before. So I can look beyond the pitiful triple-slash of .190/.288/.254 Jeter put up.

So what did The Captain do in 2012? Well, he only hit .316/.362/.429, made the All Star team, won the Silver Slugger award, and finished 7th in American League MVP voting. Many thought Derek was going downhill back in 2010 when he only hit .270, only to bounce back in 2011 and bat .297. Beyond that batting average, Jeter also saw his strikeout rate drop in each season between 2010 and 2012.

So we should expect him to go out with a bang, right? Not so fast...

While Jeter did see a rise in his walk rate in 2013, that number had fallen in each of the previous four seasons. Combine that lower walk rate with a lower strikeout rate, and Jeter is putting a lot more balls in play. That's not a good thing for a guy that hits the ball on the ground nearly 65% of the time. And if you add in the fact that Derek will turn 40 in June, then you have reason to believe his final season will be more of a whimper.

2. Can Jacoby Ellsbury stay healthy?

Due to Ellsbury missing some of Spring Training with calf issues, it's easy to believe that many of you reading this are yelling "no" at the screen. But looking at his injury history his calf doesn't concern me. Jacoby hasn't had issues with is lower leg since the 2007 season, and even then he only had some cramps that led to him missing zero games. 

Like I pointed out in my reaction article to Ellsbury's signing, Jacoby has missed the vast majority of games due to freak injuries... sliding wrong into second base, running into teammates on defense, getting run into by runners, and fouling a ball off of his foot.

The only question that's really rattling around in my mind regarding Ellsbury doesn't have to do with his health, but whether he can get back his power. Any lefty in Yankee Stadium is going to make me optimistic, but I want to see 20+ home runs this season, rather than 12 or so (which would be a slight increase from the 9 he hit last year).

When he's healthy, Jacoby's batting and on-base averages look pretty good too. So as long as Ellsbury is on the field, I have reason to believe we're going to be in for a nice surprise. 

Pessimistic about Jeter and optimistic about Ellsbury? Blasphemy!

3. Which Ivan Nova will we get?

Here are two players

Player A - 3.10 ERA, 1.285 WHIP, 3.6 bWAR
Player B - 5.02 ERA, 1.468 WHIP, 0.6 bWAR

Player A is the 2013 Ivan Nova, while Player B is the 2012 Ivan Nova. The Ivan Nova from last season would help make the 2014 Yankees' starting rotation a monster, while the Ivan Nova from two seasons ago will make winning every five days very difficult.

The good news is that Nova's strikeout and walk rates were fairly similar in each of the past two seasons, as was his line drive percentage against. Those stats tell me that Nova was pretty much the same pitcher, just with very different results. The reason for the large gap in numbers seems to be from a much larger extra-base hit percentage in 2012. In fact, that number in 2012 was more than double the one from last year.

My initial thought on what the difference was was team defense, particularly in the outfield. Unfortunately I can't back that up with any numbers. However, on the surface, there is a big difference... The 2012 outfield mainly consisted of Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher, and Raul Ibanez. The 2013 outfield was mainly made up of Brett Gardner, Ichiro Suzuki, and Vernon Wells.

If you look at the fact that the outfield defense in 2014 should be better than Nova has ever had, with Ellsbury, Gardner, and Soriano, then I think there's reason to be optimistic about Mr. Nova.

4. Can CC Sabathia cope with the loss of velocity, and be a top of the rotation starter again?

We've already seen him pitch well in Spring Training with a fastball that topped out in the low 90s, so there is some reason for optimism. However, you have to keep in mind that Spring Training numbers mean jack squat. Pitchers are trying new things, hitters are trying new things, minor leaguers are getting more at bats, and bench players are getting more at bats. Even if you were to say Sabathia has only faced MLB hitters in Spring Training, you don't know whether those hitters were trying out different stances, shorter or longer swings, etc.

And look at what Sabathia did last year... he put up the highest ERA and WHIP of his career, which resulted in a pitcher that was only the third most valuable on the staff (looking at fWAR). Actually, if Nova had thrown a few more innings, then Sabathia would have been the fourth most valuable starter for the Yankees (Kuroda and Pettitte were first and second). And this is the guy that the Yankees signed to be the ace of the staff. That's not good.

So can we be optimistic at all? Sure. CC's strikeout and walk rates were nearly identical to his career marks. All Sabathia really has to do is make that slower fastball a little less hittable by adding some movement to it, and he should be all good. Then again, that's not an easy task, so I'd keep that optimism in check. If Sabathia could be no worse than a solid #3 starter this season, then I think we'll be in a good shape.

5. Will Michael Pineda be a top of the rotation starter?

While I liked the Pineda/Montero trade from a couple of years back, I can't argue with those that didn't. The Yankees traded away their top prospect, after all. And it's not like it was Pineda or nothing. The Yankees could have dealt Jesus Montero for a number of top starters, most notably Cliff Lee, but decided on the younger/cost-controlled pitcher. And not only has that young/cost-controlled pitcher not lived up to his potential after a stellar rookie campaign, but thanks to a major shoulder injury he hasn't even thrown a pitch for the Yankees.

But we can't cry over spilled milk. While some are still waiting to get an answer to the question of who won the trade, this guy doesn't care. Jesus Montero is no longer a Yankee, and Michael Pineda is... end of story. What we should be talking about is the fact that Michael Pineda is not only healthy, but has looked strong this Spring.

Before the injury, in Seattle, Pineda's fastball sat in the mid-90s. This Spring, that fastball has been right around the mid-90s too. Furthermore, Joe Girardi has said that the big righty may not be done healing, meaning his fastball may even get up to the high 90s like it did pre-injury.

My only real question surrounding Pineda deals an innings limit. I find it hard to believe that Girardi will run Michael out there every fifth day without an regard to his workload, like what the manager said on Tuesday when he announced Pineda as the fifth starter. There's just no way a guy that's thrown less than 50 innings in the last two years will turn around and throw ~175 innings this season. There's a chance a guy that big and that young (he's still only 25) can, but I'd feel better if Girardi and his coaching staff found a way to make sure he stays strong all season, and doesn't falter down the stretch due to fatigue.

"Just get it done!!!"

Well that wraps up my top five questions going into the 2014 season. I'm incredibly excited for the season to start on Tuesday, as I'm sure you are too.

Remember to drop me a line, here in the comments or on Twitter (@BryanV21 or @GreedyStripes), regarding possible future lists. I have plenty of them in mind, but I'd love to hear what you think.

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Sorry for the Capatcha... Blame the Russians :)