Aging Yankees still look tough in AL East
By Nick Cafardo
| Globe Staff February 24, 2013
David J. Phillip/Associated Press
“This is a very good team, and every player in here thinks we can have a great year,” said Mark Teixeira (above).
The color of the New York Yankees is gray.
The temples of Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Ichiro Suzuki, Derek Jeter, and Hiroki Kuroda have begun to change. Pettitte has a son who is a senior in high school. Ichiro has more white flecks in his hair than black. Jeter walks with a limp as the result of a broken ankle.
Even Phil Hughes, one of the younger Yankees at 26, discovered last week that he has a bulging disk in his back.
Old team for sure. But a doomed team?
That’s where the Yankees will fight you.
It seems we’ve been calling them old for a few years now. Maybe one of these times we’ll be right and can say, “See, I told ya so,” but there’s a sense in the Yankees clubhouse that we’re all wet again.
“This is a very good team, and every player in here thinks we can have a great year,” said Mark Teixeira.
And that pretty much sums it up.
The Yankees had a change in philosophy this offseason. They decided that they didn’t want to give up draft picks, they wanted to limit long-term contracts, and they wanted to get under the luxury tax threshold.
So they did not bid for Josh Hamilton or Zack Greinke. They allowed Nick Swisher to leave. One move they may regret is allowing Russell Martin to sign with Pittsburgh for two years, because now their options at catcher are Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart, Bobby Wilson, and Austin Romine.
“Defensively, no problem,” said general manager Brian Cashman. “We’re not looking for catching. We just know our offensive production at that position isn’t going to be as good as in the past.”
They are loading up for a mega-contract for second baseman Robinson Cano. They are dealing with more Alex Rodriguez steroid fallout and the chance that the third baseman may miss most of the season after hip surgery.
Cashman is trying to find the kind of bench that has been so important to the team’s success the past few years. Eric Chavez, Raul Ibanez, and Andruw Jones, all capable role players, are gone. Cashman has brought in reasonable facsimilies in Kevin Youkilis and Travis Hafner. He’s searching for a righthanded-hitting outfielder and feels Matt Diaz or Juan Rivera could handle the job.
He is trying to add a little more pitching depth, especially if the two-week layoff for Hughes, an instrumental part of this team, sets him back.
“It’s a very tough division with a lot of tough teams,” said Cashman. “I don’t see any last-place team here. Boston would have avoided it last year if they didn’t have the injuries. I don’t see them in last place at all. They were very capable until they hit the injuries.
“I think the division is wide open. Toronto did a great job. Boston did a great job. Tampa Bay always does a great job. Baltimore had a great season.”
How far could the Yankees fall? Or will they simply be a 90-win team year in and year out, no matter how much they age?
“The biggest mistake they made was losing Martin, and not that he had a great offensive season, but he handled that staff pretty well,” said an American League scout. “They can absorb the Swisher loss, especially if Youkilis and Hafner come through and Brett Gardner can get back to the things he did so well.
“I don’t think they have to worry about Mariano, but now without [Rafael] Soriano, they don’t really have that safety net.”
Soriano opted out of his contract and signed a two-year deal with Washington, but they hope a comebacking Dave Aardsma can fill his role. Aardsma, a former Red Sox pitcher, had successful years as a closer in Seattle. He had hip surgery for a torn labrum two years ago, and while he was coming back from that, he blew out his elbow.
Hip surgery and Tommy John surgery. But Aardsma says he is back, throwing as well as ever.
And the Yankees still have a pretty formidable lineup.
With Ichiro, Jeter, Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, and Cano in the middle of the order, there’s still a great deal of firepower.
Teixeira looks to be in an outstanding shape. Sure, his OPS has declined the past four years from .948 to .846 to .835 to .807, but he’s still a force, still the guy the opposing pitcher hates to face.
In addition to catcher, Cashman predicts that offensive production at third base and right field also will decline. But enough to cause the Yankees problems scoring runs?
Ichiro is still a very good player, both offensively and defensively. He can still run. He has one of the most accurate arms in baseball.
Youkilis has lost his extra weight, feels better than he has for a while, and if he’s the old Youkilis, what a shot in the arm for the lineup. And Hafner is one of the strongest men in baseball, now looking up at that short porch in right field.
The Yankees still have a strong rotation of pitchers who are capable of 15-20 wins. The Hughes injury could be big, but if indeed his problem can be resolved with rest, then you’re talking about CC Sabathia, Pettitte, Kuroda, Hughes, and Ivan Nova.
You also have David Phelps with a year’s worth of experience, and Adam Warren, the next young Yankee pitcher who could make an impact.
Color them gray. But too old?
“At some point, they [the critics] will be right,” said Cashman. “We’re going to keep trying to defy them. If we stay healthy, we’ll be very competitive.”