Of course managing your way through a lack of rotation depth becomes a little easier when you have this kind of lumber in your lineup. A-Rod overcame the problems of the steroid revelations and an early hip injury to step up and finally become a contributor in October. He wasn’t MVP any individual postseason series, but collectively, his October contribution was exceeded only by C.C. Sabathia. Derek Jeter had the best year of his storied career, marked by his best defensive performance in a career where media hype has often covered up substandard work in this area. Robinson Cano showed that his rough ’08 was only a hiccup, as he posted good numbers. And while Mark Texeiria’s numbers didn’t jump the way you might expect for a hitter shifting into the cozy confines of the new Yankee Stadium, he still remains a top-five first baseman with a good glove. Collectively, this infield can rank with the best of all time.
The next area of strength is the top of the rotation and the back end of the bullpen. Sabathia is a workhorse, whose sheer innings-eating ability elevates him above even most aces and into what I believe is the game’s most valuable starting pitcher. A.J. Burnett answered all questions about his toughness with a nice year, including a huge gem in Game 2 of the World Series after his club had lost the opener. Andy Pettite answered all questions about his age with another strong year. New York should be better on the back end this season. They picked up Javier Vazquez from Atlanta. Even allowing that a shift into the AL East, to facing a DH and to Yankee Stadium in particular will hurt his ERA, Vazquez is still an able #3 or #4 guy. And it was announced this week that Phil Hughes has won the fifth job. Hughes got his promising career untracked last season with a nice effort as the setup man and I expect him to pitch well as a starter this year. The ultimate security blanked awaits all these starters at the end—the ageless Mariano, off one of his own best years—is still on hand to close games out.
The outfield and the rest of the bullpen are where questions lie. The Yanks had to give up the pesky and underrated Melky Cabrera to get Vazquez. The immediately traded prospects to get Detroit’s Curtis Granderson, who hits well for power, but saw his OBP drop sharply last season. Johnny Damon was allowed to walk and either Brett Gardner or Randy Winn will take his place. Nick Swisher remains a player I like a lot in rightfield, due to his ability to draw walks, but his hitting ability seems to have fallen off since 2006 when he was in Oakland and was one of the game’s top outfielders. In the bullpen, Joba Chamberlain will return to the setup role he was so dominant in at the end of 2007. A misguided effort to make him a starter has mercifully ended and if he can find that ’07 magic again, the Yanks will be fine. If he can’t, the rest of the options Girardi has aren’t as promising and could spell a long season of shuffling for the right setup combo.
On paper, New York is locked and loaded for another run at a World Series title. The big problems are more age—how long will Jeter, Rivera, Posada and Pettite continue to produce at high levels, particularly the standards they set last year? If they falter, where is the production going to be made up, given that no one else seems to be underachieving. Valid questions, although in a world where everyone has problems, Girardi can’t complain too much about the set life has dealt him.
The Yankees open in Fenway Park a week from tonight on ESPN. Tomorrow here at the Notebook we begin the final buildup. We’ll have a final division preview with official predictions each day from Monday to Saturday. By Sunday afternoon I’ll post selections for who I think will win the pennants and the World Series. Then at 8 PM EST, it’s time to hear the voices of Jon Miller and Joe Morgan on a Sunday night and know that baseball is back.
Don’t forget to click over to The College Basketball Notebook. Regional final recaps going all weekend.