For the first time in 10 years, the Yankees enter the season as the underdog in the AL East. Yes, Boston won the World Series in '04, but NY still won the division that year. It isn't a bad thing to be the underdog as it provides more motivation, in my opinion. This hasn't been the case in the last 7 years during which time the Yankees have failed to bring a championship home to NY. They've been beaten in the World Series twice, lost the ALCS once and gone down in the first round for 4 years including the last 3 in a row. In the last 4 years, the humiliation has increased starting with probably the greatest collapse in the history of sports in '04. I won't say anymore because I know all Yankee fans either tear up, become nauseated or both at the mere mention of it.
I believe the team as a whole will be more motivated this year because of it's makeup of players. On one end of the spectrum, you have the new members who are primed to prove they belong in the big leagues. On the other end, you have the veterans, some of which only have one more chance in this year to prove they still have the skills left to get it done. On an individual basis, it's been a long time since there were actual competitions for more than one spot in the Bronx. For all of Joe Torre's strengths as a manager, he favored his veterans because of their previous production even if it didn't exist anymore. He also favored what produced results including specific relief pitchers and lineups even after they no longer inspired that confidence. It seems as if this is not the case with Joe Girardi who is giving everyone the chance to prove themselves in Spring training. Why not? If someone is assured of a job, human nature dictates they won't strive harder to keep it. This specifically effects Jason Giambi, Mike Mussina and Kyle Farnworth who may be assured of that job, but not a starting one. All in contract years, they have everything to lose and plenty to gain. Imagine the team with the likes of a healthy, 2002 like productive Giambi, a flame throwing, pinpoint control setup guy in Farnsworth and a crafty, 2006 like Mike Mussina. It certainly creates a more potent team.
The offense of the Yankees sparks fear in the minds of opposing pitching as it will score runs upon runs from top to bottom like last year. They all have the ability to hit homeruns, some more than others, but Girardi’s game is small ball. He won’t wait for that homerun, he’ll manufacture runs, and subsequently, the homers will take care of themselves. The order I see with unobvious positions noted is Damon in left, Jeter, Abreu, Arod, Giambi at first, Posada, Matsui at DH, Cano and Melky in center. Damon may not be the player he once was, but he still makes a good tablesetter and is certainly the most viable option of the alternatives. A major key to this lineup is the protection of Arod in the hopes he will duplicate or surpass the incredible season he had last year. Abreu proved to be more than competent in that role in front of him last year. The 5 hole couldn't be filled properly for the length of the season. Giambi started out there before he got hurt, and then it was predominantly Matsui who was too streaky. Posada was tried at one point which seemed to work, but it's doubtful he has the same kind of season he did last year. Plus, it's preferable to split up your lefties and righties in a lineup, and batting him there would leave 3 lefties in a row. Giambi belongs in the 5 hole, at least until he proves otherwise, because he's primed to have a big year. He has stated more than once that he wants to keep playing next year, and he’s not not going to have many offers after another subpar season. I know Shelley Duncan is a fan favorite and has great energy, but I find it hard to believe he won’t revert to his minor league ways of being a power threat only. I could be wrong, but his defense is lacking anyway. I think his talents best serve the team off the bench, but he should start one day a week to keep him fresh. Wilson Betemit should be for defensive purposes only as his bat lacks any specialty different from anyone else’s. With Matsui and Duncan being able to play the outfield, I don’t think you need more than them, Betemit and Molina on the bench. I think the roster spot # 25 should go to another relief pitcher.
That’s been an exciting race this Spring. It appears as if Billy Traber has won the lefty spot in the bullpen since he was added to the roster. I realize he’s been impressive, but I’m not so sure about that choice since he doesn’t have a good track record to back it up. I know he’s had injuries, but that makes him even more worrisome. The beauty of having so many arms vying for a spot is you can always replace him with a callup though. Everyone seems to think the bullpen is a subject for concern, but I disagree. If someone isn’t cutting it, there are options in the minors like never before, and not just let’s cross our fingers options. At this point, after Mo, Joba, Farnsworth and Hawkins, I see Ohlendorf and Albalajedo making the team along with Traber. I had originally thought Karstens for the longman, but Ohlendorf’s having a better Spring, and he really has the better stuff out of the two. If the Yankees choose to go with an 8 relievers rather than a position player, I’d have to go with Britton as the last choice. I know there’s a lot of money invested in Igawa, and he has pitched well this Spring, but he doesn’t offer anything special to set him apart from the others.
The concern to me is the rotation because it’s highly improbable that 3 rookies all have good to great seasons. That’s what the team is going to need in order to make it to the playoffs this year. It’s not impossible, just improbable. I truly feel that Hughes and Kennedy will rise to the occasion, and the innings limit on Hughes doesn’t really worry me. My thought is they’ll move him into the bullpen once they move Joba to the rotation after the all-star break. He did just fine there in the playoffs. I’m also not worried about Moose who’s talent and pride won’t allow him to not prove himself still worthy of a spot in the rotation. To me, Wang and Pettitte are givens, so that leaves Joba. He concerns me because I can’t imagine him having enough gas to last 6 innings a game after pitching in the bullpen for a year. I like the plan to send him to the minors for a few weeks in order to stretch out his arm before he’s placed in the rotation. Hopefully, it works. Of no concern to me is replacing him as the setup man in the bullpen. There’s plenty of talent available who are capable of getting that job done, and one of them will. The most important thing is making it clear to all pitchers, starters and reliever alike, but especially relievers, what the plans are for them and what their roles will be. I don’t think it’s beneficial to a pitcher’s mindset for him to not know when and where he’s going to pitch. Leave Spring training with a plan. Choose a pitcher for innings 6, 7 & 8 each and stick to that plan until you’re sure it doesn’t work, if it doesn’t work. If it doesn’t, change the plan, don’t wait for it to change. Keep trying until you get it right. Then, if it’s gone right for awhile, but then suddenly goes wrong, don’t wait until it gets so bad your pitchers are ready to jump off a bridge. Come up with new ideas making sure to communicate your new plan.
This is something I feel Girardi will excel at. He will explain his thinking to his players. He won’t wait for his bullpen and lineup to implode before he makes changes. He’s also shown he leads by example where workouts are concerned and will keep his team in excellent shape. He’s in no way complacent about the job he’s taken or the talented team he has. He’ll get the most out of his players in a way that exudes energy and creativity, characteristics that’ll serve them all well. It’s an exciting time in the Bronx, one full of change and uncertainty. It’s time to embrace it.