Baseball Insider

Season preview: It appears the end of an era for banged-up Yanks


Baseball is getting younger and smaller. And that's not such a bad thing. Kids are in. Small markets have a real chance.

The buzz is all about the young guys. Aging veterans are old news.

The Nationals' 19-year-old phenom Bryce Harper took the capitol by storm last year, and appears on the cusp of greatness today. The Angels' Mike Trout, 21, may already be the best player in the game. He was last year as a rookie.

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Almost all of the best pitchers in the game are well under 30. Justin Verlander just turned 30 in spring training, while another exception, 38-year-old R.A. Dickey, is a knuckleball virtuoso, not to mention a new star with a new team.

Most of the other top pitchers -- David Price, Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, King Felix, et Al -- can scarcely see 30 from where they are. And as for active 40-somethings at any position, well, they are almost rarer now than no-hitters.

Home run totals are back to normal. No one's hitting 70 home runs anymore. Even 50 dingers look like a stretch, unless the Miami Marlins move in their fences in beautiful but potentially empty Marlins Park to give their solitary star Giancarlo Stanton a shot at it. (If they did, would anyone notice?)

Small market teams have a real shot now. Conversely, big markets are no sure things.

Take the Yankees. Please.

No one had a worse spring training than baseball's most storied team, maybe ever.

"I think it's going to be a long year in New York," one National league scout said. "I look at that Yankees lineup, and I say, 'Who are these guys?'"

With two starting-position players leaving via free agency, three more getting hurt in winter or spring and legendary shortstop Derek Jeter still recovering from a broken ankle, at least to start the year the Yankees will field a lineup that appears in segments very manageable and almost unrecognizable. Small ball will be their style, at least to start. Rather hopefully, Yankees people are saying publicly that they believe their proven pitching will tide them over until some of the boppers get back. But behind the scenes, even many of their own people are skeptical.

"We're not going to sell many tickets if we get off bad," one longtime Yankees executive said, sounding worried.

Long track records and very big bucks aren't going to guarantee anything to anyone anymore. The Yankees, baseball's surest thing for 17 years -- they've averaged an astounding 97 wins the last 17 seasons, and made the playoffs every year but one -- have their highest ever $220 million-plus payroll. Yet, they are far from a certainty.

At least, the Yankees have plenty of company with big concerns in the biggest cities.

The Mets, still working their way back after surviving the Madoff scandal, seem to be shooting for 2014, or beyond. Johan Santana's possible career-ending shoulder injury and Shaun Marcum's continuing shoulder concerns considerably weaken their seeming strength, starting pitching.

Mets fans will get a taste of what's to come with dynamic right-hander Matt Harvey, who is believed ready to star in the rotation, plus young pitching prospects Zack Wheeler and Noah Syndegaard and brilliant-hitting young catcher Travis d'Arnaud not too far behind. But just a taste.

The big-market teams on the west coast, the Dodgers and Angels, certainly spent a lot of loot, so give them that. But both teams have to cope with uncertain chemistry and difficult divisions.

Los Angeles easily won the winter with the signings of Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton by the Dodgers and Angels, respectively. But both teams had a fair amount of spring consternation (though nothing compared to the Yankees).

For the Dodgers, Greinke was slowed by an elbow issue and shortstop Hanley Ramirez was felled for a couple months with a broken thumb.

Meanwhile, the Angels were still trying to piece together a questionable 'pen as spring days dwindled.

Despite the really big-sticker buys, the real buzz in LA this spring was about Yasiel Puig, the newly signed slugging Cuban outfielder who hit over .500 this spring but was sent out because the Dodgers have expensive, accomplished veterans Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier covering their outfield.

The Dodgers and Angels certainly have the talent to win. But questions abound.

Same goes for other biggest market teams around baseball.

The Cubs, like the Mets, are building for later.

Shortstop Javier Baez (a "monster" one scout said), outfielders Jorge Soler and Albert Almora plus others should make the Cubs a power in a few years. But not this year, when a repeat July selloff is much more likely. The White Sox, who are used to being overlooked as the second team in the Second City, took a decidedly low-profile approach this winter, a strategy that has occasionally served them well. Their biggest pickup was good-hitting journeyman Jeff Keppinger, who like Puig hit about .500 this spring but unlike Puig, isn't likely to get anyone's juices flowing.

The Red Sox's restored pitching will help, as will a clubhouse minus Josh Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez, who'd both soured in Boston. They'll be much better. Yet hardly anyone expects them to win a very competitive American League East.

The Phillies helped themselves by adding veteran hit-maker Michael Young and speedy center fielder Ben Revere. Yet for all the excitement generated by their vaunted rotation only a couple years back, they still look like the clear third team in a tough National League East (at least at the top).

The believed-to-be two best teams in baseball aren't in the biggest markets.

But the Nationals and Tigers have something else in common. Their octogenarian owners -- Mike Ilitch in Detroit and Ted Lerner in Washington -- are determined to win a World Series. This just might be their year.

The Nats, who became the first Washington-based baseball team to win a playoff game since 1933 last year before falling to the cardiac Cardinals in an NLDS heartbreaker, easily look like baseball's most solid team on paper. They surpassed the Phillies (and everyone else last year) when they shocked folks by winning an MLB-best 98 games. And, looking at their roster -- seemingly complete and nearly flawless -- they are the logical favorite in the National League.

The Nats have a deep and strong lineup, two closers and maybe the best bullpen in baseball. But what really defines the Nats is their rotation. The young phenom Strasburg is back -- unchained and with no innings limit -- to lead them. But maybe the most impressive thing about this team is that Ross Detwiler is their No. 5 starter. The lefty who was a WBC participant would be a 3 -- or higher -- for many others.

If the Nats are a strong favorite in the National League, the Tigers are perhaps an even stronger favorite in the American League. As if the defending AL champions needed any extra help, they added free agent Torii Hunter, welcomed back tough-out Victor Martinez and signed playoff ace Anibal Sanchez for a full season.

The Tigers' only obvious flaw appears to be the lack of a closer. Iconic manager Jim Leyland said throughout spring he prefers to have one set closer, but it became clear near the end when the 100-mph-throwing Bruce Rondon, who had only eight innings at Triple-A and couldn't control his breaking ball, wasn't going to be it.

The Tigers look like they might go with an old idea, the closer by committee setup. They have enough proven relievers like Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel and Phil Coke to make it work, and they are strong enough elsewhere that it may not matter much.

While the Nats and Tigers are -- and should be -- the favorites, many others threaten to upset them.

The Braves, with the Upton brothers joining a stacked lineup that should also get better with continued improvement of Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman plus the expected return in late April of Brian McCann, should challenge Washington. Until McCann gets back, the Braves' best story may be hard-hitting rookie catcher Evan Gattis, a slugging former prospect trying to fashion a career after stints as a ski-lift operator, valet and janitor.

The Cardinals, widely hailed as the blueprint for all organizations, have their usual strong lineup plus a stash of young pitchers, most obviously Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly. But the best one of all may be their No. 1 pick from last year, right-hander Michael Wacha out of Texas A&M, who wowed scouts all spring with a dynamic fastball-changeup combination. He'll start in the minors, but his ETA is anytime soon.

The Brewers were looking like they were going to go with an all 30-and-under rotation, but by the end of spring made the logical move to import star holdout Kyle Lohse, the excellent ex-Cardinal who'll bring lots of certainty and experience to the team that produced the most home runs, stolen bases and runs in the National league last year.

The Reds have a new center fielder, Shin-Soo Choo, and their old closer, Aroldis Chapman, after the spring plan to make him a starter was predictably abandoned soon after he said he wanted to keep closing.

The Diamondbacks will try to combine young pitching and unequaled grittiness to unseat the Giants but will begin the year without rookie leadoff man Adam Eaton, one of many spring casualties.

The Giants, world champions two of the past three years, brought back almost exactly the very team that won it all in 2012. To be exact, 21 of 25 returned, with the only exceptions being Xavier Nady, Guillermo Mota, Ryan Theriot and Aubrey Huff. And it's hard to say anything bad about a team with pitching, resolve and the great Buster Posey.

The Rays will keep trying to beat their payroll again with young stellar pitching in what could be the last year there for David Price, the 2012 Cy Young winner who's almost surely out of their price range, as soon as next winter.

The Indians have a new roster and a whole new energy with speedy Michael Bourn and fun Nick Swisher and Jason Giambi. But can they pitch? One thing about baseball nowadays is that it's not as predictable as it used to be. A couple notable upstarts got going last year, and there may be more coming.

The Orioles and Athletics are out to prove last year was no fluke. Baltimore won 16 straight extra-inning games to make the playoffs for the first time in 15 years (and for that matter, post their first winning season in that long, as well), and the A's outplayed their payroll by more than anyone in the game, thanks to wise signings, young pitching and a lot of energy. It was Moneyball, the sequel.

Both teams are back for more winning.

The Blue Jays, who haven't won anything of note in 20 years, loaded up with better pitching with the likes of Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson with the idea of hoping to compete with the Yankees -- although of course by the end, no one seemed to think the Yankees look like the team to beat, not after losing Curtis Granderson in his first at-bat of the spring and Mark Teixeira to a bizarre tee-ball accident.

The Royals, like the Jays a team that acquired a trio of starting pitchers via trade this winter (James Shields, Wade Davis and Ervin Santana in their case) via trade, look ready to contend. They were the best team all spring, not that that guarantees a thing.

The Mariners acquired five veteran hitters via trades or free agency, and if that doesn't produce more runs for the perennial limp lineup, they also moved in the fences and lowered the fence. They have a ton of great young pitchers on the way, with Brandon Maurer making the team and big prospects Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton probably not too far behind.

Almost anyone can get in the mix, save surely for the Marlins and Astros.

The Marlins' winter fire sale has left them with some nice prospects, very few fans and one likely unhappy superstar (based on his early tweets).

The Astros, meantime, appear to be shooting for the Mets territory -- 1962 Mets, that is.

Bud Selig's new baseball to reward the bottom feeders should encourage parity at a time it appears to be developing already. But the carrot of the first pick, the extra draft and international money may encourage a team or two to race to the basement in the second half.

For the other 28 or 29 teams, it should be quite a year.

Spring training, while longer than usual, featured some great new stories and coming stars. (Some of them even were on the old teams that need an injection of life.)

Domonic Brown found his old stroke, and once again looks like he's going to be a slugging star with the Phillies, who could use some new blood to go with holdover stars Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and the rest.

Jackie Bradley Jr., a consistently polite on-base machine, livened things up in Red Sox camp, which featured half a new roster, a whole new coaching staff and new manager John Farrell, who is the old pitching coach there.

Many other future stars flashed their considerable abilities in spring camps, and could make an impact before long. Kevin Gausman (or Dylan Bundy) could prove to be the No. 1 starter the Orioles need. Allen Webster made the blockbuster deal with the Dodgers look even better in Boston.

Aaron Hicks appears ready to replace Danard Span (and Revere) as the Twins' new center fielder.

Leonys Martin looks prepared to hit and should get most of the playing time at center field for the Rangers.

Jedd Gyorko will give the Padres plenty of offense at his new position of second base.

Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon provide the Pirates hope to break their losing streak, but it may not be in Year 21.

Nolan Arenado showed he's going to be the Rockies' third baseman of the future, and he'll be back up before long.

Christian Yelich put on a power display in Jupiter, demonstrating the Marlins have help on the way. With Jake Marisnick and Marcell Ozuna, they already have their outfield of the future (assuming Stanton doesn't stay forever).

Oscar Tavares appears ready to crack the Cardinals' lineup, but they already have Matt Holliday, Jon Jay and Carlos Beltran.

And Anthony Rendon looks like a future star for the Nats, who don't really need much help.

Just about every team has someone young to be excited about.

Of course, if anyone could use new blood, it's the Yankees. The oldest team in baseball was the most injured team this spring. The Yankees picked up a new player every few days it seemed, and while they have no great new kids from the farm to unveil, they did acquire Ben Francisco, Brennan Boesch, Vernon Wells and Lyle Overbay in what one scout joked was akin to their version of a spur-of-the-moment "youth movement."

The Yankees still can spend cash -- this year, anyway. The old money team has figured a way to make it work well into a second decade of unabated success. But many wonder whether their time is finally up. Yes, it may finally be the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one.


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