Assessing the very few ills of baseball's very best team
The defending world champion New York Yankees don't have many concerns
They need to choose either Phil Hughes or Joba Chamberlain as their fifth starter
They need to fit Curtis Granderson and Nick Johnson into the lineup
TAMPA -- This is a new, more frugal Yankees team, one that kept their payroll to only $200 million, that declined to keep Johnny Damon and that spent more than $400 million less this year than last on new free agents.
But let's not confuse them with a team in transition. Sure, they saved a few bucks. But they have plenty left over after winning the World Series in their inaugural year in their palatial new ballpark that can be used this summer if necessary. The Yankees likely only took the winter off for free agents because they didn't love the free-agent field and are merely saving up for next winter, which is a strong class that includes certain outfield target Carl Crawford and three of their own big-time free agents -- Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Joe Girardi.
Not too many conclusions should be drawn on Day One. But C.C. Sabathia appears even readier to take over leadership reins his second year in the Bronx. Jorge Posada appears fitter in his 38th year, as does Andy Pettitte in his 37th. And overpublicized starter-reliever Joba Chamberlain looks like he's added some ink, as in tattoos (though it probably isn't possible for him to get any more ink from media attention). And Girardi, who added a managerial ring to the three he won as a player, seems unusually relaxed for a Yankees manager heading into the final year of his contract.
He has good reason to be. This is still the best team in baseball. The Yankees enter spring training with concerns that are still relatively few, flaws that are not readily obvious and weaknesses that are not exactly overwhelming.
Of course, that doesn't make them perfect. There are still a few things that can derail them -- not many, but a few. Here is a rundown of the concerns for the team with the least number of concerns:
1. The lineup
Since Girardi called forming a lineup from a group as almost impressive as last year's as foremost in his mind when asked about concerns, we'll start there. With Hideki Matsui gone to Los Angeles of Anaheim and and Johnny Damon gone somewhere (Detroit appears to be leading at the moment, followed by the Chicago's South Side and Atlanta), there are going to be some adjustments needed. "We're going to miss those two guys,'' Posada said, flat out. "Those two guys played the game right, they never made excuses and are professional hitters.''
No one would suggest that Curtis Granderson and Nick Johnson aren't proficient hitters. But they are somewhat less accomplished, and certainly less accomplished in the Bronx. "We hope Curtis Granderson and Nick Johnson can provide what Damon and Matsui provided,'' GM Brian Cashman said. Girardi mentioned the efforts it took to keep Damon and Matsui playing through physical issues -- though both are extremely tough, and it remains to be seen how tough Johnson is (he's missed an average of 58 games a year).
Girardi named Johnson and Granderson as the primary candidates to replace Damon in that coveted No. 2 hole between high MVP finishers Jeter and Teixeira (word is the Yankees absolutely love Johnson, he of the .426 on-base percentage last year, batting second). Posada and Robinson Cano look like the main candidates to bat behind cleanup man Alex Rodriguez with Nick Swisher behind them, with Granderson sometimes at No. 8 and Brett Gardner at No. 9.
But it's a work that isn't even in progress yet. Newcomers Randy Winn and Marcus Thames (assuming he makes the team) are candidates to wrest playing time from Gardner, who was named the starter last year but lost the job within weeks to the now departed Melky Cabrera.
"I really like the players who are assembled in camp,'' Girardi said. "We just have to figure out how all the parts fit.''
2. The No. 5 starters' job
The staff is much stronger this year with Javier Vazquez having been imported to be the game's best No. 4 pitcher and lengthen a very talented rotation.
"Certainly, we're deeper in the starting rotation, which was a necessity,'' Cashman said.
Some New Yorkers questioned the choice of Vazquez. But he's looked upon in their room as a welcome addition and new man following his fourth-place finish in NL Cy Young voting.
"Right now he's at the peak of his career,'' Posada said. "He's learned a lot about himself. He enjoyed it here last time, and he wants to be here.''
The No. 5 starters' job almost surely will go to either Phil Hughes or Chamberlain, two talented right-handers who've both pitched better in relief than the rotation. Both have been told to prepare as if they will start, and both said on Wednesday that they are assuming that they will start. But of course, you don't have to be a numbers expert to see that only one of them will (and in the off chance Chad Gaudin takes the fifth spot, neither of them will). "It's a healthy competition for the fifth spot, and I love it,'' Girardi said.
The guess here is that Hughes has a slight edge for the starting job going in, partly because Chamberlain was so much better in the bullpen than as a starter and partly because there are no Hughes Rules. Either way, they have two talented young candidates for the No. 5 job, and more importantly for a team that'll very likely be playing into October, they have a chance to be as good as anyone one through four in the rotation.
3. Set-Up Man
There is no set set-up man for now. But the loser of the Hughes-Chamberlain competition will give the Yankees a very viable option. Both pitchers have performed much better in that role to date. Girardi also mentioned Damaso Marte, who resurrected himself with a brilliant World Series, plus gutty strikeout specialist David Robertson as set-up possibilities.
It should be better in the outfield this year with Granderson taking over for Damon even if Granderson's rep took a hit or two last year. Some Tigers people privately questioned Granderson's defense at the end of last year, when there were a few uncharacteristic misplays late in the year. As to whether Granderson is still a top defensive player, Cashman said, "We're about to find out.''
But the Yankees must have some opinion to have made the trade, no?
"We still have him as a plus defender,'' Cashman asserted. "Also, he's an upgrade over what we had previously.'' (That presumably meant Damon.)
The Yankees are calling it an open competition to see who plays left and who plays center, though Granderson is surely an everyday player at one of those two positions while Gardner likely will be one. "We'll see what we see,'' Cashman said. "But we have two center fielders, which we think is a good thing.'' The guess here is that Gardner winds up in center if only because he's rarely played left
Gardner for Melky Cabrera is probably a push defensively, and the other players around the field remain the same. There was a lot of chatter last year about some of the pitchers preferring to throw to a more defensive-oriented backup than Posada. But they've now won our World Series titles with Posada. The defensively adept Francisco Cervelli takes over the main backup spot for Jose Molina. My suggestion to A.J. Burnett in particular is to try to be like Sabathia: get over it and accept Posada's minor quirks (which allegedly are that he doesn't frame pitches as well as some and isn't quite as fast in adjusting to game-calling changes when there are runners at second).
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