"How effective will the young pitchers be when they get to that seventh month?"
The last time the Yankees didn't qualify for the playoffs, in 1993, Spike Owen and Wade Boggs formed the left side of their infield and the Blue Jays had a higher payroll. New York has played in all 13 Octobers since then. And with another All-Star-laden team, this year will be no different. Winning in October, however, is another story.
The Yanks are 4-13 in their past 17 playoff games and have lost four consecutive series. They have been poorly built for October because they lacked young power pitchers, trotting out aging veterans and a young sinkerballer (Chien-Ming Wang) who pitches to contact. The average Yankees starting pitcher in those 17 postseason games was 34 years old, lasted only 4 2/3 innings and struck out three batters.
Now New York has an October remedy, a triple dose, in fact: Phil Hughes, 22; Joba Chamberlain, 22; and Ian Kennedy, 23. All of them are former first-round picks, but none of them have pitched a full big league season, which means what becomes of the 2008 Yankees comes down to one question: How effective will the young guns be when they get to that all-important seventh month? "All of our young pitchers have looked good so far," said general manager Brian Cashman midway through camp, referring not just to the three young guns but also to a crop of young hard throwers behind them in the bullpen and in the minors. "The only concern in camp has been [Mike] Mussina with his velocity being down, but he's a veteran."
To keep Chamberlain strong -- New York wants to limit him to about 150 innings -- the Yankees will use him out of the bullpen to start the season. However, he could make the transition to the rotation as soon as midseason. Should Chamberlain, Hughes and Kennedy each make 15 starts, still a good bet, it would mark the first time since 1911 that the franchise has given so many starts to three pitchers no older than 23. That year, the club, then the Highlanders, finished with a .500 record.
Only five clubs in the wild-card era have trusted 15 starts to three 23-and-under pitchers, and they all had losing records (the 1997 Royals, '98 Marlins, '99 Expos, 2003 Indians and '06 Marlins). And only four AL teams won a pennant with such a young staff: the 1913 and '14 Philadelphia A's, the '66 Orioles and the '85 Royals.
Run support for the kids won't be a problem. New York scored 968 runs last season, the most by the club since 1937, so even a slight decline is of no concern. Every key offensive contributor is back, including catcher Jorge Posada, who hit .338 (61 points better than his career average) in his walk year. Though he turned 36 last season, Posada was so impressive that he got a four-year, $52 million contract.
"I stayed locked in pretty much the whole year, but I also got lucky," says Posada, who batted .386 on balls he put into play last season, a huge spike from his .319 career average. "I probably shouldn't say this, because it's nothing against the pitcher, but there was one game against Jarrod Washburn [of Seattle] where I hit two balls as badly as you can hit a ball, and both times they just barely went over the first baseman's head for hits. [First baseman] Richie Sexson said to me, 'Wow, are you hot.' I said, 'No, just lucky.' "
New York does have age issues. Derek Jeter turns 34 in June, and Johnny Damon, 34; Hideki Matsui, 33; and Jason Giambi, 37, are all coming off down years. But with Giambi's contract ($21 million in '08) coming off the books this year, as well as those of Bobby Abreu ($16 million), Andy Pettitte ($16 million), Mussina ($11.5 million), Carl Pavano ($11 million) and Kyle Farnsworth ($5.5 million), the Yankees will have plenty of cash to chase such free agents as C.C. Sabathia and Mark Teixeira, both of whom turn 28 this year.
Getting younger, with a particular emphasis on power pitching, will keep Octobers in play for New York. Championships will depend on when the young guns are ready. -- Tom Verducci
Issue date: March 31, 2008