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For The 2009 Yankees, Depth (Not Star Power) Is The Key

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On the surface, it is easy to call the New York Yankees the obvious front runner for the World Series. Their three colossal offseason acquisitions of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira are testament enough to this evaluation, beyond the usual cast of talented players that populate the Yankees clubhouse. There is, in fact, fallacy in assuming that these moves are the sole indicator that the Yankees will be successful. Many teams have put together strong, expensive offensives lineups with prolific past statistics. As the 2008 Tigers and the Yankees teams of the 1980s and 2000s can testify to, a lineup full of high priced veterans (do Giambi, Sheffield, and Kevin Brown ring any bells?) does not guarantee anything more than high home run totals.

Headline grabbing free agent acquisitions aside, the true key to the Yankees improvement this offseason — the main factor that has put them in a position for a legitimate World Series run — is without a doubt their focus on creating quality and depth throughout their roster. While the Yankees have always possessed a consistent level of star power, especially during the most recent World Series drought, depth is an attribute that the post-dynasty teams have sorely lacked, especially in a high quality manifestation.

The current incarnation of the Bombers has evolved into a hybrid of the original formula that once made them resoundingly successful. Plus, they’re infused with the new paradigm of statistical analysis that has elevated teams like the Red Sox (and to a lesser extent the A’s) to the status of perennial contenders. Most indicators show that, given the emergence of a focused and statistically sound plan of execution, the balance of power has now shifted away from a Boston team that seems hesitant to spend the money that could secure them dynastic domination, back to New York, where the brass is more logically focused and aggressive with their excessive revenues than ever before.

The most prominent area where the Yankees display this concept of quality depth — following the purging of soul-sucking faux-Yankees like Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield — is in the outfield. Providing the Yankees with flexibility in positioning and approach, manager Joe Girardi has, at his disposal, a varied set of tools to optimize any matchup or situation.

During their championship hiatus from 2002 to present day, the Yankees typically had three very good outfielders in their starting lineup. Sheffield, Damon, Matsui, Abreu and for a short time early in this period Bernie Williams all, at various times, provided quality offensive in certain respects of the game. Unfortunately, all of the aforementioned players, largely because of their age, were injury riddled and prone to bouts of ineffectiveness over the grind of a season. When these injuries inevitably struck, the likes of Bubba Crosby, Terrence Long, Raul Mondesi, and Rondell White proved inefficient replacements when compared to the standard of ultimate excellence that has become the dictum in the Yankees culture.

They were lineups with underachieving and overrated players that were never able to duplicate the success of the Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez, Paul O’Neill, Derek Jeter, Scott Brosius, Chuck Knoblauch, and Mariano Rivera championship teams, most specifically in the postseason where their lack of fundamental skills showed most glaringly in their constant inability to advance to the World Series.

During the Yankees’ first resurgence to baseball’s elite, Joe Torre created a masterful platoon system made possible by egos that were in check, alternating Cecil Fielder and Tino Martinez at first, Charlie Hayes and Wade Boggs at third, and rotating his outfield between regular starters Paul O’Neill and Bernie Williams with a mix of Darryl Strawberry, Chad Curtis, Tim Raines, Ruben Sierra, and Gerald Williams — all who contributed to the success of the team in their own limited but valuable ways.

This sounds striking similar to the option of a Nick Swisher/Mark Teixeira platoon at first base, as well as the various possibilities provided by the six-man rotation of quality outfielders that the modern Yankees have at their disposal. While there will inevitably be criticisms surrounding such issues of age, health, and production (the latter most notably in Swisher’s case) those same question surrounded O’Neill — who never hit .300 before joining the Yankees — and Brosius, who hit .203 for the A’s the season before arriving in New York. The fundamental pieces are present in the 2009 Yankees, as they were in the 1990s, and those building blocks should translate into a consistency of success that has been notably lacking from recent Yankee incarnations.

Breaking down the 2009 Yankees outfield, the quality in their depth is apparent, if not lingering below the surface of the obvious. Starting in the left field — a position that even in the dynasty’s best years was constantly in flux — the Yankees have found stability among a stable of capable players that could start regularly for most other teams in the league.

While Johnny Damon is set to be the projected starter, he is backed up by Xavier Nady on the depth chart, new acquisition Nick Swisher, and Hideki Matsui; three players capable of playing multiple positions reasonably well and producing quality offense in each case.

While Damon will turn 35 this season, his 2008 stats show little decline in his offensive abilities. Sporting a .303 batting average (the first time he hit over .300 since 2005), 17 home runs and 29 steals — along with a very good .375 OBP and 119 OPS+ — Damon is still a solid and diverse offensive force, reaching base frequently and providing speed, limited power, and solid range (aside from his weak arm) to the Yankees left field position. His time at DH this year should provide him with the rest necessary to maintain consistent numbers and health over the course of the season, much as it appeared to last year when Damon took 25 turns in the DH slot.

Patrolling center field, the current plan is to utilize Yankees farm system product Brett Gardner. A 25-year-old home grown talent with blazing speed and bunting ability reminiscent of Brett Butler, Gardner showed small flashes of brilliance in his limited time with the big club last season. While his 2008 statistics were disappointing to say the least, the team loves his defensive ability in center, a necessity they’ve lacked since Bernie Williams “surrendered” the position after the 2006 season, possibly longer. If Gardner can improve on his offensive aptitude, as well as his ability to regularly get on base this season, he could develop into a Jacoby Ellsbury-type facsimile, infusing the team with a true base running and base stealing threat that it has lacked since Steinbrenner’s failed experiment with an aging Kenny Lofton.

Should Gardner not mature as the Yankees anticipate, Nick Swisher is waiting in the wings as a palatable fill-in. While his .219 batting average with the White Sox last season is obviously well below what one would like out of a starting center fielder, deeper analyzation shows the value in his very sold .354 career OBP and his 112 OPS+. Nick, while not embodying qualities of your prototypical starter at this point, possesses the fundamental baseball knowledge of taking pitches, working deep into counts, drawing walks, and getting on base that allow him to be a valuable contributor beyond his misleading basic stat line. At the very least, he will be one of the better backup outfielders/first basemen/DH in the majors and his switch-hitting ability possesses its own obvious matchup advantages. He is an above average utility player who, when allowed to simply fill the role that best suits his skill set, should flourish in the Yankees system.

Without harping too heavily on centerfield, one cannot yet write off Melky Cabrera just yet. By all accounts he has been a disappointment along the lines of Shane Spencer or Ricky Ledee. While his statistics seem to indicate a player who won’t quite break through as an everyday starter, it may be a little early to give up on the once heralded prospect. While no one will make the argument that Cabrera should start for this team on opening day, he is arguably far better (or at least possesses more potential) than any other third option at any position on a starting roster in baseball. Cabrera is very good from a defensive standpoint and has shown flashes of offense — although admittedly without consistency — throughout his short career. In any sense, given a scenario involving a variety of injuries or terminal slumps, Cabrera could seize the opportunity to reclaim his position in the Yankees’ blueprint for the future. In a bad scenario, the Yankees could do much worse.

Continuing in this vein of outfield analysis, Hideki Matsui may be poised for a surprisingly efficient comeback season. While injuries have severely hampered “Godzilla” over the past few years, his production in his limited time has been deceivingly valuable. Even in his truncated 2008 campaign — in which he registered only 337 at bats — Matsui still managed 99 hits for a .294 batting average, getting on base at a respectable clip of .370. While Matsui might not be the elite hitter with above average power that he was when he crossed over the ocean and into the spotlight of the Big Apple, he is still an above average outfielder, especially considering he is a third or fourth option in the field.

Hideki, when healthy, is a masterful line drive hitter who still possesses respectable slugging ability and who, most importantly, follows the Yankees mantra of working deep into counts and consistently get on base. Since getting on base is essentially the most valuable aspect when compiling wins, Matsui’s value can’t be entirely dismissed, even by the doubters who point to his age and his declining power production as examples of his growing ineffectiveness. In a sense, he could be to the Yankees what Tim Raines was during their championship run; in short, an invaluable asset, if not an everyday starter. In the best case scenario, Matsui may be the best DH in baseball not named David Ortiz.

Finally moving to rightfield, the Yankee’s late season 2008 acquisition Xavier Nady is poised to build upon what was a breakout campaign for him last year. Finally staying healthy for a full season — split between Pittsburgh and New York — Nady was finally allowed to show a glimpse of the immense potential once lauded on a man who became only the 18th player in baseball history to make his major league debut without playing a single game in the minors.

Sporting a .357 OBP and a very productive 128 OPS+, Nady played like a prototype from the championship teams of the 90s, grinding out hits, showing strong fundamentals, and doing whatever it took to get wins, regardless of personal statistics or accolades. If Nady can further his evolution as a player, and learn the Yankees ethos of drawing more walks (a skill he was not accustomed to as one of the only run producing threats the Pirates possessed), Xavier could cement himself as a Yankees stalwart for another Championship run.

In fact, in a head to head comparison with former beloved Yankees rightfielder Paul O’Neill, Nady is actually suprisingly similar, minus the Yankee mystique achieved through incredibly clutch and timely hitting. While Paulie holds the slight statistical edge, stylistically they are both line drive hitters and rightfielders with strong arms and extraordinary instincts. With Nady receiving the protection that only a Yankees lineup can provide for a full season — as O’Neill obviously did — he should equip the lineup with an important and productive right handed bat, a need amplified by the prolonged absence of Alex Rodriguez that the team is now facing.

Should Nady degrees or suffer from injuries (the latter of which has been a consistent problem for the player throughout his career) Nick Swisher (once again) is more than capable of handling the right field duties at the new stadium. No matter what circumstance should arise, an outfield consisting of Damon, Gardner, Nady, Carbrera, Swisher, and Matsui provides the Yankees with a depth and an interchangeableness that is second to none in the majors.

While these players may not be marquee names (much like Strawberry, Raines, Curtis, Gerald Williams, Seirra, and to a lesser extent Justice weren’t during their service with the Yanks) they are solid ball players that will create runs for an offense that looked sluggish and stagnant last season.

To a lesser extent, the Yankees infield is also afforded the same luxury of depth. While A-Rod (aside from the injury), Jeter, Cano, and Teixeira are obviously the big money names of this squad, don’t count out utility infielder Angel Berroa as a contributor. Much like similar utilitymen Luis Sojo, Pat Kelly, and Homer Bush, the former A.L. Rookie of the Year makes up for his lack of offensive output with slick, solid defense at multiple positions; an attribute sorely lacking on the 2008 version of the club that frequently stumbled in the field, contributing greatly, yet less sensationally, to their lack of a playoff birth. While Angel may never recapture the magic of his 2003 season, his speed and defense alone provide the Yankees a versatility that every defensive unit needs to be successful.

Cody Ransom, a 32-year-old utility player, is another athlete with some lingering upside that gives the Yankees yet another capable option at a variety of positions. While Ransom has seen minimal playing time in his eight year career, he showed signs of life for the Yanks in 2008, batting .302 in 42 at bats, with four home runs and a .400 OBP. While his 170 OPS+ is inflated because of the small amount of at bats, it still eludes to the potential of what Ransom may display given the chance, especially now that A-Rod may miss up to four months with his newly revealed hip injury.

Obviously starting Ransom in Alex Rodriguez’s place may be a stretch considering we’re talking about the Yankees here, but Rodriguez’s contract and the fact that any replacement would essentially be an expensive four-month rental, means the Yankees may want to give Ransom a limited shot at the position. If anything, the experience would only increase his value as a utility option when A-Rod returns or when an eventual replacement is signed.

The offensive prowess of the 2009 Yankees is immediately evident when examining the lineup top to bottom but the overlooked factor concerning the topic of depth, is the flexibility it provides to the Yankees, not only in the field, but in the DH slot. In 2008 two players that registered the majority of their bats at DH were able to hit .300 or better; Aubrey Huff (.304) and the retired Sean Casey (.322 in limited at bats). From a power standpoint only Jim Thome, Jack Cust, Aubrey Huff, and Jason Giambi broke the 30-home run plateau and only Huff (.912) was able to registered an .OPS over .900.

In 2009, the Yankees will rotate Matsui, Damon, Nady, and Posada in the role — along with most likely Nick Swisher in various matchups and circumstances — giving them a great offensive advantage at this position. Any of the five are capable of a high level of offensive output — specifically against the right matchups — and all will benefit from the rest afforded to them by the ability to essentially take half-games off. In turn, the team as a whole benefits by not losing the bat of a player like Posada when the defensive specialist Jose Molina provides a spell at the catcher position for his aging knees.

From a pitching standpoint the Yankees starting five is the most obviously and evidently formidable piece of the puzzle. One can debate endlessly the projected success of Sabathia now that he is back in the offensive-heavy American League, or the health of the oft-injured A.J. Burnett, but a rotation of Sabathia, Burnett, Wang, Pettitte, and Chamberlain is arguably the best in baseball, especially if they can all find a way to stay reasonably healthy for the majority of the season. Domination is not necessary out of these men, who all possesses the potential to do so. They must simply pitch solid baseball and let the offense and Mariano Rivera do the rest; again much like the Yankees of the 90s.

This analysis is common knowledge and obvious. What is overlooked is the depth that permeates the rest of the Yankees staff. While Ian Kennedy may never be able to rebound from his horrific 2008 campaign where it seems like a certain level of “shell-shock” may have set in, the potential for some level of success is still possibly present. Kennedy will probably never be the star some overzealous analysts projected him to be but he could very easily become a right-handed Ted Lilly facsimile, which isn’t entirely disagreeable, even if he may one day have to be traded to the National League to find any success.

Phillip Hughes, on the other hand, is still a pitcher that possesses massive potential, apparent by the offseason hotstove querys of interest from a variety of teams, all obviously declined by Brian Cashman and the Yankees. Unlike Kennedy, Hughes has the velocity and explosiveness to accompany his command and control; pivotal to success on the major league level. While obviously a work in progress and still very raw, Hughes was more a victim of being thrown into the proverbial Lions’ den too early, rather possessing a total lack of skill, as one may derive from simply viewing his mortifying stat line from 2008. This is a guy who had a no-hitter going for 6 2/3 innings in his second career start in 2007 against the Texas Rangers before being forced out of the game with a bad hamstring. He has, since his first days in in the show, always possessed major league level stuff. If he can harness that raw throwing ability and translate it into refined pitching skill, Hughes can become one of the best hurlers in baseball. The revamped Yankee rotation may finally afford him the time and cushin necessary for that development.

The overlooked factor of the staff may be 27-year-old Mexican League star Alfredo Aceves. After lighting up three levels of the Yankees’ farm system, going 8-6 with a 2.62 ERA, Aceves was stellar in his 30 innings pitched for the Yankees in 2008. Posting a 2.40 ERA and a 1.167 WHIP, the control-style pitcher walked only ten batters, displaying ample command and control of four different proficient pitches. Aceves will start the season in the Yankees pen, but could prove to be a very reliable emergency/spot starter and long reliever, especially if Hughes and Kennedy continue to falter.

Should that situation repeat itself, also don’t sleep on young J.B. Cox, and his notoriously viscous slider. He’s sure to see some innings on the Major League level this season at some point, and may prove a valuable cog in the mechanism that inevitably leads to Mariano Rivera.

The New York bullpen may be the weakest part of this nearly universally strong club — as usual — but although lacking high profile names like Stanton, Mendoza, or Nelson, the pen, like the rest of the team, possesses a depth (albeit younger and more raw) that is loaded with potential.

Assume — for the sake of avoiding superfluous analysis — we can omit Mariano Rivera from this discussion. Yes, he’s near 40, but after a 2008 season in which he posted a paltry 1.40 ERA, 39 saves, a disgusting 0.665 WHIP, a career high 317 ERA+, and 77 strikeouts in 70.7 innings, I think all can universally agree that the greatest closer that has ever lived retains his crown for now. Even a slightly diminished Rivera is exponentially more valuable than 90% of the closers in the majors.

So moving beyond the “Sandman,” Damaso Marte looks to be first in line for the setup role. On the surface Marte is no Jeff Nelson or Mike Stanton. His 4.02 ERA in 2008 is disturbing to Yankees fans to say the least, but further examination shows that Marte may have been the victim of some bad baseball luck. ERA aside, Marte struck out 71 batters in 65 innings, while walking only 26 batters and giving up 52 hits — both less than his innings pitched — which is an excellent indicator of the true effectiveness of any pitcher. All three statistics are highly positive signs that given the right circumstances Marte can be a very effective lefty out of the pen and possibly a fixture as a setup man.

Should the Yankees elect to use Marte as a left handed specialist, Brian Bruney is another flamethrowing option out of the ‘pen who may prove to be an ideal setup man to bridge the gap to Rivera. 2008 was a solid rebound season for Bruney, after a disappointing 2007 season laden with struggles.

In 2008 Bruney threw 34.3 innings for manager Joe Girardi, earning his new manager’s confidence with every appearance. Bruney posted a stellar 1.83 ERA and allowed only 18 hits and 16 walks in those 30+ innings, bouncing back from a rough 2007 in which he walked 37 batters in 50 innings and posted a career-high 4.68 ERA. As Brian progresses he could secure the setup role for the foreseeable future, and possibly serve as a future heir to the throne of Rivera, should Mariano not prove to actually possesses the immortality he exudes.

The rest of the pen is stocked with promising young arms. Jose Veras, Jonathan Albaladejo, Edwar Ramirez, David Robertson, and Phil Coke give the Yankees a cache mostly of unproven and raw potential relief specialists. While some will inevitably falter, and some will require work in AAA to refine their skills (where Kei Igawa is lurking), the Yanks have put stock into the development of quality arms that, unlike the nosedive of the Dow, should show ample returns.

The strategy may not result in total instant gratification. Edwar Ramirez has already shown signs that he may be an elite reliever, working 55.3 innings for the the Yanks, he posted a 1.23 WHIP, striking out 63 batters while surrendering only 44 hits and 24 walks. Phil Coke has also shown signs of fullfilling his vast potential at the major league level, posting a 0.61 ERA and 14 K’s in 14.7 innings in his short stint with the club last season.

Beyond those two (in my opinion) standout candidates to be immediate contributors, the rest of the pen has similar potential to be effective and, for the long term, this current strategy is far more conducive to future success than the practice of throwing unwarranted money at the likes of Kyle Farnsworth-less, Ron Villone, or Felix Rodriguez.

The period of the Yankees turning to overrated, immediately available, and inevitably invaluable players is coming to an end. The adage that the team with the most money will win win has been proved false consistently over the last decade, especially if they who spend knows not how and where to allocate.

It’s unfortunate phrasing for Yankees fans but the New York front office has finally begun to adopt the Bill James-Billy Beane-Boston Red Sox philosophy of constructing a baseball team with maximum value (as termed by the “new” analytical methods) at each position. Presumably, as the Yankees have gone the extra mile that the Red Sox inexplicably refuse to go — securing their stalwarts and purchasing quality free agents that fit their newly accepted philosophy — the result should be that of success, as it was for Boston when they were the franchise with the philosophical upper hand.

In the 90s the Yankees unconsciously employed a form of this philosophy only because the style of play tends to be most prevalent among unselfish, all-around ballplayers. But after the dynasty aged and faded, it took the Red Sox to finally win a World Series to force the Yankees to understand that baseball philosophy had passed them by, and a new class of Wall Street-bred, “whiz kids” were quantifying success in Major League front offices like never before.

Now, as previously examined, it seems the Yankees are intent on creating an entity that embodies the new analytical philosophies of baseball while maintaining the policy of product investment not found in places like Oakland. They’ve taken this ethos beyond that of even the Red Sox, whose tendencies to let players leave unceremoniously is well known. The Teixiera signing was brilliant evidence of this differential in approach.

A philosophy of paying to keep the established and proven stars, investing money and field time into promising prospects with obvious upside, and bringing in free agents that fit the Yankees’ quasi-sabermetric, or capitalistic-sabermetric approach (both high priced and value players, with common and specific strengths — think Kevin Youkilis, Bill Mueller, and Kevin Millar) has once again thrust the Yankees into the drivers seat of the AL East. In 2009 The Yankees — presumably avoiding another string of catastrophic injuries and swarming insect attacks — should be able to utilize the quality of their philosophy, and most importantly over the course of the season, the quality of their depth, to easily reach the post season one year after their disappointing hiatus of 2008.

Using a combination of veterans, star power acquisitions, and most especially a deep and talented bench of “value players,” the Yankees should now be able to weather the various inevitable slumps that all players experience throughout the season, neutralizing tough matchups, and easily adding — at the very least — the six wins that kept them out of the wildcard spot last season. If an analysis needs a prediction to be complete, I predict the Yankees will reach and win the World Series, based on the contributions of their deep bench that will suprise many who cover the game.

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About Anthony Tobis

  • A dose of reality

    Are you high?

  • Tony

    Nope, just understand the game of baseball better then those fans who obtain their knowledge from headlines on ESPN.com.

    I’m not sure how else to respond since there isn’t much articulation here.

  • sandra dee

    Can you explain how you think Shane Spencer was a disappointment when he wasn’t given much time to actually play defensively?

  • Tony

    I was actually a big Shane Spencer fan but he was given more of a chance that you may remember. From 1999 to 2002 he had at least 200 at bats a season. In those seasons he posted batting averages of .234, .282, .258, and .247 with highest OBP at .330. That’s pretty disappointing from a guy who, in 1998, when he burst onto the scene, hit .373 with 10 homers and a .411 OBP in 67 at bats.

    As for his time defensivly, most of those games played were actually in the field with about an average of five games a season coming out of the DH spot.

    There was a lot of hope that Spencer would be the Yankees leftfielder of the future but he could just never hit well enough. I mean, after leaving the Yanks he hung on for two more year playing for three different teams in that span. He just never recaptured the “magic” from that short stint in 1998.