Philadelphia, PA – The 2014 New York Yankees are banking that a familiar formula can restore baseball's most successful franchise back to glory.
After missing out on the playoffs for the first time in 14 years in 2008, the Yankees went out and pillaged the free agent market, committing more than $420 million to three players -- pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett and first baseman Mark Teixeira. The payoff was instant, as the Bronx Bombers led the majors with 103 wins and captured their 27th -- and most recent -- World Series title with all three newcomers playing prominent roles.
Fast forward five years, and the recipe's the same. After recording their lowest win total in a full season since 1992 and failing to reach the playoffs, the Yankees abandoned a previous goal to get under the luxury tax threshold and aggressively pursued nearly all the top names on this offseason's free agent list. They landed the best catcher (Brian McCann and most coveted pitcher (Japanese sensation Masahiro Tanaka) available, lured one of the game's premier leadoff hitters (Jacoby Ellsbury) away from their most bitter rival and added a proven postseason performer in veteran outfielder Carlos Beltran, with the total bill for the four new superstars pushing $440 million over the life of their contracts.
While the Yankees' methods haven't changed, the roster sure has. Closer Mariano Rivera and pitcher Andy Pettitte, two essential and iconic components to the team's last dynasty of the late 1990's and early 2000's, both retired at the conclusion of last year's trying 85-77 campaign. All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano, the one player New York actually showed some financial prudence with during its winter splurge, took his talents across the country to Seattle. And gone for now is Alex Rodriguez, suspended for the entire upcoming season for his involvement in last year's Biogenesis PED scandal.
Rodriguez's exile shifts the spotlight to shortstop Derek Jeter, the lone remaining member of New York's famed "Core Four" who announced in February his retirement at season's end. The Yankees have gone all-out in hopes of giving their captain the ultimate going-away gift, a sixth career World Series ring, but will need to avoid a repeat of last year's devastating litany of injuries to end their current title drought.
2013 FINISH (85-77) - Third Place (AL East)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Jacoby Ellsbury (CF), Carlos Beltran (OF/DH), Brian McCann (C), Kelly Johnson (3B), Brian Roberts (2B), Masahiro Tanaka (RHP), Matt Thornton (LHP)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Robinson Cano (2B), Alex Rodriguez (3B), Curtis Granderson (CF), Lyle Overbay (1B), Chris Stewart (C), Andy Pettitte (LHP), Phil Hughes (RHP), Mariano Rivera (RHP), Kevin Youkilis (3B), Mark Reynolds (INF), Jayson Nix (INF), Vernon Wells (OF), Boone Logan (LHP), Joba Chamberlain (RHP)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Jacoby Ellsbury (CF), Derek Jeter (SS), Carlos Beltran (DH), Mark Teixeira (1B), Brian McCann (C), Alfonso Soriano (RF), Kelly Johnson (3B), Brian Roberts (2B), Brett Gardner (LF)
PROJECTED ROTATION: CC Sabathia (LHP), Hiroki Kuroda (RHP), Masahiro Tanaka (RHP), Ivan Nova (RHP), Michael Pineda (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: David Robertson (RHP)
MANAGER: Joe Girardi
WILL THE BULLPEN BE LESS MINUS MO?
Perhaps no player on the current Yankee roster will be under more scrutiny than new closer David Robertson, who faces the virtually impossible task of succeeding the most dominant reliever the game has ever seen in Rivera. Though his overall numbers have been on par with the surefire future Hall of Famer over the last few years, this will be the first time Robertson's been asked to handle the role on a full-time basis.
The biggest question mark, however, may be who can adequately fill Robertson's former set-up duties. Shawn Kelley, the favorite to take over that assignment, showed promise in his first year in New York but had bouts of inconsistency as well, particuarly in avoiding the long ball. New addition Matt Thornton was once a premier eighth-inning man with the White Sox, but the 37-year-old lefty wasn't very effective last season. The Yanks did sign former A's and Red Sox closer Andrew Bailey, but he's coming off major shoulder surgery and likely won't be ready until August at the earliest.
The Yankees are intrigued by the upside of onetime top prospect Dellin Betances, who's been lights-out for much of the spring, but the youngster owns a 9.39 ERA and a mere 7 2/3 innings of big league experience.
The bullpen, by far New York's greatest strength in 2013, may be the team's most glaring weakness this season.
CAN CC COME BACK?
Compounding the extensive injury issues that crippled the offense last season was a subpar year from staff ace Sabathia, who posted the highest ERA (4.78) of his career and witnessed a significant drop-off in velocity. The big lefty came to camp in noticeably better shape and determined to rebound, but his spring performance still raises questions as to whether he can be a dominant pitcher once again.
Sabathia isn't the only uncertainty on a revamped rotation that has the potential to be truly special if everything falls into place. The Yankees are counting on No. 4 starter Ivan Nova's terrific second half of 2013 as a sign the notoriously erratic right-hander has finally turned the corner, and that wild-card Michael Pineda -- a rookie All-Star with Seattle three years ago who's yet to throw a meaningful pitch for the Yankees due to persistent shoulder problems -- is finally healthy and ready to contribute. And for all his success in his native Japan, Tanaka still enters his first major league season as somewhat of an unknown quantity.
Veteran Hiroki Kuroda does give manager Joe Girardi one starter he can completely depend on every fifth day, though he's now 39 and seemed to wear down over the final two months of last season.
ARE THE YANKEES TOO OLD?
It's a fair question. Of the Yankees' projected Opening Day lineup, only three players -- Ellsbury, McCann and left fielder Brett Gardner -- can be considered to still be in the prime of their careers -- and they all turned 30 within the past year. Jeter will be 40 in June, and he and Teixeira combined to play in a paltry 32 games due to injuries in 2013. Brian Roberts, Cano's replacement at second base, is 36 and hasn't played in more than 77 games in any of the previous four seasons. Beltran turns 37 in April and fellow slugger Alfonso Soriano, who carried last year's moribund offense after being acquired from the Cubs in midseason, is now 38. Even the top option off the bench, former league MVP Ichiro Suzuki, is 40 and clearly not the impact player he once was.
New York finished next-to-last in the AL in homers (144) and 10th in the league in runs scored last season. Those very un-Yankee-like numbers had as much to do with the organization's lack of major league-ready talent at the upper levels of the minor league system as the glut of injuries that struck the offense. With the depth suspect again this year, the Yankees will be relying heavily on a lot of guys with considerable tread on their tires.
X-FACTOR: SABATHIA ... OR TANAKA
The offense is bound to be an improvement over last year's disaster and Robertson should be just fine as the closer. But for the Yankees to truly be considered a legitimate World Series threat, someone has to emerge as the bona fide No. 1 starter that can go toe-to-toe with the Justin Verlanders, Max Scherzers and Jon Lesters come October.
Sabathia used to be that guy, but last year's version was anything but an ace. The Yankees sorely need him to bounce back, or for Tanaka to live up to his legendary reputation in Japan and the exorbitant contract he received in his highly anticipated U.S. debut.
Girardi may have done his best mananging job last year, keeping the Yankees competitive into September as so many key players went down. He may have a greater challenge on his hands this season, however, as expectations will be sky-high after the front office's lavish spending spree and anything less than a World Series appearance will be viewed as disappointing. New York certainly has the skill and experience to make it back to the playoffs, but how far Jeter's farewell tour extends depends on how the pitching comes together and who's still standing among all the aging stars.