Back in my first year of college I had a professor that assigned us a semester long project that counted as a significant part of our grade. Basically as the semester went along and we learned the material, we would be able to proceed further along with the project, which was great if you managed to stay on top of it on a regular basis. However, he designed the assignment so that at certain points you were going to get stuck because the material wasn’t going to be covered in class and the textbook/reference material was useless.
The whole point behind these “sticking points” was that you had to seek out the professor outside of class and ask for his help. It was his way of helping you get more comfortable with going to your superior and asking for guidance, which as we all know is inevitable in the real world. I still think he was a little lonely and liked the company, but whatever. Anyway, when you went to him he wanted you to ask very specific questions rather than just the what do I do now jobs we all wanted to ask, and when we did come with a general question like that he would say “you’re asking good questions, but not the right ones.” It was frustrating as hell, but in the long run it definitely helped me out.
So why am I talking about this? Because Jonathan Halket at The Hardball Times looked at five questions facing the Yankees in 2009. Much like my old professor was fond of saying, I think Halket asked good questions, but not necessarily the right ones. Don’t take this as a shot at Jeter him or the THT gang, his article is very good and I recommend you head over and check it out. I just think the five biggest questions the Yanks will face this year are a little different than the ones he asked. Let’s take a look, shall we?
1. Can this team stay healthy?
Alex Rodriguez‘s surgically repaired hip will draw attention all year. If he’s struggling, people will wonder how much it’s hindering him, and of course there’s always the chance that it breaks down completely and he’ll need to have the more severe surgery. CC Sabathia has thrown 275.2 innings in the last twelve months, and AJ Burnett has spent 135 out of 549 possible days (24.5%) on the disabled list over the last three seasons. Andy Pettitte admitted to pitching with a sore shoulder in the second half last year, and we all know about Jorge Posada‘s wing. Even Mo went under the knife this offseason.
These are not inconsequential players. You could argue that they’re the six most important players on the team, and all of them will have some health questions to answer as the season goes along. And that’s the thing, I can’t answer this question, we just have to watch and see how it all plays out.
Luckily, the Yanks do have more depth than they’ve had in years past, especially on the pitching side. If Sabathia, Burnett or Pettitte goes down, they have Phil Hughes waiting as the best sixth starter in baseball. Ian Kennedy, Al Aceves and even Brett Tomko are as good a seventh-eighth-ninth group of starters you can find. They also have the ammo needed to go out and make a move should A-Rod‘s hip or Posada’s shoulder put them down for the count at some point.
2. What is going on in center field?
Brett Gardner won the job, but how long will he keep it? He certainly won’t hit .377-.441-.623 all season like he did this spring, and heck, if you chopped 120 points of those numbers across the board, you’d have to be ecstatic about what he’s giving you. But if Gardner can’t cut it, the job goes to Melky Cabrera by default, and let’s just say that’s not something we’re looking forward to seeing. If these two guys can’t hack it, the team has three options:
- Call up Austin Jackson: Not bloody likely. Can’t rush him and potentially sacrifice the future just to solve one problem in the present.
- Stick Nick Swisher out there: He’s serviceable in center, but has said he isn’t fond of the position. If he’s sitting on the bench behind Xaver Nady though, I think he’d jump at the chance for some regular playing time.
- Trade: Mike Cameron, Rick Ankiel, Endy Chavez … preferably someone with a short contractual commitment like that.
If the rest of the team plays as they’re capable of, and Gardner/Melky gives you strong defense and replacement level offense, then they can probably live with it. What are the odds that the rest of the team plays up to snuff though?
3. Will Robbie Cano rebound?
We’ve talked about this about a million times this winter, so let’s keep it short. Cano had a good spring (.333-.382-.627) just like last year, but he’s a notoriously slow starter, hitting .257-.291-.371 in April & May during his career before putting up a .322-.352-.509 line the rest of the year. With Cody Ransom and Brett Gardner in the every day lineup for the first month or so of the season, the team can ill afford to have Cano be the offensive black hole he was early last year. Regaining his status as an elite defender at the keystone corner would be nice too.
4. The continued decline of Derek Jeter
Let’s face it folks, the Captain is at the point in his career where he’s gradually making his way over to the glue factory. Check it out:
(O-S% is the percentage of pitches out of the zone that Jeter’s swung at, which comes courtesy of Fangraphs)
For a soon to be 35-year old shortstop, that’s a troubling trend. We know that Jeter is no great shakes defensively (heck, he’s not even average shakes in that department), but if his offense continues to go south … then where is his value? If he continues to succumb to age, it’ll only get uglier when his contract expires after 2010. Lets’ hope Jetes regains some of that magic, for the sake of the 2009 team as well as for the next couple of Yankee teams.
5. ZOMG teh 8th inning!1!!!1
Well, not specifically the eighth inning, but the bullpen outside of Mo in general. Damaso Marte has a long track record in the big leagues, so if nothing else we know what to expect out of him. Brian Bruney struggled with his command this spring, and that was never his strong suit to begin with. Jose Veras, Edwar Ramirez … their performances fluctuate like the weather, you can predict all you want, but you won’t know what you’re in for until you get outside and look. (Mike 1, metaphor similes 0). Phil Coke has been great working out of the bullpen, too great in fact. It’s hard to see him sustaining that kind of performance.
Thankfully, the team is suited to deal with bullpen problems better than any other part of the team. If the guys who start the year in the big league bullpen struggle, there’s a ton of bodies in the minors capable of replacing them. You have guys like David Robertson, Steven Jackson, Anthony Claggett, Mark Melancon, JB Cox, Dan Giese, Kanekoa Texeira, Zack Kroenke, Mike Dunn, and once again Mr. Tomko just a phone call away. There are so many bodies that even with normal attrition rates, you’d still end up with three or four quality relievers.
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To me, these are the most pressing issues in Yankeeland right now, none moreso than the first question. What do you guys think?