The regular season is over and that means we’ll spend the next few weeks looking back at the year that was and ahead to an important offseason. We’ll start our annual season review next week once I take a few days to catch my breath. Blog life is a grind, man. We’ve been using the “what went right/wrong” season review format basically since the start of RAB, but I feel it’s run its course and it’s time for something new. I’m just not quite sure what yet. Anyway, here are some scattered thoughts on the heels of the team’s second straight postseason-less season.
1. Now that Derek Jeter is gone and the Core Four — sorry Core Five doesn’t rhyme, Bernie — is officially gone, the Yankees have to find or develop a new identity. This was Jeter’s team for the last two decades and now they have to find the next “face of the franchise,” so to speak. I don’t think that player is on the roster right now and that’s okay. It was a few years before Tim Lincecum replaced Barry Bonds as the Giants icon, for example. Masahiro Tanaka could eventually take over as the face of the Yankees but I don’t think he is that right now. Maybe if he had stayed healthy this season it would have been a different story. This is the first time in a very, very long time the Yankees have not had an undisputed star at the forefront of the organization. Remember, Jeter took over that role from Don Mattingly almost immediately. This is definitely a new era of Yankees baseball going forward, an era unlike many of us have seen.
2. I’m a big believer in the importance of being strong at the up-the-middle positions (catcher, second, short, center). Those are traditionally hard to fill spots and teams getting top notch production there have a big advantage over their competitors. It’s not a coincidence the most recent Yankees dynasty was built around Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Bernie Williams. Here is a real quick and dirty look at the top up-the-middle teams in 2014 using fWAR (sorry, our tables suck and you can’t sort the columns):
|Team||Catcher||Second Base||Shortstop||Center Field||Total|
Six of the top ten and eight of the top 13 teams are in the postseason. The Tigers and Athletics are the two notable exceptions. It’s no surprise the Yankees are near the bottom. Jacoby Ellsbury was their only above-average up-the-middle player this year. Brian McCann was terrible until his homer-filled September and second base was a disaster all year. Jeter’s farewell was awesome but his overall year was not. In fact, Yankees shortstop was the fifth least productive position in baseball this year, better than only Astros first base (-2.7 fWAR), Indians right field (-2.2), Rangers first base (-2.0), and Reds right field (-2.0). Yikes.
3. Now, about those up-the-middle positions. The Yankees are locked into Ellsbury and McCann — I expect McCann to be better next year, though that might be nothing more than blind faith — but they have clean slates at second base and shortstop. Moreso at shortstop. Martin Prado is a candidate to play second and Rob Refsnyder is knocking on the door at Triple-A. There’s no one like that at short though, not unless you count Brendan Ryan, and I sure don’t. These clean slates are both good and bad. They’re good because they’re an opportunity to plug holes with no strings attached or other considerations. They’re bad because these are really tough spots to fill. My perfect world scenario for second is starting Prado there, then moving him wherever else when the inevitable injury strikes and calling up Refsnyder. The Yankees will have their pick from several free agent shortstops. There’s a lot of room for improvement on the middle infield and the club could turn their up-the-middle foursome into a real strength if McCann rebounds and they hit on their inevitable shortstop addition this winter.
4. I think these last two years have made it clear that having a strong and deep bullpen is very important. I mean, it’s always been important, but nowadays there are fewer runs being scored and it seems like every single game is close. We just watched it game after game for six months. This year the Yankees played 52 one-run games and 128 games decided by four or fewer runs. Five years ago they played 39 one-run games and 110 games decided for no more than four runs. Blowouts are rare and teams with deep bullpens have a big advantage in all those close games. I don’t only think the Yankees should re-sign David Robertson, I think they should also look to add another high-end reliever to him and Dellin Betances. Someone like impending free agent Andrew Miller, for example. Adam Warren and Shawn Kelley are fine seventh inning guys who can be more for stretches of time (and less in others), plus I like prospects like Jacob Lindgren and Nick Rumbelow as much as anyone, but I’m all for adding high-end bullpen depth. It’s both tricky and risky — relievers do still tend to suck for no reason and without warning — but without a big infusion of offense this winter, the Yankees are going to need to do whatever they can to help themselves in close games. Upgrading the bullpen is one way to do that.
5. The Yankees are reportedly considering using a six-man rotation next season — it’s just a thought right now, they’re kicking it around — and I keep going back and forth on this. On one hand, they have a lot of pitchers coming off injury in Tanaka (elbow), Michael Pineda (shoulder), CC Sabathia (knee), and eventually Ivan Nova (elbow), so it would be good to give them the extra rest. On the other hand, finding five quality starters is hard enough, nevermind six. And do we even know how much it will improve their chances of staying healthy? Good enough to make up for the extra starts they’ll lose? There’s also the roster construction aspect of it. Six-man rotation means three-man bench — I can’t imagine they’ll go to a six-man bullpen, nothing the Yankees have done the last few years suggests they’ll skimp on pitching — which means they’ll need more versatile players, including a backup catcher who can play elsewhere in a pinch. I don’t know, I can’t decide if I like the idea or if I don’t. If it keeps the pitchers healthy, then yeah, they should do it. The problem is there is no way of knowing how much it will help ahead of time. A six-man rotation could blow up in their face and lead to a lot of criticism, which makes me think they won’t do it. The Yankees aren’t the most progressive club when it comes to doing stuff outside the box to gain a competitive advantage. (Example: They didn’t start using infield shifts until years after their division rivals.)
6. I’m curious to see what Jose Pirela’s role will be next year, which I guess ties into the whole “need more versatile bench players if you’re going to use a six-man rotation” thing. He looked good (149 wRC+) in his late-season cameo but it was 25 at-bats in late-September, that doesn’t tell us anything useful. His hits came against Wei-Yin Chen (single, triple), T.J. McFarland (two singles), Evan Meek (single), Clay Buchholz (single), Craig Breslow (single), and Joe Kelly (triple). That’s like, two and half MLB caliber pitchers. Pirela did have a big year in Triple-A (117 wRC+) while playing all over the field, and there’s a spot for someone like that on the bench. The Yankees like him enough to add him to the 40-man roster a few weeks before it was necessary — Pirela would have become a minor league free agent after the World Series again (he became a free agent last winter and re-signed with the team) — and he started the last four and five of the last six games of the season. The easy answer is that he’ll be an up-and-down utility man next season. But maybe Pirela will squeeze his way onto the bench in place of Ryan if they’re comfortable with their other shortstop options (namely whoever starts with Prado filling in). We’ll see.