Yankees win the sAL East

If we’ve learned anything over the past six months, it’s that spreadsheets love the Yankees. Back in October, on the eve of the ALCS against the Angels, we found out that the Yankees won the sALCS. Clay Davenport of Baseball Prospectus ran simulations of the ALCS and then World Series and the Yankees came out on top more frequently than their opponents. This time SG at Replacement Level has done it, and you can expect a familiar result.

He explains his methodology, which involves running five projection systems through 1,000 Diamond Mind simulations. He puts them all together and outputs projected standings. You can see the NL results at the methodology link, and you can see the AL here. The Yankees won the AL East 40.7 percent of the time, with the Red Sox winning 30.3 percent. We ran the numbers for many of these projection systems in our 2010 season preview series, and little, other than Javy’s aggressive projection, stood out. Everything’s relative, though.

SG did a fantastic job here, writing up capsules for each team and creating some neat pie charts. I’ll share my favorite with you. Head over to see the rest.

When I read these posts I couldn’t help but think of my favorite FJM ever.

Open Thread: Regular Season Reminders

The regular season kicks off on Sunday night, but I figure most of you will be out partying Friday and Saturday evenings, so I wanted to get this out of the way now. Below you’ll find a list of all the different ways you can access our fine blogging establishment, some of which you may find easier than others.

Before you get into that, make sure you review our commenting guidelines. Emotions run high during the season, especially during games like the one we’ll see at Fenway Park on Sunday, but we have to make sure we maintain some sort of civility in the comments. Please review them, even if it’s just a fresher.

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If you want, you can also follow the three of us on our personal accounts: @bkabak, @joepawl, and @mikeaxisa. I can’t promise everything we tweet about will be about the Yankees, or even baseball for that matter, but you won’t regret it.

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Believe it or not, the three of us all use our blogging superpowers for good elsewhere as well. I contribute to MLB Trade Rumors and soon enough RotoGraphs, while Joe contributes to FanGraphs and ESPN’s TMI Blog as well. Teaser: He’s got a Yankee-related post going up at TMI tomorrow.

Ben also runs a wildly popular blog about the New York City subway system called Second Ave. Sagas. He’s been on TV and has been recognized by the Village Voice for his MTA awesomeness. Check it out.

So, you got all that? There’s a ton of ways you can have RAB’s content brought right to you, but nothing quite duplicates the experience of coming to the site, reading the posts, then debating the topics with our great group of commenters.

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Here’s your open thread for the night, so go ahead and talk about whatever you want. The Isles are the only local team in action.

Talking more Yankees baseball with The Times

Yesterday afternoon, I linked to Part 1 of The Times’ Bats blog Yankees preview featuring yours truly with Cliff Corcoran and Steve Lombardi. Today, Justin Sablich posted Part 2 of his Q-and-A with the three of us. In this installment, we talk about the media circus that is A-Rod, the players on the Yanks generating the most buzz, the looming AL East showdown with the Red Sox and the Yanks’ chances at repeating. Check it out.

AL East Preview: Toronto Blue Jays

Buried behind the big market clubs atop the AL East for past decade, the Blue Jays managed to win 256 games from 2006 to 2008 (.527 winning percentage) yet never finished closer than ten games back of the division winner. Longtime GM J.P. Ricciardi was fired after the team won just 75 games last season, and was replaced by his assistant Alex Anthopoulos. He’s launched the team into full rebuild mode, a process that won’t bear many fruits in 2010.

We’ve already previewed the Red Sox, Rays, and Orioles this week, so let’s wrap up this series by previewing the Yankees other division opponent, the Toronto Blue Jays.

Position Players

Usually when a team has a player under contract for the next five years at a cost of $98.5M, they would expect that player to be the face of the franchise and the centerpiece of their lineup. Instead, Vernon Wells represents a lesson in ill-advised contract extensions, as he’ll soak up approximately 25% of the team’s payroll going forward, assuming there’s no dramatic increase in the budget.

Photo Credit: Darren Calabrese, AP

Since signing his deal in December of 2006, Wells has hit just .265-.317-.426 (.330 wOBA) with a -33.6 UZR (worst in the game among centerfielders), making him worth a total of 2.0 WAR. For comparison’s sake, Melky Cabrera has hit .267-.323-.385 (.315 wOBA) with a -8.4 UZR in center during the same three year stretch, making him worth 2.4 WAR. Toronto only paid him $7.5M during that time, so the big money doesn’t kick in until next year. Wells will pocket $12.5M in 2010 before earning $23M, $21M, $21M, and $21M from 2011 to 2014. Yikes.

The Jays aren’t going to get lucky like they did with Alex Rios, when they were able to unload the entire $60M+ left on his deal on the White Sox after they claimed him on waivers. The good news/bad news scenario is that Wells’ performance had improved as he got further away from the fractured left wrist he suffered in May of 2008, but the bad news is that he had surgery to repair cartilage damage in the same wrist this offseason. Toronto has to hope that’s nothing more a minor bump in the road, and he’ll be able to return to the four-plus win level of performance he showed from 2003 to 2006. As for a rebound in 2010, the Magic 8-Ball’s sources say no.

Photo Credit: Winslow Townson

Luckily for Toronto, they do have a bonafide homegrown star in the middle of their lineup named Adam Lind. Freed from the shackles of inconsistent playing time once manager John Gibbons was fired in June of 2008, Lind was instantly installed into the lineup on an everyday basis when Cito Gaston took over. He hit a respectable .296-.329-.463 (.341 wOBA) after the managerial change in ’08, but Lind broke out and emerged as one of the most dominant offensive forces in the league last season. His .394 wOBA was eighth best in the AL, and his 35 homers placed fifth in the circuit. Although he provides zero defensive value and is likely to spend the majority of his time in Toronto at the DH position, Lind represents the Jays’ best offensive player since Carlos Delgado left town after the 2004 season, and he’s under team control for another four years.

His running mate during the 2009 season was second baseman Aaron Hill, who enjoyed a breakout of his own by posting a .357 wOBA and a team leading 36 homers, five more than any other full time second baseman in the game. His 12 “just enough” homers (according to Hit Tracker) represent a third of his total, and chances are that’ll even out a bit and he’ll send fewer balls over the fence in 2010. A lack of plate discipline (swung at 26.3% of the pitches he saw out of the zone last year) and a weakness against breaking balls don’t help his case either. Of course, getting further away from a concussion that caused him to miss most of the 2008 season surely helped his production, so maybe those 36 homers aren’t as fluky as they appear on the surface.

Promising youngster Travis Snider will be given another chance to stick with the big league club this year, though he’s had a poor spring and last year’s .327 wOBA in close to 300 plate appearances doesn’t inspire much confidence. He’s way too young to give up on at just 22-years-old, especially when the organization just watched how long it took everything to click for Lind. At least Snider offers some defensive value in right, with okay range and one of the strongest arms no one knows about.

Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP

First basemen Lyle Overbay will be counted on to provide some thump behind Hill and Lind, though his days of 40+ doubles and 20+ homers are a thing of he past. He’s a rock solid glove man with strong on-base skills. Edwin Encarnacion came over in the Scott Rolen deal at least year’s trade deadline, and his M.O. is the same as it’s always been: decent on-base ability, good power, and a hazard to those around him when he’s playing defense at the hot corner. Leftfielder Jose Bautista shouldn’t be a bad choice for the leadoff spot given his strong walk rate, but he’s so bad at hitting for average that it drags his OBP down. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez was brought in strictly for his glove, while new catcher John Buck will run into the occasional fastball out of the eighth spot in the order.

The wildcard in all this is 32-year-old minor league journeyman and former Yankee farmhand Randy Ruiz, who figures to see some more action this season after hitting .313-.385-.635 (.428 wOBA) during a late season callup in 2009. You probably remember him hitting a homer off the rightfield foul pole against the Yanks in his first big league game of the season before doing this the very next day. He obviously won’t maintain that pace over a full season, but his minor league line of .304-.378-.531 in over 4,600 plate appearances is pretty damn good, so it’s not like he can’t hit. If Ruiz proves to be a productive hitter for Gaston, you could see him steal time away from Overbay at first base, or force Lind into leftfield so he can DH.

It’s likely the Jays’ will summon top prospect Brett Wallace from the minor leagues at some point, perhaps after they unload Overbay to a contender at the trade deadline. The lefty swinger is a .305-.384-.475 hitter in the minors and projects to be a batting title contender with gap power down the road. He can fake it at third base but is destined to play first, where the Jays currently have a bit of a logjam.

Toronto’s offense was pretty good as a whole last year, posting a .337 wOBA that was the sixth best in the league last year. They’re going to miss the the .354 wOBA that Marco Scutaro brought to the table in 2009, but considering that he’s bested a .316 wOBA only one other time in his eight year big league career, they shouldn’t have counted on him to repeat that kind of performance if he was brought back anyway. Lind is an offensive star and Hill is one of the better offensive second baseman in the game even if his 36 homer power doesn’t stick, but beyond that you don’t have much more than a few complementary players and a pair of lottery tickets in Snider and Ruiz.

Pitchers

For the last decade, fans in Toronto were able to sit back and watch the masterful Roy Halladay go to work every five days. With durability that makes you think he could pitch year round if they let him, Halladay has put up a 3.13 ERA (3.28 FIP) since Opening Day 2002, the best in the American League. It’s even more impressive when you consider that he’s spent basically two full seasons (64 starts, 453.2 IP) facing the Yankees or Red Sox.

But Halladay’s gone now, traded to the two-time defending NL Champs during the offseason for what amounts to three Top 100 prospects and close to $10M in salary relief.

Photo Credit: Jerry Lai, AP

Taking Halladay’s place as the Opening Day start is Shaun Marcum, who threw exactly zero big league innings last year as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. Prior to going under the knife, he posted a 3.77 ERA in 310.1 innings from 2007 to 2008, but his FIP told a different story at 4.59. The gap is in large part due to an inordinate number of stranded runners (76.9% in ’07, 80.2% in ’08), so expect his ERA to climb over four if those runners are left on base at the league average rate of 71% or so.

Backing him up in the number two spot will be Ricky Romero, who is probably better known among Blue Jays insiders as “the guy they drafted instead of Troy Tulowitzki.”  The southpaw had a solid rookie season last year, making 29 starts and throwing 178 innings of 4.09 xFIP ball. With a rock solid 2.03 GB/FB rate, he’ll look to cut down on the walks (3.99 BB/9) and give up fewer homers (0.91 HR/9) to take that next step in his age-25 season.

After Marcum and Romero, it’s really anyone’s guess how the rest of the Jays’ rotation will shake out. The one thing there is not is a shortage of candidates for those 3-4-5 spots. I don’t have a good way of sorting this mess out, so let’s go through it alphabetically.

Photo Credit: Steven Senne, AP

The youngster of the bunch, 2007 first rounder Brett Cecil is another example of a college reliever the Jays have successfully transitioned to the rotation (Marcum and current Brewer Dave Bush are examples). The former University of Maryland closer made 17 starts for Toronto last year, and even though his 4.68 xFIP is an eyesore, the 23-year-old lefty misses bats with a low-90’s fastball, a hard slider, and a devastating split-change hybrid. All he needs is experience, and that will come with the typical growing pains associated with pitchers his age.

Dana Eveland, the well traveled southpaw who was acquired from the A’s during the offseason, has been superb during Spring Training and is a favorite to land one of those three open rotation spots. The problem is that he hasn’t been very good at all in the last few years, with his high water mark coming the form of a 4.55 xFIP in 29 starts for the A’s in 2008. Long story short, he doesn’t miss enough bats (6.45 career K/9), walks too many guys (4.62 BB/9), and gives up too many homers (1.39 HR/9) to do the starting thing long-term. Even with a rock solid 50.1% groundball rate, the AL East doesn’t figure to be kind to Mr. Eveland.

The ace in hole of all this starting pitcher nonsense is Dustin McGowan, who missed the second half of 2008 and all of 2009 after having surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff and frayed labrum in his throwing shoulder. He was outstanding during his 2007 breakout season, finally free from the constant front office meddling that saw him bounce back and forth between the rotation and bullpen for the better part of his minor league career and prime development years. McGowan posted a 3.89 xFIP in 27 starts that year, then followed it with a 4.32 mark in 19 starts the next year before the shoulder injury put him down for the count. Neither the team nor McGowan are in any rush to get him back to the big leagues, especially after he experienced a little soreness in his surgically repaired joint earlier in camp, so he’s going to start the season on the disabled list and slowly work his way back. Of all the pitchers in this post, McGowan is the only one that offers true front of the rotation potential.

Photo Credit: Darren Calabrese, AP

Righty Brandon Morrow, who came over from Seattle in a deal for Michael Kay favorite Brandon League, has been limited in Spring Training because of a sore shoulder. The poor kid has been Joba Rules’d more than Joba, bouncing back and forth between the bullpen and starting rotation since being drafted in 2006. In 15 career big league starts he owns a 4.42 ERA (5.23 FIP), and his numbers are predictably better when working as a reliever. The feeling at the time he was drafted was that Morrow would probably end up in the bullpen long term because of poor command and the lack of consistent second pitch, but a team like Toronto has nothing to lose by seeing what he can do as a starter. Presumably they won’t jerk him around like he was in Seattle.

Swingman Brian Tallet stepped into the rotation last season to provide 25 awful starts (5.41 ERA, 4.59 FIP), and has continued to be pretty dreadful this spring. He might win a spot based on incumbency, but his nothing about his strikeout (6.72 K/9), walk (4.03 BB/9), homerun (1.12), or ground ball rates (36.3%) portend future success. Considering that he’s lefthanded, breathing, and scheduled to make $2M this season, I suspect he’ll stick around as a reliever once the rotation experiment fails.

One guy who took himself out of the running for a rotation spot is yet another lefty, the 23-year-old Marc Rzepczynski. After posting a 3.70 xFIP in eleven starts with the big boys last season, Rzepczynski tried a barehand a line drive two days ago and broke a finger on his throwing hand. He’ll spend the next six weeks on the disabled list. Kyle Drabek, the centerpiece of the Halladay deal, will start the year in the minors and is unlikely to see any big league action, no matter how tempting it will be for the front office to call him up as a way of justifying the trade.

It appears as though Eveland, Tallet, and Morrow will start the year in the rotation (not necessarily in that order), and I’m sure Gaston is thankful that he’s going to have a damn good bullpen to back them up.

Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP

Starting at the back-end, Jason Frasor returns to the closer’s role after picking up eleven saves last year and cutting his already strong walk rate down to just 2.50 BB/9. He’s posted xFIP’s under 3.83 in four of the last five years, and is one of the more unheralded relievers in the game. Former closer and current setup man Scott Downs is in the same boat, being one of the best relievers in the game that no one talks about. The lefty has lowered his xFIP every year since 2006, and hasn’t topped 3.89 since he was a starter in 2004. Free agent signing Kevin Gregg will get some high leverage work despite not being very good; his career best 4.16 xFIP came just last year, when he served up one big fly for every five or so innings pitched.

Beyond the big two and a half at the end game, changeup ace Shawn Camp has enjoy his greatest big league success since joining the Jays in 2008, with an xFIP under four in over 100 innings with the club. He can go multiple innings if needed. Righty Casey Janssen had a sexy 2.35 ERA in 72.2 relief innings in 2007, but his 4.54 xFIP tells a different story. He missed all of 2008  and part of 2009 after having surgery to repair a torn labrum, so he’s a bit of an known for this season. The rest of the bullpen will be filled out by guys like Jeremy Accardo, Josh Roenicke (another part of the Rolen deal), and Merkin Valdez, who all throw hard but battle command issues.

With no clear cut ace, Toronto’s pitching is very much an unknown going into the season. They have some very interesting young arms with more on the way, but there’s not enough here to compete in the unforgiving AL East. Barring some sort of miracle, the Jays are likely to finish in last place in the division for just the second time since 1997.

RAB on The Shore Sports Report

Just a reminder, my weekly appearance on The Shore Sports Report with Mike Krenek and Joe Giglio is coming up at 4:05pm ET today. You can listen in on either FOX Sports 1030 AM or WOBM 1160 AM, and I’m willing to bet that you’ll be able to stream it online via one of those links as well.

Yankees will exercise patience with Hughes

Photo credit: Mike Carlson/AP

Hard to believe it has been this long, but one week ago the Yankees announced that Phil Hughes, not Joba Chamberlain, would enter the season as the team’s No. 5 starter. I’ll fast forward past the drawn out reactions of both sides of the Joba debate and cut to one of the more pressing questions about the decision. What will the Yankees do if Hughes struggles? As Dave Eiland and Billy Eppler opined over the weekend, the team would not call on Joba Chamberlain, whom they plan to keep in the bullpen all season. How long does Hughes have to prove himself before they turn to Sergio Mitre or Al Aceves?

Hughes has struggled as a starter in the majors, so the question has merit. After a fairly strong debut in 2007 — a 4.46 ERA, 4.23 FIP, 1.28 WHIP — he imploded after breaking camp in the rotation the following season. Before a stress fracture in his rib costed him a few months, he posted a 9.00 ERA, though only a 4.97 FIP. Even worse, he pitched just 22 innings through six starts, so just 3.2 per start. That taxed the bullpen considerably. The Yankees went 1-5 in his starts. He made a strong debut in 2009, six innings of shutout ball against the Tigers, but stumbled a bit after that. The Yankees moved him to the bullpen when he had a 5.45 ERA and 4.96 FIP.

What’s different this year, then? The Yankees saw Hughes mature in the bullpen, unleashing his fastball on opponents who had a tough time catching up. While he clearly won’t throw that fast in the rotation, it certainly gives us faith that he can sit 92, 93, as his scouting report suggested, rather than the 90, 91 we saw during 2008 and early 2009. That extra tick on his fastball will also help his changeup, still a work in progress. As pitching coach Dave Eiland said, “Phil is more prepared than ever to start in this league.”

That quote comes from Joel Sherman’s latest column. He leads off by saying the Yankees won’t guarantee Chamberlain the primary setup role, which is expected. They’ve made it clear that they’ll hand Joba nothing, and that doesn’t end with a rotation spot. The point on Hughes is a bit more interesting, though. Apparently the Yankees are prepared to live through growing pains if he experiences them.

The Yankees will give Hughes some leash to grow because they see such future promise. His ability to pinpoint his fastball separated him as a starting candidate from Chamberlain and his further development of a changeup provided him a four-pitch arsenal (along with cutter and curve) that convinces the Yankees he is heading toward the top of a rotation. Even yesterday in allowing three runs in 4 2/3 innings to the Twins, Hughes encouraged the Yankees by hitting 94 mph three times, continuing to deploy a more than passable change and not panicking when his curve was absent early.

This is clearly the right move. If the Yankees really did favor Hughes for the rotation heading into camp, there’s no reason to end his tenure after a few poor starts. He might have to pitch through problems. Thankfully, as Sherman notes, the Yanks aren’t too concerned about getting high-level production from the fifth starter spot. They have four solid pitchers ahead of Hughes who can hold down the fort. Plus, even if he’s not at the top of his game Hughes is likely as good as Mitre. So there might not be much benefit in pulling Hughes, anyway.

History on the horizon

As Yankee fans, we’ve been privy to watching history unfold right before our eyes on a regular basis. Just last season we watched as Mariano Rivera became the second player ever to record 500 career saves while Derek Jeter climbed past Lou Gehrig to record the most hits in Yankee history. It’s just par for the course around these parts.

The 2010 season will be no different, though this year’s historical milestones may not be as sexy as some of the one’s we’ve witnessed in recent years. That doesn’t lessen their significance though, because frankly we’re in store for some really cool stuff. Let’s run it down…

Alex Rodriguez – 600 homers
This is the big one. Only six players in the history of the game have eclipsed the 600 homerun plateau, and the Yankees’ third basemen is just 17 away. As if that isn’t impressive enough, A-Rod will turn just 35-years-old in July, and none of the other players managed to hit their 600th jack before their 36th birthday. Of course, Alex is already the youngest player in history to hit 300, 400, and 500 career homers, so it’s only natural that he’ll be the youngest to hit 600 as well. He should have this one in the bag by June, July the latest.

But that’s not all. Alex is three stolen bases away from the 300 steal mark, which by itself isn’t all that impressive. However, combine the 300 steals with the 600 homers, well then you’re on to something. Only two players in baseball history belong to the 600-300 club, and you may have heard of them: Barry Bonds (762 HR, 514 SB) and Willie Mays (660 HR, 338 SB). Pay attention folks, this guy’s a walking history book.

Jorge Posada – 1,500 hits, 350 doubles, 250 homers
Posada’s coming up on a few big career milestones, especially when it comes to catchers. He’s twelve hits away from 1,500, eight doubles away from 350, and seven homers away from 250. He’s also ten games away from appearing in 1,500 as a catcher. Individually, those four milestones won’t wow anyone, but when put together, you’re talking select company. Just four catchers in history have picked up 1,500 career hits, 350 career doubles, and 250 career homers while playing at least 1,500 games behind the plate, and all four are either in the Hall of Fame or will be shortly. Posada is not only on pace to join them this season, but he also has a higher career on-base percentage (by 37 points (!!!)) than any of them.

Barring injury, the Yanks’ catcher should reach all of these milestones no later than what, June? That sounds about right.

Derek Jeter – 4,000 times on base
Times on base doesn’t quite roll of your tongue as easily as hits or homeruns or anything like that, but they’re just as important, if not more. The stat combines hits, walks, and hit by pitches, and the Yankees’ captain goes into the season having reached base 3,775 times in his career. Jeter reached base 273 times even in his down year of 2008, so reaching base the 275 times needed to reach the milestone this year isn’t as far-fetched as you may think.

Only forty players in the history of baseball have managed to reach base a total of 4,000 times in their career, and 32 of them are already in Cooperstown. The other eight a) will be in the Hall of Fame one day, or b) should be in but are held back by the shackles of PED revelations, gambling exploits, etc. It’s basically the forty greatest hitters who’ve ever lived, simply put. I suspect we won’t hear anything about this milestone if/when Jeter reaches it sometime in September, but you best believe it’s pretty frickin’ amazing.

CC Sabathia – 150 career wins
We all know that wins are a horrible way to evaluate pitchers, but bulk win totals are a sign of longevity when looked at over the course of a career. Sabathia is 14 wins away from the halfway point to 300, a total he’s reached in four of the last five seasons. Just for comparison’s sake, the Yanks’ ace will be 29 years and 258 days old on Opening Day. Roger Clemens had 136 career wins at the same age, and former Yank Randy Johnson (another big lefty) had just 55. 55! We hear plenty of analysts talk about how no one will ever reach the magical 300 win plateau again, but Sabathia has as good of a chance to do it as anyone in the game today. He should have win number 14 in the bag by the end of August.

Robinson Cano – 1,000 hits
It feels like he was just called up yesterday, but Robbie Cano is lazily closing on 1,000 career hits already. He’ll step to the plate Sunday night in Fenway Park just 125 hits away, and he hasn’t recorded fewer than that many hits in a season since 2001, when he was 18-years-old and played just 59 games in rookie ball. Now, 1,000 hits are more than most big leaguers will retire with, but frankly it’s nothing to stop the game and tip your helmet to the crowd about However, for a guy that constantly gets pooped on for being an underachiever and not living up to his potential and all that nonsense, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Robbie’s 875 career hits have come in 3,036 plate appearances. In Jeter’s first 3,036 plate appearances, he had 824 hits. Wrap your head around that.

There’s plenty more smaller individual milestones that will be reached this season – Cano is 13 homers away from 100, Mark Teixeira is eight away from 250, Chan Ho Park is 77.2 IP away from 2,000, etc. – but of course some will get more attention that others (did anyone bother to point out that A.J. Burnett finished the 2009 season with exactly 100 career wins?). For a franchise so deep in tradition, we can sometimes lose sight of just how impressive some of these accomplishments are. The fellas wearing pinstripes never seem to disappoint when it comes to delivering greatness, and we shouldn’t take it for granted.

Photo Credit: Bill Kostroun, AP