If you're just joining us in progress, the Two-Man Roundtable of Power is Mark T.R. Donohue (that's me) and Ali Nagib (Bad Altitude's Research Department, although up until just now that has largely been a ceremonial title). We're doing team previews and we're starting with the Yankees.
WESTERN HOMES: You can guess where I am going first. Hank Steinbrenner has been bashing the NFL for getting a free pass when it comes to performance enhancers. I completely agree with him. Steinbrenner has also been bashing Red Sox Nation, and after they manhandled my Rockies in the World Series I'm kind of on his side there too. And Derek Jeter of all people has been the first major star to break ranks with the witless, obstructionist players' union and come out aggressively in favor of blood tests for doping. Andy Pettite, like Jason Giambi before him, now comes across as mildly noble for being honest about his past steroid use and seeking to make amends for it. So... are the Yankees kind of the good guys now? When did that happen?
RESEARCH DEPARTMENT: On the surface they're still a $200 million juggernaut that's at or right near the top of the pack in the American League. At some point they're going right back to being underachieving, overpaid losers, though. We're not there yet, but what if they go another three or five years without a title? We're closer to that than we are to their last championship. But as long as they can keep paying top dollar it will be hard for them to completely suck.
WH: Brian Cashman seems to be doing his utmost to save the Yankees from themselves. It was guys from his farm system that kept New York in the playoffs last year and he deserves credit for staying the course this offseason. I don't think there's any one player, even Johan Santana, who could have papered over all of their problems by himself. And losing three or four young players to get a guy like Johan really would have put them in danger of being flat-out bad for a couple of seasons.
RD: They're under scrutiny like no other team is. What if the media turns Hank against Cashman, or the players against management? They could easily go back to crazily overspending on bad or broken pitchers. Even with the guys they didn't trade, they sure aren't young.
WH: There's a decent chance that both Andy Pettite and Mike Mussina could be worthless this season. If the Red Sox don't just run away and hide -- and with the offense the Yankees have still, they likely won't -- New York could be sorely tempted to make the trade for a starter that they didn't make this offseason.
RD: If they're trading for pitching and it's not elite-level, how can they give up the young guys? It's hard to say who would be available at midseason, too.
WH: Joe Blanton, just off the top of my head. I don't think that New York will move anyone who's shown themselves able to lend a hand at the big-league level, but they do still have prospects that they might wish to hold on to lest they leave themselves like Detroit.
RD: Blanton's only 27 and would be better than whomever the Yankees will begin the year with in the fifth spot. How close he is to free agency isn't an issue for them the way it would be for a lot of other teams because if he's good and playing for them, they're always going to have the money to keep him in place. I don't think trading three legit prospects for Blanton would be "ruinous," as you like to say. They can pay him the money Andy Pettite won't get next season. A five-year $75-million extension for a guy like Blanton isn't a huge mistake for a team with the resources of the Yankees. They need someone to pitch for them. Would a 2009 rotation of Wang-Chamberlain-Hughes-Blanton-Anyone be all that bad, with the first four guys making maybe $30 million total? They could spend another $15 million on a starter and have a cheap rotation by their standards.
WH: That depends on what their long-term plans at catcher, first base, the outfield corners, and DH are. And you have the court of public opinion to contend with, to a greater degree than any other franchise. As I said, they have really been bailed out by the farm system these past few seasons. I think Hank and Cashman would suffer blows to their images if they were perceived to be panicking with a Blanton deal. And in New York, image is everything. Why not just wait Blanton out? Or whomever? The free-agent pitching market has to get better than it has been, right?
RD: I'm not saying that they absolutely should trade three or four prospects for Blanton in July. I'm just arguing that doing so wouldn't necessarily be all bad.
WH: I think that the single biggest factor playing into whether the Yankees win the division, contend for the wild card, or fall as far down as fourth place is the effectiveness of Mariano Rivera. He looked fallible at times last season, particularly against Boston. They haven't had to worry about the closer's job for a decade. Look at the rest of their bullpen -- LaTroy Hawkins, Brian Bruney, Jeff Karstens, assuming they're serious about Joba Chamberlain as a starter. Scott Proctor and Luis Vizcaino are gone. I think if Rivera wavers and that certainty they've had at the end of games goes away it has an impact far beyond a mere decline in his stats. No one in their rotation is built to absorb huge innings -- with all the contact guys get off Wang you'd have to say 200 is his practical limit.
RD: I have to think that even if Mariano is completely toast it can't totally sink the team, unless it forced them to overuse other guys and started a cascade of injuries. But they have too much talent for the loss of one player, even a Hall of Famer, to take them from a division co-favorite to a fourth-place finish. Even Santana isn't that valuable. If fourth place meant 83 wins like it might in the NL West, I'd be more inclined to agree with you. The average fourth-place finisher in the AL East the last few years has had about 72 wins.
WH: No matter what the win total is, Yankee fans would absolutely see a fourth-place finish as an utter collapse. Even if their financial advantages keep them from ever scraping rock bottom, the expectations surrounding them are always going to be higher.
RD: If they finish with 82-84 wins, they're still more likely than not to be technically in it down the stretch. If they're in hailing distance in September, I don't think finishing in fourth place and missing the playoffs is that much worse than finishing in second and not making it.
WH: I agree that Rivera isn't going to make 10 games of difference all by himself. But as for finishing fourth not being much worse than finishing second... maybe for you and I it doesn't make all that much difference but you have to think like a Yankee fan. These people are not rational. They expect to win the World Series every year, and they're genuinely surprised when they don't. After the run they've had a fourth-place showing would be like the apocalypse. That's the best thing and the worst thing about the franchise. If you view things neutrally, a down year might be just the thing for the Yanks -- imagine them as sellers at the trade deadline. They have some big names that might be tempting to a desperate team, and one canny midseason deal that brought a few major league-ready arms on board could shorten their "rebuilding" period significantly, especially given their ability to supplement the young guys with free-agent spending. I also think that having a more youth-friendly manager in Joe Girardi is going to help shorten the wait for the next Yankee championship.
RD: Johnny Damon will only have a year and a half and $19 million left on his contract at midseason. So will Hideki Matsui. Both guys are getting on in years. Even Jason Giambi only has a $5 million buyout on his $22 million 2009 team option. Giambi and Matsui have no-trade clauses, though. I'm not sure why anyone would want Giambi -- draft picks when he leaves, maybe?
WH: Or to serve as a cautionary example to young players in the clubhouse. "Kids, if you're not careful, this could happen to YOU! Teams could pay millions of dollars just for the privilege of getting rid of you!" Imagine however if they did work out a Giambi trade and he blocked it -- just when you thought his reputation couldn't sink any lower! As for Matsui, I could see him going to Seattle, were the Yankees to be out of contention and the Mariners still in it. That does kind of seem too ridiculous a possibility to even discuss, though, given recent history. Let's move things along. I think that in a nutshell the story of the 2008 Yankees will be that the continuing slight decline of their aging offense keeps them from scoring enough to offset the fragility of the rotation and the thinness of the bullpen. They're still going to have a great offense -- they have too many players who are just going to be good, period. No one is worried about A-Rod's collapse rate. But you look at their roster and it's not like the Yankee teams we have been conditioned to expect. They have no bench. Their bullpen is going to require an immense amount of reshuffling and finesse to even be average. Their defense is going to be brutal, particularly in comparison to the other teams in the division that aren't Baltimore. And Jorge Posada has to be due for a down year, right?
RD: As far as Posada is concerned... you'd have to think but he's had three years in a row that were better than the last. As for the pitching, the Yankees seem to always find just enough to limp into the playoffs. I think you're still going to see all of the American League playoff teams with 94 wins or more this year, unless the wild card falls off a little. Last year if New York had won five fewer games they would have been in a three-way race for the wild card.
WH: The Las Vegas over/under for the Yankees' win total in 2008 is... wait for it... 94. That seems high to me.
RD: I think so too. There isn't a ridiculously high downside risk, but how would they get to 100 wins? A team with a 94 over/under should probably win 100 or more 25% of the time, and the Yankees aren't nearly that likely to do so.
WH: I don't think 90-91 is out of the question, although they'd need both some health and some on-field breaks. The Vegas number isn't a raw stat, of course... there's going to be a Yankee tax associated there. The Red Sox are at 94 too, and I hardly think I'm alone in looking at the two teams and thinking that on paper Boston is a couple of games ahead right now.
RD: The Red Sox' pitching is much stronger, but they have some questions in the lineup. J.D. Drew? Julio Lugo? Not to get too deep in the weeds with them, they have their own preview coming.
WH: Well, what's the obvious glaring difference between the Red Sox and the Yankees lately?
RD: Winning two titles?
WH: That and that the Boston farm system has produced some legit everyday, borderline All-Star offensive players. The opposite of the difference between the two clubs in the 90's, come to think of it.
RD: Just to compare apples to apples, I don't think that Dustin Pedroia is any better than Robinson Cano.
WH: Yeah, but Ellsbury is better than Cabrera, and Kevin Youkilis is better than... nothing.
RD: The difference is there, no doubt, but it hasn't made the Red Sox lineup into a powerhouse. At any rate, I wouldn't be surprised if Boston ran away with the AL East. But the "real" edge shouldn't be any more than a handful of games.
WH: They're the defending World Series champions, how much more of a powerhouse do they need to be? Even if everything breaks exactly right for New York this season and they win 95 games and the division, neither team should take that as a sign that matters have fundamentally changed. The Yankees are still going to have to turn over almost their entire offense within the next few years and the Red Sox need to continue with their emphasis on internal player development as well.
RD: I think that's right.
WH: Got a win total? I'm going to say 89 and second place. (We'll do playoff picks later.)