Have the New York Yankees improved themselves for the 2010 season?
It is hard to see how general manager Brian Cashman can make that claim after he held onto to his chips on the big-name free agents and pared the payroll by letting veterans like Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon, Chien-Ming Wang, Jose Molina, Jerry Hairston Jr., Xavier Nady and Eric Hinske go.
He also traded away Melky Cabrera, Phil Coke, Brian Bruney and top prospects like Austin Jackson and Michael Dunn. Even Yankee fan favorite Shelley Duncan, the Most Valuable Player of the International League in 2009, was allowed to sign with the Indians.
But amid the roster carnage the Yankees did acquire outfielder Curtis Granderson, starting pitcher Javier Vazquez and designated hitter Nick Johnson. They also picked up lefty reliever Boone Logan and veteran outfielder Randy Winn. They also re-signed Andy Pettitte.
With the acquisition of Vazquez it would appear the starting rotation has been strengthened because the Yankees now have a solid foursome of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Pettitte and Vazquez — all of them capable of double-digit victories and pitching 200 innings.
The Vazquez acquisition also strengthened the bullpen because the loser of the battle between Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes for the No. 5 spot in the rotation will likely end up as the setup man for closer Mariano Rivera.
There appears to be depth in the bullpen, too, because the Yankees also will have lefties Damaso Marte and Logan and righties David Robertson, Alfredo Aceves and Chad Gaudin. The bullpen is so stacked that it is possible that Jonathan Albaladejo, Mark Melancon and Edwar Ramirez will not make the staff coming out of spring training.
So the pitching staff seems to in good hands barring injury.
The offense may be another story.
Cashman and the Yankees likely will reason that the loss of 33% of its starters from last season is not as bad as it seems because the Yankees have Granderson, Johnson and likely Brett Gardner to replace Matsui, Damon and Cabrera.
Let’s look at the numbers and see if that is the case.
Matsui, Damon and Cabrera combined to score 235 runs, hit 65 home runs, drive in 240 runs, steal 22 bases and hit .277. In order to get comparable numbers from Granderson, Johnson and Gardner, we would have to do a projection of Gardner’s 2009 statistics.
Based on Gardner receiving 3.1 plate appearances over 154 games, he would project to score 71 runs, hit five home runs, drive in 34 runs, steal 38 bases and hit .270. Those statistics do not take into account any possible improvement from the 26-year-old outfielder, which is likely.
But if we add those numbers to those of Granderson and Johnson we get 254 runs, 43 home runs, 167 RBIs, 60 stolen bases and a batting average of .267. That indicates a boost in runs scored and stolen bases but big drops in home runs, RBIs and batting average.
But there are other factors to consider here.
For instance, Johnson is really replacing Damon as the team’s No. 2 hitter and Johnson, as a left-hand hitter, likely will benefit from the short dimensions in right field at Yankee Stadium. There is a possibility that he could reach his career high in home runs of 23 he hit in 2006. He also could reach or surpass his career high in RBIs of 77 he set in the same 2006 season.
If that is the case, think of Johnson as Johnny Damon without speed. His career on-base percentage is .402 and his .426 OBP in 2009 was third in all of Major League Baseball behind AL MVP Joe Mauer and NL MVP Albert Pujols.
Johnson walked 99 times and hit .291 in 2009, the best mark of his career. Damon hit .282 and is a career .288 hitter. His OBP was .365 and his career OBP is .355. So the Yankees can make a case that Johnson is actually better at getting base than Damon.
Here is another factor: Johnson hit a sizzling .337 against left-hand pitching with the Washington Nationals last season.
The only real downside is Johnson’s lack of speed. But he did score 100 runs when he batted second for the Nationals in the 2006 season. So Johnson is not necessarily a bad baserunner, just a slow one.
If Granderson bats fifth, he would be replacing Matsui, who batted fifth most of the 2009 season for the Yankees. He actually hit more home runs than Matsui in 2009 with 30 compared to Matsui’s 28. The big difference is in RBIs. Granderson had 71 compared to Matsui’s 90.
However, Granderson batted in the leadoff position for the Detroit Tigers in 2009 and 71 RBIs is an excellent total for a leadoff hitter. There is a possibility that Granderson will easily set a career high in RBIs with the Yankees in 2010 if he bats fifth.
Though Granderson is an excellent athlete with exceptional speed, Granderson is not an accomplished base-stealer. His career high in steals is 26 in 2007 and he had just 20 in 2009. But the Yankees likely will not ask him to steal as much as if he were batting leadoff. The Yankees will gladly take 25 steals from him in 2010.
Granderson, however, has one major weakness: He does not hit left-handers well. He batted only .183 in 180 at-bats last season. Manager Joe Girardi might have to either drop Granderson in the batting order against lefties or use Winn, a switch-hitter, in place of Granderson when the Yankees face a left-hander.
That will be problematic too. Winn hit .158 in 120 at-bats against left-handers with the San Francisco Giants in 2009. It looks like hitting coach Kevin Long has his work cut out for him in getting Granderson and Winn to improve this season.
Matsui blasted left-handers last season. He hit .282 against them (as opposed to .271 against right-handers) with 13 home runs and 46 RBIs in just 131 at-bats. That production against left-handers definitely will be missed in 2010.
Gardner replaces Cabrera in the ninth spot. He has less power and he likely won’t touch Cabrera’s 68 RBIs. But he should score more runs and steal more bases. Gardner will have an opportunity, should he win a regular job over Winn, to become the Yankees’ best pure base-stealer since the days Rickey Henderson donned the pinstripes.
His biggest task will be to learn to drive the ball and he has to bunt more than he has so far. Pitchers try to overpower Gardner inside and Gardner has been unable to make the adjustment and make solid contact.
He also has not been as aggressive on the bases as he could be. Gardner needs to learn how to rattle opposing pitchers more to get them think more about him than the batter. Should Gardner make those strides this spring, he could very well be an upgrade over Cabrera because Gardner is as good defensively as Cabrera.
The bench will be decidedly younger and more inexperienced with the exception of Winn. But it has a chance to be better if catcher Francisco Cervelli, utility infielder Ramiro Pena and Rule 5 draftee and outfielder Jamie Hoffmann fulfill their promise.
Carvelli showed so much defensive skill behind the plate and a cannon throwing arm last season that the Yankees decided to allow defensive wizard Molina go as a free agent. Carvelli shows more ability than Molina as a hitter, though he lacks power.
Pena hit .287 in limited duty with the Yankees last season and he has drawn rave reviews for his defense at second, shorts
top and third. The Yankees also like his ability to steal bases. Pena seems to be huge upgrade over 2009 utility man Cody Ransom and could be as valuable as Hairston was late last season for the Yankees.
Hoffmann, 25, is a powerfully built outfielder with great home run potential. He was selected first in the Rule 5 draft by the Washington Nationals and sent the Yankees in return for Bruney. With the Dodgers’ Triple A and Double A teams in 2009, Hoffmann hit a combined .291 with 10 home runs and 64 RBIs.
He will come to spring training trying to claim a backup outfield spot. If he does not make the roster he will have to be offered back to the Dodgers for $25,000.
He was rated by Baseball America as the best defensive outfielder in the Dodgers organization the past four seasons and he can play all three positions.
So, in looking at the Yankees’ offense for 2010, it would appear with veterans like Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada and Robinson Cano still around that there is enough offense even without Damon, Matsui and Cabrera.
Though Granderson, Johnson and Gardner may not be better they have a chance to effective and productive in different ways. The Yankees hope the stronger rotation will actually negate any potential loss in production.
So the Yankees may hit a bit fewer home runs and score a bit fewer runs. But not many pitchers in the American League will say that facing the 2010 Yankees is a day at the beach either. Look for solid pitching, a strong bullpen, top-flight defense and a very good offense to be enough to keep the Yankees in the pennant chase this season.
This is one instance where less may be more.