Tuesday, April 04, 2006

THE AL 'BEAST; NY YANKEES

WITH APOLOGIES FOR THE LAG IN POSTINGS, I BRING YOU...
PART 1 OF; "BREAKING DOWN THE AMERICAN LEAGUE"


One cannot contemplate Baseball and not consider the division that has housed, for several years anyway, 2 of the most powerful clubs in the game; the American League East.
This year, the cocky Sox have suffered some substantial positional losses. Compunding matters? Their arch-rival Yankees have managed to twist the knife a bit more cruelly by adding the straw that stirred Boston's Championship winning team, Centerfielder Johnny Damon.
The Yankees, meanwhile, may boast the most potent lineup in all of Major League Baseball... but their starting rotation is downright elderly.

Meanwhile, Toronto has decided to start spending some money, and the addition of 3B Troy Glaus will certainly boost the team's power production, and Closer B.J Ryan, late of the Orioles, was also an excellent addition.

As for the Orioles... always the Bride's Maid but never the Bride. The O's have revamped the coaching staff and that's about all. But the addition of pitching coach Leo Mazzone just might be the most significant move the team has made in years. The rotation is wafer thin, and the front office foolishly misjudged the Closer market and now... now the team has been forced to hand the 9th inning reins to unproven Chris Ray. However, Mazzone, the architect of Atlanta's "consistently consistent" stable of arms, is capable of whipping average arms into above-average hurlers... and helping the staff as a whole to reach their collective potential; whatever that might be.

And bringing up the butt-end of the divvy', the Tampa Bay Devil Rays? The team was absolute anathema to New York last season, overwhelming the Bronx Bombers and taking the head-to-head matchups 11-8. The only other teams the Rays had a winning record against were the Indians (6-4), Royals (5-3), Angels (5-4), Brewers (2-1), A's (5-4) and Rangers (6-2). The Rays, however, are an exciting young team that, believe it or not, may actually finish someplace other than last!

Let's take a more in-depth, team-by-team look at the AL East in order of predicted finish!

New York Yankees:
The team struggled through much of '05. The additions of Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright to the rotation did bupkiss, and both players missed time due to injuries. As for the "Tony Womack experiment?" The dude was a case study in why older players who post career numbers in "walk" years should NOT be awarded big money contracts. Manager Joe Torre was forced to move "No-Mack" to the Outfield and promote young 2B Robinson Cano, and that may have been the most serendipitous move of the season. Cano turned into a real gem and was a much sought after trade commodity over the off-season. Torre refused to part with his spunky 2nd sacker... and the simple fact that Torre is returning for an 11th season is miraculous. Torre's tenure is second only to Casey Stengel's 12 year stint in 'stripes.
BOTTOM LINE? So long as Randy Johnson and Mussina stay healthy and pitch to their abilities, and Wang and Chacon toss the pill the way they did last year, the team will be in every game. New acquisition Kyle Farnsworth gives the Yankees their best set-up arm since Mariano handed the ball off to then-Closer, John Wetteland. The lineup is hands-down the best in the American League... Texas included, and quite arguably the best in Baseball.

Key Off-season Losses: RP Tom Gordon, C John Flaherty, OF Matt Lawton
Key Off-season Additions: OF Johnny Damon, RP Kyle Farnsworth, C Kelly Stinnett, 2B Miguel Cairo (back where he belongs!)RP Octavio Dotel

POSITION PLAYERS:
C: Jorge Posada: At 35, Posada's no youngster and his skills are starting to reflect his age. His .262/19/71 season was salvaged by a .292/.494/.388 September and October. Prior to then, Posada's season was lookin' ugly. For the record, the Yankee backstop's Batting, Slugging and On Base percentages declined for a 2nd straight season, as did his Homer, RBI, Run, and Walk totals. In addition, Posada's a lump with RISP (.246) and is even worse with the bases juiced (.111).
The hard truth of the matter is that Posada's no longer a 145 game Catcher even if, according to fantasy gaming giant Sandbox.com, "...he doesn't have as much wear on his body as a typical 34 year old Catcher." No disrespect to Sandbox, as I agree with that assessment, but Posada's never been known for calling a good game, he's never been accused of being a "heady" receiver, and there's a reason Randy Johnson used the departed John Flaherty last year and will look to newcomer Kelly Stinnett to be his personal Catcher this year.
Posada should be looked upon as a tier below Indian Victor Martinez and Twin Joe Mauer. Although the position boasts a bunch of youngsters, Posada still ranks amongst the best of the "old school" fantasy catchers; .270/23/85 should be within reach.


1B: Jason Giambi: Attempting to put the BALCO scandal, his cameo Congressional appearance, and a sloth-like '05 start behind him, Giambi shunned the drugs, refused a Triple-A assignment, and after hitting .224 in April and .241 in May, "The Giambino" (as annointed by Yankee announcer Michael Kay) turned it up and began seeing the ball much better. The Yankee DH/1B hit .310 in June and .355 in July. His numbers returned to Earth August through September, but Giambi concluded the '05 campaign with a very respectable line of .271/32/87 in 139 games played.
This season... well, even surrounded by a virtual "Murderer's Row" I can't see him improving upon last year's stats. For one thing, if Giambi were any slower there would be a grave danger of his actually growing roots, and for another, Giambi has an irritating habit of fishing for pitches that are low and off the plate... and hacking at fastballs that are at eye-level.
If "The Giambino" can be as good as .275/30/95, the Yankees will be thrilled. With no other palpable weaknesses 1-9, Jason Giambi's declining skills can be well-camoflauged.


2B: Robinson Cano: Just one month into the '05 season, Cano was promoted to "The Show" when Tony Womack demonstrated absolutely No-mack'. Under the careful guidance and tutelage of Derek Jeter, Cano showed remarkable poise by swatting .297/14/62/78, with a .458 SLG, 34 Doubles and 4 Triples in just 132 games played! A tough out and low ball hitter, the young Yank' already demonstrates a sharp eye at the dish as evidenced by 68 whiffs' in 522 ABs. He does, however, need to learn how to work the count and garner some Walks; Cano took just 16 last season.
Although opposing pitchers seemed to get a decent read on him over the summer (.207 August BA), Cano rebounded and finished-out the year with an ill .381/.648/.393 September and October.
This year, given Robinson Cano's maturity, I'd expect him to avoid the "sophomore jinx" and rattle-off something like .295/20/80, and rank amongst the top-8 at a thin fantasy position.


SS: Derek Jeter: The Yankee captain; the first cap' to be named since Donny "Baseball" Mattingly made hitting look so effortless. Jeter may have lost a bit of range at Short', but his arm is still plenty strong and he retains 18 HR capability and gap to gap power.
Jeter possesses that hard to define "it." Always in the right place at the right time, Jeets' has the innate ability to make those around him better and he's become a brilliant locker room presence. Not too long ago, CF'er Bernie Williams took Jeter under his wing and helped him navigate the frequently turbulent waters of Big League ball. Last year, though, Jeter returned the favor by taking young 2B Robinson Cano under his wing and in so doing, affirmed that indeed, the Yankees are... and always will be, Jeter's team.
Although his defense may have a few more holes then in years past, he managed to boost his average back up over .300 (.309), with 19 dingers', 70 Ribbies', 122 Runs, and 202 hits. One concern, however, is Jeter's speed; his SB total fell to 14 from 23 in '04, and his 25 2-baggers' were a far cry from the whopping 44 he hit in '04.
Nevertheless, Jeter remains amongst the elite at his position. Eminently capable of a .295/18/75/115, 15+ SB season, we need to return to the "it factor." Keep in mind that Jeter is arguably a better real ball player than fantasy one.


3B: Alex Rodriguez: A 30 year old physical specimen, the 2-time AL MVP Award Winner and 3-time AL Home Run champ' was also a 2-time Gold Glover'... at Short'. But, the former Mariner and Ranger middle infielder uttered nary a grumble and made a liquid-slick transition to 3B when he suited-up in his Yankee uni'.
After playing Gold Glove caliber ball at the hot-corner and bashing his way to a .321/48/130/124, 21 SB season, with Slugging and On Base percentages of .621 and .421 respectively, contrary to all the smack about Boston DH David "Big Papi'" Ortiz being deserving of the AL Most Valuable Player Award... any athlete capable of trotting-out onto the field for 162 games of 162 games and posting those numbers? That's a legit' MVP. So, Boston fans, stick that in yer' Chowdah'! There's no reason to believe that Rodriguez's play will slip into any kind of decline for at least 3-4 seasons.
So long as he remians healthy A-Rod will continue on his path to Cooperstown, NY.
Keep an eye out for another MVP-worthy .335/46/135 season.



LF: Hideki Matsui: After watching the Seattle Mariners make International waves with the signing of OF'er Ichiro Suzuki, Steinbrenner undoubtedly instructed his many minions to "get me some of THAT!" And get him "some" they did, with the acquisition of OF'er Hideki Matsui. A former .304/332/889 (over 10 seasons, with a SLG % of .582) All-Star with the "Yomiuri Giants," Matsui made a near seamless transition to the more physical... and decidely less "gentlemanly," American style of Baseball. Incredibly durable, Matsui has yet to miss a single regular season tilt with his Yankee teammates, and has watched his BA and RBI output rise, while his Strikeouts have declined. Last year, Hideki hit .305/23/116/108, with a .496 SLG %.
At age 32, Hideki has at least 2 more seasons of rock-solid production in him... and should post something close to .300/25/115.


CF: Johnny Damon: What could be more fun for "The Boss" than beating the hated Red Sox? Why... beating the hated Red Sox with one of their former, most beloved players, that's what! Damon came to NY over the off-season as a Free Agent and brings with him a .373 OBP (over the past 2 seasons) and .310 BA (again, over the same 2 year span). Damon set the table for Boston's big boppers, and will now do the same for New York. No slouch himself with the lumber, Damon has a .290 lifetime average, 20 HR power, 20 SB capability, and is quite durable. Although he missed 14 games last season, he's never played fewer than 145 games in a season.
Given the extraordinary lineup surrounding him, Damon's a safe bet for a .295/18/80/115, 15+ SB campaign.


RF: Gary Sheffield: Sheff' positively cooked in '05 and many league observers felt that he, not A-Rod', was the team's MVP. The surly Outfielder seems to have a vendetta against every pitcher he faces, and generates tremendous bat speed. After battling through chronic shoulder bursitis, he posted an '05 line of .291/34/123/104.
The way Sheff' whips the bat through the zone... it's amazing that he's able to catch up to high-90's heat. Nevertheless, that trigger mechanism works, for him, and he remains a top-18 fantasy Outfielder. With Damon sitting atop the order and Cano having had a full off-season and spring with the club, the RF's Runs and Ribs' might even creep up a bit. At some point, though, age WILL catch up with the 37 year old Sheffield.


ROTATION:
Randy Johnson: An elite Left-Hander when operating at 90-100%, the "Big Unit" is a nightmare-scary mound presence at 6-10/235. A ghastly first half (9-6, 4.16 ERA) gave way to a vastly improved 2nd half (8-2, 3.31 ERA). And, with a Fastball that can still touch the high 90's and a filthy Slider, Johnson's definitely capable of posting an 18 W season.

Mike Mussina: I don't care what the Yankee brass says- Mussina has NEVER been the kind of pitcher he was as an Oriole. Now, that's not to say that "Moose" has been utter disappointment because you can't dismiss 3 consecutive seasons of 200+ IP and 17 or more Wins. However, his past 2 seasons have been disappointing; a combined 25-17 with an ERA of 4.50, and consecutive K totals of 132 ('04) and 142 ('05). If you consider that 2001-'03, Moose hung a record of 42-29, an ERA of 3.53, and Strikeout totals of 214, 182 and 195... his decline is a bit more apparent. It would seem, though, that Mussina's uncharacteristic numbers may have been attributable to a bum elbow; an elbow that troubled him for the bulk of last season. As for this coming season, there's absolutely nothing to indicate that Moose has surmounted his creaky joint.
But, on a more positive note, with a much more dominant RP Kyle Farnsworth handling the 7th and 8th inning duties Mussina in particular could reap the rewards. Assuming his croggled elbow permits it, 15 Wins and a sub-4.00 ERA should be attainable.

Chien-Ming Wang: Wang... an unfortunate name for an above-average hurler. Still Chien-Ming Wang, along with the currently injured Aaron Small, rode to the Yankee rescue when both of GM Brian Cashman's high-priced off-season arms fell to injury. Yup', Jaret was never "Wright," and Carl was a "Pava-No go." Who could've figured that an entire body of Yankee fans would be greatful for a "Small Wang" combo!
Enough slapstick. Wang was a tremendous stop-gap, and his 8-5, 4.02 ERA season helped push the Yankees into the playoffs. Truly, if not for the unheralded troika of Chacon, Small and Wang, New York would've been the league laughingstock... and Brian Cashman would be seeking employment in an entirely new line of work.
This season hasn't started off in quite the way Chien-Ming would've liked as he suffered a bruised knee during the pre-season, but he seems to be on schedule to start the 3rd game of the regular season. Much like Chacon, Wang probably rode an adrenalin wave and certainly benefited from the league being unfamiliar with his varied arsenal. After an off-season of study, opponents should be onto the Yank' #3's array of Fastballs and plus Sinker.
I assure you, with the talented infield the Yankees run out each game, if Wang can manage to keep the ball down, the ball will remain in the park and another winning season will be... um, Wang's; 16 W's and a 4.10 ERA should be about right.

Shawn Chacon: Chacon was much different player while in Colorado. For one thing, the Rockies' decision to try and turn the 28 year old Righty' was ill-informed. With an ERA exceeding 5.60, including his horrifying 1-9, 7.11 ERA '04 campaign, Chacon hardly seemed suited to play the role of a New York Yankee #3-4 starter. However, once he slipped into pinstripes Chacon rebuilt his confidence and even developed a bit of a swagger. The ball doesn't carry quite as far in the Bronx as it does 4,200 (or so) feet above sea-level, and with A-Rod, Jeter, Matsui and Bernie Williams running down balls and providing him with elite D', Chacon's confidence morphed into a more than acceptable 8-10, 3.44, 1.33 WHP season. A strong 2nd half really propelled Shawn Chacon's season upwards, and his halves were night and day. Prior to the break, the dude was merely serviceable with a 1-5, 4.30 ERA record in 11 games. After the star-studded week Chacon was firing on all cylinders, posting a 7-5 record and a vastly improved 2.90 ERA in 16 games.
Although I'd be hard-pressed to believe that the Bombers' 4th starter (Torre named Chacon his 4th starter on 4/1) is as good as his 2nd half numbers indicate, he's also not the pitcher his 1st half numbers seem to imply. Let us assume that Shawn Chacon's diggies' lie somewhere in between, and a 14/15 Win, 4.00-4.29 ERA season is on the way!


BULLPEN:
Kyle Farnsworth: The long-time Cub played for Atlanta last season, thriving under the genius of former Brave pitching coach Leo Mazzone. In fact, Farnsworth hung some career-best diggies. He converted 16 of 18 Save opps' and allowed just 44 hits and 5 round-trippers', struck-out 87 batters in 70 IP, and recorded an ERA of 2.19 and a microscopic WHP of 1.01. Outstanding efforts indeed.
This season Farny' will face some of the most dangerous bats mankind, or Baseball for that matter, have to offer; the DH's of the American League, and he'll be forced to contend with the uppity' umpiring that so clearly differs from that of the NL.
Nevertheless, Farnsworth also be on the back-end of a rock solid rotation, will definitely get 15 or so Save opportunities, and is the best set-up man New York has had since Mariano Rivera served in the same capacity in the mid-90's.

Mariano Rivera: Year after year, pennant after pennant, playoff drive after playoff drive, reports of Mo's eminent demise are overblown.
Poised to notch his 400th career Save by mid-summer so long as the workhorse remains healthy, Mariano Rivera has quite arguably been the most dominant Closer of the era. With career numbers that include a 2.33 ERA, 379 Saves, and 728 Ks, Mo' has been instrumental in the Yankee dynasty. Without Rivera slipping out of both his wind-breaker and the Bullpen and running onto the field in the waning innings to the delicate strains of Metallica's "Enter Sandman," the Bronx Bombers wouldn't have been quite so imposing. More than one manager over the years has said that "once the ball game is in Rivera's hands, the ball game is over." And frankly, that kind of intimidation is priceless. For a single player to possess that kind of influence is simply remarkable, and last season was a brilliant one for the Saver savior.
In 78.1 innings pitched, Mo' went 7-4, with 43 Saves (just 4 BS), 80 Ks, 18 Walks, an ERA of 1.38, and a nearly invisible WHP of .87. Even more impressive? Rivera surrenderd a scant 2 Home Runs.
Certainly Mariano Rivera has an expiration date; nobody can maintain such dominance for so long without breaking down or falling off the pace. Still, given his fastidious committment to conditioning and his electric stuff.. that ain't gonna' happen this year. It's possible that with Farnsworth alleviating some of the considerable stress and load, Mo' hangs another 45 Save, 2.20 ERA year. And in so doing? Helps guide the Bombers to the AL Championship Series.

TOMORROW, THE BOSTON RED SOX... IN NOT-QUITE SO MUCH DETAIL, THOUGH LOL!

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