Introducing your American League East Division Champions: New York Yankees!
And what a suprise it is! The Yankees weren't supposed to win anything in 2011. This was the off season when the rival Red Sox started spending like the Yakees and making all of the important aquisitions (Adrian Gonzales and Carl Crawford for $296 million). This was the off season where the Yankees failed to sign front line starting pitcher Cliff Lee despite throwing ridicuous money at him and also lost veteran Andy Pettitte to retirement. This was the off season in which the Yankees most important signings were Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia. The Yankees had alot of blanks to fill and their biggest signing was someone who the General Manager didn't even want to sign ($36 million for Rafael Soriano). And their other off season signing, Pedro Feliciano, an $8 million two year signing, missed the entire season and might never throw a pitch for the Yankees. The Red Sox were supposed to win the American League pennant in a run away! Now they're running themselves out of a playoff spot with a historic collapse. Frankly I'm rooting for them to miss the playoffs if for no other reason then to be able to throw it in the face of all my Red Sox fan friends.
And it's all the more suprising because the Yankees have stayed consistent this year on the strength of their pitching. When the season started the Yankees were patching their pitching rotation and bullpen together. This was supposed to be their biggest weakness. All anybody talked about has been the inconsistencies of their pitching. The Yankees were going to have to rely on their offense and score a ton of runs, right? Well the offense has scored alot of runs! And lead the league in home runs. But the offense has been inconsistent throughout the season, going into several slumps especially leaving runners on base and relying on the home run.
They've done it despite the pressure of chasing some lofty career records (Jeter 3,000 hits and Rivera 600 saves and career saves record). They've done it despite battling an onslaught of injuries (A-Rod, Jeter, Soriano, Joba, Hughes, Marte, Feliciano, etc.). They've done it despite getting next to nothing from the designated hitter spot and not having a single hitter batting over .300 through the middle of August (Cano is up to .305 and Jeter is all the way to .298 as of the Yakees clinching the division). They did it with alot of Freddy Garcia. And I mean alot of junk from Freddy Garcia. Like way more than you'd ever want to see from Freddy Garcia!
And you know what? This is actually a fun team to watch! Is it the most well rounded Yankees team I've ever seen? I think not (hard to surpass the 1998 Yankees in that regard). But this particular Yankees team has a unique mix of star power, break out players, up and coming young players, washed up veterans, over priced disappointment whipping boys, and just about everything else you'd want from a team! Did we mention that this was not the team favored to win the AL East? This Yankees team has an aura similar to the 1996 Yanees. They have that kind of lineup flexibility. They have that kind of bullpen!
Let's Start with The Pillar of the Yankees throughout the last 16 seasons (Mariano Rivera)
You hate to ever say never in sports. But when you're looking to bookmark the most unfathomable feats in baseball's record books, Rivera moved into some select company Monday. But whats most impressive? Rivera's 602 saves? His sub-1.00 ERA in the postseason? No. It's that he has become undeniably the greatest closer of all time with one pitch. And it never gets old or less full of wonder. Rivera is ruthlessly efficient. Even when he broke the all time saves record there was no Papelbon-like jumping around and dancing, only a smile and hand shake from his catcher.
There's not much to say about Rivera that hasn't been said already but as his long time catcher and Core Four member Posada pointed out it's safe to say the Yankees would not have won 5 World Series in the last 15 years without Rivera. As recently as the 2009 post season, every other closer blew at least one save except for Rivera. That's a list that includes Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon, Brad Lidge, Jonathan Broxton, Huston Street, Ryan Franklin and Brian Fuentes. In that post season Rivera showed why he is not only the best closer today, but why he is still at 42 years old the greatest closer to ever pitch. All of this adds up to one thing G.O.A.T! Get him the championship belt!
The Icon (Derek Jeter)
Let's first state the obvious, the post season contract negotiations were ugly. His numbers from the beginning of the season until he recorded his 3,000th hit were even uglier (.257/.321/.329). Just thinking about the remaining three years of his new contract with this kind of production was uglier still. But then something happened. Derek broke the 3,000 barrier loudly, with a 5 for 5 game. His record hit was even a home run. One of only 5 on the season. The captain started hitting the ball hard again. His bat speed came back. He has raised his average all the way to .298 and within shouting distance of finishing at .300. A remarkable comeback to where he started the season.
On September 14, Jeter recorded his 150th hit, giving him 16 consecutive seasons with 150 hits, tying him with Pete Rose for second, one behind Hank Aaron for the MLB record. So forget about Derek's tough 2010 season. Forget about the start to 2011. He is playing like the Derek Jeter of old and making Yankees fans forget his previous struggles. A little bit.
The Ace (CC Sabathia)
Never has the big guy meant more to the Yankees than this season. Not only has he been unbelievably consistent (never mind a brief August slump), he is the only Yankees starter to have not missed a start due to injury, ineffectiveness or other roster moves. He has proved his value once again and is far and away first in the American League in wins since signing his seven year $161 million contract prior to the 2009 season. Look, if my girlfriend knows who he is, he must be doing something right.
Sabathia has been a true ace in 2011, which brings me to the impact of some of his starts. On July 26th he took a perfect game into the 7th inning before rain took away his chance at history. He ended up with a combined one hitter with 14 strike outs. Whenever the Yankees have been reeling CC has righted the ship and has gotten them back on track. He's been especially important as the anchor to a staff that has had question marks throughout the season. Though his contract contains an opt-out clause that could allow him to become a free agent after the 2011 season, Sabathia said he has no intention of exercising it as he loves playing for the Yanks. If CC opts out and doesn't re sign with the Yankees then we can all be concerned.
The Totally Washed Up Guy (Jorge Posada)
This season was supossed to be the transition to the future. Except the Yankees are grasping and clinging to the past with their former catcher turned full time designated hitter turned bench sitter. The Yankees haven't put their best possible lineup on the field much in 2011 because their best lineup is one that doesnt include Jorge Posada. A .239 hitter with little pop should not be the full time DH. Granted he's had a hand full of big hits scattered through the season but for the most part he's been difficult to watch. The Yankees would have been much better served going with uber prospect Jesus Montero as the back up catcher and DH. Which brings us to...
The Prospect (Jesus Montero)
Warning: I'm one of those irrational Yankees fans who has been following Montero for several years, read all the hype, and has patiently waited for this Piazza clone to get his chance in the big leagues. Only it didn't happen! He had a great opportunity to make the team in spring training but his nerves got in the way and he was sent back to AAA for "more seasoning." And despite hitting well (.288 with 18 home runs) he stayed in the minors despite the Yankees continued struggles at both catcher and designated hitter. And then finally September call-ups and Montero tore the cover off the baseball for his first half dozen games.
So he's cooled off a little bit after a torrid start to his big league career. He had three home runs in his first 14 at bats. He's also poked two more balls off the right field wall that both ended up being singles. He has a legitimate big league bat! He needs time to adjust to major league pitching, he needs time to learn his pitchers and become a more complete catcher (which may or may not happen) and he needs more time to stop making bone headed mental mistakes. Shouldn't 2011 have been his opportunity to get familiar with the majors? Especially after Posada's difficult start? Oh well, the Yankees had a tough time making a difficult decision but ultimately Jesus Montero will earn his paycheck with his bat. Bring on the 2011 playoffs! That is if the Yankees management can make the difficult decision of putting him on the post season roster.
The Bullpen and the Break Out Player (David Robertson, etc.)
The real strength of the 1996 Yankees was the depth of their bullpen. Stanton, Nelson, Lloyd, Rivera and Wetteland shortened games to six innings and made it easier for the Yankees starters. The Yankees were an absurd 70-3 in 1996 when they were leading the game after six innings. That was also supposed to be the strengh of the 2011 Yankees. The signing of Soriano coupled with Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson and the lefty trio of Boone Logan, Pedro Feliciano and Damaso Marte would effecively shorten games for a patch work starting pitching staff. Well the lefty thing didn't really work out (Feliciano and Marte both haven't thrown a single pitch), Joba needed surgery after a hot start, and Soriano hit the disabled list suprisingly quickly after a tough start to his Yankee career.
But the 2011 season was salvaged due to the break out season of David Robertson. Not since 1996 when Rivera filled the role have the Yankees had a dominant guy to get them through the middle innings and t the closer. In 68 games Robertson has pitched to a remarkable 1.11 ERA and hs struck out 96 hitters in 64 2/3 innings. Robertson has been a consistent player for several years and was an important pitcher for the 2009 World Champs but had never pitched like this season. He became an All Star in 2011 and has been the Yankee most consistent reliever throughout the season, Rivera included. He has saved the Yakees season, established himself as the 8th inning guy even after Soriano came back and put his name right to the front of the line as possible successors to Rivera. If they ever need a successor to Rivera.
The Whipping Boy (AJ Burnett)
"Sh*t (edited)! AJ Burnett's pitching today!" That's what I say to myself every time I watch AJ pitch! It's been bad before with AJ but I never imagined it could get THIS bad! It's really unfathomable how a pitcher on a team that wins 90 plus games every year would keep a pitcher who is 20-26 through the last two seasons in their rotation. How much better could the Yankees have been with a mere .500 pitcher who didn't hve a high chance of blowing up every fifth day. To make it worse, he argues every time Girardi tries to take the ball from him. At what point do the Yankees bite the bullet and swallow the rest of his $82.5 million contract?
I've never watched a pitcher with so much talent struggle so much. It's frustrating to watch him consistently bounce curve balls past Russell Martin like it was a game within a game. Never before has a pitcher better defined major league body, minor league head! And it's even worse because of the tantalizing glimses he gives you of the pitcher he could be like on April 25th (8ip, 3h, 1er) May 11th (7ip, 1h, 1er) and June 13th (7 2/3ip, 5h, 1er). But the bottom line is that AJ hasn't lost much on his stuff. It's not like he's throwing mid 80's without a good breaking pitch. His fastball sits 92-94 and he has one of the best curve balls in baseball. And despite those tools he has put together the worst two year stretch by a pitcher in Yankees history! The only thing he has done consistently is lead the league in passed balls, walks and hit batters.
On a positive note, AJ is the one who started the pie in the face routine after a walk off win. Oh man, if that's the best thing his contrac has brough to the team that means it's time to move on.
The Infield Vets (A-Rod & Teixeira)
So why do I put Tex and A-Rod together? Well because with each player what you see is what you get a this point in their careers.
Let's start with Teixeira. You get a slick fielding, power hitting first baseman who will be near the league lead in both home runs and RBI's. He's going to continually punch the ball into an infield shift rather than adjust to defenses making it remarkably easy to ground a ball to the left side for a hit (see Jason Giambi). He's going to walk and he's goin to strike out. Bottom line: he's going to be a consistent all or nothing threat in the middle of the order. The only negative is watching Adrian Gonzalez lead the league in average while playing remarkably similar to mid 80's Don Mattingly for the arch rival Red Sox.
The story has also become stagnant with A-Rod. First it's the hip, then the knee, then the wrist and hand and thumb, etc. Injuries have become a part of having Alex Rodriguez. When he's in the lineup, he's a threat but that's become less and less of a given in the last several years as A-Rod has gone from one of the best players in baseball to a productive third baseman. It's gonna be tough to watch him in the coming years if he continues to decline while being the highest paid player in the game. Let's be honest he missed 60 games and the lineup didn't miss a beat. But there's no denying he makes the lineup deeper and more dangerous.
It's in everybody's best interest to lay off the A-Rod love life. Please! Nw if only Cameron Diaz will stop feeding him on live TV at the Super Bowl. Yikes.
The Reclamation Projects (Freddy Garcia & Bartolo Colon)
So the Yankees biggest questionmarks going into the season where who would fill the roles of the forth and fifth starting pitchers. Not only did Garcia and Colon pitch well, they've arguably been the two most consistent pitchers not named CC Sabathia. They both came to spring trainin with minor league contracts but both exceeded the wildest expectations and made the team.
Garcia has gotten by to the suprise of everybody by pitching backwards, throwing junk and being an absolute warrior when runners get on base. He has won 11 games and pitched to an ERA of 3.77 despite throwing the ball no harder than 88 mph. Smoke and mirrors? Maybe. Effective? Undeniable.
Bartolo Colon hadn't pitched in the major leagues since 2009 and hadn't pitched successfully since his Cy Young season of 2005. He got a spring training invite after pitching well and catcing some eyes in the Mexican Winter League. And despite allegations of performance enhancers (Really? Have you seen this guy? He's pushing 300 pounds and can barely move.) he has contintued to pitch well, eat innings and possibly become the third Yakees starter in the playoffs.
The Out of Nowhere Rookie (Ivan Nova)
Ok so the second best Yankee starter after CC has actually been a rookie. Nova has become a consistent starter to the point where the Yankees feel comfortable starting him in a post season game 2. In a year he's gone from a pitcher who couldn't finish the 5th inning to a stopper, inning eater, and solid number two starter.
Nova hasn't lost since June 3rd. He's won 12 games in a row and all of a sudden thrust his name into the mix for Rookie of The Year. He has 16 wins and that includes a month he spent in the minors to make room for Phil Hughes. He even added a slider when he was in the minors and has become an even more consistent pitcher. He has become what the Yankees had in Chien Ming Wang for several seasons except Wang was expected to be the ace whereas there is no doubt who the ace of the Yankees is in 2011. Nova follows a common theme with this Yankees team: he's successful.
The Outfield and The MVP (Gardner, Granderson & Swisher)
I love this Yankee outfield. They give you a little bit of everything. Power? 41 home runs from Granderson and 23 more from Swisher despite a slow start. Speed? 46 stolen bases from Gardner and another 24 from Granderson. Defense? The best in the league. Gardner is widely considered the best centerfielder in baseball who isn't playing centerield. Granderson and Swisher are also no slouches in the outfield. All three have high on base percentages, take pitches and help with the overall Yankee mentality of wearing opposing pitchers down. Swisher's clubhouse precense is undeniable. He makes the whole enviornment lighter and is always cracking jokes and pulling pranks.
The real suprise has been the break out season of Granderson. From August of 2010 through today Granderson leads the major leagues in home runs. He went from being out of the line up to fix his swing last season to an MVP contender this year. He leads the league in both runs scored (by more than 30) and runs batted in and is second in home runs. He may not be the leagues MVP this season. He may not even be the most valuable player on his team. But he has changed alot of Yankees fans feelins regarding his trade to the team prior to 2011.
The Next Great Yankee (Robinson Cano)
And now the "Best Active Yankee" belt can be passed to Robinsn Cano. Not much needs to be said about the Yankees second baseman except that he's the one hitter right now that I won't get up when he's hitting. The 2011 home run derby champion is the best all around lefty Yankees hitter in terms of using the whole field since Don Mattingly and Paul O'Neill.
He's also a terrific defensive player. The best arm of any second baseman bar none. The smoothest double plays and he makes difficult plays look routine. Say what you want about his concentration and it's true he's hd a hand full of bone headed plays this year but I'll take him over any other second baseman in baseball. He's a genuinely lovable and happy team mate, a guy who always seems to be smiling and cracking jokes. His at bats are so technically sound you could use his swing as an instructional video. His swing has been compared to Rod Carew with pop among others.
Your looking at the future of the Yankees. A perenial All Star, great hitter, great fielder, great club house personality and a fun player to watch!
One more thought: If the Red Sox actually collapse and miss the playoffs would that not be just as bad as the Yankees blowing the 2004 ALCS? Well maybe not but it would definitely make me feel better. I should be rooting for the Red Sox to make the playoffs considering their recent struggles and questions with their pitching but it's not in me to root for the arch rivals in any capacity!
Let the 2011 post season and the quest for number 28 begin. I for one would like to see Joe Girardi wearing a different uniform number in 2012.