By Jason Keidel
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This is an odd time for the Yankees and their fans.
Every spring you sense a certain bluster, a confidence, a yearly hubris that only comes with accomplishment, if not entitlement. As if the sport were invented simply as a case study in pinstriped dominance.
Not so much anymore. If the Yankees have an ancestral grip on the World Series, you don't get that sense from the natives. There's a much more muted take on the team. Fans speak with grudging optimism, as though they have a chance of winning, not the ritualistic certainty.
And, as we hear every year, the sport pivots on the truism that pitching wins world championships. Last summer, each game mutated into the Gary Sanchez Variety Hour. Sanchez doubled down on Shane Spencer, his volcanic bat spellbinding the Bronx. But unless Sanchez fires 99 mph fastballs, not even his colossal lumber can mask poor pitching, or a sagging rotation.
To that end, these indeed aren't your daddy's Yankees. Rather than rolling out Clemens, Cone, Pettitte, Wells, and El Duque, the Yankees have a much more understated -- less talented -- approach to 2017. If they were a rock band, they'd be branded "Masahiro Tanaka and the Variables."
Gone are the days when the Yankees raided opposing teams like baseball marauders, poaching your best pitching, leaving you with a skeleton staff doomed for a .500 season. With lucrative, regional cable deals sprouting like weeds across the nation, teams have more quid to keep the pitchers they develop. Ten years ago, only the Yankees, not the Nationals, could have made it rain on Max Scherzer to the tune of $210 million. Likewise, they could have been the frontrunners to land Clayton Kershaw, had he not signed a similarly epic $215 million extension with the Dodgers.
Now, the Yankees find themselves in an odd place -- among the masses. Between well-heeled rivals and a salary cap, the Yankees have been metaphorically squeezed into the subway, with the rest, MetroCards in hand. There was a time when George Steinbrenner would have flipped a symbolic bird at the salary cap. But with his progeny (Hal) a self-styled numbers geek, the Yanks plan to play within the financial lines.
The good news is the Yankees have arms. We just don't know if they're any good. Brian Cashman clearly doubts it, or else he would not have made plucking a pitching arm an offseason priority. And Cashman recently told the NY Post that of his three goals -- a bat, bullpen arm, and starting pitcher -- the latter would not materialize.
So after their opening trio the Yanks must pick from a soup of starters -- Luis Severino, Luis Cessa, Chad Green, and Bryan Mitchell. (Adam Warren will be monitored, as well, though he's as likely to be nudged into the bullpen.)
If you're unimpressed with this group, you should be. Severino, once an emblem of a burgeoning rotation, stunk last year (3-8, 5.83 ERA). Cessa drew mixed reviews (4-4, 4.35), though just nine of his 17 appearances came as a starter. Likewise, Green (2-4, 4.73 ERA) draws an incomplete report card, also splitting his time between the rotation and bullpen. Mitchell (1-2, 3.24 ERA), like the others, enters this season with a limited sample size.
If you're looking for a silver lining, none of the four main contenders for two spots on the staff are older than 25 (Warren is 29). Pitchers have been known to mature, find a new pitch, or otherwise blossom a year or two into their MLB careers. Just ask Jake Arrieta, who was toiling in Baltimore at 27, then moved to Chicago and exploded into Walter Johnson at 29.
Forgive the Boston Red Sox if they aren't trembling under the covers. Unlike the Yanks, the Sox have a conga line of gifted arms. If we just match their leading three starters -- David Price, Chris Sale, and Rick Porcello -- the Yankees lose before the season even begins. That's one recent Cy Young winner (Price), the current Cy Young winner (Porcello) and perhaps the next Cy Young winner (Sale).
While no club welcomes injuries, the Yankees can least afford a tweak, twinge, or tear. Maybe it's a stretch to say the Yankees' season hangs from a string, but it clearly dangles from a ligament -- the UCL in Tanaka's throwing arm. If the Japanese right-hander, who has deftly dodged any more damage to his partially torn elbow, spends any significant time on the bench or toils on the disabled list, the Bombers will bomb in 2017.
Granted, the rest of baseball doesn't flaunt Boston's rotation. According to USA Today, the Orioles have the 24th-best rotation in the majors. But other than Baltimore, every staff in the AL East has a higher projection than New York. Tampa (10th), Toronto (8th) and Boston (No.1) all land in the sport's top-10 rotations. (The Yanks are 17th.)
If you think things are mottled now, imagine six months from now. Bizarre as it is, the Yankees could lose all three of their front-line starters in October. Sabathia's contract ends after this season, as does Pindeda's. And Tanaka has an opt-out clause in 2017.
But before you toss in the towel on this season, consider there's ample help on the way. According to an extensive survey by Bleacher Report, the Yankees have the most fertile farm system in baseball. The report concludes that the Yanks have eight players with "an elite skill set and All-Star potential." (By contrast, the Angels have zero such players, while the crosstown Mets have two.) Of those eight players, three -- Justus Sheffield, James Kaprielian, and Chance Adams -- are pitchers. And five of their top-10 prospects are potential starting pitchers.
If you're in the Steinbrenner/Cashman camp, you keep your hands clear of the trade button and let the fruits of the farm grow into pinstripes. Or, if the team is contending and the brass feels they have some October magic, you package a player or two and acquire some pitching.
Either way, the Yankees will get better, much better. It just may not come until 2018.
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