Calling an 85-win season a disappointment is a luxury that few franchises have. The New York Yankees are one of those franchises. For the Yankees, their 85-77 record in 2013 marked the fewest wins in a full season since 1992 and the fewest runs scored since 1990. It was the second time since 1995 that the Yankees fell short of the playoffs. It was an even greater disappoint when factoring in that the Yankees had a payroll of over $240M.
The payroll has dropped below the $200M mark for 2014, but that certainly doesn’t mean that expectations have. Amazingly, $240M didn’t buy a whole lot of offense as the Yankees scored just 650 runs, just barely putting the Yankees in the top 10 in the American League in runs scored. It was 50 runs fewer than anybody else in the AL East scored.
The Yankees were able to finish eight games above .500 despite a run differential of minus-21 and a Pythagorean Win-Loss record of 79-83. The six-win difference was the largest in the American League. The Yankees maintained the home-field dominance that they have enjoyed throughout the storied franchise’s history, posting a 46-35 record, despite a minus-14 run differential. The Yankees were 30-16 in one-run games, which was one of the season’s biggest bright spots. The team’s 13-25 record against Boston and Tampa Bay played a big role in the standings and really defined the season.
Despite the huge payroll, the daily lineup looked nothing like the Yankees of the 2000s. Eduardo Nunez, Jayson Nix, Lyle Overbay, Chris Stewart, and Vernon Wells all had over 300 plate appearances. Injuries played a big role in the season and it’s rather impressive that the Yankees managed 85 wins with the key players that were missing.
Oddsmakers seem pretty bullish on the Yankees, who made some big signings this offseason. BetOnline.ag and 5Dimes.eu are both currently at 87 wins for the Bronx Bombers, with a -120 on the under at BOL. 5Dimes has -115 on each side. BetDSI.eu and Bovada.lv are both at 86.5, with the under at -125 at BetDSI and -115 each way at Bovada.
Key additions: Jacoby Ellsbury, Masahiro Tanaka, Brian McCann, Kelly Johnson, Carlos Beltran, Matt Thornton, Brian Roberts, Andrew Bailey
Key losses: Chris Stewart, Andy Pettitte, Vernon Wells, Curtis Granderson, Joba Chamberlain, Mariano Rivera, Robinson Cano, Phil Hughes, Lyle Overbay, Kevin Youkilis, Jayson Nix, Boone Logan
There are a lot of big names on each of those lists. As is the case with a high payroll team, high-priced talent going out leads to high-priced talent coming in. The Yankees continue to throw money at what ails them rather than draft and develop, certainly a luxury that the franchise can afford. As a result, the Yankees continue to add older players looking for the magic that comes with putting on the pinstripes.
Brian McCann was the first big splash of the offseason for the Yankees, signing a contract in December after leaving the Braves. McCann was signed the day after Chris Stewart was traded to the Pirates. In that same week, the Yankees gave Kelly Johnson a one-year deal in hopes that his versatility and left-handed power swing will help with the hole left at second base by the departure of Robinson Cano. The next day, the Yankees landed Jacoby Ellsbury on a very lucrative free agent deal. Ellsbury will take the plate appearances left behind by Curtis Granderson. Carlos Beltran signed 12 days later, hoping to get one more World Series run in the twilight of his career.
Once January rolled around, Vernon Wells was released with the new glut of Major League caliber outfielders and Brian Roberts was added to the fold to see what he has left in the tank. Matt Thornton will fill the matchup lefty role vacated by Boone Logan. It was then that the Yankees addressed, arguably, the team’s biggest need – the starting rotation. After several teams were part of the bidding process, Masahiro Tanaka decided on the bright lights of New York City with a seven-year, $155M deal. With Andy Pettitte retired (again) and Phil Hughes on to Minnesota, the Yankees ignored the supposed internal spending limit they had set to sign the latest Japanese import.
It was a very busy offseason for the Yankees and one that saw a lot of money walk out the door and a lot of money come walking in.
Why bet the over?
The thing about the Yankees is that they have the potential to be really good. Even though they are an older group, there are a lot of offensive numbers among the position players and a lot of guys who will be able to enjoy Yankee Stadium’s friendly dimensions for left-handed hitters. In standard-issue Yankee fashion, this will be a lineup that hits for power and works pitchers for walks.
The outfield is a real strong point for the Yanks. With Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner in center field and left field, the Yankees will not only have good offensive production, but also very good defensive value. The pitching staff was good last season, but Yankees outfielders also racked up 16 defensive runs saved. Expect that number to go up with Ellsbury and for the Yankee outfield to produce better offensively without guys like Vernon Wells and Curtis Granderson taking up plate appearances. Ellsbury is a very well-rounded offensive threat with good contact skills and a little bit of power that hasn’t shown through over the last couple of seasons.
Carlos Beltran is a major upgrade in right field and having Alfonso Soriano will help the Yankees keep both guys in the lineup with the ability to utilize one of them in a designated hitter role three or four times a week. Beltran continues to defy the laws of baseball aging and has hit 78 home runs over the last three seasons. The short porch in right field will have two benefits for Beltran, as playing the outfield won’t be very taxing and his power numbers could go up with his line drive swing and the short wall. Yankee Stadium may be Beltran’s fountain of youth.
Providing depth are the aforementioned Soriano and Ichiro Suzuki. Age is clearly a concern with this group, including Beltran, but veteran hitters seem to stick around for a while. Suzuki had 20 steals and put the ball in play a ton last season, so there’s still going to be a place for him somehow. Managing the plate appearances to keep Suzuki fresh may be difficult for Manager Joe Girardi, especially for a guy who has been an everyday player since making the jump to the Majors.
Around the infield, the picture is a lot less clear, but there is reason for optimism. Kelly Johnson is the player with the most upside in this group. Johnson hit 26 home runs for the Diamondbacks in 2010 and could match or exceed that number in New York. He’ll be one of the biggest benefactors of the short porch. More than that, Johnson is a very versatile player, which is something that the Yankees need. He can play second or third as well as the outfield. He spent three games at first base with the Rays last season. Johnson managed 16 home runs in just 407 plate appearances last season. With the playing time available, 25 or more isn’t out of the question. He walks at an above average rate and a power jump will make his strikeout rate much more tolerable.
It remains to be seen if Mark Teixeira will be healthy this season, but if he is, you can expect the 25 home run, 100 RBI season that Teixeira has been accustomed to. With nearly 10 months to rest, the 34-year-old could be rejuvenated this season. Derek Jeter falls into the same boat as ankle issues have derailed one of the game’s most proficient offensive players. If Jeter can play, he will play, because the Yankees don’t have many other options. The plate discipline numbers shouldn’t drop off too much, even though the occasional power and stolen base will. It is cliché, but Jeter’s presence in the lineup means a lot and if he and Teixeira are healthy throughout the season, the lineup looks significantly different.
One of Johnson or Brian Roberts will attempt to be the everyday second baseman. Others in the fold are Brendan Ryan and Eduardo Nunez. Ryan will carry lots of value as a pinch runner and defensive replacement for Jeter, even though he had zero hitting value. Nunez is serviceable for a few at bats a week.
Brian McCann was a great addition for the Yankees. Not only is he on par defensively with Chris Stewart, one of the game’s top pitch framers, but McCann will provide more offensive upside and he, too, will enjoy the short porch in right. He was a 20-homer guy in Atlanta for years, so there’s no reason he won’t enjoy that type of production in New York. Like the others, he also works pitchers.
If this offense stays healthy, and that’s clearly a huge if, it will walk, work pitchers, and hit home runs. Three things that have been a recipe for success for the Yankees during their long run of winning seasons.
With an inept offense last season, it was the pitching staff that carried the Yankees through. The pitching staff lost Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes, but gained “Mr. Perfect”, Masahiro Tanaka, the prized Japanese import who had a perfect 24-0 record last season. Win-loss record tends to be a misleading indicator of how a guy really pitched, but going 24-0 is pretty damn impressive. Tanaka possesses elite control and a deep arsenal of pitches. Even though he probably won’t be as dominant as he was in Japan, he has the potential to be a four- or five-win pitcher in his first season.
CC Sabathia lost what appears to be a human hiding inside of him this offseason, though Sabathia reportedly weighed in at the same amount as he did in 2013. Either way, the hefty lefty turned fat into muscle, dropping his body fat by eight percent. There were major concerns about Sabathia because of a three-year drop in velocity that left his average fastball speed at just over 91 mph. Sabathia spent the offseason working out and went through a comprehensive evaluation from Dr. James Andrews to make sure that his elbow and shoulder were in working order. All of the physical signs point to a bounce back season for Sabathia. The statistical case agrees, as Sabathia got a bit unlucky with when he gave up hits and had a well above average percentage of fly balls leave the park.
Hiroki Kuroda and his elite control will be in the middle of the rotation along with Ivan Nova who took a big step forward last season. Both Kuroda and Nova posted ERAs below 3.31 and there are no major red flags in their statistical profiles that would indicate regression. Kuroda is 39, so age may be a factor, but a miniscule drop in velocity and similar plate discipline rates should leave over bettors confident in Kuroda’s ability to perform at a high level again this season. David Phelps and Michael Pineda will be in the mix for the fifth spot, with Phelps having a big leg up, since Pineda has made 10 starts since 2011.
David Robertson will have clown-sized shoes to fill with the departure of Mariano Rivera. Arguably the best reliever in the history of the game, Rivera’s farewell tour last season ended the career of one of the game’s most respected players. Robertson definitely has the makeup and the stuff for the job and will be one of the American League’s top closers.
Shawn Kelley posted a very impressive strikeout total last season in the middle innings. Preston Claiborne joined Kelley with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 3.00. While there isn’t a whole lot of depth in the bullpen, the Yankees rotation is going to give the team a lot of length, which should help hide the Yankees main weakness by limiting its workload.
Why bet the under?
Health. The Yankees have a ton of guys over 30, a lot of them over 35. With injury problems for Teixeira and Jeter, the Yankees infield is in pretty iffy shape. Brian Roberts won’t stay healthy. Kelly Johnson is a serviceable, versatile player, but the tentative plan is to use him at third base, where he has very little Major League experience. That’s, of course, assuming that Roberts can stay healthy enough to play second. For as good as the outfield is, the infield has the potential to be that bad.
Will Carlos Beltran stay together? Jacoby Ellsbury has had some injury problems in recent years. Alfonso Soriano is another one that the Yankees will have to monitor. How much does Ichiro have left in the tank? Any time you get an old group like this, there’s talent, track record, and name recognition, but along with that come injury concerns and regression.
Starting rotation health will be a major concern. Sabathia’s velo drop and control problems could certainly be a sign of something more, although he had a clean bill of health. It may just be that years of being a workhorse have taken its toll. Tanaka comes to the United States with a much bigger workload on his 24-year-old arm than most pitchers his age. Arm injuries lead to control problems and Tanaka is a guy that lives on his control. Kuroda is 39 years old now, and while there are no glaring red flags in his statistical profile or mechanics that would suggest injury or decline, common sense dictates that it’s certainly possible.
Exacerbating the injury risks, the Yankees have no starting pitching depth. For years, they’ve pillaged their farm system to acquire trade pieces. So the Yankees have no help coming from below to provide aid in case of a starting pitcher injury. Michael Pineda is no sure thing and guys like Vidal Nuno are just filler.
The bullpen is a mess with the losses of Boone Logan and Mariano Rivera. When a closer leaves, everybody has to move up a role and there is nobody capable of filling David Robertson’s. Too many Yankee relievers have command issues, with high walk rates and unseemly home run rates. The Yankees pen had the fifth-highest bullpen FIP last season and that was with Logan and Rivera. Take those two out and this is not a great group at all. Robertson will shut the door when given the chance, but it’s unclear how many chances he’ll have. Furthermore, if Girardi can’t find a guy he trusts in the sixth or seventh, he’ll push the starters and that workload will catch up with them late in the season.
Pick: Under 87 (-115, 5Dimes)
This is a very high number in a division with two very good teams in Tampa and Boston and two teams that have the potential to be good in Baltimore and Toronto. On name recognition, the Yankees look like an All-Star team. But, their glaring weaknesses on the infield and in the bullpen are going to negate a lot of what the outfielders and starters are able to accomplish.
With win totals in the high 80s, there’s very little margin for error with injuries. The Yankees rotation will prevent them from long losing streaks, but depth is going to be a concern with a weak minor league system and a payroll that is already breaching the outer limits of what ownership wanted to spend for the 2014 season.
A healthy team has a great shot at going over this, but there are far too many players that have injury concerns to expect that kind of performance over 162 games.
Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball BangTheBook.com podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.