By DAN GARTLAND
EXECUTIVE SPORTS EDITOR
The Yankees might suck this year, and I couldn’t be more excited.
During the blizzard a few weeks ago, I spent much of my day off playing MLB 2K11 on my Xbox. There was a foot of snow outside, but all I could think of was baseball.
I probably look forward to the start of baseball season more than any other sport. For whatever reason, people make a much bigger deal of Opening Day than they do of the start of football, basketball or hockey season. This year might be the most excited I’ve ever been for the start of baseball season.
I’m a Yankee fan, and I have been since 1997. During that time, the Yankees have won four World Series and missed the playoffs only once. All that success has made the regular season seem like a formality. Opening Day for the Yankees might as well be Oct. 1. But not this year. For the first time I can remember, the Yankees begin a season with the distinct possibility that they might miss out on the playoffs. There is actual drama and intrigue surrounding the Yankees this year, and it doesn’t involve Cameron Diaz and popcorn.
I have literally no idea what to expect from the Yankees this season. They might even finish last in the ultra-competitive AL East. While the Toronto Blue Jays spent the winter picking up Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson from the Marlins and R.A. Dickey from the Mets, the Yankees — in typical Yankee fashion — signed a bunch of old guys. Travis Hafner and Kevin Youklilis are in the Bronx now. They also re-signed 39-year-old Ichiro Suzuki, who will be the starting right fielder after Nick Swisher went to Cleveland in free agency. Youklilis will play third while Alex Rodriguez recovers from hip surgery, and Hafner will be the designated hitter against right-handed pitchers, so it’s not like they’re looking to these guys to come off the bench as role-players.
Youkilis batted .235 last season, splitting time between the White Sox and Red Sox. Hafner batted .228, with 47 strikeouts and only 32 walks for the Indians. Bronx Bombers? Not so much. In 2012, Youkilis and Hafner had a combined WAR (an advanced metric which estimates how many more wins a player earns his team than a replacement-level player) of 1.8. By comparison, the combined WAR of Reyes, Buehrle and Johnson was 9.1.
The Yankees also lost Russell Martin, their catcher, to free agency. Derek Jeter broke his ankle in the playoffs and has yet to appear in any spring training games. Curtis Granderson, who mashed 43 home runs last year while playing center field, broke his wrist in a spring game and will be out until mid-May. Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones were serviceable while sharing the role of fourth outfielder/DH, but the Yankees let them go, too. That’s probably a good thing, considering both are aging and declining rapidly. The problem is that no one was brought in to replace them, unless you count Matt Diaz (which you shouldn’t — he actually had a negative WAR in four out of his last six seasons. That means he cost his team wins.).
The Yankees have good starting pitching, though, assuming CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda (age 38) and Andy Pettitte (age 40) stay healthy. The bullpen might not be as strong, especially considering Mariano Rivera is 43 years old and coming off a torn ACL. Rafael Soriano, who filled in for Rivera last season, is gone now, having signed with the Washington Nationals in free agency. Soriano’s departure puts a tremendous amount of pressure on Rivera and David Robertson to anchor the bullpen.
I had a coach in middle school who referred to things like bunting for base hits, suicide squeezes and stealing home as “Yankees baseball.” At a time when Alex Rodriguez was blasting 50 home runs a year and Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield batted in the middle of the order, this was most assuredly not the Yankees’ style of play. But this year, the Yankees might have to do stuff like that if they want to be successful, and that sounds like a lot of fun. It’s about time the Yankees made me sweat.