By Sweeny Murti
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It always feels like the first day of school, doesn’t it? Opening Day is upon us. Here are a few things to chew on:
— For me, this season is less about the new guys than it is Derek Jeter, CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira. All three endured the worst seasons of their career last year, Jeter and Teixeira because of injury and Sabathia because of poor performance. If all three don’t have bounce-back years it won’t matter what the new guys do. Consider these three guys the core for 2014.
— As for the new guys, Jacoby Ellsbury has to be the least talked about $150 million acquisition in Yankees history. Sure, his spring training calf injury sparked a little chatter, but other than that it was a quiet spring for a guy signing on to take over one of the most storied pieces of real estate in sports—center field at Yankee Stadium. With so many other storylines this spring, Ellsbury was a mere sidebar, but that changes starting with the top of the first inning Tuesday night. A good start will take a lot of pressure off the defector from the World Champion Red Sox.
— Brian McCann was brought on board because the Yankees loved his leadership abilities in addition to his offensive and defensive game. Prediction here is that McCann will quickly become a fan favorite. His postgame interviews are likely to deliver the soundbite messages that media and fans love to hear.
— Carlos Beltran has taken on a leadership role here too. He is the new linchpin in the Yankee lineup. Expect him to bat primarily third, the slot that was occupied by Robinson Cano. The Yankees don’t have a hitter as good as Cano, but by adding Beltran—a veteran switch-hitter who has shined in the New York spotlight before—they have a dangerous batter who can still be a force and drive in runs. Beltran is energized by the chance to finally win a World Series and his relationship with hitting coach Kevin Long gives him a level of comfort that not all new players bring to the Yankees.
— The rotation behind Sabathia has enormous potential. Hiroki Kuroda—despite a late-season swoon—has set himself up as a reliable veteran, and if the Yankees can get him the extra rest they couldn’t afford to give him last year, then perhaps he gets to the finish line easier this year. Ivan Nova, Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda all have the stuff that teams dream about having in the front of their rotations, and the Yankees have this talented under-30 trio bringing up the back of theirs.
Sabathia told me on the air that he thinks Nova has Cy Young ability, and at 27 years old he might finally be putting it all together. And while most teams are happy to get .500 seasons out of their fourth and fifth starters, the Yankees have their big-money Japanese import and a former All-Star manning those spots. The potential is all there as we saw this spring. Now it’s about translating that to the regular season.
— I don’t know what to really expect from Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson. We know Johnson is replacing A-Rod, who when healthy was still capable of being a power bat at third base, and Roberts is replacing Cano at second base, and that’s simply not a fair comparison to make, even with a player that has had the career that Roberts has had.
Both of these guys are being asked to fill pretty big roles and raise their production to levels they haven’t seen in a while, if ever. I wouldn’t predict it, but it’s hard to say when a veteran player is going to put together a year you don’t expect and help a team win a championship. Two examples come to mind:
Entering 1996, Mariano Duncan was 33 years old with career averages of .262/.298/.385. In ’96 Duncan had a career year, batting .340/.352/.500 and helped the Yankees win the World Series.
Entering 1998, Scott Brosius was 31 years old with career averages of .248/.315/.416. Not only that, but he was coming off a year in 1997 in which he hit a measly .203/.259/.317. In ’98, the year everything went right for the Yankees, Brosius hit .300/.371/.472 and helped the Yankees win the World Series.
No one saw either of those coming. Who knows what 2014 will bring for these guys. But stranger things have happened.
— It’s simply amazing that the man replacing Mariano Rivera was practically invisible all spring. Maybe because the Yankees didn’t go out and sign a Joe Nathan or a Fernando Rodney, but rather simply handed the reins to Mariano’s apprentice, David Robertson, there was almost no spring buzz about the monumental task of taking over for the Greatest of All Time. That ends today.
Now that the games count again, Robertson’s ability to close out games will be paramount to the Yankees chances of winning in 2014. Does he have the ability to do it? Of course he does. And there’s a pretty good chance he’s going to be pretty good at the job. But here’s what Yankee fans will have to get used to—that the air of invincibility that surrounded Rivera is gone.
When the Great Mariano blew a save, even the other team treated it like a fluke. When Mariano blew two in a row, or maybe three in a span of two weeks, there was still a sense that the earth was just slightly off kilter and the normal balance of the universe would soon be restored.
I think Robertson will have a good season as the Yankees’ closer, but it will include a few blown saves, and it will include a few ninth innings that will raise your heart rate. The other team NEVER wanted to face Rivera, no matter how bad he was going or how big a rally was taking place. It will never be the same again.
But don’t let a few blown saves get you down on Robertson. The job is his. He earned it. He deserves it. And the Yankees are putting their faith in him for 2014.
Happy Opening Day.
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