By Jason Keidel
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Maybe younger Yankees fans don’t see it, but the fact that Yu Darvish signed with Cubs is a good thing.
Must we poach every pitcher and player? Must the baseball world west of the Hudson function as our de facto farm system? Isn’t it enough that the Bronx Bombers got the best slugger on the planet, Giancarlo Stanton, for a little more than a MetroCard — to pair him with the second-best slugger on the planet, Aaron Judge?
Since the Joe Torre dynasty of the ’90s, Yankees fans have become spoiled beyond our nation’s tolerance. World Series aren’t just a possibility, they are our prerogative. Pennants are just rungs on an skyward ladder to another world championship banner. The mission statement became so haughty and absurdly simple that the club’s former manager, Joe Girardi, hung the number of desired titles on his back.
Then the Yanks got a rare taste of humble pie for a year or two. But with their enchanted run last October, we’re back to banners and Darth Vader masks, and to hell with anyone who gets in our way or accepts second place as anything but first loser.
Now the Yanks are back and stacked. The only variable is their rotation, where they will, as it stands now, trot out Masahiro Tanaka, Luis Severino, Sonny Gray, CC Sabathia and Jordan Montgomery. If the Yankees, who pitchers and catchers report to Tampa, Florida, on Tuesday, pitch much the same this year, they should get at least the three extra victories that would have won the AL East last year.
No starting staff has a thousand innings, but the Bombers’ top five starters posted a surprising 838 innings, which was second only to Arizona’s 866 1/3 aggregate innings pitched. Likewise, only the Diamondbacks’ staff totaled more starts (145) than the Yankees’ rotation (144).
If you polled the top sites, papers and pundits, you’d find MLB’s top five rotations to be some combination of the Astros, Dodgers, Nationals, Indians, and, with the addition of Darvish, the Cubs, which nudges out the Diamondbacks. You may find it a big gracious or generous, but the Yanks are nestled right behind them, in a second-tier with the D-backs, Red Sox, Blue Jays and Mets.
The Yankees’ rotation houses some real concerns. A tender elbow at the top of the rotation (Tanaka) and a curious combination of age (Sabathia) and inexperience (Montgomery) at the back. Not to mention Sonny Gray is something of an anomaly, dominant one week, wholly hitable the next. Perhaps the key is Severino, who has top-shelf stuff, an ace’s fastball, but not much of a track record. The 23-year-old (who turns 24 next week) can either morph into a more dominant pitcher or get lost in the hype and headlines after his sublime 2017 season. Likewise, Montgomery’s 29 starts last season were his only 29 MLB starts. Baseball-Reference.com projects the 25-year-old to finish 8-7 with a 4.07 ERA. Good enough for most fifth starters. But good enough for the Yankees in a pennant race?
Still, it’s a good thing that the Yanks at least whiffed on the pitching part of a largely cool hot stove season and didn’t get Darvish, or even Gerrit Cole, who was dealt to the Astros, who don’t need the help after winning the World Series a few months ago. Are the Astros the new Yankees? A watered-down version of the ’90s team that had that pitch-perfect balance of average, power, speed and pitching?
The Yankees have a rather robust lineup, a nuclear bullpen and a solid starting staff that just needs to stay healthy. The move to jettison Girardi was a scalp-scratcher and new skipper Aaron Boone has never managed a big-league game. But many fans think managers, at least in baseball, are more symbolic or cosmetic than in other team sports. And it’s not as if the odds sharks don’t see the Yankees as October carnivores.
Days after the World Series, Vegas had the Dodgers (5-1), Indians (6-1), Astros (6-1) and Nationals (7-1) as the talk and chalk of 2018, with the Bombers just behind them, at 8-1.
Now if you go to VegasInsider.com, you’ll find the Yankees (5-1) as odds-on favorites to win the 2018 World Series, followed by the Astros (6-1), Dodgers (6-1), Indians and Nationals (8-1). You’d figure the Cubs (10-1) would jump the line with Darvish on their staff. Perhaps they will before spring training ends. Is that the weight of history or smart money? We can’t assert with any certainty.
And that’s a good thing, that the Yankees have at least a few questions entering a season that should have them winning over 90 games and resuming their perch in the sports page. Do they regain their ancestral spot atop the sport? Maybe. But still, you’d have to take the field if given the choice of Bombers vs. the world.
And don’t feel too sorry for the pitching-hungry Bombers, who can still pluck two top prospects from their farms system — Justus Sheffield and Chance Adams — should their regulars stumble this summer. God forbid the Yanks win 95 games, and not the 100 the pampered masses will expect this season.
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