As training camp opens in Tampa, FL, the New York Yankees are looking to return to their 2009 form. We will take a look at each position and see how they stack up for the 2011 season. Just how good are the Yankees? Let’s find out:
Cliff Lee’s loss was essentially Rafael Soriano’s gain.
When Lee spurned the Yankees’ more lucrative offer to rejoin a Philadelphia Phillies team that had traded him a year before, Soriano ostensibly was signed to a free-agent contract with some of the money Lee turned his back upon.
Though general manager Brian Cashman was not part of the deal, it actually makes the Yankees’ bullpen one of the strongest in baseball heading into the 2011 season.
That is a good thing, too, because the starters have a bunch of question marks hanging over the heads after CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes.
The Soriano signing gives the Yankees a setup man who was one of the best closers in baseball in 2010. With the Tampa Bay Rays Soriano, 31, was 3-2 with a 1.73 ERA and he converted 45 of 48 save chances.
This in only his second year as full-time closer.
The cash-strapped Rays could not afford to keep him so Soriano sought a closer’s role elsewhere. But the Yankees lured him with a lot of cash and a contract provision that will allow him to leave for another team in 2012.
Though that does look good for the Yankees down the road, 2011 promises to be much better with Soriano holding down the eighth inning and legend Mariano Rivera taking the ball in the ninth.
It is by far the best back end of the bullpen duo the Yankees have had since the days of Rivera and John Wetteland in 1996 before Rivera took over as the full-time closer in 1997.
Rivera, now at age 41, has managed to silence those who thought he was on the decline in 2010. He was 3-3 with a 1.80 ERA and converted 33 of 38 save opportunities. The sub-2.00 ERA was Rivera’s seventh such season in the past eight years.
But, to be honest, the Yankees were concerned about Rivera’s spells of numbness in his side last season, He also pitched with a balky knee at times. Nothing serious, but they are things that do worry a team when their closer is over 40.
So Soriano not only brings a very good setup man to the team. He also can be a nice substitute when Rivera is ailing or needs rest. That is luxury manager Joe Girardi loves to have going into the season.
The rest of the Yankee bullpen looks just as solid.
Though lefty specialist Damaso Marte, 36, is expected to miss most — if not all — of the 2011 season recovering from shoulder surgery, the Yankees have a holdover and free agent to replace him.
The Yankees signed former Met Pedro Feliciano, 34, to become the lefty specialist this season. Feliciano was 3-6 with a 3.30 ERA last season. In the past three seasons, Feliciano has made more appearances than any pitcher baseball with 344. The next closest pitcher, Matt Guerrier of the Twins, had 42 less.
Feliciano is a master at retiring right-hand hitters. They batted .211 off him last season. So Feliciano will come in every other day to face tough lefties like David Ortiz, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez of the Red Sox.
Lefty holdover Boone Logan, 26, turned a huge corner in his development into a major-league reliever last season. Logan was 2-0 with a 2.93 ERA in 51 appearances. The big change was Logan walked only 20 batters in 40 innings.
That number could come down some more but Logan showed an ability to pitch tough as the team’s only left-hander this season. This season he likely will be used to pitch more complete innings and could be used for multiple innings in middle relief.
David Robertson, 25, had another great season if you throw out his very horrible April and early May. Robertson was 0-1 with a 14.21 ERA on May 5. But he rebounded and became a reliable pitcher the rest of the season.
He finished with a 4-5 record and 3.82 ERA. Once again, he struck out more batters than innings pitched (71 Ks in 61 1/3 innings). Robertson will likely see a lot of action in the sixth and seventh innings.
It is hard to believe how far down in the pecking order that Joba Chamberlain has fallen. From kid phenom setup man in 2007 to promising starter in 2008 to a flop of a starter in 2009 to a flop as a reliever in 2010.
Chamberlain, 25, was 3-4 with a 4.40 ERA and he was so inconsistent that the Yankees were forced to acquire Kerry Wood from the Indians to set up Rivera.
His velocity is not gone completely. It is just not what it was before he suffered a shoulder injury late in the 2009 season. More importantly, Chamberlain has not had the same command on what was a deadly slider.
Chamberlain actually enters a perfect scenario for him to rebound in 2011. There will be no pressure on him as a setup man and new pitching coach Larry Rothschild has a clean slate from which to start repairing the big right-hander.
There is no need for the Yankees to give up on him at this age but Chamberlain could easily be packaged in a trade for a starter at some point this season.
There is only one spot left in the bullpen and it likely will go to a pitcher who can both start and pitch long relief. That could be Sergio Mitre, who is in competition for the fifth starter job.
Mitre, 30, pitched poorly in three starts in 2010 but excelled as a long reliever. He was 0-3 with a 3.33 ERA. He also posted an excellent Walks and Hits to Innings Pitched (WHIP) ratio of 1.09. He gave up only 43 hits and 16 walks in 54 innings.
If veteran non-roster right-hander Freddy Garcia, 34, shows he can pitch like he did in recording a 12-6 record with the White Sox in 2010, the Yankees would be content on starting Garcia and using Mitre as a spot starter and long reliever in 2011.
The only other reliever on the 40-man roster who pitched for the Yankees in 2010 is Romulo Sanchez and he pitched in just two games. He did pitch well in those two games and the Yankees like his power arm.
Among the non-roster invitees are a pair of former major-leaguers. One is 33-year-old Luis Ayala, who has not pitched in the major leagues since 2009. However, the Yankees were impressed with his work this winter in Mexico.
He had 14 saves and 1.99 ERA this winter, which earned him a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training. The right-hander was a standout relief pitcher for the Montreal Expos and the Washington Nationals from 2003-2007.
The Yankees also invited Andrew Sisco, 28, to spring training. The 6-foot-10 right-hander was a coming star with the Kansas City Royals in 2005 but elbow problems have short-circuited his career. He has not pitched in the major leagues since 2007.
Ayala and Sisco enter camp as longshots.
One other interresting name in the mix is Mark Prior. The former Cubs phenom is now 30 and he has not pitched in the majors since 2006.
The former No. 1 pick was 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA in 2003 and seemed headed to stardom but arm miseries have shelved him ever since. But Prior is hoping to make it back to the majors as a reliever. He hopes to prove to the Yankees his is finally healthy.
The Yankees are willing to see what he has at this point. He will be watched closely.
But the real truth is there are very few spots available on the Yankees’ staff and the bullpen looks stacked, barring injury.
There are not many teams in baseball that can boast two pitchers who combined to save 78 games in 86 chances with sub-2.00 ERAs. That means the Yankees hope to cover up a shaky rotation with a very good bullpen capable of shutting down teams from the seventh inning on.
With a good offense the Yankees could just make that a workable strategy in 2011.
So the Yankees’ opponents must be forewarned: If you want to beat the Yankees in 2011, you better score early or you won’t score much at all.