It has become an article of faith, because of all their supposed budget-slashing to get under the $189 million payroll threshold, that the Yankees are going to be down this year. This is the year of Toronto, and of the rest of the AL East taking advantage of the Yankees' brief dabble with fiscal sanity. With the A-Rod madness, and the Jeter and Rivera injuries, and the free agency exits of Nick Swisher and Russell Martin, the Yankees just seem to have some bad juju as spring training starts. It feels like an off-year before it has even started.
Which is why, we suspect, Yankees manager Joe Girardi felt obliged yesterday, in his "hey, everybody, welcome back" spring training press conference, to remind the world that the Yankees aren't giving up on the season or anything. In fact: They plan on going to the World Series.
"This team could win 95 games and get to the World Series," Girardi said. "There's a lot of talent in that room. I believe we're still a very talented club. I know we didn't get it done in the playoffs, but you can win 105 games and not win in the playoffs. That doesn't mean you weren't a good team. There were teams that made big splashes in the free-agent market last year and were expected to win the World Series and get to the playoffs and didn't even get there. There's no guarantee."
We know it's cool to be down on the Yankees, but nothing Girardi says there is wrong. And this notion that the Yankees are somehow giving up is crazy. You can make a pretty strong argument, in fact, that they're still the best team in the American League East.
One person making that argument: Nate Silver. Okay, not actually Silver himself, but the PECOTA projection system he invented for Baseball Prospectus. PECOTA has the Yankees winning 92 games, three fewer than last year but more than enough to take the AL East. Easily. The projected standings:
Tampa Bay 86-76
Those 92 wins are the projected best in the American League, tied with Detroit, and only one game behind the Dodgers for the best record in baseball. That's without Swisher, without Martin, with A-R0d making 240 plate appearances (which might be optimistic, admittedly). The key to PECOTA's projected Yankees success is the team's lineup balance up and down the order; Kevin Youkilis having a healthy and productive year; and a consistent rotation, led by CC Sabathia, projected to be the Yankees' best player. The Yankees don't have as much depth as they usually do, but PECOTA accounts for that, with some injuries built in to the projection.
The fact is, all those veterans who are easily mocked for their advancing age have the advantage of a consistent track record of production, something PECOTA has always valued heavily. Mark Teixeira might be overpaid this next season, but PECOTA doesn't care about that; it only cares about his .352 OBP in 600-plus plate appearances. The Yankees are an OBP monster, with a pitching staff that has some wiggle room and a deep bullpen, even without Rafael Soriano. The Yankees might have been projected higher with Nick Swisher and Russell Martin, but not dramatically so, and it certainly was not worth the salaries they received on the open market. The Yankees are slashing payroll, but they're doing it the way you want your team to slash payroll: by still having a ton of terrific players on the roster. It won't be easy for the Yankees to win the AL East this year; it never is. But if you're a person of wagering persuasion, The Yankees are still your best best.