Contrary to what most baseball experts believe, the New York Yankees are no longer the best team in the American League. In fact, they're not even the best team in their division; maybe not even the second best team in the much-improved (except the Yankees) AL East.
On the surface, the Yankees appeared to have addressed their most glaring weakness - starting pitching - when they signed 37-year old free agent former-Dodger Hiroki Kuroda to a $10 million one-year deal and acquired (via trade) 22-year old rookie sensation Michael Pineda from the Mariners. With last year's shaky pitching trio of AJ Burnett, Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes providing little stability to the rotation, adding these two arms should eat up some innings in 2012. That's the good news.
Here's the bad news:
Kuroda has spent his entire four-year major league career with the Dodgers, who play their home games in pitcher's haven Chavez Ravine. Consequently, his career ERA of 3.45 is artificially low, which accounts for a so-so won loss record of 41-46. He may give the Yanks some innings, but don't expect double digit wins as his ERA soars well over 4 runs per game in hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium.
Likewise, Pineda's 2011 ERA of 3.74 seems like a pretty good number for a rookie, but Safeco Field was his home field advantage. Pitching away from home resulted in a less than desirable 4.40 ERA for the youngster. Performing in the harsh spotlight of New York is never easy for even the most seasoned hurler; putting that kind of pressure on a kid with just one season of stress-free experience on his resume may be disastrous.
Last year, the Yankees relied heavily on the one-two pitching punch of CC Sabathia (19-8) and rookie Ivan Nova (16-4) to facilitate another trip to the post season, as AL East division champions. Their failure to get past the Detroit Tigers in the ALDS reveals what is perhaps the real challenge facing New York heading into the 2012 season: The offensive core of this team has grown old. Derek Jeter is heading into his age-37 season and Alex Rodriguez seems practically washed-up at the age of 36. Of course, neither key player did much of anything in that five-game flop against Detroit.
Ironically, only the now-deposed Jorge Posada rose to the occasion in that series, hitting .429 (6 for 14), drawing four walks (OBP of .579), and slugging an impressive (especially for a 40-year old) .571. By contrast, Jeter hit just .250 while striking out a team-high eight times, and A-Rod managed a paltry .111 BA with six whiffs, including the game and series-ending punch-out.
More bad news:
The Yankees dealt rising star Jesus Montero (.328 - .406 - .590 with four home runs in 18 games) to Seattle in exchange for Pineda. Montero displayed great opposite-field power in his brief stint with the Yankees last season, and would've fit in nicely in the middle of that lineup in '12. Certainly, there is some offensive fire-power returning in '12, led by the explosive Robinson Cano, who drove in 118 runs while scoring 104 in '11. Curtis Granderson had a career year with 139 runs scored, 119 RBIs, 41 home runs, and an OPS+ of 138, but can he keep up that type of production in '12? It's more likely he'll return to his normal career averages: 109 runs scored, 81 RBIs, 28 home runs, with an OPS+ of 117. Those are good numbers, but nowhere near his 2011 production.
When all is said and done, the failure of the Yankees to reach the 2012 post season will be largely attributed to the continued demise of Alex Rodriguez. Here's a look at A-Rod's steadily declining OPS+ since he led the American League in 2007:
'07 - 176
'08 - 150
'09 - 138
'10 - 123
'11 - 116
Look for that OPS+ to fall below the "average" level of 100 in 2012. That's not the kind of production the Yankees are going to need from its aging superstar third baseman, if they expect to reach the post season, and possibly win another World Series.
Unfortunately, if you're a Yankees fan; that's the harsh reality. Don't expect to see New York playing past the first 162 games in 2012. Their glory years are at least temporarily on hiatus.
Larry Underwood is a baseball historian, die-hard Cardinals fan and author. Here's his latest: St Louis Cardinals IQ - The Ultimate Test of True Fandom (Volume 2)