Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera — first-ballot Hall of Famers who have spent their entire careers with the same franchise — are class personified. Even amid talk of the mythical $189 million ceiling for next year, the Yankees (unlike other franchises) have an enduring commitment to winning, with 27 World Series championships to prove it. Their run of 17 postseason appearances in the past 18 years — a major league record — stands as one of baseball’s great achievements in an era of increased competitive balance.
But I do not expect the Yankees will be very good this year. That’s why I’m writing this column.
The Yankees, in fact, will finish last in the American League East.
Picks are picks, usually forgotten by Tax Day, but I take them seriously — especially this one. If I say the Yankees are going to finish last in their division for the first time since 1990, well, I’d better be ready to justify it. This is my attempt to do so. You might agree with me. Somehow, I suspect you won’t.
If it’s any consolation to Yankees fans — yes, you, the one who just utilized Twitter to send me a belated valentine — I think the Yankees will be the best last-place team in baseball this year. Maybe ever.
Does that make you feel better?
I thought so.
The overriding reason that I’m bearish on the Yankees is this: They are getting more feeble while the rest of the division is getting better.
The Blue Jays will be as good as advertised — or very close to it — as long as they resolve their lingering bullpen questions. Based on how he has pitched this spring, Josh Johnson — not R.A. Dickey, not Mark Buehrle — is primed to become the ace of this staff. He has regained his All-Star form. The lineup will be overwhelming, with Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera and the unsung Emilio Bonifacio surrounding Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. And left-hander J.A. Happ will more than capably fill in for Ricky Romero, who has been sent to the minors in an effort to revive his career.
As for the inexplicable Orioles, the team sabermetricians love to loathe? I thoroughly enjoy the commentary about how they can’t possibly win as many one-run games as they did last year (29-9, the highest such winning percentage in major league history). Well, of course they’re not going to go 29-9 again in one-run games. They won’t have to, because their offense will be better. Last year, Nick Markakis played 104 games, Nate McLouth 55, Manny Machado 51, Brian Roberts 17, Nolan Reimold 16. If even three of those players stay healthy all season, the Orioles’ lineup will be vastly improved.
The Rays are the Rays. They have averaged 91.6 wins per year since 2008 and should finish in the same range this season. They will miss former ace James Shields immensely — the biggest reason I don’t believe they will reach the playoffs. But the Rays led the majors in ERA last year at 3.19, even coming from the AL East. That won’t evaporate overnight, especially not with David Price around. The Rays will struggle to score runs — particularly without B.J. Upton — but they will win enough close games to stay in contention all year.
So, that gives me two choices for the caboose — Boston or New York.
The Red Sox did the honors last year. After six postseason appearances in seven seasons from 2003-09, Boston’s fifth-place finish was nearly as shocking as the Yankees’ plunge would be in 2013.
But I’m more confident in the Red Sox than the Yankees, because of what Jon Lester (3-0, 0.75 ERA) and Clay Buchholz (2-0, 0.96 ERA) have accomplished in spring training. If they have returned to their old selves — and that appears to be the case — then the Red Sox can win enough low-scoring games to remain competitive. And Boston will need to do that, especially early, as David Ortiz’s lack of progress from last year’s Achilles injury remains ominous.
OK. Now the Yankees.
New York’s predicament crystallized for me when I set aside the names of their players and thought of the circumstances in more literal terms. Such as:
• The likely Opening Day shortstop has, at that position in the major leagues, averaged one error per 30 defensive innings — the rough equivalent of a three-game series.
• The injured icon he replaced barely played in the field during spring training and is coming off major ankle surgery. He is 38.
• The Opening Day left fielder was slated to be the Angels’ fifth outfielder before being traded earlier this week. He batted .230 last year.
• The projected Opening Day center fielder and right fielder combined to hit nine home runs in 2012.
• One new candidate to play first base was an Arizona Diamondbacks reserve one year ago. He had a .683 OPS over the past two seasons.
• The ace pitcher underwent left elbow surgery in October and threw only 10 innings in Grapefruit League play. His most recent outing wasn’t great.
• The No. 3 starter, who is 40 years old, was retired until a little more than one year ago. He hasn’t thrown more than 130 innings in a major league season since 2009.
• The expected No. 4 starter is injured. The current fourth and fifth starters combined for a 4.70 ERA when they pitched out of the rotation last year.
• The $28 million third baseman won’t be ready to play for months, which is only the very beginning of that story.
Look. This is not about the Yankees’ desire to win. They want to win. Their manager wants to win. Their owners want to win. This is one of the most professional organizations in American sports history.
Yes, they have Robinson Cano and Hiroki Kuroda and Rivera. But this particular generation of AL East competition has passed the Yankees by.
The myth about the Yankees was that they won because of the pinstriped mystique. That was nonsense. They won because they had great players. But now those great players are old players, and New York is headed to a place Sinatra never thought possible: the bottom of the heap.