Baseball: A Season Preview

Don’t expect any Cinderella stories. No Rays. No Rockies. But watch out for the Yankees. Again.

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Baseball gets its 2009 season underway this weekend, and rather than break out a crystal ball about all 30 teams, let’s look at a few key flashpoints.

There won’t be a “this year’s Rays.”

Last season, the Tampa Bay Rays stunned the sports world by going from a perennial cellar dweller, 66-96 in 2007 for instance, to champions of baseball’s toughest division and winner of the American League pennant.

Their sudden rise came a year after the Colorado Rockies made a similar worst-to-first improvement, which has prompted a search for the next team that will make such a dramatic jump. People should stop looking; things of this sort don’t happen very often. In 1991, both the Atlanta Braves and Minnesota Twins went from last place the previous season to the World Series, but four times in 18 seasons hardly constitute a trend.

The Rays and Rockies made their giant steps forward after years of stockpiling young talent, and for each team, everything came together all at once. The team that is closest to that model is the Arizona Diamondbacks. As the 2007 National League West champs, their rise won’t surprise anyone. Several teams including the Oakland A’s, the Texas Rangers, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Washington Nationals are starting to build impressive cores of young talent, but they don’t come close to the wealth of the Rays’ roster last season. In other words, the Cinderella front should be quiet this season.

People are pegging the Yankees to be part of a three-team race, but most have them in the wrong race.

To show that the economy hadn’t affected everyone, last December the Yankees opened the vault and handed nearly half a billion dollars in contracts to three all-star players, pitchers C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, and first baseman Mark Teixeira. Since the Yanks went 89-73 last season, it’s widely assumed that this influx of high-profile talent will return them to the postseason or at least put them in the race for the top spot on the American League East.

But hold your horses. This reasoning assumes that the Yankees had several holes for these stars to simply step in and fill. It isn’t that simple. Burnett’s track record of good health makes Washington Mutual look like a conservative, upstanding bank by comparison; in his nine years as a full-time player, he’s only pitched 30 games per season three times. Sabathia and Teixeira aren’t replacing black holes, they represent slight upgrades on players who had stellar seasons in 2008. Sabathia steps in for Mike Mussina who went 20 games with an E.R.A. of 3.37 last season. Sabathia will be good, but he would have to be perfect to represent a substantial upgrade over Mussina’s final season in the Bronx. Teixeira replaces Jason Giambi, which on the surface is a night and day difference. Giambi posted a .373 on-base percentage and hit 32 home runs last season. Teixeira is an improvement, especially on defense, but again the overall uptick is not a huge one.

So what’s the problem? Slight improvements on 89 wins should put a team squarely in contention. The problem is that the core of the Yankee team that won 89 games last season is getting very old in baseball years. Derek Jeter and Hideki Matsui are 34; Johnny Damon is 35, and Jorge Posada is 37 and coming off of a shoulder surgery. All four are in the decline phase of their careers, and at those ages, the decline could easily go from a gentle slope to freefall. I expect the decline of those players to more than offset the plus of the newcomers which would put the Yanks in a three-way race all right, but not with the Red Sox and Rays for first place but with the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays for third place in the division.

Hold the schadenfreude. The Yanks money is well-invested. Last year, the team thought it was going to follow in the mode of their arch rival, the Red Sox, by relying on young players to rebuild. Second baseman Robinson Cano, centerfielder Melky Cabrera and pitcher Phillip Hughes all proved to be no match for their Boston counterparts, Dustin Pedroia, who won the American League Most Valuable Player award, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jon Lester. So with talent development failing, the Yanks have resorted to the method they know best, throw money at stars, to insure that their new ballpark hosts a competitive team in pinstripes.