Saturday, March 1, 2014

2014 MLB preview, part 1: Mets & Yankees

Yeah, it's that time again. Preseason games have already started, but it will count for real at the end of this month. We'll start by taking a look at the two New York teams, whose fortunes are still as different as night & day.

The New York Yankees went back to the bank vaults to restock after a dismal 2013 campaign. Alex Rodriguez is gone, perhaps for good, suspended for the 2014 season. It wouldn't have been this way if he wasn't so defiant and whined like a baby, then sued Major League Baseball and the Players Association, only to drop the suit and finally accept his punishment, which allows the Yankees to move on.

Last year, pitchers Mariano Rivera & Andy Pettite retired, with Rivera getting the "farewell tour" treatment that Chipper Jones got the previous year in Atlanta. This year, it's Derek Jeter who's saying good-bye after 20 seasons. He looks to his right, and he won't see Alex Rodriguez at third (drug suspension), but rather Kelly Johnson (Tampa Bay), who played with Chipper in Atlanta at the start of his career. To his left, Robinson Cano isn't at second anymore (Seattle), but instead it's Brian Roberts (Baltimore). At least Mark Teixiera is back after missing most of last season with injuries. The outfield has been made over, as well, with Carlos Beltran (St. Louis) sharing time in right with Ichiro or in center with Jacoby Ellsbury (Boston), while Brett Gardner patrols left. Curtis Granderson went across town to the Mets, which should juice up the intra-city rivalry. Ellsbury's former teammate in Boston, Kevin Youkilis, was a bust due to injuries, then signed a free agent contract to play in Japan. Matt Thornton comes over from Boston to replace Boone Logan (Colorado) and/or Joba Chamberlain (Detroit) in the bullpen, while David Robertson inherits Rivera's role as the closer. More than likely, it'll be closer by committee if Robertson doesn't get off to a fast start, which will make the Yankees' decision to part with Rafael Soriano after the 2012 season look foolish, especially considering the All-Star level numbers Soriano put up in Washington last year. New York also lost Phil Hughes (Minnesota), and are hoping Michael Pineda is finally healthy enough to be the 5th starter behind CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Masahiro Tanaka, and either Ivan Nova or David Phelps.

The Yankees didn't get enough offense behind the plate last year, so they bagged Brian McCann (Atlanta) as their new starting catcher and tutor for Francisco Cervelli, with Austin Romine and JR Murphy waiting under the learning tree. Chris Stewart, last year's default starter, left for Pittsburgh, just as Russell Martin did after the '12 season. There isn't much outfield depth. Ichiro is projected as a backup, but Beltran figures to also share DH duty with Alfonso Soriano. Look at it this way. By comparison, Gardner and Ellsbury don't have to apply for baseball's equivalent of social security just yet.

The AL East is again loaded, but there is a better chance the Yanks could contend.

It's fair to say that the New York Mets' 2013 season peaked with a 4-game sweep of the Yankees in the annual Subway Series, which will be contested across 4 weeknights again this year. However, any chance of making the postseason evaporated for good with the losses of pitchers Jeremy Hefner & Matt Harvey to Tommy John surgery. Hefner was released, then brought back, while Harvey will miss the season. Johan Santana missed all of 2013 and is gone. Bartolo Colon (Oakland) takes his place as the #1 starter, fronting a rotation that features Jon Niese, Dillon Gee, Zack Wheeler, and Jenrry Meijia. The Mets also heisted outfielder Chris Young from Oakland, and are hoping he's not a bust, as Collin Cowgill was last year, prompting GM Sandy Alderson to send Cowgill back to the AL West, albeit to the Angels.

In the outfield, Young joins Curtis Granderson (Yankees) and last year's phenom, Juan Lagares, meaning that Eric Young, Jr. will be a 4th wheel in the outfield, but he can also be a utility infielder and spell Daniel Murphy at second. Lagares set a team rookie record with 15 outfield assists last season, most of them from center, but opposing coaches will be watching out for him this year, be it in center or right. The Mets last had a rifle in right when Jeff Francoeur was there a few years ago. If Lagares picks up where he left off defensively, and his offense catches up, can you say All-Star selection? Yep.

The Mets shopped first basemen Ike Davis & Lucas Duda in the offseason, but found no takers. Both are left handed sluggers, both struggled last season, and now it comes out that Davis had an oblique injury most of last year, compounding his issues. My advice for both is one word. Relax. The Mets have to hope David Wright can stay healthy for a full season, and that Ruben Tejada regains his confidence and his batting stroke from 2012. Scott "20 Mule Team" Boras is asking too much----as usual---for Stephen Drew (Boston), and would be well served to just eat crow and let Drew return to the World champs. The biggest problem is the lack of a veteran catcher to tutor Anthony Recker and Travis D'Arnaud, and it seems New York is now regretting letting John Buck leave for Pittsburgh in August. Right now, Buck isn't on a major league roster that I know of, and perhaps could return for another go.

Where it hurts the most is bench depth. Justin Turner & Mike Baxter fled west to Los Angeles (Dodgers). Immature Jordany Valdespin is in Miami. Omar Quintanilla waits for the phone to ring. The bullpen took a hit, too. LaTroy Hawkins is in Colorado, and Scott Aitchison is in Cleveland, leaving room for some rookies to get OTJT (On The Job Training) the hard way. That means the starters will be asked to go deeper than usual. Yes, the Mets got bullpen insurance in the form of Jose Valverde (Detroit) & Kyle Farnsworth (Tampa Bay) to back up closer Bobby Parnell, but rookie prospect Robert Carson is now in LA with the Angels. How did Alderson let that happen? Who knows? Will they contend? Alderson thinks so, projecting 90 wins. Um, no. As much as I am a Mets fan from way back, I'm also a realist. They may actually reach .500 by season's end with some consistency and fewer injuries than usual, and that's assuming they can figure out the curse of Citi Field.

Next: The AL East.

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