The New York Yankees will raise the curtain on the 2008 season this Monday against the Toronto Blue Jays as they prepare to drop the curtain on the most storied ballpark in the game’s history. In this the last year of Yankee stadium a new era begins as legendary Yankee manager Joe Torre is out of the picture for the first time since 1995 and former Yankee catcher Joe Girardi becomes the new headman in charge. Girardi’s most memorable moment in pinstripes came for Torre’s Yankees in game 6 of the 1996 world series when he hit the stadium shaking go ahead triple in the series clincher, giving the bombers their first world championship in 15 years.
Girardi has now been tapped by the Yankees front office to get them their first championship in seven years. Seven years of disappointment that has seen the Yanks fall short many a time to teams who are inferior on paper and supposed to cower and crumble at the mere presence of going up against the boys from the Bronx and all their ghosts of legends past. As much as the Yankees were known for their togetherness and clutch ability as a team when they won four championships in five seasons from 1996-2000, they have looked just as lifeless and gone down without a fight over these last few post seasons, resembling a team that posses no chemistry when times get tough, when it comes down to scratching out a few runs. Yankee management presumed the teams lack of fight in the playoffs was a reflection of the laid back style of the aging Torre. All we’ve heard this winter from the new Yankee head of command, notably Hank Stienbreener, son of George, is how Giradi is a young, vibrant, fiery guy, and the right guy to light a fire under this team. So the pressure is now on Giradi. Pressure that only comes with being the manager of a team where the words longevity and Yankee manger in the same sentence was an oxymoron until the Torre years. The Yankees currently have a streak of 13 consecutive years of making the playoffs, 12 of which came under Torre, and whenever that ends there will be hell to pay and it will fall directly at the manager’s feet.
For the first time in a long time the Yankees did not make any major acquisitions in the off-season. The Yanks even resisted the temptation of trading for the best pitcher in the world in Johan Santana and sat by and watched as the cross-town Mets brought him to Queens. A definite different approach from what we’ve been accustomed to from the George Stienbrenner Yankees. The philosophy being pushed by Yankees general manager Brian Cashman is to build the team’s pitching through young arms from the minor league system. Something they would have had to deviate from had they made the trade for Santana as Minnesota demanded young pitchers Philip Hughes and Ian Kennedy, two guys whom the Yankees hope will be staples in their starting rotation for years to come beginning this April. The Yankees did however lockup three members of their core, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Alex Rodriquez who were all free agents this off-season. Over the last few years the Yankees have become a team loaded with all-stars who made their names in other cities with other teams. Players who came to the Bronx to a team that was already successful and on top once they arrived, and these players didn’t have to fight and scrap for respectability. Talent always gets these Yankees by in the regular season but when it comes time to rally together and scrap in critical postseason moments they go down like they hardly know each other.
The Yankees core of offensive talent is now entering another year in which they will play alongside one another. Without the Yankees bringing in any star talent this off-season things will stay stable and give this group another year of bonding and gelling, which is essentially the component the Yankees have lacked, losing the past three seasons in the first round of the playoffs. The group of Alex Rodriquez, Bobby Abreu, Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon, and Jason Giambi have gone through a lot of heartbreak together and the focus and hunger that makes one bounce back from those types of situations is what could finally put the Yanks over the top come October.
In order for the Yankee lineup to have a chance of getting to the postseason and redeeming itself they will need a strong season from the starting pitching rotation. A rotation that enters the season with a lot of unproven potential, which means there are many questions that need to be answered. Pitching is the key to consistent winning in baseball. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman had a chance to fortify a strong rotation if he had pulled off the Santana trade. Now Cashman will be rooting as hard as anyone that his trio of well ballyhooed pitching prospects can live up to the hype and deliver big wins with the pressure on. It’s now put up or shut up time for Cashman.
Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain’ and Philip Hughes, are 23, 22, and 21 years old respectively, and will play a major role if the Yankees are to make the postseason for a 14th consecutive season. Chamberlain will come out of the bullpen to begin the season, where he was so effective over the final two months of last season, setting up for Mariano Rivera. This could be a bit of a foolish proposition for the Yankees who desperately need a legitimate shutdown ace at the top of their rotation. However Yankees brass insist Joba will be a starter in the future. The only thing really keeping Chamberlain from joining the rotation right now is soon to be 40 year old pitcher Mike Mussina is still around with $8 million dollars owed him this season so he will round out the Yankee rotation for now. Veterans Andy Pettite and Chien-Ming Wang should give the Yanks solid outings every time out, and each should win anywhere from 15 games and up as long as they stay healthy.
The X-factor for the rotation and maybe the entire Yankees season could rest on the arms of Hughes and Kennedy. Last spring training, before Philip Hughes had thrown a single major league pitch he was being labeled the best pitching prospect in baseball. Ian Kennedy was the Yankees first round draft pick out of USC the summer before. This season they are being thrown right into the mix and with an aging Mussina who is bound to fall apart at some point in the season Kennedy and or Hughes have to pitch better than rookies if the Yankees are going to avoid a disastrous season in the first go around without Joe Torre. That situation is not far fetched considering the Yankees nearly had a disastrous season a year ago.
In 2008 the Yankees offensive should be great as always. The pitching staff will be a big story to follow the entire season. Look for the Yankees and Boston Red Sox to have themselves another fierce battle for the pennant this summer. When the last out is made in game 162 the Yankees will be the winners of the American League east division. But then it will come down to those few important games in the postseason when the weather gets cold but the competitive heat rises a couple dials. That’s when we will see what this Yankee team is made of. The Yankee pitching won’t be dominant but it never is. Neither is the other teams pitching for that matter. It just looks that way because the Yankee bats have disappeared in postseason play the last few years. So this season enjoy all the homeruns and blowout games from the Bronx bombers, but none of it will matter until October and the playoffs come around. Then we will see if the Yankees are able to continue to roll over teams or if their bats will repeat their performance of the past few years and just roll over.