Yankees win! The Yankees ... win?

Wednesday, March 31 2010 @ 07:30 AM EDT

Contributed by: Mick Doherty

Let's be clear. The Yankees are going to win a lot of baseball games this year. Why? Because the Yankees always win a lot of games, whether they're winning the World Series (as they did last year and have done five times since 1996) or even when they're not making the playoffs (as they didn't in 2008, for the first time since 1993 -- years in which they won 89 and 88 games, respectively).

So they'll win a lot of games. Will they win the franchise's 28th (twenty-eighth!) ring? Let's examine the makeup of Bronx Zoo '10 from a slightly different historical angle ...

If you're familiar with the wonderment of BaseballReference.com -- and if you aren't, any baseball fan really needs to be! -- you are probably aware that the site provides a statistically-analyzed list of each player's "Most Similar" players, for career, by career at the conclusion of each season by player age, and most interesting for our purposes, for active players, "Similar Batters through [Last Season's Age]." Defense does NOT play a role in these similarity scores, though somehow, most players' "Most Similars" play the same or similar positions. Kudos to Sean Forman, Genius Tsar of BBRef, for developing this reference base.

What it allows us to do is to see how the Most Similar Player to each person on a team's lineup has been, historically -- then we can look up how they did the very next season. It's not a defensible scientific method, to be sure, but it's kinda fun and cool, and gives us a new way to talk about baseball's most talked-about team, the defending World Champion New York Yankees.

For our purposes -- and you will see when exceptions arise -- we are going to limit our listing of "Most Similars" to players who primarily manned the same position. For example, Alex Rodriguez's Most Similar player, surely to nobody's surprise, is Henry Aaron. But Hank was an outfielder, occasional first baseman and designated hitter, so we will move down the list presented by BBRef to find a third baseman ... well, you'll see. On with the show!

Each player is listed below by his projected position in 2010, his 2009 season age, and the player (at the same position) listed as his Most Similar by BBRef. Bauxites ... meet your Alternate Universe 2010 New York Yankees!

C Jorge Posada -- 37 -- Carlton Fisk
After the age of 37, and on his way to the Hall of Fame, Carlton Fisk caught an additional seven and a half full seasons in the big leagues. Jorge Posada isn't going to don the tools of ignorance until the age of 45, but he's probably also going to avoid the ignominy of Fisk's Age-38 season, which saw the harebrained management of the ChiSox trying to split him between catching and playing left field. Fisk fell to .221 that year with just 14 homers, though he bounced back to have five excellent seasons after the White Sox abandoned the Fisk-in-LF experiment the next year. Fisk, ever the stoic, summed the experience on a return to Boston by saying, "It seemed strange to turn my back on The Wall."

As long as Brett Gardner can hold down the fort in left field in 2010, presumably there will be no Posada-to-LF foolishness in the Bronx and Jorge can continue building what is (right now) a viable-but-shaky case to someday join Fisk in Cooperstown.
1B Mark Teixeira -- 29 -- Carlos Delgado
Blue Jay fans everywhere will remember this guy; the first baseman who shares a career path (thus far) with Mark Teixeira is none other than Toronto's own Carlos Delgado. If the similarities continue, Big Tex will self-destruct just short of a major home run milestone around 2018, but that has no relevance to the coming season. At the age of 30 in 2001, Delgado saw a huge falloff from the previous season, as his batting average fell 65 points and his production fell by 30 RBI. Still, the Big Blue Monster hit .279/39/102 in '01, and the Yankees would take that from 2010 Teixeira right now.  (But, psst, they are secretly hoping he is WAY better than that, more along the lines of .330/50/140 plus a Gold Glove. All this is also possible.)

2B Robinson Cano -- 26 -- Carlos Baerga
Remember Carlos Baerga? There was a time when the power-hitting Indians middle infielder seemed destined for Cooperstown enshrinement. At the age of 27, Baerga started his steep and quick decline off the productivity cliff, and was in fact traded mid-season by the Indians to the Mets for another second baseman who might actually end up in the Hall of Fame, Jeff Kent. That year, Baerga played 126 games between the two teams and hit just .254 with 12 homers and 66 RBI. (He collapsed to .193/2/11 in 26 games with the Mets after the deal.) Obviously, the Yankees prefer Cano stay off the Baerga Highway, but if they can turn him into a future version of Jeff Kent, now is apparently the time.

Derek Jeter -- 35 -- Alan Trammell
Over at shortstop, the list of the Captain's Most Similar players through Age 35 is stuffed with Hall of Famers and HOFers-to-be -- Frankie Frisch, Charlie Gehringer, Robbie Alomar, Craig Biggio. Alas, these are all primarily second baseman, so we scan down the list to find a shortstop and land on -- well, he should be a Hall of Famer -- Alan Trammell. In his Age-35 season, Trammell actually didn't play much shorstop (63 games) while also dabbling at third base, but he did produce a 112-game season batting average of .329 with 12 homers, 60 RBI and 12 steals. The Yankees received pretty much that sort of production pro-rated over 162 from Jeter last year (.334/18/66, 30 SB). As for the Age-36 season that Jeter enters this year? Trammell fell to .267, eight homers and three steals (in an admittedly strike-shortened 1994). Any Jeter fall-off like that probably means the Yankees are in deep trouble. The smart money bets against it, though.

3B Alex Rodriguez -- 33 -- Eddie Mathews (?)
As noted earlier, here's one of the few problems with the BaseballReference.com Most Similar tool -- when you start comparing the greatest players who ever lived, there just aren't too many who were very similar! Alex Rodriguez's "Most Similar players" through age 33 -- and remember, this is a guy who has spent his career on the left side of the infield -- are guys named Aaron, Ott (who played some 3B but was solidly an OF by 33), Foxx (who also dabbled at 3B, but not much after his early 20s), Frank Robinson, Mantle and Griffey.

You have to go to #7 on A-Rod's list to find Eddie Mathews, who with Mike Schmidt ranks as the greatest power-hitting historical third baseman of all time. In his Age-34 season, still a Brave (though now in the team's first season in Atlanta), Mathews had the then-worst season of his career at .236/16/57. After brief flies through Houston and Detroit (where he collected a 1968 World Series ring), Mathews was done as an active player. And there's the problem -- A-Rod is unlikely to ever return to the 54-homer heights he reached in 2007, but he is not (yet) in the steep decline phase of his career as Mathews was at the same age.

LF Brett Gardner -- 25 -- None Listed
And here's the OTHER problem with BBRef's Most Similar lists ... sometimes the younger players don't have any listed! You'd think two years and 425 plate appearances would net Brett Gardner some comparables, but apparently not. With Hideki Matsui now off in California, Gardner looks to at least match his career 162-game average of .256/3/42 with 42 steals, and given regular playing time, the Yankees are hoping for much more than that.

CF Curtis Granderson -- 28 -- Bobby Higginson
As has been noted here previously, playing centerfield for the New York Yankees is akin to playing quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys or center for the Los Angeles Lakers -- there's a lot of history to live up to. Curtis Granderson hit just .249 in Detroit last year, though he added 30 homers and 20 steals. So is he the next Combs/DiMaggio/Mantle? Well ... no. Then how about the next Murcer/Williams? Okay, that's closer.

The Yankees would be happy to watch CG establish himself in the mold of Matsui and Johnny Damon, who has now swapped places with Granderson to patrol the Tiger Stadium outfield. Speaking of Tigers, Granderson's two Most-Similar players through Age 28 are Bobby Higginson and Kirk Gibson, with the former just a snoodge more comparable than the latter. At age 29, Higgy hit .300 for the Tigers, with 30 homers and 102 RBI, not to mention 15 steals, clearly the best season of his 11-year career. Granderson needs to match or surpass those numbers to fill the Yankee CF chasm -- oh, and then wash, rinse, repeat for another five-to-eight seasons!

RF Nick Swisher -- 28 -- Greg Vaughn
If Nick Swisher truly follows the Greg Vaughn career path, he's due to hit 95 homers over the two-year span 2014-15 and to end up with more than 350 career dingers. While that'd be nice for Swisher and whatever team he's with by then, the 29-year-old Vaughn was still a full year away from his first 40-homer campaign and managed to straggle together a season of .224/17/59 for the Brewers. If Swisher does that in 2010, Randy Winn is going to see a lot of playing time in New Yankee Stadium's outfield.

DH Nick Johnson -- 30 -- Rico Brogna
In 2001, the 31-year-old Brogna spent his final year in the big leagues batting just .248 with nominal power for the Braves. He was a bit of an enigma, as from 1997-99 (ages 27-29), he hit at least 20 home runs each season for the Phillies. But he collapsed with the Red Sox at age 30 and never played again after 2001. One of the other "Most Similar through age 30" players for the questionably-nicknamed "Nick the Stick" is Lyle Overbay, so that should give you a pretty good idea what direction the Yankees are heading with their designated hitter. If Johnson repeats last season's Washington/Florida numbers (.291/8/62, .426 OBP), the Yankees should be pleased; if he approaches any of his career-best 2006 numbers with Washington (.290/23/77, .428 OBP), they should invest heavily in lottery tickets.

C Francisco Cervelli -- NONE LISTED
IF Ramiro Pena -- NONE LISTED
OF Randy Winn -- 35 -- Darin Erstad

Honestly, the Yankee bench isn't terribly important. The fact is, the position players on the bench are likely to number three or four, with the reality of a 21st century 13-man pitching staff bumping at least one, and what used to be three or four, additional bodies from bench to bullpen.

That said, the Yankee bench isn't all that impressive, either. Oh, there's Randy Winn, and as noted above, he could see a fair amount of time in the Bronx outfield, b ut don't be fooled by that Darin Erstad comparable. At the age of 35, Erstad was no longer the all-world do-everything Nebraska-punter-turned-All-Star-outfielder he was as an Angel; he was hitting .194 in limited at-bats with the Astros just last year, in 2009. (Interesting side note: Winn's #2 Most Comparable is Ken Griffey Sr., who spent his own age-36 season hitting .303 with the Yankees and .306 for the Braves.)

Joining Winn riding the pine, neither Cervelli nor Pena have been around enough to draw even an Erstadian comparable. As backup catcher behind an aging Posada, Cervelli, who just turned 24, needs to produce at a clip similar to what he did in 2009 (.298) in potentially a much larger role (last year he had just 98 AB). Pena played all three infield positions for the Yankees in 2009, and hit a respectable .287 in just 121 at-bats, so like Cervelli, he needs to be ready to do as well in perhaps a larger role.

Oh, you know what? That's not true. If Posada gets hurt or Gardner doesn't hit or Cano collapses, or anything like that, Hank will open up the checkbook, package up whatever's left in Columbus, and buy a suitable veteran replacement. And if/when he does so, all of you Yankee eye-rollers out there, just remember -- daddy George tried to do the same thing in the 1980s. And how'd that work out?

C.C. Sabathia -- 28 -- Dave McNally
At age 29, McNally, coming off four straight 20+-win seasons, fell to 13-17, though with a nice 2.95 ERA in 241 IP; he had a few more middling seasons with Baltimore, then centerpieced a trade to the Expos which cost Montreal both Ken Singleton and Mike Torrez. A half season and three wins later, McNally was out of baseball.

A.J. Burnett -- 32 -- Juan Guzman
Jay fans surely remember both these guys, but let's focus on Guzman, who three years into his career stood 40-11 and looked like he was paving the pathway to Coooperstown. By age 32, Guzman was out of Toronto, piecing together a 1999 season that bore an 11-12 mark for Baltimore (5-9) and Cincinnati (6-3). He was out of baseball after a cameo with Tampa Bay in 2000.

Andy Pettitte -- 37 -- Mike Mussina
So the #2 comparison features two ex-Jays; the #3 slot has two old Yankee warhorses, and former teammates, to boot.  At age 37, Moose was 15-7 with a 3.51 ERA in just a hair under 200 IP. The Yankees would love to see that line from the 2010 Pettitte.

Javier Vazquez -- 33 -- Brad Radke
JV returns to the scene of his extraordinarily inconsistent 2004 (14-10, 4.91, 0 CG) after having his very best season as a Brave in 2009 (15-10, 2.87). At the age of 34, Radke, um ... Radke had retired, after an Age-33 season which saw him rack up double-digit wins on the year for the tenth time in his 12-year career. (He won nine each of the other two seasons.)

Philip Hughes -- 23 -- NONE LISTED
The long-touted Next Great Yankee Hurler (or is that Chamberlain?) hasn't been around long enough to compile any Most Similars. But last year's 8-3 mark and 3.03 ERA over 44 relief stints and seven starts (86 IP, good for 96 K and a 142 ERA+) -- well, you have to admit, that projects pretty well for a fifth starter. Don't be surprised to see Hughes widely considered the team's #2 starter (behind Sabathia) by season's end.

So overall, that alternate-universe rotation's "next" (for our purpsoes, 2010) season compiled a 39-36 W-L mark, but two of the alternates, Radke who retired and Hughes' who is not listed, were 0-0. If you add in Radke's (12-9) and Hughes' (8-3) most recent totals (yay, more sketchy math!), you have a projected 2010 Yankee rotation that finishes 59-48. As solid as that might be, those numbers would NOT make Hank Steinbrenner a happy man.

CL Mariano Rivera --  39 -- Trevor Hoffman
Joba Chamberlain -- 23 -- Mike Fornieles
Damaso Marte -- 34 -- Rob Murphy
Sergio Mitre -- 28 -- Salomon Torres
Boone Logan -- 24 -- Ron Moeller
Alfredo Aceves -- 26 -- Chad Qualls
David Robertson -- NONE LISTED
Chan Ho Park -- 36 -- Hideo Nomo

As for the bullpen, all questions start and end with the fact that Mariano Rivera is 40 this year, and he has to wear down, at least a little, eventually, right? Right?

Well, maybe. Of course, his Most Similar is Trevor Hoffman, who's still slinging it for the Brewers, but the age-40 Hoffman, then still a Padre, rang up just 30 of his (so far) record 591 career saves and had a worst-since-his-rookie-year seasonal ERA of 3.77. Neither of those numbers would have the 2010 Yankees particularly thrilled, but when you consider that Rivera's ERA in 2009 was just 1.76 -- in fact, adding together his last two full-season ERAs still just gets you to 3.16! -- the Yankees are probably not too concerned.

If Rivera did somehow implode -- cats and dogs, living together! -- then, well, Closer of the Future, thy name is Joba. Forget about the noise the Yankee brass is making publicly right now about how undetermined Chamberlain's future role is. It's Lyle, Gossage, Righetti, Farr, Rivera ... and Chamberlain.

If you've never heard of Mike Fornieles, Joba's Most Similar through 23, well, that's because relievers and swing men in the 1950s and 1960s weren't particularly well-known. Fornieles' age-24 season was a bit of a downer as the White Sox traded him to the Orioles, who proceeded to shuttle him between the rotation and the bullpen, something the Yankees will NOT do with Joba. Later in his career, Fornieles finished in the top 5 in the AL in saves with the Red Sox three straight seasons, 1959-61 and led the league in 1960. Now THAT sounds more like a preview of Future Joba!

The rest of the bullpen story is sketchier ... the 35-year-old Rob Murphy was in his last big league season and hung up a 9.82 ERA -- Marte HAS to be better than that, right? ... The 29-year-old Salomon Torres was in the middle of a five-year hiatus from the major leagues that didn't end until he came back with the 2002 Pirates for the final seven of his 12 big league seasons, so if Mitre gets one out this season, he outperforms his "Most Similar" ... Moeller threw his final big-league pitch at age 24, so there is nobody for the age-25 Logan to aspire to ...

See, told you this was sketchy! ... Like others mentioned previously, David Robertson hasn't pitched enough to even earn a "Most Similar" ... At least Alfredo Aceves calls up the still-active Chad Qualls, who last season became Arizona's closer, but in his age-27 year rang up a 7-3 mark in 81 (eighty-one!) relief appearances with the '06 Astros. Aceves isn't likely to pitch in half of the Yankees' games, but at least Qualls paves the way ...

Wait, there's one more! For reasons known only to Hank and God, the Yankees signed the combustible remains of Chan Ho Park to fill out the back of the bullpen and emergency starter role. He was actually okay with the Phillies last year, but the Rangers and Padres are still trying to put out the fires he started from 2002-06. I just thought it was cool that BBRef tagged countryman Hideo Nomo as Park's most similar through age 36. For the record, Nomo did not appear in the major leagues at the age of 37. Something for the Yankees to think about? ...

So what does all this mean?
Oh, who knows?

Okay, seriously ... a few off-the-cuff predictions and projections for your 2010 New York Yankees ...