Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Quest Begins Anew

The toughest thing in sports just may be to repeat a championship.

The last time it happened in baseball, the 1998-2000 Yankees. Before that? The 1992-93 Blue Jays. And before that? The 1977-78 Yankees.

That's because unless you're the UConn women's basketball team, you not only have to be very good, you also have to catch enough breaks and avoid injury. In other words: You need to be a little bit lucky.

You also need to avoid that plague known as complacency.

So can the Yankees repeat in 2010?

Count on it.

There is a reason the Yankees have won 27 World Championships in their illustrious history: They expect to win -- every year. And a title doesn't change that expectation. Not for the Steinbrenner family. Not for Brian Cashman. Not for Joe Girardi. And certainly not for Derek Jeter and the rest of the players.

The Yankees enter this season younger, more athletic, deeper and with fewer questions than they had at any point last season, including Game 6 of the World Series.

Cashman, while staying off a weak free agent market, nonetheless had a very busy winter reconstructing and improving the roster.

Gone as free agents are Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, who played key roles in winning last season's titles, but whose age and injury troubles were starting to make them liabilities.

Could Damon and and Matsui have helped this year? If they stayed healthy, yes. But that's a big if. And in the long run, its the right move. There's an axiom in baseball that it's better to get rid of a player a year too early, than a year too late. This was the right time to move on.

To replace them, the Cashman brought in Curtis Granderson and Nick Johnson, two players who will come close to replacing Damon's and Matsui's offense, while Granderson will significantly upgrade the outfield defense. No longer do we have to be concerned about Damon's pop-gun arm and declining ability to chase down fly balls.

And even though the Yankees will be starting light-hitting Brett Gardner in left, they have more than enough firepower to cover for that deficiency. Remember, the Yankees actually won a championship with Chad Curtis in left.

Cashman also found some much needed depth for the starting rotation. Throughout the playoffs, the Yankees went with three starters, CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte, and survived, thanks in part to an ALCS schedule that provided an extra day off between Games 4 and 5 and weather that threatened to rain out several games, but held off.

The reality is Girardi had no choice. Joba Chamberlain was never going to available to start in the playoffs, no matter how foolishly the Yankees tried. And the Yankees didn't give Chad Gaudin consistent enough work to make him a viable starting option.

But the Yankees shouldn't have to worry about that now. Cashman gave up Melky Cabera -- a solid and clutch contributor -- to bring in Javier Vazquez, who has pitched more than 200 innings in nine of the last 10 season, falling just short in his previous stint with the Yankees in 1994, when a sore pitching arm hampered him in the second half and playoffs.

Dave and other Sox fans can point to Vazquez's 2-7 career record with a 4.23 ERA against the Sox and snicker, but if last year taught us anything, it's not to get too hung up on past performance.

Remember, Sabathia couldn't beat the Sox or win in the postseason. Burnett also was supposed to be a Red Sox killer. Neither was the case last season.

Vazquez gives the Yankees another veteran arm and strikeout pitcher, who will give the team a strong chance to win every fifth day against every opponent.

Meanwhile, the Yankees' biggest weakness at the start of last season has become one of its biggest strengths. The bullpen is deep, defined and balanced with Mariano Rivera, of course, anchoring the closer role and Joba Chamberlain set to reprise the eighth-inning role that made him a rock star when he burst onto the scene in 2007. In addition, David Robertson has become a reliable and versatile middle reliever with Alfredo Aceves a weapon as a long reliever. Damaso Marte showed what he can as the left-handed specialist during the playoffs.

That leaves the Yankees with just two questions: Can they avoid injuries and will they catch enough breaks?

The reality is every team -- no matter how young the roster -- faces those questions and no one can answer them. The season just has to play out.

But we know this, the Yankees' rivals have many more questions to answer this season. Unlike the Yankees, the Red Sox have to be wondering if they have enough offense and power after an offseason devoted to improving their pitching and defense, while allowing arguably their best power hitter in Jason Bay to leave via free agency.

And the Rays, while young, athletic, talented and hungry after missing out on the playoffs last season, still have questions to answer about their bullpen, albeit improved, and a rotation that lacks a proven ace.

So as we sit here at the start of a new season, I predict the Yankees will once again win the AL East and capture World Championship No. 28. And really? Is that any sort of a surprise? I think not.

Here's the surprise, the Rays will win the wild card and reach the ALCS (I picked the Sox to take the wild card last year). The Red Sox's lack of power will prove too be a bigger problem than Theo Epstein, Terry Francona and Co. are expecting. And any deadline deal will prove to be too little, too late.

Now let's play ball.

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