With all the nostalgia surrounding the closing of the current Yankee Stadium over the weekend, I might be one of the few fans who is looking forward to the future right now, rather than tearfully recollecting the past.
To me, the current incarnation of Yankee Stadium is but a shadow of the House that Ruth Built in 1924. The Stadium then was 295 feet from home plate down the right-field line and 350 feet to near right field, compared with 490 feet to the deep part of center. It was the Nation’s first three-tiered facility and the first on record to be called a stadium seating 58,000, though called attendance in the early days was up to 80k by some records. However, it wasn’t until renovations in 26-27 and again in 37-38 the Stadium assumed the “classic shape” it would retain for the next 35 years. The Stadium underwent additional facelifts in 66-67 and then was sold under eminent domain from Rice University to NYC in 72, which set up the reconstruction in of 73-75 with some superficial changes being made throughout the span from 38 to 73.
Despite the changes to the original park, the renovation by the City of NY in 73 relegated the old park inexistent. The stadium gave way to a coliseum-stature building that completely changed the character of the yard. Yes, it sat on the same plot of land and assumed many of the same features but the majority of the building itself was torn-down and rebuilt as opposed to the renovations that previously occurred to the structure. The laundry list of new elements included changing the dimensions of the field, a lower listed seating capacity including the complete revision of the upper deck architecture and bleacher seating, the relocation of monument park and a number of superficial changes such as the exterior look and feel.
The new stadium due to open in 2009 will contain elements of the entire history of the stadium. The exterior will be a wall circling the stadium and will resemble the pre-renovation exterior of the original Yankee Stadium while the interior will retain the same field dimensions and orientation of the current stadium and showcase the frieze, monument park and other timeless stadium classics. The design is decidedly modern in its luxuries, while the setup is more a traditional baseball stadium, and the first one the Yankees will play in that was designed as a baseball stadium first-and-foremost.
Knowing how much the 76-08 stadium differed from the original and how much the 09 model will throwback to it in tradition it is hard to not be excited about the prospect of the new park. The real question is not what the building is anyhow, it is really about what the team occupying the building does. When the Yankees opened the original stadium in 24 they were a dominate powerhouse that blasted their way to success. By the time the Yankees opened the rebuilt stadium they were a new generation powerhouse. The tradition of (re)opening Yankee Stadium with a blistering team will be a challenge for the inaugural team of the 09 stadium.
The Yankees won their last string of championships with pitching and have consistently struggled due to a lack of it. The last few seasons the entire staff was injury plagued and where there were healthy arms they lacked a balance of styles to be effective. Often either too young or too old, too inexperienced or too overworked with who did make it to the mound, there was not continuity in either the rotation or in the bullpen apart from closer Mariano Rivera. Last season the rotating rotation was a merry-go-round of starters with most of the opening day staff not pitching for the majority of the season.
The first key to the rotation will be the return of Wang. There were some control struggles for Wang this year before the injury and the question will be after the injury and the extended time off, how much of his command will return. Wang is arbitration eligible, but the tangibility of his work is in question losing the bulk of last season in the injury. The next question is the status of the veteran pairing of RHP Mike Mussina, LHP Andy Pettitte, both of whom are free agents. Pettitte’s health could be a lingering concern and how he feels in the off-season physically will play a big role in his emotional response to retiring. Mussina however proved he is reinventing himself as a pitcher and is poised to continue that transition if he so chooses to pursue his 300th win. The Yankees might be best served to allow Pettitte to retire respectfully while seeing to entice Mussina back with a multiyear incentive laden contract designed to spotlight his upcoming milestones. If Moose does retire, it potentially leaves the staff with only Wang as a veteran and two gaping holes in the middle of the rotation.
The next question in the rotation are where to slot in the youth. Hughes had his ups-and-downs making the speedy transition to the majors with injuries being his biggest hurdle. When Hughes is focused he can look brilliant but finding constancy and the mettle to work out of the tough spots will still take time as he looks for a spot filling in the back of the rotation. His performance in winter league and through spring training will probably decide his future. Despite the Yankees early interest in placing Chamberlain back into the starting rotation, he did not put together enough innings to officially make the transition to a full time starter this year. The great debate is to whether the team is better served with his lightening arm and explosive attitude to fire up the back end of the pen as a possible replacement for Rivera upon his eventual retirement or if he’s more valuable pressing toward acehood as a starter. Ultimately, whatever off-season decision the Yankees make for where to begin him, it will be dependent on things play out through the early months of the season where and how he plays. Ian Kennedy becomes the odd-man out due to his mediocre performance last season both in the majors and through his stint in the minors. Kennedy becomes even more expendable with Alfredo Aceves, Humberto Sanchez and Chace Wright waiting in the wings and probably looses the long relief / emergency starter role with Dan Geise and Darrell Rasner as the options of choice this year.
On the open market there are several big name pitchers coming up for free agency as well as a number of players talking about opting out of their contracts or requesting trades. It is a potentially large free agent pitching class, but the most coveted arms are going to be tough to land even with the Yankees big budgets. They need at least one, possibly two ace-quality guys that will balance the staff between leftie and righty, power and finesse and provide some veteran flavor for the youth that are currently out-numbering the experienced pitchers. Not coming back are Carl Pavano who should not be granted the option and allowed to hit the free-agent market as one of the Yankees worst financial investments. Likewise, it is unlikely Sydney Ponson will be invited back as he heads into free agency.
For the first time in a long time, the Yanks looked like they were putting together a decent bullpen performance. While the staff lost two hard throwers (Chamberlain to starting and Farnsworth to the Tigers) they managed to eat innings effectively and keep the team in games when the starters collapsed early. The lack of a true leftie specialist was overcome with the balance the pen eventually found and with only Dasamone Marte to consider how to pursue as an option to claim part of that role. The only other consideration is the hard throwing Bruney who finally seemed to come into his own this season, who is up for arbitration and most likely earned himself good conversation about the future. The focus will be to set the rest of the pen up in the pre-season for success.
The Yankee outfield just keeps getting more and more crowded. Last season started with four players jockeying for three positions. As it turned out, injuries and underperformance completely reshaped the outfield by the end of the season. There are so many possibilities with the OF the result could be either the same-old faces or a completely revamped and almost unrecognizable crew. The most pressing question is Bobby Abreu who is up for free agency. He’s got a strong arm in right and fields the position well, however, he’s afraid to give up the body on plays at the wall and was prone to miscommunication with Melky Cabera while Melky was in center. He is also an invaluable hitter, patient and powerful, as well as being quick around the base pads. Bringing him back provides both offensive and defensive depth, but it also means having more outfielders than the team needs. Next, late season acquisition Xavier Nady is up for arbitration. He’s a quality outfielder, who’s natural position is in right but due to Abreu played left for the Yankees. Nady is also a very patient hitter who slots in well in the middle of the lineup and provides some big pop (and more consistency than Giambi who he’d probably replace batting 5th). Should the team elect to keep both the corners of the OF will be solid, if not Nady moves to right and there could be some lineup shuffling to figure out the best place for his bat. Cabera is also up for arbitration but his worth dropped through the floor when his bat went quiet and his play in general became inconsistent. If he isn’t dealt in the off-season he could potentially return to center field if his bat finds life and they can find a place in the lineup for him since he never aspired to greatness no matter where he was inserted previously. The two wildcards in the outfield are Damon and Matsui. Either could be relegated to DH due to the strength of their hitting and used in a more utility role, assuming both stay healthy. Damon is prone to knee and back issues and Matsui is coming off his second knee surgery in two years. Finally, there’s some young talent in the wings the Yanks can slot in depending on how the rest of the field takes shape, including the speedy Bret Gardner. Gardner is the best bet situation for center due to his speed and discipline, and if he can learn to hit for percentage it’ll work with with his high OBP and basestealing abilities to lead off the lineup.
At catcher the Yanks are anticipating the return of Jorge Posada. Assuming he is recovered fully and barring any new injuries the switch hitting signal caller Posada will fill back out a lineup that sorely missed his bat. Even if he doesn’t produce huge he can still support the lineup in more was than just producing big runs. Backing him up and most likely returning will be Molina who did an excellent job managing the staff and despite not being know for his offense was adequate in the lineup picking up slack at the bottom of the order providing some of the only stability when production fell off by others in the 7-9 slots. Should Posada not be ready for the beginning of the season the Yanks will have to make some decisions on the backup role, but most likely it will not be with Ivan Rodreguez who is up for free agency. The once potent Irod struggled to find his swing all year and never seemed to meld with the Yankees staff after his late season acquisition. Backup Chad Moeller is due for arbitration and because he was productive and has experience with the staff seems leaves him open as a potential 3rd, however there are other names in the system that also are available and it could be an open-session come spring training.
The Yankees infield will remain the same at 3rd with Rodreguez, SS with Jeter and 2nd with Cano. Once again, first base is the big question mark. Despite every attempt the last few years to move Giambi away from daily 1B duties nothing ever worked out. Although some were able to provide somewhat better defense they never solidified themselves in either the position or in the lineup. Giambi’s bat may seem soft since his average has been down, but his streaky power-hitting and good eye working over pitchers made him a venerable part of the offense and he carried protecting ARod through the season while the middle of the order floundered around him. Chances are that production will land him a DH role somewhere else as the Yanks opt to move younger at the position. There are a number of free agent options available and a definite need for both tighter defense and a quality hitter with a patient mentality and high OBP. Since next year is an odd-numbered year the chances are good Rodreguez should break out of some of the funk that plagued him most of 08, but what the Yanks could really use from him is 07 MVP type numbers and to lead the team and define the lineup the way he’s being paid to. Jeter is still the silent leader on the team. He’s no longer the super-star SS he once was but is still more than serviceable in the field when he can keep his acrobatic throws to first on line. He’s no longer the threat at the plate he was either but taking the recent streakiness aside he’s still consistent and productive at the top of the lineup. The concern is with Cano, who does not seem to have improved as drastically as what was expected either at the plate or in the field. Occasionally he comes off as lackadaisical and his range sometimes seems compromised when fielding while at the plate his aggressive, free swinging approach is contrary to the typical Yankee mentality, while his power numbers are off completely as he blows through the strikezone with a mechanically challenged look at times. If he can pull together either his defense or his plate discipline he’ll return to being an asset, otherwise the Yanks may have to begin the search to find another 2B. Utility for the IF probably will be left to Juan Miranda and Cody Ransom both of which received time and found ways to produce in the lineup and the field closing out the season. The market for utlity IF players is very large again this year, so picking up the extra defense and hitting shouldn’t be a problem, while the arbritration eligible Beteimit probably will see his tenure as a Yankee end.
Regardless of how the moves play out, there is potential for the new home of the Yanks to find itself filled with a large number of new faces as well. If these changes from both inside the system and through the open-market unfold as expected the biggest concern will be the team finding the comradrary and teamwork to perform at the level Yankee fans and the Steinbrenner’s have come to know. The house that George built begins and ends first and foremost with the players on the field and if they all can learn to play together in short order and gel as a team they’ll have to not only break in the new park but break through the now topsy-turvy ALE that saw the basement dwelling Rays rise to championship level overnight and the dreaded BoSox pull down two titles in four years leading up to this rebuilding process.