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Monday, April 6, 2009

Will the Yankees Need Team Chemistry This Season?

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Free agents C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Texeira cashed in with the Yankees, but the Bronx Bombers' spending spree did not buy one critical element to a team's success: Chemistry. Can the Yankees put talent before team chemistry and return to their World Series glories of the late '90s?

Let's state the obvious: No team can match the Yankees' own version of murderer's row, especially when Alex Rodriguez returns from his hip injury later this spring. On paper, it doesn't seem like any pitching rotation can hold the Yanks down for long.

Sabathia, Burnett, Chien-Mang Wang, Andy Pettitte, and Joba Chamberlain also comprise a strong rotation - but again, the rotation's strength is on paper at this point

Let's break down the Yankees' vaunted pitching rotation and bullpen:

Sabathia, an AL Cy Young winner in 2007, had a rollercoaster AL 2008 stint before Milwaukee acquired his services from Cleveland. No question, Sabathia was phenomenal in the National League; however, he was pitching against lesser hitting talent. He has a career ERA of 3.66 and has never finished with a seasonal ERA lower than a 3.21 pitching in the American League. Sabathia is a winner - he has better than a .600 winning percentage - but will he go the way of other recent high-priced Yankees pitching acquisitions? Remember Randy Johnson, Carl Pavano, Kevin Brown, and Javier Vasquez to name four?

Burnett has dominant stuff, no one argues that point. He led the American League in strikeouts, yet his ERA was still over 4.00. For every two or three good starts, expect a clunker out of Burnett. His command will come and go, and based on his history - outside of last season - Burnett is a good bet to hit the disabled list at some point in 2009.

Wang is apt to become the most consistent pitcher on the Yankees' staff. He had back-to-back 19-game winning seasons in 2006 and 2007, and was on pace to win 20 games last year before a foot injury saw him miss more than half the season. He's not a strikeout pitcher, but he keeps the ball in the park and keeps the Yankees in games with a devastating sinker.

Pettitte was something of a mystery, and his disintegration in the latter part of 2008 had many thinking he was done in the big leagues. We all known that starting left-handers are a commodity, and Pettitte is still good enough to remain the fourth starter on most teams' pitching staffs. He signed a one-year deal laced with incentives, and a 15-win season is not out of the question.

Chamberlain was a phenom as a set-up guy for closer Mariano Rivera. So far, the jury is still out on Joba as a starter. He wore down last season and was bothered by nagging injuries. His velocity is down a couple MPH from the 98 and 99 MPH he was hitting two years ago, and perhaps the American League is starting to figure him out. Nonetheless, if Chamberlain remains healthy, no team in the Major League can run out a fifth starter of his caliber.

Rivera has enjoyed more success closing games than any pitcher in baseball over the last decade. He's a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer once he hangs up the cleats, yet he is moving toward the twilight of his career, and is coming off shoulder surgery. Expect the same Mariano magic, although the cast of characters punching the clock in the seventh and eighth innings really hold the key.

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Brian Bruney is set to become Rivera's prime right-handed set-up man. Bruney missed much of last year with an injury, but was terrific in limited duty finishing with a 1.83 ERA in 32 appearances. In his only full season with the Yankees, Bruney had a 4.68 ERA in 2007, and he struggled with his control. Yankees fans hope he replicates his 2008 performance.

Damaso Marte came over from Pittsburgh late last season, and he'll share set-up duties, while also appearing situationally against tough left-handed hitters. Jose Veras proved a durable middle innings reliever, and Phil Coke is a young power pitcher with electric stuff. He just needs more seasoning at the big-league level.

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Bottom line: The Yankees will score runs, and have captain Derek Jeter leading a talented roster. Texeira and A-Rod are 30-homer guys, Xavier Nady and Hideki Matsui are solid complimentary guys who should approach 100 RBI, Robinson Cano should rebound from last season and hit well over .300. Johnny Damon will steal bases and score runs, and catcher Jorge Posada looks fully recovered from last year's injury.

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Roger Clemens is one of the few pitchers signed as a free agent over the past decade-plus whose contributions directly led to a title. History suggests that Sabathia and Burnett will not earn the coin each is getting paid this season, and if history repeats itself, the Yankees' World Series drought will continue.