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Parente: Yankees need a little Boston luck in 2014

Thursday, January 30, 2014

 

The New York Yankees have a habit of treating every non-playoff season like a post-divorce midlife crisis, making impetuous decisions with their money and drastically changing their appearance, whatever it takes to convince themselves they’re not too old or out of touch with reality. The only thing missing is an awkward hairpiece.

The extra outfielders, the power-hitting catcher and the pricy Japanese ace are beautiful showroom additions in full display mode until the real test drive begins in April.

But the Yankees need more than impulse buys to compete in 2014.

They need luck, too.

The Yankees need a season where everyone comes up aces and everything they touch turns to gold, like the 2013 Red Sox, who defied long odds and lowered expectations with a motley crew of castoffs to win their third World Series title in the past 10 years.

Coming off a last-place finish in 2012, no one thought the Red Sox would amount to squat last year, not even the team’s official mouthpiece, The Boston Globe, which, in its baseball preview published in March, predicted the Red Sox would “probably not” make the playoffs, let alone win it all.

How did they do it?

Much like the Yankees have done this offseason, the Red Sox dove head-first into the free-agent pool, this time targeting the undesirable, relatively-inexpensive, dregs of the open market in lieu of the egregious spending that put them in such financial peril the previous winter. In a span of two weeks, they added catcher Mike Napoli, shortstop Stephen Drew, reliever Koji Uehara, starter Ryan Dempster, and outfielders Jonny Gomes and Shane Victorino, a reasonable bar tab of $86 million after shedding more than $100 million in payroll, and added a new manager, John Farrell, eliminating the stench of failure left behind by Bobby Valentine.

They also got incredibly lucky.

The 38-year-old Uehara, a natural setup man who pitched only 36 innings the previous year, filled in masterfully when the Red Sox lost closers Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan, saving a career-high 21 games – more than he had in his entire career entering last season – and allowing only one earned run over the final three months of the regular season.

Victorino, another player considered to be on the decline after regressing mightily in 2012, posted a career high .294 batting average with 15 home runs, 26 doubles and an .801 OPS – his best in three years – before becoming the toast of the town in October when his grand slam against the Tigers in Game 6 of the ALCS sent Boston to the World Series.

Napoli, who almost flunked his physical due to a bum hip that delayed his eventual signing by six weeks, slugged 23 home runs and drove in 92 while channeling his inner Babe Ruth with three grand slams, including a backbreaker in the Bronx in September that effectively eliminated the Yankees from playoff contention. Gomes, despite appearing in only 116 games, made his impact felt with a franchise record four pinch-hit home runs.

Thanks to the contributions from the new additions, and the resurgence of David Ortiz, who was so bad three years ago Terry Francona was pinch-hitting for him in the late innings, the offense that was supposed to struggle to score runs wound up scoring a league-best 853 with a league-high .795 OPS.

And that rotation that was supposed to be in disarray with a declining Jon Lester and the uncertainty of Jon Lackey’s surgically-repaired elbow turned out just fine as Lester bounced back from a 14-loss season with 15 wins while Lackey, despite not pitching in more than a year, posted a 3.52 ERA. Even Clay Buchholz, who had yet to prove he could be a reliable, front-line starter, enjoyed a breakthrough season, lowering his ERA from 4.56 in 2012 to a dazzling 1.74 – albeit in fewer innings due to injury – while finishing 12-1.

All the stars aligned for the 2013 Red Sox. It was the Haley's Comet of baseball seasons. Somehow, someway, everything and everyone fit, a remarkable feat no team – not even these same Red Sox – could replicate if they tried another hundred times. Players filled roles seamlessly when others got hurt, and the few stars who didn’t fall into orbit knew better than to spoil the party for everyone else.

Where do the Yankees tie in?

The slim chance of Boston duplicating 2013, coupled with the likelihood of a similar, unexpected renaissance by the Yankees, is enough to bring unbridled joy to the Bronx, unless you think Haley's Comet will strike again next year.

The same roundtable experts and talking heads who dismissed Boston's chances last season long before the team flew north for the summer are already reading the Yankees their last rites, too, with the same tired rhetoric. They're too old. They're unproven. The don't have enough depth. Their rotation has too many question-marks.

The fatal flaw in statistical analysis and preseason projections is they rely more on logic than luck, dismissing the intangles that often play a bigger role than expected. Logic would've told us Lackey wouldn't be able to bounce back from Tommy John surgey at 32. Logic would've never given Uehara a chance to play Mariano Rivera for an entire summer. The reality is if Lackey can turn back the clock six years following major elbow surgery there’s no reason a slimmer, healthier C.C. Sabathia can’t turn it back at least two years, and so on and so forth.

With no organizational depth to speak of outside of maybe two or three decent chips in Double-A Trenton, the Yankees lacked the reinforcements to sustain their hard-luck fall from grace in 2013, a precipitous drop fueled mainly by injuries and age. They’re actually older this year despite losing 40-somethings Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, but they’re healthier, too, which translates to better luck already with far less reliance on not-ready-for-primetime farmhands.

Luck is a tricky intangible to predict. The team no one thought could even make the playoffs last year might prove everyone wrong a second time this season, or perhaps the team with that dark, ominous cloud over its head might surprise the experts predicting another quiet October in the Bronx.

The Yankees needed every last dollar necessary to bring in Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Masahiro Tanaka. They had no choice. They also need whatever good karma shifted its way to Boston last year, because all the money in the world and all the shiny new toys aren’t enough to guarantee success over the course of 162 games.

Luck helps, too.

 

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