In a town like New York, where ticket prices are high, media coverage is unparalleled and fans are expecting wins, the pro baseball teams here are always in win-now mode. This is a baseball city. The Knicks can rebuild as they’ve done, puck fans have been patient with the Islanders and Rangers, and the Giants and Jets have had their comeuppance already. For six long months, though, the Yankees and Mets rule the back pages of the paper whether they’re soaring or scuffling.
Their following doesn’t begin in April and end in September or October though. It’s a year-round love affair for many. This season, there are innumerable question marks surrounding both squads as Opening Day arrives. Here’s a look at some of the storylines to follow as the first pitch is delivered.
Yankees: The Offense
In history, more often than not, the Yankee batting order has been the league’s most feared unit. Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Berra, Mantle, Munson, they’re all icons who are part of Pinstripe lore. This season—with the possible exception of Boston’s lineup—that remains the case. In 2010, the Bombers scored a league-best 859 runs—more than second-place Boston (818) as well as the NL-leading Reds (790).
There are no givens when pitchers navigate their way through the Yankee order. Robinson Cano emerged as one of the game’s top weapons, hitting .319 with 29 homers and 109 RBI, while Mark Teixeira overcame a horrendous spring slump to belt 33 homers and drive in 108. Alex Rodriguez hit 30 home runs and Nick Swisher (29) and Curtis Granderson (24) also exhibited their power.
The focus is on the Yankee veterans—A-Rod, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada—but there’s plenty more production elsewhere that run scoring won’t be an issue.
Mets: The Nucleus
On sheer talent, Jose Reyes and David Wright make up one of the most formidable offensive duos in baseball. Like them or not, almost any team in baseball—perhaps even the one in the Bronx—would trade their left side of the infield for them.
A bulked-up Wright hit .283 with 29 homers and 103 RBI in 2010, and Reyes is a catalyst few squads in the sport can match, having stolen 30 bags while hitting .282, right around his career average. Best of all, they’re just entering their primes; the two seem to have been around forever, but Wright is just 28 and Reyes turns 28 in June.
In his rookie year last year, Ike Davis showed he’s a potential star in the making, belting 19 homers that were second on the team only to Wright’s total, and Angel Pagan is coming off a career year in which he batted .290, hit 11 homers and drove in 69. If Carlos Beltran can return to the form he showed in his early Met years and Jason Bay finds the pop in his bat that New York sorely missed last year (just 6 HRs in 401 ABs), the Mets will score their share of runs.
Yankees: Starting Rotation
The pitching free-agent market was thin enough, but when Cliff Lee stunned everyone and signed with Philadelphia, innings eater Javier Vazquez inked a deal with Florida and Andy Pettitte retired in February, there was a huge void in the Pinstripes’ starting rotation.
C.C. Sabathia is about as good a pitcher as there is in baseball—a legitimate ace. After that, there are no certainties. A.J. Burnett hasn’t lived up to the expectations and Phil Hughes faded after 2010’s first two months. That leaves rotation spots wide open, with arms both young and old vying for the jobs.
Stocked with Mariano Rivera, new signee Rafael Soriano and others, the bullpen will be fine. Getting to the endgame is the issue. Young arms like Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances might be counted on sooner rather than later, and if gambles on veterans like Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon don’t pay off, GM Brian Cashman will likely see what farm system gems can fetch on the trade market.
Mets: Starting Rotation
With Johan Santana out until around the All-Star Break, the Mets enter this season without any certainties. Mike Pelfrey and Jonathon Niese are viable National League starters, but not as a team’s No. 1 and 2 options respectively. Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey is coming off a breakthrough season in which he registered a 2.84 ERA and won 11 games, but he’s 36 years old.
The Mets did sign two veterans—Chris Young and Chris Capuano—who have won before, but their issue has been their health. Together with the aforementioned three, the Mets are pressing their luck considering the fivesome’s inconsistency and injury history. Santana’s return will be welcome, but it may be too late to salvage the season by then.
Yankees: High-priced Veterans
The tick-tock of the clock is loud and clear. Derek Jeter turns 37 and even the most loyal Yankee fans question how much he has left. Jorge Posada will be 40 in August and is coming off a campaign in which he posted his lowest batting average, home runs and RBI in a full season since 1999. Even Alex Rodriguez, who’s coming off a 125-RBI year, is 35. On the mound, Rivera may not overtly show his age, but the grey hairs are there to confirm his mortality.
The four of them, all 35 and older, combine to make $75 million this season. That figure includes A-Rod’s cool $32M in a contract that runs until 2017. By contrast, the Rangers, who ousted the Yankees from last year’s playoffs, had an Opening Day payroll of approximately $55 million.
Age and salary aside, the window is open wide enough for these Bombers to win title number 28. The torch is in the process of being passed to Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira and C.C. Sabathia. The likes of Jeter, Posada, A-Rod and Mo are still significant pieces, particularly the latter two. The Yankees have the luxury of having younger stars on which they can rely, and they will heavily.
Mets: Bernie Madoff Fallout
The Wilpons announced they were searching for someone to purchase 25 percent ownership of the team. It was later revealed the Mets borrowed $25 million from Major League Baseball. The Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme affected the Mets in a big way and their need to save money to make ends meet is evident.
If they aren’t in contention by July, Amazin’ fans might very well see some new faces after the trade deadline for the cash-strapped Mets. The contracts for Reyes, Beltran and closer Francisco Rodriguez are up after the year. Even Wright, signed through 2012 with a club option for 2013, isn’t likely to be off-limits if the right offer pops up.
Yankees: AL Wild Card
Somehow, some way, they’ll find a way to make the playoffs. They usually do, even if it takes shelling out more money than they already have and Boston winning the division title. Cano, Teixeira and Granderson are due for monster seasons, and Sabathia will shoulder the load once again. Naysayers can naysay, but any Yankee demise is greatly exaggerated.
Mets: .500 At Best
These Mets aren’t ready to challenge for the division, not with the Philadelphia Phillies the odds-on favorite to win the National League and their ace, Johan Santana, out until the All-Star break. It’s been four disappointing seasons since the 2006 National League Championship Series ended with a called strike three to Carlos Beltran, and a playoff berth this year would surprise most analysts.
Fear not, Yankee and Met fans. Help is on the way. Let’s take a look at the teams’ prospect pool because, while ardent supporters may not know these guys now, they’ll be introducing—or in some cases re-introducing—themselves to the masses soon.
Manny Banuelos, LHP
Lighting up the radar gun with a mid-90s fastball, the 5-foot-10, 155-pound Banuelos was lights out in the minors, striking out 85 hitters in 64 2/3 innings, ending his year at Double-A Trenton. In addition to a good change-up and effective curve, GM Brian Cashman likened his mound presence to Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, high praise considering what he meant to the 90’s championship teams.
Dellin Betances, RHP
He’s the opposite of Banuelos in terms of stature, boasting a massive 6-8, 215-pound frame. Very much like his fellow farmhand, the Brooklyn native’s been dynamite in the minors, going 8-1 with a 2.11 ERA in Single-A Tampa and Trenton, striking out 108 in 85 1/3 innings. Betances runs his fastball up to the mid- to upper-90s.
Jesus Montero, C
Very simply, he’s the next homegrown star and perhaps the best catching prospect in all of baseball. He’ll hit for average and for power at the big-league level. Montero batted .289 with 21 homers and 75 RBI at Scranton-Wilkes Barre last year. With Posada aging and Francisco Cervelli nursing a fractured left foot, he’ll be in the Bronx soon and for a long time.
Gary Sanchez, C
Sanchez is another potential superstar, exhibiting above-average contact and power even at age 18. He won’t be 19 until December. He played the latter end of last year with Low-A Staten Island, and he batted .329 with eight homers and 43 RBI for the season. However, with Montero young and able, Sanchez and fellow catcher Austin Romine might be trade chips that the Yankees use to shore up their starting pitching.
Four More to Watch: RHP Andrew Brackman, IF Eduardo Nunez, 3B Brandon Laird, C Austin Romine
Wilmer Flores, SS
At 16, he was playing for the Cyclones, and last year, at just 18, Flores batted .289 with 36 doubles, 11 homers and 84 RBI between Low-A Savannah and High-A St. Lucie. How the 6-foot-3, 175-pound phenom continues to develop this summer might influence whether the Mets re-sign Reyes this off-season, or even deal him if they’re out of the race in July.
Fernando Martinez, OF
Remember him? Fans have been awaiting F-Mart to “arrive” for some time. Still, even if injuries and struggles against lefty pitching have slowed his ascent, he’s just 22. Martinez provides good pop from the left side, having batted .253 with 12 homers and 33 RBI in half a season at Triple-A Buffalo. It won’t be long before F-Mart’s back; there’s no rush.
Jenrry Mejia, RHP
Mets fans are no stranger to Mejia, who pitched out of the big-league pen in the spring before being sent down to stretch out his arm. He posted a sub-2 ERA in eight minor-league starts before returning to Citi Field. With Santana out, impatient Mets fans may want his mid-90s fastball in Flushing pronto, like they did with Ike Davis when the offense struggled last spring.
Cesar Puello, OF
Think Carlos Gomez with a higher batting average. That’s the word on Puello, who turns 20 on Opening Day. Puello hit .292 and stole 45 bags at Low-A Savannah. With his speed, he’ll also cover ground in the outfield and he’s exhibited an above-average throwing arm.
Four More to Watch: RHP Jeurys Familia, RHP Matt Harvey, OF Kirk Nieuwenhuis, SS Ruben Tejada