AL East: Yankees tilt lineup to the left side
TAMPA, Fla. – In the first game after last year’s All-Star break, Curtis Granderson(notes) soaked up the splendor of the new Yankee Stadium, the New York Yankees’ $1.5 billion homage to all things gluttonous. When he finished marveling, Granderson did what everyone else who steps foot in the place seems to: hit a home run.
Perhaps Season 2 of the stadium will bury the notion that the Yankees built themselves a bandbox, though their offseason tinkering seemed to reinforce their preference for left-handed hitters who can attack the short right-field fence. Granderson popped a 2-0 fastball from A.J. Burnett(notes) over it last year, and now that he’s wearing a Yankees uniform following an offseason trade with Detroit, he’s expected to acquaint himself even more often with the Bleacher Bums, no matter how much he downplays it.
“It was just like any other ballpark,” Granderson said. “I didn’t notice the wind blowing in or out. There wasn’t anything drastically different.”
Actually, there was. With 237 home runs last year, Yankee Stadium gave up the 18th-most home runs in history. While the scorching pace of 3½ per game settled down in the second half and hitters finished 66 homers shy of the record set at Coors Field in 1999, the Yankees remained a home run-blasting juggernaut.
Every regular hit at least 13. Seven hit 22 or more. And though they lost Hideki Matsui(notes) and the greatest beneficiary of the porch, Johnny Damon(notes), to free agency, the Yankees replaced them with another pair of lefties, DH Nick Johnson(notes) and Granderson.
Seeing what the stadium did for Damon is enough to make any left-handed hitter salivate. The average home run in baseball traveled 398.8 feet last year, according to Hit Tracker. Of Damon’s 17 home runs at the stadium last year – all to right field – only two traveled longer than the average. Five went less than 360 feet.
It was the poke-and-joke show: Damon would poke what looked like a routine fly ball, and it would carry into a joke of a home run.
So imagine what Granderson, a 29-year-old with legitimate power – his 30 home runs went on average nearly 13 feet farther than Damon’s last year – can do with right field calling his name. He’s a dead-pull hitter, only three of his home runs last year not going to right or right-center field, and at least six balls that ended up in outfielders’ gloves at Detroit’s spacious Comerica Park would have been home runs at Yankee Stadium.
“It looks like I should hit more,” Granderson said. “But you still have to hit the ball. And get a good pitch to hit. You can’t take what happened the previous year and project anything. Everything has to work itself out.”
Which it pretty much did coming off the Yankees’ 27th championship. They traded for Javier Vazquez(notes) to fortify their rotation and watched Phil Hughes(notes) win the fifth spot. Their bullpen, with Joba Chamberlain(notes) now the closer-in-waiting, is strong and deeper than heading into last year. If Johnson can stay healthy, he provides a runner on base 40 percent of the time for Mark Teixeira(notes) and Alex Rodriguez(notes). And if not, 20-year-old Jesus Montero(notes), the best hitter in the minor leagues following Jason Heyward’s(notes) promotion, is primed to take over.
In an unusually quiet Yankees camp, all that’s left for manager Joe Girardi is to officially name Granderson as his center fielder ahead of Brett Gardner(notes), who will move to left field. Granderson likely will hit seventh, and if he ever learns to conquer left-handed pitchers – he hit .183 and slugged .239 against them last year – the prospect of a 40-home run hitter in the bottom third of the Yankees’ order is realistic.
“I’m not looking forward to anything statistically,” Granderson said. “I’m excited just to play there.”
So are the Bums looking to get their paws on a souvenir.
The rest of the AL East, alphabetically …
• Baltimore Orioles: The overhaul Andy MacPhail undertook since taking over as Orioles general manager looks a lot like Heidi Montag: copious work, little progress. Baltimore was poised to break out this year and nurture contending hopes in 2011. Then Brian Roberts’(notes) back went on the fritz. And Chris Tillman(notes) looked so bad in spring training it warranted a demotion. And closer Mike Gonzalez’s(notes) velocity took a precipitous dip. With Brian Matusz(notes) looking every bit the future No. 1 starter and a lineup anchored by Nick Markakis(notes) and Adam Jones(notes), all isn’t lost in Baltimore. It’s just doesn’t look quite as charming as it did a few months ago.
• Boston Red Sox: The Great Pitching and Defense Experiment of 2010 takes place in Theo Epstein’s test kitchen, Fenway Park, and the natives are skeptical. Understandably so, of course, with Boston’s 2004 and ’07 championships coming on the backs of mashing teams (949 and 867 runs, respectively) as much as big arms. If Adrian Beltre(notes) can hit like his pre-Seattle days and David Ortiz(notes) can conjure up his second-half self, Boston will score enough to back a pitching staff that goes deep in the rotation and bullpen – and satisfy a fan base that cares not how the Red Sox win, only that they do.
• Tampa Bay Rays: Blasted geography. If the Rays were in any other time zone, they would be their division favorite. Instead, they must climb a mountain in sneakers while the Yankees and Red Sox have the newest, shiniest hiking boots. Such is life in the East, where payroll disparity is such a fact of life that Bud Selig wants realignment specifically to address such issues. The Rays don’t bother thinking that way. They believe this is the best team they’ve fielded, better than the 2008 pennant winner, and if they can find someone to fill in for reliever J.P. Howell(notes), out until at least mid-May, they’ll run step for step with the moneyed. The best news: A relatively mild April schedule could keep them from the brutal start that buried them last year.
• Toronto Blue Jays: No franchise quite knows the perils of mediocrity like the Blue Jays, who, since the strike season of 1994, have finished in third place – literally, the middle of the pack – nine of 16 times. While teams in the East come to accept it as a consequence of playing in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox (and, lately, the Rays), new GM Alex Anthopoulos is trying to do what J.P. Ricciardi couldn’t. He overhauled the Blue Jays’ scouting department, got three kids for Roy Halladay(notes) and is banking on some of his young pitching talent panning out. Dustin McGowan(notes) is shut down and Marc Rzepczynski(notes) out until mid-May, so it’s not a good start, though the Blue Jays aren’t exactly banking on contending this year. Mediocrity, unfortunately, beckons again.