For the next five weeks, I will be previewing the teams of the AL East (in no particular order), looking at what they gained, what they lost, and what their outlook appears to be for the upcoming season.  First up, the New York Yankees.

Reading Mark Teixeira’s comments the other day about the Yankees being an underdog made me think whether there is any truth to it.  While the Yankees did make the postseason for the 15th time in the last 16 seasons, won 95 games, and reached the ALCS, they do enter the 2011 season being ripped by media all over the country for not having bolstered their already formidable lineup or signed Cliff Lee to reinforce their questionable rotation.  If the Red Sox can get bounce back years out of Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka, they have to be the presumptive favorite to win the American League East.  But perhaps tales of the Yankees demise have been greatly exaggerated.  While New York is approximately the same team it was in 2010 minus Andy Pettitte, there are plenty of reasons to believe that the Yankees aren’t going to drop off the face of the Earth- they may not have taken a step forward, but they may not have taken a step back either.  With the losses by Tampa Bay in the offseason, that may be good enough to keep them in the postseason.

The Yankees lack a true #4 or #5 in their rotation, recently throwing a minor league deal at Kevin Millwood to battle it out with Sergio Mitre, Ivan Nova, Bartolo Colon, and Freddy Garcia for the spot.  I know that most of those players (Millwood, Colon) are major question marks at this stage of their career, but I think it is safe to say that Nova (who pitched very well in limited starts last season) or Garcia (who had a strong season with the White Sox last year) could equal the production the Yankees got out of Javier Vasquez, who registered a 5.32 ERA in 26 starts with the second-highest WHIP in the rotation.  Moreover, I don’t think it would be safe to simply dismiss A.J. Burnett after just one bad season, considering that it was by far the worst of his career, and that each time that he has had a less than stellar season (2000, 2003, 2008) the has bounced back.  He might not get back to his elite form, but he won’t pitch as badly this season.

The bullpen has been greatly bolstered by the addition of Rafael Soriano in the set-up role, moving Joba Chamberlain into a 7th inning pitcher and giving New York the best 8-9 pitching in all of baseball.  For a middle relief group that was mediocre at best in 2010, this is a major boost, shortening the number of innings that opposing hitters will be able to do their damage.  As one weakness appeared in the rotation, another was solved in the bullpen.

The Yankees lineup remains one of the most fearsome in the majors, even after Boston’s additions (and subtractions, but that’s another post).  I am sure that the Yankees would rather have spent their attention courting Carl Crawford rather than whiffing on Cliff Lee, given that Brett Gardner sticks out like a sore thumb in that lineup and Jason Werth would have been a major upgrade over Nick Swisher, since I do not buy into his anomaly of an offensive season last year (.288/.359/.511, 29 HR).  But even with this nearly identical lineup, New York led the American League in runs scored and on base percentage, and finished in the top three in home runs and slugging, albeit in the hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium.  If Russell Martin is able to reclaim his form from 2008 or Francisco Cervelli can build on his promising first two years in the majors, they could even take another step forward.

All-in-all the Yankees are much the same team as they were in 2010.  They lost quite a bit in their rotation but may be able to make up for it with a return to effectiveness by A.J. Burnett and the progression of Ivan Nova, 5th starter duty from Freddy Garcia (as I project it), and a more reliable bullpen with Rafael Soriano.  While the Red Sox and (dare I say it?) Orioles have improved, the Rays and Blue Jays have taken small steps backward (though you never know with the prospects the Rays trot out every year, and losing Vernon Wells might not hurt Toronto that much).  The Yankees may not win 95 games next season, and may lose a couple more here and there against the meat of the division than they did in 2010, but will likely still be in a strong position for the playoffs come September.

Next week I will take a look at the reigning AL East champions, the Tampa Bay Rays.