Last season’s Wild Card winning franchises are no strangers to success. The New York Yankees have failed to make the playoffs just once—in 2008—in the last 16 seasons. The Atlanta Braves returned to the playoffs, after missing five seasons in a row, but before that they had made the playoffs in 14 straight seasons. They differ in the amount of money they spend on their teams, with the Braves at a modest $86 million while the Yankees are paying their players a whopping $196 million.
With that said, the Yankees were not very productive this offseason. Carl Crawford and Cliff Lee were both expected to sign in the Big Apple, but neither took the big money from the Yankees. They still got fat contracts, just not from the Yankees.Lee decided against more money with the Yankees to return to Philadelphia. The Yankees developed a hole in left field when Johnny Damon left for the Detroit Tigers and speculation by pretty much everyone was that Carl Crawford would fill that void. Instead, he signed with the rival Boston Red Sox.
To say the Yankees’ offseason was a failure may be a stretch. They did re-sign aging Short Stop—and team captain—Derek Jeter, as well as closer Mariano Rivera. Both were free agents and could have been snapped up by other teams. The Yankees overpaid both players. Jeter, who is 36 and is coming off of the worst statistical season of his career, will receive an average of $17 million over 3 seasons. Just to put that money into perspective, Troy Tulowitzki of the Colorado Rockies will earn an average of $16 million over the duration of his contract, and he is coming off a season where he won a Gold Glove and hit .315 with 27 home runs and drove in 95 runs. That is 45 points better in average, 17 more home runs and 28 more RBIs than Jeter’s .270, 10 and 68. Jeter is also 10 years older than Tulowitzki and as a result his defence is quickly declining. The 41 year old Rivera will receive $30 million over the next 2 seasons. That is just under a million dollars per save he made last year (he had 33). And he will be 43 when his contract expires, well past the prime of a Major League pitcher.
The Yankees also added Rafael Soriano to their bullpen from the Rays. Soriano saved 45 games last season and has been rewarded with a 3-year, $35 million contract. Behind Rivera, Soriano will be the best paid set-up man in baseball, even better than most closers. Next season these two men will be paid a combined total of $26 million, 90% of division rival Tampa Bay Rays’ total payroll. The Yankees have paid way over market value to retain and add players this offseason. Normally it could be considered an abysmal offseason, but considering GM Brian Cashman seems to have an unending pocket book, it is hard to be too critical. The Yankees will have a bullpen that rivals any other team.
The starting rotation took a hit when Andy Pettitte decided to retire, but with Phil Hughs, CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett, they will still be strong enough. A repeat of their 95-win season isn’t out of the question. The Yankees are probably the team to beat in the AL East this season with all the roster losses the Rays suffered, but they will have their work cut out for them with every team in the division. The Wild Card is sure to once again come out of the AL East, but three teams (New York, Boston and Tampa Bay) are looking at winning the division outright, and only one can win the consolation prize of the Wild Card.
Over in the National League, the Wild Card is the Atlanta Braves’ division title as they have next to no chance of challenging the Phillies for the actual division crown. Lucky for them, no other team in the league stands out as a team to fear. All of their competition will also be competing for their own respective division crowns. To boost the Braves Wild Card chances, they acquired second baseman Dan Uggla from the Florida Marlins. He brings power to the team averaging over 30 home runs in his five-year career. He should compliment Rookie of the Year runner-up and power threat Jason Heyward. Heyward had a well balanced season, putting up a .277 average, hitting 18 home runs, driving in 72 runs and stealing 11 bases. Nothing jumps off the page at you, but a fine rookie season overall. Modest improvements this season, such as hitting .285 with 23 home runs, 80 RBIs and stealing 15 bases would be a good step to becoming the perennial all-star Braves’ fans think he can be.
Other than the addition of Uggla, the Braves have not really altered their everyday line-up. They lost Matt Diaz to free agency and utility man Omar Infante in the trade for Uggla. Their starting pitching has been relatively untouched. A regression from Tim Hudson’s 2.83 ERA can be expected, but every other pitcher in their rotation could improve. In their bullpen they have added two key men, lefty George Sherril—who pitched poorly for the LA Dodgers last season, but was effective for the Dodgers and Orioles the 2 seasons before that—and Scott Linebrink from the Chicago White Sox. Linebrink has pitched okay in Chicago, but hasn’t been great since being in the National League. Perhaps a return to the NL will once again give him an ERA under 4.
The biggest loss to the Braves may be longtime manager Bobby Cox. Cox retired after the Braves were eliminated from the playoffs last season. Cox won his division 14 times with the Braves and the Wild Card last season. He ended his final season with a return to the playoffs and 91 wins. The Braves should be able to repeat duplicate that in 2011, and that should also be good enough once again for a Wild Card birth.