You never know where you’ll find wisdom next in this town. Especially when it comes to the Yankees’ World Series prospects.
Case in point: the car service driver who took me to LaGuardia Airport one Wednesday evening a couple weeks back. We struck up a conversation** about baseball, which quickly evolved into his story about playing ball with a 17-year-old Manny Ramirez. The driver, Benny, was once a pitcher for the Red Sox Class A minor league affiliate, and though he grew up in the Dominican Republic, he met Manny in the baseball-rich Dominican community in Washington Heights.
**The social contract between cab driver and passenger — especially on trips to/from one of the New York area’s three airports — is a complex and fascinating topic. I rarely start conversations with drivers, but I’ll absolutely engage in one if I get a chatty cabbie.
“He was a shy, young fellow when he came up,” Benny said. “He was very well-known and very loved in the community in Washington Heights. Everybody used to watch Manny Ramirez.”
What about all the “Manny being Manny” crap he pulled once he became famous? I asked. Benny agreed but was sanguine about it. “That’s how it is with most athletes,” he said. “When they get the money, they all go crazy. I don’t like all the crap that he put on the field, but that will not take away from how good a hitter he was.”
Benny said he loves baseball because of its unique unpredictability. “It’s only in baseball, my friend. When the competition is level, you don’t know who’s going to win,” he said, referencing the Cardinals’ improbable playoff run last year. “It’s a joy to sit down in front of your couch to watch a baseball game.”
With that in mind, I pressed him to pick the likely World Series champion this year. As we pulled into LaGuardia, he didn’t hesitate. “If I had to put my money on baseball right now, I’d put it on the Yankees all the way. To beat everybody.”
Truth be told, I agree with my knowledgeable, experienced cabbie friend. On paper, the Yankees are the team to beat in the MLB this year. Why? I’m glad you asked…
Disclaimer: This preview is long. Really long. So please skip over sections you’re less interested in at your leisure, or budget a good 30 minutes to read this sucker.
Based on the Yanks’ Opening Day lineup in Tampa Bay last Friday…
1. Shortstop: Derek Jeter
Specs: Bats rights, throws rights, 6’3″, 195 lbs., 37 years old (turns 38 in June)
2011 Stats: .297/.355/.388, 84 runs scored
Breakdown: I don’t remember the exact column, and I have tried in vain to find it. But I believe it was early 2009 or 2010 when Bill Simmons sneered about Jeter’s contract: “…because any team should do whatever it has to do to lock up a washed up 35-year-old shortstop with no range.” There are few things in the world of Internet sportswriting more satisfying than watching Simmons pop off about New York teams or players and turn out to be completely wrong.
Anyway, Jeter had a strong bounceback year in 2011, vastly outstripping his career-worst 2010 campaign. Why? Well, it could be that Jeter played in just 131 games, by far his fewest total since the first Men in Black came out. From 1996 to 2010, Jeter played in 148 or more games in all but one season. That was the 2003 season, when he suffered a separated left shoulder on Opening Day and still played 119 games. Almost all of those starts came at short, a physically demanding position. Fortunately, Joe Girardi plans to build on last season’s strategy and sit Jeter for even more games. Eduardo Nunez will also likely spell Jeter at short more often, allowing the aging star to DH. It should make a significant difference.
2012 Will Be… A solid but unspectacular season. Replicating his 2011 numbers would be fine, though it’d be nice to see Jeter get more than 34 extra-base hits. Most importantly, he will be fresh for the postseason should the team get there.
2. Center Fielder: Curtis Granderson
Specs: Bats lefty, throws righty, 6’1″, 195 lbs., 31 years old
2011 Stats: .262/.364/.552, 41 HRs, 119 RBIs (best in the AL), 136 runs scored (best in the majors)
Breakdown: The book on Granderson this year is that he will “regress to the mean” after posting careers highs in slugging, OPS, HRs, RBIs, runs and walks in 2011. Yes, he will probably not get to 90% of his production totals from last year. But one thing that will not go away is his power at Yankee Stadium. Though Grandy had an almost even home-road split of home runs (21 at home, 20 on the road) his AB/HR numbers were more skewed (13.29 at home to 15.2 on the road). Expect that split to increase this year as Grandy continues to implement the swing bestowed on him by hitting coach Kevin Long in September 2010, the end of his first season with the club. Since then, he’s been launching balls over the short porch in right field.
2012 Will Be… A Dave Kingman-like campaign. If Granderson does regress, then a .250 season is definitely in play. But again, so is 45 home runs.
3. Second Baseman: Robinson Cano
Specs: Bats lefty, throws righty, 6′, 210 lbs., 29 years old
2011 Stats: .302/.349/.533, 28 HRs, 118 RBIs, 104 runs, 46 doubles
Breakdown: Make no mistake, Cano is the Bombers’ best position player. By a wide margin, unless I’m right about the next guy on this list. I’ve watched a LOT of baseball over the past 15 years, and I cannot remember someone who could play the game as easily as Robbie Cano can (semi-rant coming, buckle up). You know what? I actually can — the mid-90s years for Ken Griffey Jr., when it seemed like the Mariners outfielder was simply playing a different game than everyone else. Cano has similar athletic gifts — for one thing, he has one of the best defensive ranges in the league despite never diving on balls up the middle. But you know what else? Griffey in his prime was MUCH BETTER than Cano has ever been. And that burns me. Cano should be putting up .330/.400/.560 seasons with 30 homers, 40 doubles, and 100+ runs and RBIs for like the next four years. But he’s 29, and he’s probably the best second baseman in the game, and he doesn’t have to fix the holes he has (lack of plate vision, inability to alter his swing with two strikes) to be a handsomely paid superstar. I hope he does, though. I like watching very good players, but I really like watching great players.
2012 Will Be… Very similar to 2011. Cano more than likely will have another very good year, be an All-Star starter and assume the role of the heart the Yankee offense. I’d like to expect a breakout season from him, but I don’t.
4. Third Baseman: Alex Rodriguez
Specs: Bats righty, fields righty, 6’3″, 225 lbs., 36 years old (turns 37 in July)
2011 Stats: .276/.362/.461, 16 HRs, 62 RBIs (in 99 games played)
Breakdown: Ah, A-Rod. Other than Roger Clemens, I can’t remember a more polarizing player in my 20 years following the Yankees. The glow of his unforgettable 2009 postseason finally faded last year, as nagging injures and a disturbingly slow bat led to the worst season of A-Rod’s career. He’s 36 with 2,408 games on his odometer, and unless he starts taking an undetectable steroid, his production is seemingly only going to get worse.
But then came his trip to Germany for the Kobe Bryant-approved Regenokine treatment for his ailing right knee. Basically a process that incubates a patient’s blood, then returns it to his body better equipped to aid in tissue regeneration, the treatment is not widely practiced in the U.S. because it stretches the bounds of FDA-approved procedures. BUT it worked for Kobe (leading the NBA in minutes per game this season at 33 years old) and if A-Rod can pivot on his right knee (the back leg of his batting stance), he can scrap all the compensating BS he did with his swing to protect his body last year.
2012 Will Be… A comeback. I think A-Rod’s going to have a huge year if he can stay healthy. He’s not so far removed from a 10-year stint as the best right-handed hitter not named Albert Pujols, and his recent woes are as much as a product of injuries as age. Is he going to hit .325? No. But a .290/.360/.530 season with 35 HRs and 120 RBIs is a distinct possibility.
5. First Baseman: Mark Teixeira
Specs: Switch-hitter, fields righty, 6’3″, 215 lbs., 32 years old
2011 Stats: .248./341/.494, 39 HRs, 111 RBIs, 90 runs
Breakdown: When the Yankees signed Teix to an eight-year, $180 million contract in 2008, they figured they were getting a well-above-average hitter and Gold Glove-caliber fielder for at least 4-5 seasons. The fielding has absolutely been there — he posted a .993 fielding percentage that included countless jaw-dropping, run-saving plays in 2011. But his 117 OPS+ last year (on base + slugging compared to the rest of the league, with 100 being an average player) was the worst of his career, and he hit just .241 with runners in scoring position and two outs. Both the stats and the eye test suggest that while Teix is certainly an above-average AL first baseman, he’s worth nowhere near the $23.1 million the Yanks are paying him this year. And he’s certainly not “No. 5 hitter on the Yankees” worthy.
But if you look deeper at his batting metrics from last season, his play does not appear so bad. He actually hit .289 with runners on, and he posted a .375/.378/1.125 in 24 at-bats with a runner on third and less than two outs (this stat shocked me, as I remember him being far worse in those spots).
2012 Will Be… An acceptance year for Yankee fans. Barring more miracle work from Long, Teix is not going to put up the offensive numbers he did in Texas. But he will be one of the best defensive first basemen in the league, and he’ll draw enough walks and hit enough Yankee Stadium home runs to right field that fans will grimly accept his .240-.260 average.
6. Right Fielder: Nick Swisher
Specs: Switch-hitter, throws left, 5’11″, 200 lbs., 31 years old
2011 Stats: .260/.374/.449, 23 HRs, 85 RBIs, 81 runs scored
Breakdown: Swish’s rookie season was in 2005 with the Oakland Athletics. Since then, he has been a remarkably consistent, above-average-but-not-by-much offensive player. Between 22 and 35 home runs. Between 69 and 95 RBIs. Between 81 and 106 runs scored. Between 101 and 129 in OPS+ except for a 92 in 2008. You get the idea.
The consistency speaks first to Swisher’s durability — he’s played in at least 150 games in each of the last six seasons. Unlike many of the Yankees (cough, A-Rod, cough) it also establishes a likely ceiling and floor for his 2012 production on offense. Defensively, he has limited range but made only one error in 2011. That ceiling and floor thing again. Which is fine, as long as you remember that in the playoffs, it’s been all floor, no ceiling for Swish.
2012 Will Be… What did I just say? Pencil him in for a .265/.370/.475 with 25 HRs and 85 RBIs.
7. Designated Hitter: Raul Ibanez
Specs: Bats lefty, throws righty (has traditionally played left field), 6’2″, 220 lbs., 39 years old (turns 40 in June)
2011 Stats: .245/.289/.419, 20 HRs, 84 RBIs (played for the Philadelphia Phillies)
Breakdown: The only change from the Yankees 2011 lineup, Ibanez replaces Jorge Posada as the team’s everyday DH. Ibanez had career lows in average, OBP and slugging last year, and at 39 he could be running on fumes. But I don’t think so. Yes, the last three years of Ibanez’s career were worse across the board than the eights years before that. But the last three seasons came in the National League, where Ibanez had to play the field every day. And as a lefty, Ibanez should feast on the short porch in right field. A better approximation for his potential this year is his last season in Seattle (2008), when he had a .293/.358/.479 with 23 homers and 110 RBIs.
2012 Will Be… An improvement from Posada for the Yankees at DH. Ibanez should hit 20+ home runs and is a veteran who will come through in clutch situations, like his game-winning double on Tuesday in Baltimore. When he sits against left-handed starters (just a .211 average against lefties last year), he will be a dangerous bat off the bench, particularly against right-handed closers like Detroit’s Jose Valverde or Tampa Bay’s Kyle Farnsworth.
8. Catcher: Russell Martin
Specs: Bats righty, throws righty, 5’10″, 205 lbs., 29 years old
2011 Stats: .237/.324/.408, 18 HRs, 65 RBIs
Breakdown: Martin is the one players on the Yankees whose value is impossible to quantify. His OPS+ last year was just 92, and he hit just .208 with runners in scoring position and two outs. But he had a number of really big hits, and his OPS was .56 points higher after the All-Star Break (.763 to .707). Much more importantly, Martin had a fielding percentage of .990 and stopped countless wild pitches over the course of the season. He managed games from the catching position in a way that Posada never could. So for the first time since current manager Joe Girardi was a Yankee catcher, the team’s pitching staff can feel more comfortable on the mound, if only because they believe Martin can handle stuff in the dirt. That translates to fewer bad starts, which translates to fewer runs allowed, which translates to more wins. I don’t think you can quantify it, but it’s a nice thing to have on a World Series-contending team.
2012 Will Be… Better than last year. Martin’s power numbers jumped dramatically in his first season with the Yankees and there’s no reason to think they will come down this year. Meanwhile, he should improve on his 2011 caught stealing percentage, a career low of 25%.
9. Left Fielder: Brett Gardner
Specs: Bats lefty, throws lefty, 5’10″, 185 lbs., 28 years old (turns 29 in August)
2011 Stats: .259/.345/.369, 87 runs scored, 49 stolen bases (best in the AL)
Breakdown: Ah, the pesky little Gardner. Here’s a man who gets the most out of his natural abilities. Gardner has improved his stolen base total in each of his three full seasons, peaking with 2011′s 49. His steal percentage was 79.2% last year and 83.9% in 2010. He can turn over the lineup and change the game with his speed, often off the bench as a pinch runner because he won’t start against lefty pitchers most nights (more on that later).
Gardner also functions as a de facto second leadoff hitter. If form holds, the Yanks’ 5-6-7-8 hitters (Teix, Swish, Ibanez, Martin) will have the worst averages of the starters, meaning that Gardner will lead off his share of innings. That gives you what would be a killer top of the lineup: Gardner-Jeter-Granderson-Cano-Rodriguez. Wow. Look for a lot of big innings when that scenario plays out this year.
2012 Will Be… Hopefully, more of the same. A breakout, Ricky Henderson-type year on the bases would be nice, though I’d settle for 60 steals. The concern is as always a drop-off at the plate, but Gardner’s ability to slap singles by choking down on his swing with two strikes should keep his average around his career mark of .265.
Righties: Gardner will sit against lefties because he hit .233 against them in 2011 and Andruw Jones hit .286. But Jones, at 34, is a 17-year MLB veteran and an absolute nightmare in the field. Jones will start against lefties and serve as the top right-handed bat off the bench… Jeter and A-Rod will be regularly spelled for games in the field by Eduardo Nunez, who put up a solid .265/.313/.385 last year. But I gotta tell you, Nunez just sucks the joy out of watching the game when he plays the field. In the first inning of the game against the Rays on Saturday, he just completely missed a routine ground ball at short. The play led to two unearned runs and made me (along with pitcher Hiroki Kuroda) tense up every time Kuroda threw a sinker… Chris Stewart, a backup catcher for the San Francisco Giants last season, has assumed the same role for the Yanks after the team picked him up in free agency, then demoted Francisco Cervelli to AAA to start the season.
Lefties: The only lefty that will primarily come off the bench is third baseman Eric Chavez. He filled in nicely when A-Rod went down for a month last year and had 26 RBIs in 160 at-bats. Chavez was even better than Ibanez against lefties last year, hitting .304. And he provides a solid veteran presence in the clubhouse. But at 34, can he stay healthy?
I broke down five of the Yankee seven potential starting pitchers in a March 16 column. Here’s what I said, with an April 13 update** on each of them, plus brand-new breakdowns of C.C. Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda.
**Right now, the starting five is C.C.-Kuroda-Hughes-Nova-Garcia. Pineda is still recovering from shoulder tendonitis (hopefully back by early May), while Andy Pettitte has begun making minor league starts. Garcia and Hughes are probably the odd men out when those two are ready to play.
Specs: Throws lefty, hits lefty, 6’7″, 290 lbs., 31 years old (turns 32 in July)
2011 Stats: 19-8, 3.00/1.23 (ERA and WHIP), 230 strikeouts.
Breakdown: Sabathia’s like a bulldog. He simply will not stop fighting or let go of a start. Last year, my brother and I saw a May 24 game against Toronto where Sabathia was down 4-1 after four innings. Most pitchers in that position, including a sizable portion of elite hurlers, would have softened a little and given up a couple more runs. C.C. held the Blue Jays scoreless the rest of the game, and the Yankees won 5-4 with two runs in the bottom of the ninth. Sabathia’s going to have a majority of quality starts like any ace, but his singular value comes from his ability to keep games close with less than his best stuff.
2012 Will Be… The Yankees’ first Cy Young Award winner since Clemens in 2001? That’s what Grantland’s Jonah Keri said in his MLB preview. I think the Cy Young is Justin Verlander’s to lose, but nothing should keep Sabathia from another 19-21 win season.
Specs: Throws righty, bats righty, 6’1″, 205 lbs., 37 years old
2011 Stats: 13-16, 3.07/1.21, 161 strikeouts, 49 walks (played for the Los Angeles Dodgers)
Breakdown: Kuroda played his first 11 years in Japan, where he was 103-89 with a 3.69 ERA. He began his MLB career with the Dodgers in 2008 and went 41-47 with a 3.47 ERA in the pitcher-friendly confines of Dodger Stadium. Other than that and his 2011 stats… I’ll be honest, I don’t know a lot about Kuroda. He’s primarily a fastball-slider pitcher, and he gets a lot of movement on his slider. Other than that? Well, his windup is awfully long.
2012 Will Be… 10+ wins and 10+ losses. Kuroda averaged 6.1 innings per start last year, so he’ll get deep in games, some of which he’ll lose because he’s 37 and throws a lot of hangers these days.
Specs: Throws righty, bats righty, 6’7″, 260 lbs., 23 years old
2011 Role: No. 2 starter for the Seattle Mariners, where he went 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP. Glory boy of “AL Keeper” fantasy leagues because his ceiling is Roy Halladay-high. Acquired by the Yankees in January for Jesus Montero.
Strengths: A 95-97 mph fastball with movement… a sharply breaking slider that Pineda has called “[his] baby”… has shown a desire to develop a changeup as a third pitch… built like an ox.
Weaknesses: Reports out of spring training are that the fastball is topping out at 90-92 mph (for what it’s worth, Pineda said he’s been holding back a little)… unproven talent who has yet to put together a top-flight season… could squirm under the New York media/fan glare.
Starts Season As… No. 4 starter. Assuming Pineda’s disturbingly low velocity this month is an aberration, he is simply too fast, too big and too durable not to have an immediate impact. But if he can’t get back the speed on his fastball, it’s a 2011 Phil Hughes redux and it’s either surgery or the minors for Pineda.
APRIL 13 UPDATE: Pineda was put on the disabled list on April 6 with shoulder tendonitis. He’s eligible to play again on April 15, and the team expects him to be back in early May.
Specs: Throws righty, bats righty, 6’4″, 250 lbs., 35 years old
2011 Role: Surprise No. 3 starter for the Yankees two years after arm trouble nearly ended his career. Garcia went 12-8, 3.62/1.34 and gave the Yankees much-needed durability. He signed a one-year contract in the offseason.
Strengths: Nasty sinking changeup that has worked for more than a decade… effective split-fingered fastball… veteran who’s already proven himself as a Yankee… cool under pressure.
Weaknesses: At 35, his velocity is a shadow of what it once was…no single blow-away pitch…changeup will get hit at times… [March] hand injury, though nothing’s broken, is a concern.
Starts Season As… Long reliever out of the bullpen. Given the recent hand injury, Garcia is probably not going to beat out Phil Hughes for a starting spot. And the Yanks will probably not banish the 35-year-old to the minors.
APRIL 13 UPDATE: Garcia just had a game in which he threw five wild pitches in 4 2/3 innings. Pineda and/or Pettitte needs to be ready like yesterday.
5. Phil Hughes
Specs: Throws righty, bats righty, 6’5″, 240 lbs., 25 years old (turns 26 in June)
2011 Role: Flame-out starter for the Yankees. Hughes opened the season as the No. 2 starter, went 5-5 with a 5.79/1.49, lost 3-4 mph on his fastball and spent most of the season on the DL trying to figure out why.
Strengths: Powerful mid-90s fastball with good late rising movement… has four pitches, including a pretty good curveball when it’s working…big, strong kid… only 25.
Weaknesses: Still trying to that find that missing velocity… has had serious arm problems that caused him to miss large chunks of a season twice in his career, and he’s only 25… faces a lot of pressure, because this is his last chance to make it in New York.
Starts Season As… No. 5 starter. Hughes was a bona fide member of the rotation in 2010 before the arm trouble. He’ll get a chance to re-establish himself there, though the Yanks won’t tolerate another injury-plagued season.
APRIL 13 UPDATE: Hughes gave up two runs in 4 2/3 innings in his first start.
Specs: Throws left, hits left, 6’5″, 225 lbs., 39 years old (turns 40 in June)
2011 Role: Stay-at-home dad. The longtime Yankee great retired after the 2010 season.
Strengths: The most clutch starting pitcher in Yankee history (what, you were expecting Whitey Ford?)… a sinker that’s deadly to righties and lefties alike… able to change speeds beautifully… I could go on and on.
Weaknesses: Well he’s been out of baseball for a year… and he’s 39… and no one really has any idea if he can be a viable major league pitcher at this point… so yeah there’s that.
Starts Season As… Starting pitcher for the Trenton Thunder, the Yankees’ Double A affiliate. Honestly, I’m skeptical about the comeback. As in: Unless Pettitte stole some blood from Jamie Moyer, he’s not going to make a big impact on the Yanks this season, even if he does make the big squad.
APRIL 13 UPDATE: The jury’s still out, but I may be eating crow in six weeks on this one. Pettitte allowed one run and two hits in three innings for the Class A Tampa Yankees on Monday and afterwards proclaimed himself almost ready for the big leagues.
7. Ivan Nova
Specs: Throws righty, bats righty, 6’4″, 225 lbs., 25 years old
2011 Role: Surprise No. 2 starter for the Yanks, who relied heavily on Nova’s stellar second season. The burly righty finished 16-4, 3.70/1.33 but failed to deliver in his biggest start of the year, exiting Game 5 of the ALDS against the Tigers with arm numbness and tingling.
Strengths: Nasty 90-92 mph sinking fastball that acts almost like a slider and baffles righties… four-seam fastball that can reach 95 mph if he’s feeling it… sound mechanics and delivery… proven he can play in the New York spotlight… has A-Rod, Cano and Teixeira playing behind him.
Weaknesses: Sinking fastball stopped sinking later in starts, leading to a bunch of 6th/7th inning meltdowns… came up short in that playoff start… at the mercy of his defense, which is a strength except when Derek Jeter [or Eduardo Nunez] is involved.
Starts Season As… No. 3 starter. After Sabathia, Nova was the only constant at starting pitching last season, and though teams will have had time to develop a book on him, his sinking fastball can be an unhittable pitch even when you know it’s coming.
APRIL 13 UPDATE: Nova had the best start by a Yankee so far this season on Monday, allowing two runs in seven innings to pick up a win over Baltimore.
Righties: The Yankees have a robust one-two setup man punch, led by eighth-inning guy David Robertson. Last year, he had a 1.08 ERA in 70 relief appearances and averaged a titanic 13.5 strikeouts per nine innings. Gotta feel confident with him protecting a one-run lead at this point… Seventh-inning guy Rafael Soriano is more of a question mark after battling arm trouble last year. He also posted a 4.12/1.30, scary for a middle reliever who often comes in mid-inning… Cory Wade provides valuable long relief and is a go-to guy in extra-inning games… Despite suffering an open ankle dislocation in March, Joba Chamberlain has said he expects to by back by August.
Lefties: Ugh. Spare me. Remember the good old days, when lefties like Graeme Lloyd and Mike Stanton were fixtures in the Bombers’ bullpen? Not anymore. Now we have Boone Logan, a lefty specialist who gets out righties and lefties at the exact same mediocre clip (.328 on-base percentage allowed against both in 2011). Honestly a terrifying prospect in any close game… The team also brought in Clay Rapada from the Orioles in the offseason. Good news: He had a career high 32 relief appearances in 2011. Bad news: His ERA was 6.08. At least lefties only had averaged a .104/.170/.151 against him.
Closer: Mariano Rivera
Specs: Throws righty, 6’2″, 195 lbs., 200 years old (actually, he’s 42)
2011 Stats: 1-2, 1.91/0.90, 44 saves, 60 strikeouts, eight walks (let that sink in for a minute… holy mother of God. And he was 41 at the time.)
Breakdown: After Mo blew the Yanks’ first game against Tampa Bay and looked pretty bad doing it, the annual whispering about Rivera’s inevitable, imminent loss in that great and poignant tug of war with Father Time began again (Grantland Rice eat your heart out). Since then, Rivera has appeared in three games on back-to-back-to-back nights, allowed two hits and no runs, and picked up three saves.
With that in mind, read this oh-so-satisfying Deadspin column chronicling 10 years of sportswriters proclaiming Mo finished. As J. Walter Weatherman would say: “And THAT’S why you don’t count out the greatest relief pitcher of all time.”
Let me make this clear: I will consider Mo finished when he retires. And not a pitch before. I will consider Mo over-the-hill after a full season of poor pitching — not after one f—ing game or a bad week or even a bad month. You would think that defying age with class and apparent effortlessness would give Mo a pass from the media vultures ready to put a headstone on his career. Instead, it only intensifies the frenzy. Sad.
2012 Will Be… A final season to remember. I think Rivera’s done after this year, particularly if the Yankees win a championship and he can leave on a high note. In the meantime, unless major league hitters have suddenly cracked the Fermat’s Last Theorem that is Mariano’s cutter, he will have another elite season and be the surest three outs in baseball.
Manager Joe Girardi is in his fourth season with the club, with a World Series championship and three AL East titles in three years. Joe is well-liked and respected by his players and appears to be on the right track by rotating Jeter and A-Rod in at the DH spot. Whether he’s figured out how to properly manage his bullpen is another matter entirely (if you’ll remember, Detroit’s game-winning run in Game 5 of the ALDS last year was scored off C.C. Sabathia pitching in relief).
Offense: Left-handed power hitting. The Yankees will field an everyday lineup with four lefties (Granderson, Cano, Ibanez, Gardner) and two switch hitters (Teixeira, Swisher). Against right-handed pitchers, they’ll all be hitting from the left side. Even if you include only Teixeira and Swisher’s left-side production from 2011, these guys hit a combined 137 home runs last year. And Ibanez wasn’t even playing in Yankee Stadium.
Pitching: Top guys in the bullpen: It’s not quite 1996, when a seventh-inning lead pretty much meant game over for the Yankees with Rivera as the setup guy and John Wetteland as the closer. But with Soriano in the 7th, Robertson in the 8th and Mariano in the 9th, the Yanks have a powerful late-inning combo that should be a difference-maker in a lot of tight games this season.
Offense: Lack of clutch hitters. I can’t believe I’m saying that given the amount of money the team has spent on its lineup. But we’ve already covered Teixeira’s poor “RISP with 2 outs” hitting, and no Yankee was much better in 2011. Cano had the best average in that spot among the starters at .277, Jeter was next at .258, and it continued downhill from there. The Yankees will score a lot of runs, but they will also strand a lot of baserunners.
Pitching: Health of the starting rotation. Other than Sabathia, Kuroda and Nova, each of the Yankees’ seven starters is battling injuries. Pineda’s got the shoulder tendonitis, Hughes has been plagued by arm trouble throughout his career, and Pettitte and Garcia are a combined 74 years old. I’ll be surprised if the team can actually field the same starting rotation for the bulk of the season.
The Yankees win it all. World Series No. 28. Why? For the same reason Kentucky won the NCAA men’s basketball championship earlier this month — the Bombers have more talent top to bottom than anyone else. My cab driver friend Benny may be right about the unpredictability of baseball, but this year the cream will rise to the top.