PART 3: THE STARTING LINEUP
The New York Yankees enter the 2013 season with more uncertainty in their starting lineup than they have in the past two decades.
A combination of committed contracts to aging veterans, expired contracts to some helpful contributors, injuries and underperformance have left the Yankees in a real bind to fix their problems knowing they have an edict by the boss Hal Steinbrenner to trim payroll to $189 million by 2014.
The most significant issue is the impending January left hip surgery for third baseman Alex Rodriguez which will shelve him for at least half the season. Because Rodriguez has not played a full healthy season of baseball since 2007 it should not be considered that big a deal.
However, it points up the problem with offering lengthy and lucrative contracts to players past the age of 30. Players break down at a rapid rate after that and that is particularly true of players who have dabbled in the use of performance enhancing drugs as A-Rod has.
The plain fact of the matter is that Rodriguez IS NOT nor WILL HE EVER BE AGAIN the impact player he was in 2007 when he hit 54 home runs and drove in 156 runs for the Yankees. Unfortunately, the Yankees are committed to paying him through the 2017 season.
If you want to look up the definition of the euphemism “albatross around the neck” A-Rod’s picture would be displayed prominently.
Seemingly healthy to begin the 2012 season, Rodriguez neither produced with power or run production. Every day manager Joe Girardi cautioned the media that A-Rod always produced home runs in bunches and it would be any day now. But that day never arrived.
He was struck in the left hand by a pitch from Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners on July 24 and the injury sidelined him until the first week of September. At season’s end, Rodriguez had 18 home runs and 57 RBIs and batted .272. He wasn’t exactly Mr. Clutch when he was healthy either.
With runners in scoring position he hit a miserable .230 and with the bases loaded he hit .200.
Unfortunately, the Yankees may be saddled with A-Rod for the remainder of his contract because his skills have eroded so fast no team would be willing to take him and his bloated contract now that he is 37.
So all the Yankees can do is look to find a replacement for him for 2013 because there is no guarantee he will be able to come back in July.
Last year’s insurance policy, Eric Chavez, who hit 16 home runs and drove in 37 runs in 278 at-bats, has signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Eduardo Nunez fielded to so poorly at third base he was demoted to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and the Yankees have vowed to keep him primarily at shortstop.
So the Yankees have signed free-agent Kevin Youkilis.
Youkilis, 33, has had some injury issues of his own. He does not have a season in which he has played more than 147 games. He had not played but one season in which he passed 136 games in four seasons. His all-out style was popular in Boston but it also led to some significant injuries and a decline in production.
After a 2011 season in which he hit only .258 with 17 home runs and 80 RBIs, Youkilis ran afoul of then Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine and he was dealt to the Chicago White Sox. He ended up hitting a career-low .235 with 19 home runs and 60 RBIs.
But the Yankees hope he can help fill the void at third while Rodriguez is out and fall into a right-handed designated hitter and corner infield backup role when Rodriguez returns. Though it may seem odd that the heart and soul of the Red Sox would be wearing pinstripes, Johnny Damon had no trouble adapting to life in the Yankee Universe. Neither did Wade Boggs or Roger Clemens. “Youk” would seem to be in the same mold.
There is an issue at shortstop as well.
Though Derek Jeter vows his broken ankle will be healed and he will be ready to go by Opening Day of 2013, he also is 38 years old. So the Yankees will want their captain and emotional leader to be cautious in spring training.
Jeter’s injury in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers pretty much sounded the death knell for a team that was already reeling in the midst of an horrific team batting slump.
Jeter was one of the few who actually contributed positively to the offense in 2012.
He led the major leagues in hits with 219 and he ended up hitting .316 with 15 home runs and 58 RBIs. Though this is the not the Jeter who hit .349 with 24 home runs and 102 RBIs in 1999, the Yankees are happy to have this more mature Jeter, who has learned how to adapt to his age and still produce positively to the team.
He simply was the team Most Valuable Player last season and the Yankees seem to have stopped talking nonsense like moving him to center-field or resting him two days a week. He will rest some but he will play a lot in 2013 because the Yankees need him at the top of the lineup.
The Yankees’ best player is also one who poses the most uncertainty heading into 2013. Robinson Cano, 30, is simply the best second baseman in baseball both with his glove and his bat. He also hit a career-high 33 home runs in 2013 while batting over .300 (.308) for the seventh time in his eight major-league seasons.
However, Cano hardly could call 2012 his “breakout” season because he drove in a paltry 94 runs hitting in the heart of baseball’s top run-scoring team. The reason: He hit poorly most of the season with runners in scoring position. Also, in a huge reversal in a trend, Cano hit just .239 against left-handers.
That will have to change in 2013 because he figures to continue to see a steady diet of them.
There is a big incentive for Cano to improve. His contract for 2013 was renewed by the Yankees but he can become a free agent after this season. With the Yankees looking to trim payroll, Cano’s impending free agency presents a huge challenge. Will general manager Brian Cashman have the financial backing to present a package that can keep Cano in pinstripes for the rest of his career?
That is huge question only the Steinbrenner family can answer. But one thing is certain: The Yankees would certainly regress in 2014 without their best player.
Speaking of regression, Mark Teixeira has found out just how fast a career can regress when you follow former Yankee first baseman Jason Giambi’s pull-happy approach at Yankee Stadium.
Teixeira, however, changed his tune about it in 2012. Instead of trying to change back as he did at the start of the 2012 season, he decided to keep the “pull” approach figuring the Yankees pay him to hit home runs and drive in runs. So he hit 24 home runs and drove in 84 runs in a season that was cut to just 123 games due to a calf injury he suffered in August.
He hit just .251 but that is coming off seasons in which he hit .256 (2010) and .248 (2011). So Yankee fans are just going to have to accept lower batting averages and big production out of Teixeira. He more than makes up for it with his glove.
He and Cano both won Gold Gloves in 2012 and they form the best right side of an infield in baseball history from a fielding and production standpoint. Can you name a better pair?
The Yankees will have one huge hole filled in their lineup in left-field with the return of Brett Gardner and having to fill two more at catcher and in right-field.
Gardner’s loss last season proved to be more problematic in hindsight than it was at the time. With Gardner, 29, sidelined and Nunez in the minors the Yankees lost their two best base-stealers for most of the 2012 season. That made the Yankees much more of a station-to-station team and brought to the forefront their reliance on the home run to win games.
It also goes beyond saying that Gardner’s Gold-Glove quality in defense in left was missed, too. The Yankees need Gardner to come back healthy, get on base consistently and be disruptive to the team’s opponents on the bases.
For the past two seasons, the Yankees have reaped the benefit of having a stalwart defensive catcher in Russell Martin, who actually deterred teams who like to run the bases with reckless abandon. Though Martin struggled most of the season hitting under the “Mendoza Line” until he got hot in September, his power will be missed also.
But Martin has signed a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Yankees are looking for a new catcher in 2013.
At the moment, the Yankees list Francisco Cervelli as the heir apparent. Cervelli, 26, was the primary backup for three seasons from 2009 through 2011 until the Yankees acquired San Francisco Giants catcher Chris Stewart in a trade just as spring training drew to a close.
Because Stewart, 30, was out of options, the Yankees elected to keep Stewart as the backup catcher in 2012 and shipped Cervelli to Scranton.
Cervelli hit .246 with two home and 39 RBIs in 99 games at Scranton in 2012. His defense is fine but his throwing can be erratic at times.
Stewart surprisingly hit .241 with a home run and 13 RBIs in 55 games with the Yankees. His defense and throwing are superior to Cervelli but his offense is severely lacking.
The Yankees did sign former Los Angeles Angels catcher Bobby Wilson, 29, to a minor-league contract. Wilson was non-tendered a contract by the Blue Jays after he hit .211 with three home runs and 13 RBIs with the Angels in 2012. Wilson is excellent defensively but is a career .208 hitter in the majors. So it is hard to see how he will figure in as anything but a potential backup and insurance in case the Yankees need to trade a catcher or sustain an injury.
The Yankees do have very high hopes for 24-year-old rookie Austin Romine. They believe his defensive skills make him a major-league ready receiver but his bat and his chronic back issues have been delaying his progess. He missed most all of the 2012 season with a back injury.
He has been cleared to come to spring training and he has a shot at supplanting either Cervelli or Stewart if he can show some improved skills with the bat. But realistically, the team may take a more cautious approach with Romine and he could head back to Scranton to convince the front office his back issues are over.
This area seems ripe for a deal to obtain a free agent. Cashman did have former Chicago White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski in mind. Pierzynski, 35, would fit in with the Yankees because he hits left-handed and he has some power. He hit .278 with 27 home runs and 77 RBis in 2012.
But Pierzynski elected to sign a contract with the Texas Rangers. So unless the Yankees elect to make a trade they will be choosing between the four catchers they have now.
The biggest hole in the Yankees lineup and perhaps the biggest blow to the bleacher bums in right-field will be the loss of fan favorite Nick Swisher.
Swisher might not have been a superstar but his consistency was his calling card. What you saw was what you got.
Swisher, 32, has played four seasons in pinstripes and did not deviate from between 24 through 29 home runs and between 82 and 93 RBIs. There are not many outfielders who can claim that and the Yankees would be hard-pressed to find anyone at the level, except perhaps the oft-injured star Josh Hamilton.
The Yankees did have an opportunity to sign the former Texas Rangers’ star if they wanted. But they have some restriction to them doing so.
If the Yankees were to sign Hamilton, Cano’s departure would be a foregone conclusion unless there was a major dump of salary after the 2013 season. Hamilton signed with the Angels and the Yankees played it safe.
The Yankees instead decided to bring back Ichiro Suzuki, who came over in a trade in June and sparked the Yankees down the stretch. At age 39, Suzuki is no longer the player he was when he was the American League MVP and Rookie of the Year in 2001 but he showed a renewed vigor in the Bronx in 2012, hitting over .300 after the deal.
He ended the season hitting. 283 with nine home runs and 55 RBIs and he stole 29 bases.
It is obvious if the Yankees want to return to a slash and dash attack Girardi favors, Suzuki would be the correct choice.
Center-field is an interesting situation for the Yankees.
The team renewed Curtis Granderson’s contract for 2012 but there are all kinds of rumors swirling around about him.
The Yankees first floated the idea they could move Gardner from left to center and put Granderson in left next season. They also sent Granderson to an eye specialist to check his vision because of his habit of losing balls in flight to the outfield and his penchant for swinging at pitches that bounced in front of home plate.
Granderson struck out a team record 195 times last season. The Yankees can live with the strikeouts for his 43 home runs and 106 RBIs, which were both team highs in 2012. But his .232 average is 30 points below his career average of .262 and he hit just .218 against left-handers last season. Granderson is also in the final year of his contract.
The Yankees also seemed intent on keeping outfielder and left-handed DH Raul Ibanez.
Ibanez, 40, was forced to play more than he was expected in the outfield because of Gardner’s injury. But Ibanez came through with 19 home runs and 62 RBIs while hitting .24o in 384 at-bats. But Ibanez’s biggest impact was the clutch home runs he hit down the stretch against the Oakland Athletics and Boston Red Sox to get the Yankees into the playoffs.
He carried that into the American League Division Series against the Baltimore Orioles.
His clutch hitting was not lost on the front office and they wanted him back badly in 2013. But Ibanez dealt a blow to the Yankees by electing to sign with his old Mariners team so the Yankees now have a huge hole at the DH spot.
The Yankees made it clear that right-hand DH Andruw Jones would not retained for the 2012 season and Jones shopped himself to a team in Japan. The Yankees likely will use a veteran free agent to fill the role until A-Rod returns in July. Rodriguez figures to DH a lot when he returns and Youkilis can fill the role when A-Rod does play third.
Nunez figures to have an opportunity to win the right-hand DH role until A-Rod returns. The left side of the equation might come down to an offer to Jim Thome or a similar veteran.
Unfortunately for the Yankees, most of their best minor-league hitting prospects are a few years away of making an impact at the major-league level.
The top prospect in the organization, catcher Gary Sanchez, is only 20. But he may be worth the wait because he hit a combined .290 with 18 home runs and 85 RBIs with Class-A Charleston and High-A Tampa in 2012. Sanchez is being touted as “Jesus Montero with defense.” However, his glovework slipped a notch last season.
But the Yankees still believe he is their future behind the plate.
Outfielder Mason Wiiliams, 21, had a torn labrum ended his season his August. However, Williams was able to flash some five-tool talent by hitting a combined .298 with a 11 home runs and 35 RBIs and stole 20 bases at Charleston and Tampa.
Some are comparing him to another Williams named Bernie. He has a good bat and he is developing power as he progresses through the system. The Yankees absolutely love his high ceiling for improvement. The lefty swinger looks like a future center-fielder for the Yankees.
Somewhat lost in all the talk about Sanchez and Williams is 21-year-old outfielder Tyler Austin, who hit an organization-best .354 in 2011 and hit .322 in four minor-league stops in 2012. He hit 17 home runs and drove in 80 runs while stealing 23 bases.
Austin played his first two minor-league seasons at the corner infield spots but was moved to right-field last season and the Yankees see him as the real deal as a right-hand hitter.
The Yankees also have a trio of promising outfielders in power-hitting Zoilo Almonte, 23, who hit 21 bombs at Double-A Trenton, and slash-and-dash hitters in 2009 No. 1 draft pick Slade Heathcott, 22, and Ramon Flores, 20.
Third baseman Dante Bichette Jr., 20, the team’s first selection in the 2011 draft, hit only three home runs at Charleston in 2012 but the Yankees believe he will develop into the kind of power hitter his father was. Called up to appear in an exhibition game against the Astros last March, Bichette hit a pair of solo home runs in only two exhibition at-bats. His star is definitely on the rise.
The Yankees also have a trio in promising infielders in Angelo Gumbs, 20; Jose Pirela, 23; and Austin Aune, 19. However, only Pirela has advanced as far as Double A and Gumbs and Aune may eventually be moved to the outfield. For now Gumbs and Pirela are second basemen and Aune is power-hitting shortstop.