As training camp opens in Tampa, FL, the New York Yankees are looking to return to their 2009 form. We will take a look at each position and see how they stack up for the 2011 season. Just how good are the Yankees? Let’s find out:
This is, by far, the toughest analysis I will have to write this spring. The reason is because the Alex Rodriquez baseball has known is but a shadow of the post-hip surgery version.
For the past two seasons, Rodriguez has reached at least 30 home runs and 100 RBIs, which is something he has done for 13 straight seasons. However, his home run frequency is dropping, in addition to his batting average and his runs scored.
In his first five seasons with the Yankees, A-Rod averaged 119 runs, 42 home runs and 123 RBIs and batted .303. In his last two seasons, hampered by the hip injury, Rodriguez has scored an average of 76 runs with 30 home runs, 112 RBIs and he hit .277.
Rodriguez also averaged 21 stolen bases from 2004 to 2008. In the past two seasons he has averaged nine. Last season, he stole a career low of four.
Clearly, at age 35 and restricted by the hip injury, Rodriguez is not the same player he was. The question is can he still be good enough to lead the Yankees offense in 2011 to its 28th world championship?
His 125 RBIs last season suggest he can.
Though Yankee fans would love to see a repeat of his 2007 season where he hit 54 home runs and drove in 156 runs, they may have to be satisfied with the 42 home runs and 123 RBIs he averaged between 2004 and 2008 with fewer runs scored, fewer stolen bases and a lot lower batting average.
He also will play a lot fewer games. In 2009, Rodriguez missed the first month of the season and played in only 124 games. In 2010, Rodriguez spent three weeks on the disabled list with a calf injury and missed additional time with an unrelated hip injury and played in only 137 games.
In the field, Rodriguez committed only seven errors in 122 starts at third. Though Rodriguez is still able to field the balls he can reach, his range has been hindered by the hip injury. His lateral movement is still stiff and he is a step slow on coming in slow rollers and bunts.
But Rodriguez is still above average at the position with his cannon right arm and he is part of an infield that boasts Gold Glove recipients at every position. Rodriguez won two Gold Gloves as a shortstop before he joined the Yankees.
Manager Joe Girardi has already said he will have to monitor Rodriguez closely and make sure he gets plenty of rest throughout the season. With Jorge Posada expected to be a full-time DH, it stands to reason Rodriguez won’t be used much as a DH.
So it looks like the days off he will get mostly will be full days off. As a result, it is hard to expect Rodriguez to hit the huge numbers of home runs he needs to overtake Barry Bonds as the all-time home run leader.
He has 613 career home runs and he needs 150 more to pass Bonds. If he averages 35 home runs in the next five seasons he could pass Bonds easily. But if he averages 30 or less he may require six seasons to do it. It is obvious the hip injury has put in wrinkle in A-Rod’s hopes.
When Rodriguez was out of the lineup last season, Ramiro Pena started 27 games in his place. Though Pena fielded the position adequately, his batting average fell from .287 in 2009 to .227 in 2010.
This spring Pena, 25, faces a tough challenge from Eduardo Nunez, who started 10 games at third base late last season. Though Nunez is not as slick a fielder as Pena, he does have good range and he hit .280 in 50 at-bats and he stole five bases.
With the Yankees expected to rest both Rodriguez and shortstop Derek Jeter more this season, the Yankees might want to look at using the 23-year-old Nunez rather than Pena because of his superior athleticism, better bat and speed.
It will one of the more intriguing battles of camp.
Another possibility is among the Yankees’ non-roster invitees: Eric Chavez. At 33, Chavez is trying to resurrect his career after severe back and neck injuries have limited him to only 64 games the past three seasons.
Chavez is a six-time Gold Glove winner at third base for the Oakland Athletics and averaged 30 home runs and 98 RBIs from 2001 to 2005. He is coming to camp hoping to make the team as a reserve corner infielder.
If he and outfielder Andruw Jomes make the team, the Yankees will have seven Gold Glove winners on the roster. But Chavez could be of great help as a hitter off the bench. He only needs to prove he can still hit and, more importantly, he is healthy.
The Yankees also have a young power-hitting third baseman in the minor leagues.
He is Brandon Laird and he is coming off a season in which he hit 25 home runs and drove in 102 runs in 131 games between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He just needs to work a bit more on making contact.
At Trenton he hit a sizzling .291 but his average at Scranton was .246 and he hit a meager .236 in the Arizona Fall League.
But the 23-year-old brother of major-league catcher Gerald Laird is not far from being ready for the majors. With the Yankees that will be tough with Rodriguez around. The Yankees more likely are hoping Laird develops at Scranton this season.
He could emerge as an eventual backup to Rodriguez or he could be used in a trade general manager Brian Cashman may make to bolster the starting pitching. In either event, Laird bears watching as he develops in the minor leagues.
While actress Cameron Diaz may keep feeding her favorite player popcorn at the Super Bowl, the Yankees are hoping that A-Rod can feed a more potent offense this season for the Yankees. Jeter, Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira had poor 2010 seasons.
The Yankees are hoping the top part of the lineup rebounds in 2011 and Rodriguez is clearly the key to it all as the cleanup hitter. Doctors have said Rodriguez’s hip does not require any additional surgery so it just comes down to Rodriguez being able to produce under the limitations of the hip injury.
For the Yankees to have any hopes of becoming champions again, A-Rod’s season will determine if it happens.