New York Yankees
The Yankees fell short of the World Series for the seventh time in eight seasons, but this remains a formidable team. A deep lineup returns, and so does ace lefty CC Sabathia, who fronts a rotation fortified by the additions of veteran Hiroki Kuroda and 23-year-old All-Star Michael Pineda. With those arms, all those hitters, a stingy bullpen, and the money and prospects to have plenty of trade options, the Yankees are poised for another turn in October.
The Yankees avoided the doomsday scenario of losing their ace when Sabathia agreed to a one-year contract extension, with a vesting option for a second year, instead of opting out of his contract to explore free agency. Sabathia could end up making $50 million over the 2016 and 2017 seasons, but the Yankees can afford it, and they had no other options. Sabathia is 64–24 in three years with the Yankees, including a 5–1 mark in the postseason, and at 31, he is still squarely in his prime. He settles a rotation that was much sturdier than expected last season and got a boost in mid-January with the signing of Kuroda and the trade for Pineda, a hard-throwing righty with five years remaining before free agency. Ivan Nova returns after going 16–4 as a rookie, leaving Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia – once a hard thrower, now a craftsman — to compete for the final spot in the rotation. That gives the Yankees plenty of depth, and they also have a crop of prospects at Class AAA to plug holes during the season.
Despite losing Joba Chamberlain and Pedro Feliciano to injuries — and with Rafael Soriano sidelined for much of the season — the Yankees still posted the best bullpen ERA in the American League, at 3.12. Mariano Rivera was his usual incomparable self, passing Trevor Hoffman for the career saves record and blowing only one save opportunity in the second half. Rivera turned 42 in November, and as he enters the final year of his contract, he has made no commitment about his future. That will be an ongoing storyline, as will the performance of Soriano, who was signed with the notion that he might replace Rivera in 2013. Soriano has a player option for next season, but he must first prove he can repeat his success as a closer while pitching in a setup role. Last season, David Robertson was the Yankees’ most effective setup man, earning an All-Star spot, fanning 100 batters in 66.2 innings and posting a 1.08 ERA. Boone Logan returns to neutralize lefties, and Chamberlain could be back at midseason if his recovery from Tommy John surgery goes as planned.
Derek Jeter was a daily soap opera for months after the 2010 season, with contentious contract negotiations, a sluggish first half and a disabled list stint for a strained calf. But once Jeter zoomed past 3,000 hits — having reached the milestone on a home run off Tampa Bay lefty David Price, as part of a 5-for-5 day — the questions about his age and salary subsided, and Jeter reverted to his status as the revered and reliable Captain. His range at shortstop will never be great, but he makes few mistakes, and at 37, he has a capable backup in Eduardo Nunez. Jeter made 10 starts at DH last season, a career high, and will probably make more in 2012. Second baseman Robinson Cano, meanwhile, flashed a terrific glove in the field while leaving no doubt that he was the Yankees’ best offensive player. Cano finished second in the league in extra-base hits and ranked among the top four in total bases for the third year in a row. He set career highs in runs (104) and RBIs (118), although his walks fell and his strikeouts increased, a trend he must reverse as he tries to extend his prime. At 29 years old, with free agency in his sights after the 2013 season, expect Cano to continue his ascent.
The Yankees are still in the first half of the massive contracts for their corner infielders, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira. And while both remain feared hitters in the middle of the lineup, they are coming off possibly their worst seasons. Teixeira, the first baseman, hit a career-low .248 with an .835 OPS, the lowest figure for him since his rookie season. Rodriguez, the third baseman, had an even lower OPS, .823, his worst since he turned 20. Rodriguez turns 37 in July, and while the three-time MVP vows to work extremely hard every winter, his body keeps betraying him. Rodriguez has not played 140 games in a season since 2007, and he is signed through 2017 at an average annual salary of $27.5 million. That means Nunez or Eric Chavez could see increased playing time at third, with Rodriguez seeing more time at DH. Teixeira remains an elite power hitter, but while he hit .302 from the right side last season, he slumped to .224 as a lefty. That must change, and at 32 this April, Teixeira is still young enough that his 2011 season can be considered more of a fluke than a trend. At least, that is what the Yankees must believe, because at $22.5 million per year through 2016, they have no other choice.
The aging infielders carry more star power, but the Yankees get a lot of production from their younger outfield. Centerfielder Curtis Granderson, 31, led the team in runs, homers and RBIs, and became the first player ever with 40 homers, 10 triples and 25 steals in the same season. His speed helps him patrol a lot of ground in center field, and leftfielder Brett Gardner can track down a lot of balls Granderson might not reach. Gardner is one of the majors’ fastest players, and his 49 steals tied for the league lead. Gardner’s walk rate declined last year, though he made more contact at the plate and — depending on which advanced defensive metrics you believe — he might save more outs than any other outfielder in the league. Rightfielder Nick Swisher has been anemic in the postseason as a Yankee (.160 average), but the organization was smart enough to look past that and see the value in his ability to get on base and hit home runs. Swisher is much more dangerous as a right-handed hitter, but he is capable as a lefty. He plays a decent right field, and while Swisher is a bit of a showman, he genuinely loves playing in the Bronx, and the fans appreciate his effort. Newcomer Raul Ibañez will likely take some of Swisher’s at-bats against right-handed pitching.
A team rich in catching prospects did not seem like the ideal fit for Russell Martin, but the Yankees were thrilled to add the former Dodger All-Star last winter. He’ll be back again in 2012, and not just as a stopgap for Austin Romine or Gary Sanchez. The Yankees loved the way Martin managed the pitching staff, and with 18 homers and 65 RBIs, he was more than adequate as a run producer. Martin can be a free agent after the season, and at that point the Yankees must decide if Romine is ready for full-time duty as the heir to the position held with such dignity by Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson and Jorge Posada.
With aging superstars like Jeter, Rodriguez — and, to a lesser extent, Teixeira — needing time at designated hitter, Nunez becomes a pivotal piece for the Yankees. Nunez could start for a lot of teams, but the Yankees have resisted trading him because of how easily he slides into the left side of the infield when Jeter or Rodriguez need a break. Nunez was prone to defensive mistakes (20 errors), but all the tools are there to be a solid fielder, and he stole 22 bases last year as a fill-in. Ibañez and Andruw Jones will start most often as the designated hitter. Among bench options, Jones gives the Yankees a strong power bat against lefties and Chavez against righties.
Joe Girardi, who enters his fifth season, excels at the two most important facets of managing this team: maneuvering a deep bullpen to compensate for a so-so rotation, and getting the most from his veterans by knowing when to rest them. Girardi has the firm backing of the Steinbrenner family and general manager Brian Cashman, who re-signed for three more years and has wisely used the Steinbrenner money to build a fearsome major league roster and a strong farm system.
The Yankees’ bats went cold in the playoffs, but over the long season, this lineup will produce. The Yankees won 97 games last season, and with the improvements to their rotation, they should crack 100 this year and fend off the Red Sox, Rays and Blue Jays for yet another AL East crown.
SS Derek Jeter (R)
Quieted critics with a second-half surge that evoked the Jeter of Old, not the Old Jeter.
CF Curtis Granderson (L)
No longer struggles against lefties, with a .272 average and a .597 slugging percentage in 2011.
2B Robinson Cano (L)
A free swinger (just 38 walks), but what a swing it is; seems to hit everything hard.
3B Alex Rodriguez (R)
Midseason knee surgery ended his record streak of 13 seasons with at least 30 homers and 100 RBIs.
1B Mark Teixeira (S)
Hit just .239 on balls in play, suggesting bad luck or better defensive positioning against him.
RF Nick Swisher (S)
Mark it down: good for 20+ homers, 80+ RBIs and .360 on-base percentage every year.
DH Raul Ibañez (L)
Hit just .245 with a .289 OBP (.211/.232 vs. LHP), but Yankees hope his power (20 HR) will translate well at Yankee Stadium. Will most likely platoon with Andruw Jones.
C Russell Martin (R)
Professionalism and power give Yanks a big boost and buy time for prospects to mature.
LF Brett Gardner (L)
Yanks love the way he sets the table for the top of the order.
C Francisco Cervelli (R)
Solid hitter, but has caught only 13 of 92 potential base-stealers in last two years.
INF Eduardo Nunez (R)
Made 83 starts at various spots last year; allows Jeter to ‘rest’ as the DH.
3B Eric Chavez (L)
Solid left-handed option at third and is strong defensively.
OF Andruw Jones (R)
Former home run champ can still mash, with a .923 OPS against lefties last year
LH C.C. Sabathia
Eleven MLB seasons, all with a winning record, and he’s only 31 years old.
RH Hiroki Kuroda
Made 11 quality starts in 14 post-All-Star break starts for the Dodgers last season.
RH Ivan Nova
Hard to believe the Yankees once lost him in Rule 5 draft — and Padres gave him back.
RH Michael Pineda
Fastball averaged 94.7 mph last year, fourth-best among starters in the majors.
RH Phil Hughes
Has proven he can start or relieve at the big-league level, but struggled for consistency.
RH Mariano Rivera (Closer)
Had 7.5 strikeouts for every walk, the second-best ratio of his storied career.
RH David Robertson
AL-best 13.50 strikeouts per nine innings for pitchers with at least 65 innings pitched.
RH Rafael Soriano
Before his May elbow injury: 5.40 ERA; after his July return: 3.33.
RH Freddy Garcia
Veteran has value as a long man or reliable insurance policy for rotation.
RH Cory Wade
Former Dodger surfaced as useful middle man with curveball/changeup mix.
LH Boone Logan
Lefties and righties had the same OBP off him last season: .328.
RH Joba Chamberlain
Underwent Tommy John surgery last June, which puts him on track to return in midseason.
Other teams' 2012 Previews:
Los Angeles Angels
Los Angeles Dodgers
New York Mets
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
St. Louis Cardinals