(Courtesy of The AP)
We kick off the 2012 season preview today with the knowns and unknowns surrounding the infield.
What We Know- Who The Usual Suspects Are
For the 4th straight year, the Yankees will open their season with the same quartet starting around the infield. And while they aren't as sure a bet to be named the hands down best infield in baseball as they were a few years ago, there's still plenty of hardware spread around the dirt that opposing teams and opposing pitchers have to respect. Offensively, these four will continue to be the driving force of the Yankee attack, occupying 4 of the top 5 spots in the lineup. Defensively, despite Jeter's continuing issues with declining range, this group still boasts two of the best in the business at the corners in A-Rod and Teix and a Gold Glover at second in Robbie Cano.
What We Don't Know- How They Will Follow Up on Their 2011s
This group is coming off a season of mixed results last year, some having better numbers than were expected, some having worse, and some sitting right about where they were expected to be. With some of the team's older players located in the infield, there will be concerns about injuries and age-related decline in 2012, especially on the left side with Jeter and A-Rod, both of whom spent time on the DL last year. On the right side, the questions are a bit fewer and the concerns are a bit smaller. Teix is still an above-average power hitter and run producer in the middle of the lineup, but his overall hitting profile was brought into question after a 3rd straight season with declining BA/OBP/SLG numbers. Cano is the constant amongst this group; always on the field and always contributing.
More after the jump
What We Know- Robinson Cano is Officially "The Man"
He may be a few years away from being paid like The Man, but make no mistake about it, Robinson Cano is the best player in the Yankee lineup. In fact, he has been for some time now, posting 3 straight seasons of .300/.350/.520+ slash lines and .370+ wOBA values. The final part of Cano's coming out party took place last summer when he entered and won the HR Derby, putting on an incredible show and introducing himself to the rest of the baseball masses. It took until late in the 2011 season for Joe to finally recognize that Cano was his biggest weapon and move him from the 5th spot in the lineup to the 3rd, but he was smart enough to stick with that plan for this season and should be rewarded for it with another big year from Cano.
What We Don't Know- If A-Rod and Teix Can Get Back to Being The Men They Were
A big part of Cano's quick ascension to the head of the pack has been the decline of the Yankees' 2 biggest boppers, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira. The Horse experienced his 4th straight season in pinstripes that was hampered by injuries in 2011, last season being the worst. He only played in 99 games and his streak of 13 consecutive seasons of 30+HR and 100+RBI was broken. Teix, despite putting up excellent power numbers, watched his batting line drop for the 3rd straight year since he joined the Bombers. The allure of the short porch in right has drastically affected his swing from the left side and limited his value as a switch hitter. Both guys worked hard this offseason to prepare themselves for bounce-back 2012 campaigns, and both have looked good in Spring Training. It remains to be seen if they can carry that over to the regular season. He may not be capable of putting up 2007 MVP numbers anymore, but A-Rod should be able to hit 30/100 if he stays healthy, and Teix should not be nearly as far removed from his .308/.410/.552 line that he put up the year before he joined the Yankees as he is.
What We Know- Derek Jeter Silenced The Critics Last Year The whispers that started creeping up about Jeter being done at the end of the 2010 season grew louder as the 2011 season opened. Jeter's bat still looked slow and popless, and he was hitting everything on the ground to the left side of the infield. After suffering a calf injury in June, though, he spent some of his recovery time working on his swing and when he made his return to the lineup on July 4th he was a different player. From then on, Jeter put up a .367 wOBA, good enough to raise his final season slash line to .297/.355/.388. That's not too shabby for a 37-year-old middle infielder, and it was enough to keep the Jeter decline talk to a minimum this spring as he geared up for another run.
What We Don't Know- How Much Longer He Can Keep Them Silent
The talk may be silenced for the time being, but Jeter didn't get off to a great start in camp, hitting a lot of balls on the ground again and then missing about a week after straining his calf again. He came back a few days ago and blasted a HR and a double in yesterday's game, but Jeter is going to have to continue to produce in a fashion similar to the 2nd half of last season, or at least something close to that, to keep people from restarting the "how much does Jeter have left?" talks. He turns 38 this year, and sooner or later Father Time has to catch up to him. If or when that happens this season, don't expect the media to stay quiet. If they were quick to question whether a 36-year-old Derek Jeter was washed up, they should be even quicker to raise those same questions about the 38-year-old version.
** Coming up tomorrow. The knowns and unknowns in the outfield. **