(3/4 of the best infield in baseball or... ?)
The 2012 New York Yankees lineup will look almost identical to the one they put on the field for the majority of the 2011 season. For a big budget team with all its big guys under contract, that's not very surprising. What is surprising is the path the Yankees chose to take in changing the lineup this season, as what was supposed to be an injection of youth in the form of Jesus Montero as the everyday DH turned into a blockbuster trade to improve the rotation and a subsequent cost-conscious signing of an aging player not much younger than Jorge Posada was when he was the Opening Day DH last year. There might be a bit of a course for concern here, as there are some members of the Yankee lineup who have settled into the downside of their careers, and a young bat like Montero's could have been the perfect way to balance the past and present that those players represent with the future that Montero represented. Even in the downside, however, the Yankee veterans are still capable of producing at an above-average level. It's exactly how far above the above-average level that will determine whether this lineup takes a step back towards the rest of the pack or once again lays claim to being the best lineup in baseball.
At the top of the order, things will look the same as they did last season with the The Captain, Derek Jeter, leading off again. Jeter is coming off a major up-and-down season in 2011, with the first half being way down and the second half being way up. He'll be looking to build off that strong finish to his 2011 and after a slow start in camp, and another calf injury, he has picked it up recently at the plate and still looks to have enough bat speed to be effective. His defense at short is what it is at this point, and expecting a repeat of his 2011 second half for a full season might be overreaching, but another solid all-around year would go a long way in building confidence that Jeter can remain useful through the remaining life of his contract.
Hitting behind Jeter will once again be center fielder Curtis Granderson, coming off a career year and a year not had by a Yankee outfielder in quite some time. Curtis has come out of the gate swinging in 2012 and looks primed to put together another MVP-caliber season. Projections across the board have him slated for a drop in power production, which is reasonable to expect after the 41 home runs he put up last year. But Granderson is so tuned in to his new swing mechanics that he can recognize when his swing is on and when it's not, something that could never be said about Granderson before. Even if the HR numbers drop, Granderson's increasing self-awareness at the plate and goal to cut down on strikeouts could lead to another monster year without the 40+ dingers.
More after the jump
Moving to the heart of the order is where we start to see some changes. After much too long, Robinson Cano has finally been moved to the 3rd spot in the batting order where he belongs. Cano is clearly the most dangerous bat in the Yankee lineup and one of the best hitters in baseball, and the argument for whether or not he is the best second baseman in baseball is long over. The only thing that keeps Cano from being a legitimate MVP candidate instead of just an MVP contender is his patience at the plate. After an improvement in that part of his game in 2010, Cano regressed back to his usual low BB rate, negatively impacting his OBP and overall effectiveness as a middle-of-the-order hitter. Even a slight improvement from last year's 5.6% could go a long way in helping Cano take the next step to the elite levels of offensive players.
In the cleanup spot behind Cano is where we find the first of our big bounce-back candidates for 2012 in Alex Rodriguez. 2011 was basically a lost year for A-Rod, as he fought various injuries and the negative effects they had on his swing all year. Shoulder, knee, and hip problems prevented The Horse from ever getting his body in sync and fully coordinated into his swing and the results were his lowest output ever (16 HR, 62 RBI, .361 wOBA). After an offseason spent getting healthy, A-Rod has looked very good this spring, both at the plate and in the field. The Yankees are going to have to be cognizant of his health during the season and have to stay committed to giving him regular rest, but if they can get 130+ games out of him, A-Rod could surprise some people with his production. When he is healthy, he's still arguably the best third baseman in baseball, both with the glove and with his bat. If the joints that have plagued him are feeling good and his swing is back in tune, he could do a lot of damage.
After A-Rod comes the former #3 hitter in the lineup, and someone who may have overtaken A-Rod as the hitter under the most scrutiny this year in Mark Teixeira. Teix has had the misfortune of seeing his numbers decline in every season since he joined the Yankees, culminating in his devolution into a platoon power hitter last season. Teix addressed the problems during the year, took the first steps to fixing them in the offseason, and has dedicated himself to improving from the left side of the plate in ST. The results have been noticeably better, with a lot of solid contact and hits the other way, but there hasn't been much power from Teix yet. Like A-Rod, he is capable of being one of, if not the best at his position when everything is clicking thanks to his Gold Glove-caliber defense. It will be worth watching how the conscious effort to go the other way more will affect his power from the left side once the season starts, but don't sleep on Teix as a darkhorse MVP candidate.
Moving to the bottom half of the lineup, we come across the man who might be the most consistent Yankee over the past 3 seasons and who might find himself in a different uniform after this one. At age 31, Nick Swisher enters a contract year looking to capitalize on the career-best production he has put up in pinstripes and earn himself a big-time payday. The general consensus is that he won't get that money from the Yankees, who are hampered by their future goals of a decreased payroll, but a big season could change their plans. Swish got into the best shape of his career according to him in the offseason and when he has been on the field this spring he has looked good. Groin issues have robbed him of some ABs, but Swish will be ready for Opening Day. He hits for power, takes walks, plays a damn good right field, and is a great clubhouse presence. Whoever ends up with him is getting a helluva player.
The lone new addition to the lineup, Raul Ibanez, will hit in the 7-spot this season, at least to start. Ibanez was the player the Yankees had their eye on after the Montero trade to help build a DH-by-committee, and he should get the lion's share of the ABs from the DH spot if he's healthy. Ibanez looked criminally slow at the plate and in the field for the early part of Spring Training, but has gotten it together over the past couple weeks and is now hitting the ball with more authority. At age 39, it's unknown how much he has left in the tank, but he's here to hit right-handed pitching and that's something he can still do very well. A tripleslash somewhere between his 2009-2010 numbers combined with power output from last season would be more than acceptable.
The other Yankee playing for a new contract will hit eighth this season, and Russell Martin stands a much better chance of being re-signed by New York than Swish does. Martin is coming off of a good but not great year. He did just enough to remind people that he's still in his prime and still a good catcher, but not enough for the Yankees to shell out big dollars and multiple years to keep him around. Martin responded to his one-year contract well, getting himself into prime shape before camp and he'll be looking to build on his success from 2011. A year of working with the current members of the Yankee rotation under his belt and his familiarity with newcomer Hirok Kuroda should increase his defensive value this year, and if he stays healthy enough he could go 20/20 with HR and SB.
Last but not least we have the #9/2nd leadoff hitter in left fielder Brett Gardner. Gardner brings more to the table than most teams' #9 hitters thanks to his ability to make contact, his ability to draw walks, and his tremendous speed that creates value both on the basepaths and in the outfield where the greatest crime in baseball might be the fact that Gardner has not won a Gold Glove yet. Gardner has to overcome the perception that he's inconsistent at the plate and fades in the second half, and will look to do that with the help of improved bunting skills and by staying healthy. If he can smooth out some of the peaks and valleys in his performance, a .280/.380/.400 line with 100 R and 50 SB is not out of the question. And of course there will always be the talk of moving him up to the leadoff spot if he is hitting well and Jeter is not. It wouldn't be an overstatement to call Brett Gardner the most valuable #9 hitter in baseball.
The 2012 Yankee lineup will once again be one of the most formidable in the game on paper. How that will translate onto the field remains to be seen. The line between being the best in the game and just good is very thin with this group because of its age, and the older veterans are going to be counted on to improve upon their 2011 seasons and get back to being the elite-level hitters they have been before, or at least close to it. There is no youth movement coming this year to steal at-bats from anybody; these are the guys. If everything goes well, the Yankees could be looking at 2, maybe 3 guys from this lineup being in the top 10 of the AL MVP voting when all is said and done. Here's hoping that things go well and a strong lineup, both offensively and defensively, continues to be a staple of this team.
Projected 2012 Lineup-
1) Derek Jeter- SS
2) Curtis Granderson- CF
3) Robinson Cano- 2B
4) Alex Rodriguez- 3B
5) Mark Teixeira- 1B
6) Nick Swisher- RF
7) Raul Ibanez- DH
8) Russell Martin- C
9) Brett Gardner- LF