(More swings like this, please. Courtesy of Getty Images)
2013 was already going to be an important year for Mark Teixeira. After a stellar Yankee debut season in 2009, the last three have been a downhill trend of offensive regression and 2013 was shaping up to be the tipping point for the rest of Teix's Yankee career. He could either bounce back and prove that he still had enough in the tank to be a consistent middle-of-the-order threat, or continue his decline, officially enter the downside of his career, and become the latest contract anchor on the payroll.
Teix's comments to Dan Barbarisi a few weeks ago showed that he was very aware that he had reached this stage in his career, and his candor and openness about his regression was refreshing to read in a modern sports world full of excuses and cliches. But that position became much less acceptable when A-Rod had his surgery and even more unacceptable when Curtis Granderson was shelved over the weekend. Teix is now more important than ever to the lineup and the Yankees' chances for success this season, a point Mike Axisa touched on earlier in the week. After spending four years flying under the radar in the Bronx, the spotlight is going to shine brighter on Teix than it ever has, and he needs to step up and meet the challenge.
"Under the radar" might seem like a stretch to describe a guy who signed a $180 million deal to play first base for the New York Yankees, and Teix's decline the last few years has received a fair share of coverage in both the Yankosphere and the MSM. But I've always felt that the level of scrutiny given to his poor performances, and in fairness the level of praise given to his excellent 2009, has been overshadowed by the performances and storylines of others.
In 2009 Teix posted a .402 wOBA, scored 100+ runs, led the team with 122 RBI, and had the second-highest fWAR total (5.2) of all the Yankee position players, but the "real" stories were Derek Jeter's MVP-caliber season, the arrival of CC and A.J. to the rotation, and Alex Rodriguez exorcising his postseason demons to lead the team to their last World Series championship. In 2010, when Teix's decline began, it was the ascension of Robinson Cano to MVP contender status and the problems in the rotation. These last two years, it's been the rise and fall and rise again of Jeter and the beginning of the end of A-Rod.
At every step, there's always been a player or a problem or a talking point that has taken center stage over what's been going on with Teix. That's not the case anymore, especially with C-Grand out of the picture until May. A-Rod is on the shelf, Jeter isn't expected to replicate last season's success, Cano is a proven commodity as one of the 5-10 best players in all of baseball, the rotation is basically set, and the rest of the lineup around Teix has taken a collective step back. Teix needs to have a bounce back year of his own this year, and he needs to start it with a bounce back April. We can safely assume that Cano is going to be Cano, but that more than likely won't be enough to carry the lineup on his own. A powerful, productive, consistent April from Teixeira will be a huge help in supplementing Cano's output and providing enough stability to make up for the expected inconsistency from the rest of the lineup, as will consistently productive months to follow.
Mark Teixeira openly admitted that he isn't worth $20 million a season, and for the last two seasons he definitely hasn't been. Truthfully no baseball player is worth that much and we all know that, but in the context of the world of MLB contracts the need for Teix to live up to that salary or at least come close to living up to it is greater than ever this year. The other guys have either faded in importance or become fixtures in what their expectations are. Teix is still a bit of a wild card for this season, and the expectations for him have grown. Another season of decreased production in the face of those expectations will be a dominating headline this year, as will a season of better production.