(Hey look! Four starters!)
Well here we are. It's 2011, it's almost time for the baseball season to officially begin, and it's time to break down the Yankees 25-man roster as we head towards Opening Day. We'll start, as we did last year, with the starting lineup. And this year, as it was last year, the Yankee lineup will be one of, if not the, deepest, most dangerous, most talented lineups in all of professional baseball. At almost every position, the Yankees have a current or former All Star plugged in, and there isn't an easy out anywhere 1-9 in the batting order. At worst, the Yankees' least talented players (if there is such a thing) in their starting lineup will provide league average production. And while advanced sabermetrics might suggest that their defense isn't the strongest, they've got a handful of players who are among the best in the business in the field.
Looking around the infield, the 4 suspects are the same crew that started the last 2 years, and they are still the best all-around infield in the game. At first base, Mark Teixeira will be looking to rebound from a 2010 season of ups and downs. He was either ice cold or on fire, and a progression of small injuries as the season went on sapped him of his usual strength down the stretch, culminating in that pulled hamstring in the playoffs. Projections have Teix slated for a bounce-back year in 2011, and I believe the opportunity is there for him to have a big year and re-establish himself as the best first baseman in MLB not named Pujols. If he can shake his traditional April slump, he could set the groundwork for an All Star season very early.
At second base, the Yankees are as set as any team with 2010 MVP candidate Robinson Cano. Coming off a career year that saw him capture an ASG starting spot, a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger Award, a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group, and the Nobel Prize for Scientific Research in the Field of Chemistry, Cano will be looking to pick up where he left off in 2011. Now fully into his prime, Cano's maturity has caught up with his natural talent and there is no doubt that he is the best second baseman in baseball and the future leader of this team. Despite tempered projections, I expect another MVP-caliber year from Cano in 2011 and would be shocked if he didn't finish in the top 5 in the voting again.
We now come to 3rd base, where the majestic A-Horse, though older in age, still exhibits signs of being a premiere thoroughbred in its field. A-Rod has never looked better in Spring Training than he has this year, physically or at the plate, but it remains to be seen if he can translate the offseason workout regimen to a full healthy season of A-rodian production. The days of MVP awards are probably over for the 35-year-old Horse, but if Joe can manage his workload to keep him healthy and keep him off the DL, there's no reason not to expect A-Rod to improve his numbers across the board from 2010.
Last but not least in the infield is The Captain. No, not me. Jeter. The early offseason media lightning rod who is back with a new contract for 4 more years and 51 million more smack-a-roonies. Jeter finally accepted the reality of his age and diminishing skills after 2010 and has worked with Kevin Long to shorten his swing up and get back to being an effective leadoff hitter. How that new approach translates into regular season success is unknown, and it will be a constant topic of conversation this season if Jeter continues to struggle and calls for him to be moved down in the batting order start again. Like A-Rod, Jeter's days of being an MVP candidate are behind him, but he can still be an above-average offensive player. The biggest question will be what happens to him if he doesn't bounce back this year. The more he struggles, the more it will be talked about, and the more it will become a distraction to the team. The countdown clock has started ticking on Jeter's time as a productive full-time player. Where that clock is starting from is the question.
Anchoring the infield behind the plate is the lone new member of the lineup, former Dodger Russell Martin. After establishing himself as one of the top 3-5 catchers in the game by his 2nd season in 2007, Martin's career has been on a downturn since then thanks to declining production and a series of injuries. But the Yankees believed the talent was still there and signed him to a one-year deal to bridge the gap to the Jesus Era. If Martin can stay healthy, logic dictates that his production will increase (he's still only 28), and this signing will become a steal for the Yankees. If he doesn't, then Jesus steps in and learns on the job. It's a classic low-risk/high-reward scenario, and at the very least Martin gives the Yankees a veteran presence to handle their pitching staff and options for how they want to handle the backstop position this year now that Jorge has been relieved of those duties.
Moving into the outfield, the familiar faces return. Brett Gardner will start in left again, fully recovered from the wrist injury that derailed him last season and looking to prove that his strong first half of the '10 season was no fluke. He has looked good at the plate so far this spring and Joe has already experimented with him in the leadoff role. Should Jeter's decline at the plate continue, Gardner would be the first and probably only candidate to replace him at the top of the order. In the field, Gardner should be even better than he has been the last 2 years as he now has over a full season in The Stadium's outfield under his belt.
In center field, Curtis Granderson is looking to continue the strong finish he had to the 2010 regular season and postseason. His swing rebuild program with Kevin Long looks to be returning huge dividends as he, too, has swung the bat well this spring and should be more familiar with the Yankee Stadium centerfield dimensions as well. A recent oblique strain has his availability for Opening Day in question, but if Granderson can rebound to 2007-2008 form, he could be a dangerous weapon in the Yankee lineup, wherever Joe slots him in.
Rounding out the trio is fan favorite Nick Swisher in right. Swish is coming off a career year, capped by his first career ASG nod, and is looking to justify the Yankees giving him a new long-term deal to stay in New York. It will be interesting to see if Swish continues his more aggressive approach at the plate that he displayed last year or if he will come back a bit more to the patient side. That approach could also be affected by where Joe decides to slot him in the lineup, higher up as an on-base guy in the 2-hole or as a run producer in the 6. Either way, it should be another solid year for Swish.
The old man of the group, Jorge Posada, has finally been put out to pasture as a catcher, but still exists as a dangerous bat in the Yankee lineup at DH. Less wear and tear on his 40-year-old body should produce offensive numbers closer to what we're used to seeing from Jorge, but I also wouldn't expect a big-time bump in production. He will have to give up some at-bats to Jeter, A-Rod, and Teix as Joe gives them days off from the field, but he can still linger as a dangerous pinch hitting option off the bench. He says he wants to come back next year, but I wouldn't be surprised if this is Jorge's last season in pinstripes and in baseball. It would be nice to see him go out with a bang.
The long and short of it is that the Yankee lineup should be just as good as it was last season, with the chance to be even better. They have great righty-lefty balance, good patience, power up and down, and tons of experience. In the field, they should be solid all-around, even if a few more balls than we'd like to see get through the left side of the infield. The right side could sweep the AL Gold Gloves and the outfield is above-average. A lot of guys are coming off of down years in 2010. If a few of them pick it back up closer to their averages and the rest maintain or come close to maintaining their 2010 output, this is going to be a monster offensive team.
Projected Starting Lineup-
1) Derek Jeter- SS
2) Nick Swisher- RF
3) Mark Teixeira- 1B
4) Alex Rodriguez- 3B
5) Robinson Cano- 2B
6) Jorge Posada- DH
7) Curtis Granderson- CF
8) Russell Martin- C
9) Brett Gardner- LF