A more appropriate title for this post might have been "The 5 Most Important Yankees For 2012 Besides the Obvious Choices." We can all agree that CC is important because he's the ace of the staff and if he went down that would be a problem. Same with Cano as the best hitter in the lineup or Mo as the closer. I wanted to think outside that box a little and find the 5 guys on the roster who I think will make the difference between the 2012 edition of the New York Yankees being a good team and a great team; between losing in the ALCS and winning the World Series. I'm sure there will be some disagreement with my choices, but these 5 guys are my most important Yankees for 2012.
1) Russell Martin
The abundance of upper-level catching depth that the Yankees had last season has vanished with the retirement of Jorge Posada, the trading away of Jesus Montero, and the continuing back problems of Austin Romine. Russell Martin's value to the team increased slightly with each of those occurrences, and now with the Yankees scrambling to replace the missing depth through minor moves he becomes even more important. No offense to the Francisco Cervellis, Craig Tatums, or Chris Stewarts of the world, but if they are getting regular at-bats as part of an everyday Yankee lineup in place of Martin, that's not a good thing. Martin is a former Silver Slugger at the plate and a former Gold Glove winner behind it. He's familiar with everybody on the Yankee staff and looking to make a big splash in a contract year. A healthy, productive Martin makes the lineup deeper and more dangerous, and the drop-off from his production to that of any of the current backup options is significant.
2) Derek Jeter
Jeter might be the biggest wild card in the lineup in terms of which way his production can go this season. The way he finished 2011 has created elevated expectations for him this season, and he has looked good again at the plate this spring since coming back from his calf strain. But don't forget that he was close to below average for the early part of last season, and history is working against him as a 37-year-old shortstop turning 38 in the summer. A repeat of 2011's second half, or something close to it, would be great from Jeter. It would create more RBI opportunities for the hitters behind him, inspire confidence that Jeter can at least remain serviceable through the end of his contract, and mask his defensive deficiencies to a certain degree. A step back towards his 2010-early 2011 numbers makes that contract look worse and brings back the "Joe should move Jeter out of the leadoff spot" media frenzy that nobody wants to deal with.
Last 3 after the jump
3) Rafael Soriano
He was eyed as a potential replacement for Mo when the Yankees signed him, but Soriano definitely didn't live up that billing last year. With D-Rob a candidate for regression this season and the Yankees not being able to count on Joba or David Aardsma to pitch high-leverage innings if and when they return from the DL, Soriano becomes the key piece to the bullpen. As a former closer, Soriano gives the Yankees a reliable in-house backup option to both Robertson as the setup man and Mo as the closer. On almost any other team in the American League Soriano would be the closer, and he's had some very good years in that role. On the Yankees, he's pitching the 7th inning. A repeat of his past good seasons gives the Yankees a shutdown crew for the 7th-9th innings and that added insurance for D-Rob and Mo. Another bad year could expose the bullpen as being a bit shallow compared to last season, especially if the middle relievers stuggle.
4) Alex Rodriguez
He's not the all-world player he used to be, but when he's healthy Alex Rodriguez is still the best third baseman in baseball. Remember that he was hitting .290/.407/.609 at the end of April last season. Those health questions and the spot he occupies in the lineup make him the most important piece out of the Yankees' group of run producers. You pretty much know what you're going to get from Cano and Swish in their spots, and even if he doesn't make any improvements from the left side, Teixeira is still going to drive in runs because of his power. A big season from A-Rod in the clean up spot makes the middle of the Yankee lineup very, very dangerous again. Another down, injury-filled year creates a gap in a big run-producing spot and shortens the lineup through whatever players are used to replace him, not to mention the drop off in defensive value at third base. 16 HR and 62 RBI isn't going to cut it again. For the sake of comparison, Martin had 18 and 65 last year. If A-Rod is healthy and mashing, the Yankee lineup can be the best in the AL. It's that simple.
5) Michael Pineda
We won't see him around for a still yet-to-be-determined amount of time, but Pineda's value to the rotation follows a similar logic to A-Rod and the lineup. CC is the ace and barring injury there's no reason to expect him to not perform to his usual levels. Kuroda can be counted on as a solid #2, and Hughes and Nova, even at their peaks, are probably #3 starters at best. Pineda is already a legit #2 starter, with the ceiling of a #1 if he continues to improve his secondary stuff. Conditioning problems and down velocity aside, he has top-shelf stuff already and was making great strides with his changeup. Assuming he is able to work his way back into form later this season, having that kind of arm on standby is an option that few other teams have. And being able to roll Pineda out behind CC and Kuroda in a postseason series gives the Yankees a rotation that's just as deep and potentially dominant as their lineup. CC, Kuroda, Hughes, Nova is good. CC, Kuroda, Pineda, Hughes, Nova could be great.