Monday, November 5, 2012

2012 AB4AR Season Review: The Lineup

(Last time we'll see these 3 together in a Yankee uniform.  Courtesy of Getty Images)

The older, veteran-heavy lineup that the Yankees finished 2011 with was basically back intact for 2012. With their ever-present need for starting pitching and their new need to get younger AND trim payroll costing them their best young hitting prospect in decades, that group of veterans was once again going to be looked to as the major source of offensive production even as signs were pointing towards the days of elite-level production being over for some. We knew that some of the older players in the lineup were starting to decline going in, and we learned that in some cases that decline has been accelerated and in some it’s been temporarily halted coming out. What remains unknown after this season is how much longer this infield core is going to stay together.

Despite the continued aging of the Yankee lineup, and the addition of even older players to fill the gap left by the departed Jesus Montero, the Yankee lineup remained one of the most potent in all of baseball again in 2012. The lefty-heavy group leaned on their bread-and-butter formula of power and patience, using the short porch in right field to their advantage as they slugged their way to a team record 245 home runs, a ranking at or near the top of most important offensive categories, and another postseason run. That formula was exposed in the postseason, however, and it’s starting to become more apparent that this group needs a shakeup in both personnel and approach to combat the issues that age-related regression is causing.

At the top of the order, the Yankees were fortunate to receive a surprisingly positive season from a familiar source to combat the overall trend of older player regression. Derek Jeter followed up his strong finish to 2011 with a record-setting offensive season in 2012 (.316/.362/.429, .347 wOBA in 740 PA), earning himself another ASG nomination, probably the AL Silver Slugger Award at shortstop, and possibly a fair chunk of MVP votes at age 38. Jeter’s defense continued to be a problem area, and the ankle/foot injuries he played through at the end of the season have cast a big shadow of doubt over how he will follow up in 2013 coming off of surgery, but 2012 was another successful chapter in Jeter’s great career and re-solidified him as one of this generation’s greatest players.

The second spot in the batting order spent some time in flux this season, but Nick Swisher was the most productive hitter in that spot and the guy best fit for the job. Swish was playing for a big new contract this season, and while he didn’t post career-high numbers across the board, he did put together his 4th straight season of above-average production in right field. Swish hit .272/.364/.473 (.363 wOBA), played another solid right field, stayed relatively healthy, and definitely did enough to earn himself the big payday he’s looking for this offseason, postseason struggles aside. Swish was one of the few examples of roster flexibility the Yankees had this year, and he is going to be difficult to replace after he rejects the Yankees' qualifying offer.

The middle of the lineup and the remainder of the infield is where the problems with the Yankee lineup started to crop up. They didn’t come from Robinson Cano, who had another MVP-caliber season at second base. He posted a career-high .394 wOBA, hit a career-high 33 HR, finished 2nd in the AL in fWAR at 7.8, won his second career Gold Glove, and while he didn’t hit in the playoffs either he did more than enough to set himself up for a hefty new contract, whether it comes from the Yankees or not.  He developed a strange inability to hit left-handed pitching this year, something that's worth paying attention to moving forward, but that won't stop him from becoming the highest-paid second baseman in baseball history.

The corners of the infield is where the problems started to set in. After both experiencing problems with performance and injuries last season, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez were looking to bounce back in 2012, and fans were hopeful that they could do enough to stave off permanent regression for at least 1 more year. That didn’t happen.  They each saw their offensive production drop for the 4th straight year, Teix putting up a .345 wOBA and failing to hit 30 HR while A-Rod went .342 and failed to hit 20, and both lost time to injuries.  Teix missed 39 games with wrist and calf problems, A-Rod missed 40 due to a broken hand and the need for regular days off, and the money owed to these guys moving forward no longer adds up to what they provide on the field.

Swish ultimately commanding the 2nd spot in the batting order came as a result of Curtis Granderson's devolution into the ultimate Three True Outcomes hitter this season, a change that made C-Grand better suited for 6th.  His power stayed consistent to 2011's levels as Granderson hit 43 HR, but the rest of his production took a big hit as he racked up 195 strikeouts, stole only 10 bases, and didn't hit LHP as well as he did the year before.  Curtis also had a rough year in the field, and while it was an easy decision to pick up his 2013 option, he may have to do some serious work repairing this year's damage next season if he wants to get a new contract offer from the Yankees.

The bottom third of the order was a constantly-rotating cast of characters brought about by Brett Gardner's early-April elbow injury.  The one constant presence at the bottom of the order was Russell Martin, who didn't make himself look very smart for declining the Yankees' 3-year contract offer when he spent the majority of the season below the Mendoza Line and needed a good September just to finish at .211/.311/.403.  Martin and the Yanks will likely come up with a new deal for 2013, as he does still bring power to the table (21 HR) and is a solid defensive catcher, but a step up from 2011 this year was not.

 The themes that defined the 2012 season for the Yankee lineup were not unfamiliar.  They were old, they were slow, they battled injuries, and there was more decline in overall production than advancement.  But they were also a powerful, dangerous lineup capable of beating any pitcher on any given day and they still commanded a lot of respect from the rest of the American League.  The problem is that the doomsday clock on this crew has been accelerated with the results of this season, and there probably aren't many more seasons of top-shelf production left for this group, if there is even 1.  This recent core has already started to be broken up (bye, Swish), and it's getting close to the time for the next group to start to be phased in.  Ultimately, I believe 2012 will go down as the beginning of the end of this core group of Yankee hitters.

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