Which Alex Rodriguez is going to show up for the Yankees in 2012? (Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-US PRESSWIRE)
There's not a whole lot the Yankees have to complain about heading into 2012. The team isn't perfect, but baseball teams so rarely are: you don't need perfection in order to make it to the postseason. Just like Boston, the lineup is ridiculous. They're generally a good defensive team. The rotation has its questions, but it has plenty of definitive answers, too. Mariano Rivera still exists, and he's joined by a slew of worthy relievers auditioning for what will likely be a vacated job in 2013. The Yankees are a complete team, and a dangerous one, and even with the Angels loading up out west, it's likely that they're playoff-bound in this new Wild Card system.
The lineup looks mostly the same, as the team mostly made tweaks on the margins. The rotation looks vastly different, and that's where projecting the 2012 Yankees to greatness comes easier than it did for the 2011 version. Much like with the Rays (and, despite what CBS says, the Red Sox), the AL is going to have its hands full with the Yankees this year.
All projected players come from MLB Depth Charts.
C - Russell Martin: Martin had something of a resurgent campaign in 2011, finishing the year one shy of his career-high in homers, and hitting .237/.324/.408. He's not the greatest catcher at the plate, but he's good enough, and he makes up for it with his defense. As usual, the thing to watch with Martin is how much he tires as the season progresses. More Francisco Cervelli isn't a bad thing if it keeps Martin fresh.
1B - Mark Teixeira: It's easy to discount what Teixeira is capable of by looking at his paycheck. After all, it's similar to Adrian Gonzalez, so one assumes the production would be similar. It hasn't been as of late, but the .252/.353/.487 and 121 OPS+ combined with top-notch defense they have received from him the last two years is still great, and the Yankees can afford to be paying him more than he's worth. New York is a worse team without him, especially in this new environment where teams like the Angels, Reds, Marlins, and Tigers are threats to spend heavily at first base.
2B - Robinson Cano: Cano, along with Dustin Pedroia and Ben Zobrist, is one of the best second baseman in the American League. There's little that separates the three in value, as they're all very close together in OPS+ over the last three years (130, 121, and 126, respectively) and while Cano is a good defender, Pedroia and Zobrist close the gap in hitting with their excellent gloves. There's no wrong answer as to which second baseman a team would like to have. Cano is one of the most productive Yankees, and that's saying something.
3B - Alex Rodriguez: Which Rodriguez are the Yankees going to get this year? The one who didn't make it into 100 games last year, and had a productive, but not-quite-Alex-Rodriguez 116 OPS? Or will the experimental knee surgery he underwent fix his problems, and help him get back to being the A-Rod of old? The Yankees aren't hurting for offense, but like with Boston and Kevin Youkilis, they would be much more assured of their position within the division should their third baseman show up and play more often than not.
SS - Derek Jeter: Jeter has slipped precipitously since 2009, as he's been worth a combined two wins since then thanks to a declining bat and never-there glove. If Jeter is well below-average at short, it's not going to derail the Yankees -- the 2010 and 2011 teams say hi -- and they can certainly afford to pay him for his name for the next two years. His bat isn't going to kill them since he still gets on base and hits for average, and the rest of the defense (and lineup) can make up for his glove easily.
LF - Brett Gardner: Gardner is fascinating, as he's a ridiculous defensive player who gets on base but lacks power. He's similar in some ways to how Jacoby Ellsbury was viewed heading into the 2010 season, when Boston had him in left with Mike Cameron in center. He'll need to get on base more often in 2012 to avoid being the weak link in the lineup, but as long as he keeps that range, the Yankees won't mind the light bat.
CF - Curtis Granderson: It's easy to put up with lower offensive output in left when you've got Curtis Granderson in center, anyway. There are plenty of reasons to believe he'll be excellent in 2012, as he was in 2011 -- lefties haven't been a problem for him for longer than just last year.
RF - Nick Swisher: Swisher has a 123 OPS+ over the last three years, and has played in exactly 150 games each of the three years he's been with the Yankees. He's reliable and predictable, as far as baseball players go, and as long as he doesn't age a few years at a time each season over 30, he'll likely be productive once more.
DH - Raul Ibanez/Andruw Jones: Jesus Montero can be dealt for young, cost-controlled pitching when you can just slap together inexpensive veterans with complementary platoon splits as a designated hitter.
Sabathia will likely be one of the game's best starting pitchers yet again. Kuroda might see an increase in homers allowed, but he's a command guy capable of missing bats -- he'll be just fine in the AL East. Phil Hughes was a disaster in 2011, but if he's healthy, this is a guy who had a lot of expectations. He was much more tolerable in the second half of the season, though still not very good. Ivan Nova has had a weird spring, as he's struck out 17 and walked just three over 22 innings, but is giving up tons of hits, including five homers, and hasn't induced the groundballs he's known for. It's just spring, of course, but if something ends up being the matter, we can't say Nova wasn't warning people. Freddy Garcia was a pleasant surprise in 2011, and as long as Hughes and Nova keep it up, not a whole lot will be expected from him for 2012. That's because Michael Pineda, who you don't see listed here, is a more likely rotation member for the duration of the season: he's just starting the year on the DL with shoulder tendinitis. [Update 10:34 am: I was reminded that the Yankees also have Andy Pettitte waiting in the wings in case someone falters, giving them significant depth in the rotation.]
The bullpen is anchored by Rivera, as it always is. David Robertson and Rafael Soriano are a fantastic duo to setup, and these three give the Yankees a strong bullpen. With Hughes, Nova, and Garcia, though, it's likely the New York will need to rely on their middle relievers to get them through, too. Boone Logan and Cory Wade are likely up to that task, but after that, it's less clear.
They aren't perfect, but neither are their opponents. As long as the rotation holds together, and the lineup avoids having too many significant injuries, then the Yankees will likely finish near or at the top of the AL East. Sound like a familiar story? Maybe one we've been telling all winter about their two most significant rivals out east? This division is both glorious and torture for all involved.