3 things that need to go right for the Yanks in 2012

Pineda played catch today, reported no problems with shoulder
Pettitte scheduled to appear in minor league game on Monday
(Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

In 24 hours, the Yankees will take the field for the first time in the 2012 season. It’s a moment we’ve been waiting for since that painful evening last October when the Yanks dropped Game 5 of the ALDS to the Tigers. Finally, we can put the off-season fully behind us. We can forget about who did what in spring training. Everyone gets a fresh slate.

On paper the Yankees have one of the best teams, if not the best team, in the league. But as we see every year, from every team, teams face difficulties and obstacles throughout the season. Some players don’t perform to expectations. Others exceed them. What is the best team on paper can turn into the third or fourth best in the standings.

While there are no sure things in baseball, the Yankees have a few players that are as close as it gets. CC Sabathia will be a highly effective workhorse. Robinson Cano will put his sweet swing on display and hit for average and power. Mariano Rivera will continue being the greatest of all time. Sure, things might go wrong there, but there’s enough history that we needn’t worry about them from the start.

There are, however, a few things that the Yankees need to break in their favor if they’re going to overcome a powerhouse AL East — and a loaded American League in general.

Offense: Keeping Alex Rodriguez healthy

True, the Yankees scored the second most runs in the AL last year while essentially missing Rodriguez for half the season. But it’s not as simple as that. The Yankees did get a half season of quality, if not elite, production from Rodriguez. It’s easy to see, especially when examining him against his replacements, that the Yankees would have scored many, many more runs had he remained in the lineup.

Part of the reason the Yankees scored so many runs last year was Curtis Granderson‘s behemoth production. Chances are he won’t reach those heights again this season. That’s not to say he’ll be bad. But we’ve so often seen players surge for a career year and then revert to their career averages the next year. Adding Rodriguez’s offense throughout the season can help balance out Granderson’s regression.

If that’s not enough, remember that an injured Rodriguez means a Nunez and Chavez platoon at third base. While there are worse replacement units, they’ll hit nowhere near Rodriguez’s capabilities. The Yankees need him to stay healthy this year, perhaps more so than in the past few seasons.

Rotation: Hiroki Kuroda‘s transition to the AL East

Heading into camp, the Yankees claimed that just two starters had set-in-stone jobs: Sabathia and Kuroda. Both made sense. Sabathia has been the Yankees’ ace for the last three seasons, and Kuroda signed as a solid No. 2 or No. 3 option. Yet despite Kuroda’s job security, he faces heavy questions in his transition from the NL West and its specious parks to the AL East and its world-class offenses.

The good news is that Kuroda has peripherals that suggest he can make the switch. Maybe he strikes out fewer hitters without having the pitcher in the ninth spot — he did strike out 29 of 80 9th-spot hitters he faced (though he also struck out 24 of 97 3rd-spot hitters, so there is that). Maybe he walks a few more batters, but he’s been so far below the league average that he has room to maneuver. And maybe he allows a few more homers.

The question is if this turns him into a league-average pitcher, or if he can still produce better than most AL pitchers despite the handicaps. If he continues inducing ground balls at a high rate, maybe he can continue outperforming his peripherals. But it’s not a guarantee at this point. All eyes will be on Kuroda to start the season.

Bullpen: David Robertson‘s dominance

Only two relievers in all of baseball struck out hitters at a better clip than Robertson last year. Despite his high walk rate, he boasted the fourth-lowest FIP among all relievers. That bodes well for his 2012 campaign. Yet at the same time, he managed to get through the entire season allowing just one home run. He also boasted the second-highest strand rate of any reliever. Those things, as we’ve seen from countless other pitchers, aren’t necessarily sustainable.

Every pitcher has his own tendencies, though, so perhaps Robertson has discovered something that he exploits in hitters and keeps his home run rate low. Maybe he does have an extra gear that he can use to get that one important batter in that one important spot, leaving runners stranded. That is to say, 2012 will tell us a lot about Robertson as a pitcher. Was he a good reliever who had a fluke 2011? Or is he really just about this good?

* * *

Every team has questions heading into every season. Really, everyone on the roster is a question mark. Players get hurt all the time, even players with clean injury histories. Every year we see good players perform below expectations. Yet there are specific things that the Yankees need to go right this year if they’re going to claim the AL East crown again. While Cano, Sabathia, and Rivera are plenty important, it’s the question marks surrounding Rodriguez, Kuroda, and Robertson that could make or break the season. Thankfully, we’ll start getting our answers in under 24 hours.

Pineda played catch today, reported no problems with shoulder
Pettitte scheduled to appear in minor league game on Monday
  • Dan

    I agree to a point (especially with ARod), but there is margin for error with the other guys.

    Even if Robertson regresses (and he has to, right?), hopefully Soriano steps up to be the pitcher we thought we were getting. So the Yankees aren’t screwed if Robertson is just okay, if Soriano steps it up, even if it’s just him building off what he did last year after the break.

    With Kuroda, I think the Yankees will be fine even if he ends up pitching like a number 4 starter. The story in the offseason was 6 starters for 5 spots. Then it became 7 starters for 5 starts. In reality it’s 10 starters for 5 starts, as Warren, Mitchell and Phelps are all probably capable of anchoring the back of a big league rotation right now. If you consider Banuelos and Betances, the Yankees may have 12 viable starting candidates this season (although they probably aren’t ready yet).

    The point is, that every SP in the rotation has some margin for error (maybe notr CC). So if Kuroda doesn’t pitch like a number 2/3 starter, the Yankees will still be okay as long as one or two of the other guys steps it up or at least doesn’t regress.

    Obviously, there are question marks with the other guys, but I’m saying the Yankees successes don’t live and die on Kuroda’s arm.

    • Johnny

      What if Robertson regresses and becomes… better! Yes! See how I twisted that? When we say regress we usually think of “becomes worse,” but what if Robertson’s 2011 season was actually not as good as he could be? What if he can actually be better than that? I’m being a little jocose, but I believe in Robertson. He’s 100% good, 200% of the time.

      • Typical MIT Nerd

        I’d love to see him become the closer but he scares the crap out of me.

        • flamingo

          Which is pretty standard for closers. Mo’s an aberration. I hope, unlikely as it seems, that he decides to push off retirement.

  • RetroRob

    I can go down the Yankees starting roster, including pitchers, and come up with a valid reason why everyone of them should have a red flag, for either a decrease in production from last year (Granderson and Robertson), fear of total collapse due to age (A-Rod and Jeter), concerns over an acceleration in declining performance (Texeira) and fear of looming injury due to heavy usuage (Pineda and Nova). It would all be doom and gloom.

    I can also go down the Yankees starting roster, including pitchers, and give a reason why everyone of them will either maintain their high level of performance, or rebound from off years.

    It is the nature of baseball fans to assume the former, and discount the latter. If I could step into a time machine and go back one year, and I told Yankee fans that the team would have Garcia and Colon in the rotation for the season, and that Phil Hughes was going to suffer a complete physical collapse, and that A-Rod would miss more games than he ever has in a season, and that the team would also underperform in one-run games and extra-inning games, causing them to underperform their pythag by several games, I’m sure their reaction would be, “OMG, does the team even play .500 baseball?” I’m sure they’d be surprised to hear the Yanks ended up beating the so-called team of the century by a comfortable margin, winning the AL East with 97 wins. (BTW And for the record, if I had a time machine, I would be traveling to much more interesting times and places.)

    In my 30+ years of watching baseball, rarely does everything go wrong or right. It’s a mix. Someone is going to have a horrible year in 2012, someone we’re all expecting to be a big player. Someone we’ve written off will come through with a big season, perhaps driven by a BABIP-luck year, similar to Posada in 2007. I don’t know who, but I know it’s going to happen, and depending on the blend of the good and the bad, the Yankees are going to win 93-99 games, and will make the postseason.

    The journey begins in less than 24 hours.

  • Typical MIT Nerd

    Those three are good. I’d add:

    1. Derek Jeter needs to stay forever young. At the top of the lineup, he’s going to kill them if the OBP slumps. And the drama about moving Gardner will suck the joy from life. Let’s see the captain come out for the team and pull himself from the leadoff spot. They aren’t helping themselves if they simply move him to #2. Jeter needs to be a leader and either produce or a swallow his ego.

    2. One young pitcher needs to come up big. Whether it’s Pineda, Hughes, or Nova they at least need a repeat of 2010 Hughes or 2011 Nova/Pineda. Any thing better will be a major bonus, especially with one of Kuroda or Pettitte filling the 2nd slot. With one of these young guys, their rotation could be a huge win. With out one, though the division will be really tight.

    3. Russell Martin needs to be rested regularly or risk a major injury. Where once they had catching depth, they’ve just turned to a 30 year old journeyman defensive specialist as a backup. This team could be one tweaked hip from a lengthy bout of Sal Molinitis. And this time there’s no goofy stache.

    • steve (different one)

      I agree with this list.

      One comment though, I didn’t love the trade they made yesterday, but it’s not like they released Cervelli. He’s still a phone call away. You are correct that they have lost depth, but Stewart doesn’t have to play full time if Martin gets hurt.

    • Paul VuvuZuvella

      I agree with Joe’s 3 and my personal 4th would be Hughes.

  • CJ

    1. ARod
    2. Pineda (Kuroda will perform close to expectation)
    3. Nova and/or Hughes 2011/2010 form
    4. DH production when one of big bats is inevitably injured or slumping (-2 bats=big trouble)
    5. Wild card production. See Nova, Nunez, Wade, Garcia, Colon of 2011. Robertson, Gardner, Aceves of 2009.

  • OldYanksFan

    2nd half Jeter as opposed to 1st half Jeter would be a big boost also.
    However, whatever happens, I expect the offense to be very strong, even if not best-in-the-league strong.

    The pitching makes the difference.

    Pineda and Nova were scary this Spring.
    Andy could be cooked, or above average.
    If Nova is 2011 Nova and Pineda is what we think he is, we will be very strong this year.

  • dalelama

    1) Clutch post season hitting
    2) Clutch post season hitting
    3) Clutch post season hitting
    4) Clutch post season hitting
    5) Clutch post season hitting

  • Wil Nieves Number 1 Fan

    According to Fangraphs, if Robertson pitched 200 innings last year he’d be worth 8.5 WAR.