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?
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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.