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

(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?

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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.

Pineda played catch today, reported no problems with shoulder

Via Joel Sherman, right-hander Michael Pineda played catch for about eight minutes off flat ground today and reported no problems with his shoulder. He also worked on his delivery in the bullpen without actually throwing a ball.

Pitching coach Larry Rothschild said he and Pineda worked on staying more in line with the plate rather than getting around the ball today, which he was doing both in camp this year and at times with the Mariners last season. That caused the cut we saw on his fastball and sapped some velocity. I’m not sure what the next step will be, but it’s obviously good news that he was able to throw without discomfort so soon after being diagnosed with shoulder tendinitis.

Yankees claim Cody Eppley off waivers

The Yankees have claimed right-handed reliever Cody Eppley off waivers from the Rangers, the team announced. He’s been assigned to Triple-A Empire State and effectively replaces the traded George Kontos on the relief depth chart. The Yankees had an open 40-man roster spot, so no other move was necessary.

The 26-year-old Eppley is a big tall guy (listed at a 6-foot-5) with a low arm slot, replying on an upper-80s fastball and a sweepy upper-70s slider. He has a history of crushing right-handed batters, holding them to a .217/.301/.279 batting line with a 26.7% strikeout rate in Triple-A last season. In his big league debut with Texas last season, he gave up eight runs in nine innings. Here’s some video.

2012 RAB Staff Predictions

Back in the day when RAB was just the three of us — Ben, Joe, and myself — we never really bothered to make predictions. Joe and I might have done them on a podcast at some point, but never as a post on the site. We’ve added a few people to the staff over the last year or so, and I figured now was a good time to break out the prediction post.

Like the homers we are, seven of the eight of us picked the Yankees to win the World Series. O’Grady’s already been banned from the site, don’t worry. Apologies in advance for having to scroll, but the Google Doc is too big and I couldn’t find a way to fit it into the margins of the site and keep it reasonably readable as well. Feel free to leave your predictions in the comments, as well as tell us how stupid ours are.

The Mason Williams Watch

Last week I asked you to vote for this season’s Prospect Watch, and nearly 3,300 responses later, we have our answer. Low-A Charleston center fielder Mason Williams received 31% of the vote and will have his season tracked and highlighted in our sidebar. Last year’s Prospect Watch prospect — Manny Banuelos — finished second with 27%. Gary Sanchez was a distant third at 17%.

Williams, 20, hit .349/.395/.468 with 28 steals in 298 plate appearances for Short Season Staten Island in 2011. I ranked him as the club’s second best prospect before the start of Spring Training while Keith Law (#34), Baseball America (#85), and Kevin Goldstein (#99) all consider him one of the game’s 100 best prospects. Williams is a contact-oriented speed guy, so I wouldn’t expect a ton of homers this summer. Double-digits would be a pleasant surprise. The minor league season starts tonight, and I think we’re all hoping Mason raises some hell right away.

Joey Votto, Matt Cain, and the Yankees

(John Sommers II/Getty Images)

Two or three years ago it appeared that baseball salaries were taking a slight step backward, particularly when it came to older players on the free agent market. That last part is still very much true, but baseball salaries are once again booming. We’ve seen three of baseball’s five $200M+ contracts handed out over the last four months and eight $100M+ deals handed out since late-October. The Yankees were involved in only one of those transactions: CC Sabathia‘s new five-year, $122.5M extension.

It appears as though the sale of the Dodgers has motivated a pair of clubs to lock up their own young players to mammoth extensions to avoid having them flee to Chavez Ravine in the near future. These two contracts impact the game in a number of ways, and the Yankees are not immune to the change.

Joey Votto — ten years, $225M
To understand the magnitude of this contract, you need to first realize that Votto was not a free agent. Not only was he not a free agent, but he was two full years away from becoming a free agent. Votto eclipsed the Prince Fielder contract and signed the fourth-most lucrative contract in baseball history without ever going out onto the open market and suckering several teams into a bidding war. Nice work by his agent.

The question now is was the Votto deal an outlier, or a sign of things to come? The Yankees have their own homegrown star two years away from free agency in Robinson Cano, and they better hope this Votto deal is an outlier. I love Robbie, but I don’t love him as much as the Reds apparently love their first baseman. I’d like to think that the Jose Reyes contract — six years and $106M — set the market for Cano, but the prices have since escalated and figure to continue doing so over the next two years.

Last summer I was thinking a six-year, $120M extension for Cano — covering 2012-2017 — but that’s obviously not going to happen. He’ll be 31 when he hits free agency after next season, which isn’t far off from the age when middle infielders tend to collapse. If Scott Boras is looking for a Votto-sized deal for Cano after 2013, there will absolutely be a strong argument that the best thing the Yankees could do is let him walk. Thankfully we’re still two full seasons away from this being a real concern.

(Ezra Shaw/Getty)

Matt Cain — five years, $112.5M
The Cain deal has more of an indirect impact on the Yankees. They don’t have any pitchers due to become free agents in the next year or two that are in Cain’s class, even if Phil Hughes blows up and turns into the guy we all thought he could be back in the day. The track record just wouldn’t be there to justify the contract.

Instead, the impact of Cain’s deal will be felt if the Yankees plan on diving into the free agent market sometime in the next year or too. Cole Hamels was probably destined to get Johan Santana money from the start, but this probably cements it. Zack Greinke’s price went up as well, though we know the Yankees have already deemed him unfit for New York. Matt Garza, Tim Lincecum, and Josh Johnson could benefit from Cain’s deal even though they won’t hit the open market until after next season.

The price of pitching just went up, which is why Michael Pineda and Ivan Nova will be very important if the Yankees seriously intend to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold in 2014. Even the Triple-A guys — David Phelps, Adam Warren, and Manny Banuelos specifically — will be important when it comes to keeping costs down at the back of the rotation or even in the bullpen. Viable alternatives just won’t come affordably.

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The Yankees have been setting the market for decades now, but other clubs are starting to catch up a bit. Blame the new stadiums, the new television contracts, and the revenue sharing program. The Votto and Cain contracts undeniably impact the market for top-tier talent going forward, a demographic the Yankees tend to target. I’m sure they’re going to re-sign Cano to something outrageous in two years, at least that’s how I feel right now, and we’ll have Votto, Fielder, and a several others to thank for that.

Yankees open season with lowest payroll since 2007

Via Bob Nightengale, the Yankees will open the season with a $197.9M payroll, their lowest since 2007. That’s still the highest in MLB, obviously. The Padres are dead last at $53.9M. I believe that is the 25-man Opening Day roster payroll, not the full 40-man roster payroll with benefits that will get counted towards the luxury tax.

Update: Just for the sake of completeness, that number is the 25-man Opening Day roster plus players on the big league DL.