By Sweeny Murti
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With the regular season finally upon us, here are my 11 key Yankees for 2011:
1–A.J. Burnett: They tell us every year that it’s all about pitching, so how can there be a bigger key to the Yankee season than Burnett. Spring training, even the beginning of the season, will not be a good indicator of Burnett’s year.
Last year he was 6-2, 3.28 ERA at the end of May. He was 4-13, 6.48 ERA from June through the end of the season. This will be a day-by-day, start-by-start analysis for Burnett.
2–Brian Cashman: Even he doesn’t really believe that Freddy Garcia/Bartolo Colon/Kevin Millwood will get him through a championship season by themselves, but the job isn’t as easy as saying, “Go get a starting pitcher” and having an All-Star fall in your lap.
Cashman is tested every year and this year will be no different. Because this doesn’t feel like a championship rotation on Day 1, Cashman will be on the lookout all year and he will be constantly evaluated based solely on how far this pitching staff takes him. Did I mention that his contract is up at the end of this year? Well, it is.
3–Derek Jeter: Career-low BA, OBP, and SLG in 2010, ugly contract negotiation, turns 37 in June.
Do you really need any more reasons to count him this high on the list?
4–Alex Rodriguez: If his hip injury/rehab is no longer an issue, then his spring training hitting display might be a sign of things to come. But remember, this guy isn’t getting any younger either.
He turns 36 in July and is beginning the fourth year of a ten-year deal. Is A-Rod still the premier power hitter in the game?
5–Ivan Nova: Before Phil Hughes last year, the last Yankee pitcher aged 24 or younger to win at least 10 games in one season was Andy Pettitte in 1995. So now it’s going to happen two years in a row?
Nova appears to have the poise and confidence to be a good pitcher. But for all the handwringing going on over Freddy Garcia/Bartolo Colon/Kevin Millwood, we should remember that the Yankees 4th starter has a career major league record of 1-2, 4.50 ERA.
6–Russell Martin: The desire to shift Jorge Posada to DH and the not-quite-fast-enough progress of Jesus Montero puts Martin in a key spot. Handling the pitching staff will be his responsibility and even though he’ll bat at or near the bottom of this lineup most days, he will still need to lift his recent averages (.806 OPS from 2006-2008, .680 OPS from 2009-2010).
A slumping Martin will pressure the organization to move Posada back behind the plate (which isn’t likely to happen) or rush their prized prospect.
7–Jorge Posada: He is listed in the Yankee Media Guide as “Catcher/DH,” but it should probably read “Former Catcher/DH.” Spring training has flown by and Posada hasn’t caught a single inning. Not that he would need a map to find home plate if they told him to take the field, but the Yankee plan this year is pretty apparent—Posada is not going to catch at all except in case of extreme emergency.
How he adapts to the DH role full-time is a question that will be asked early and often. For all who worried about whether the guy who plays like Sonny Corleone could handle the demotion, Posada has played the good soldier. He wants to help this team, and if its not going to be at catcher, it will have to be at DH.
8–Rafael Soriano: Adding a premier reliever to this bullpen has to be a plus. But when the Yankees add a starter from the free agent market the question always asked is “Can he handle New York?”
The same question has to apply here. Is this Jeff Nelson or Kyle Farnsworth? The first time he blows a game in the 8th inning at Yankee Stadium he will hear boos from the crowd and will face a group of at least 30 reporters asking what happened. So far he is a man of few words and even fewer smiles. Can he handle New York?
9–Mariano Rivera: He is the chosen one, the one who restores balance to the force and brings peace to the galaxy. In fact, if my car were stuck in a swamp I would trust that Rivera could use Jedi mind powers and lift it right out.
But one of these days he will cease being the same Mariano, right? Whenever that happens…oh I sense a great disturbance in the force, as if millions of voices screamed out in terror…
10–Joba Chamberlain: Everyone wants to know when the Joba of 2007 will rise again. I’m not sure if that will ever really happen. But this spring is as close to that as we’ve come.
Joba has spoken of feeling better this spring than he has in years, comfortable with his routine and knowing from the get-go what his role is. It doesn’t matter that it’s not 8th inning man. His role is simply to come in out of the bullpen when called on and get guys out. And with a fastball consistently 94-97 all spring, scouts say he is doing that better than he has at any time since (GULP!) 2007.
11–Eric Chavez/Andruw Jones: It’s been over a decade since the Yankees carried a bench with this kind of power. Over 600 home runs and 16 Gold Gloves between them, they will give Joe Girardi options to rest his regulars or make some moves late in games.
Extended playing time for either probably means an injury to a regular, which is never good. But a one or two-week stint with either of these two doesn’t make your lineup as short as it has looked at times the last few years.
Who would you add to the list? Let us know in the comments below…