By Neil Keefe
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Christmas Eve. That’s the only day that can compare to the feelings of today and tonight as I anxiously await the start of the new Yankees season. And I know I won’t be able to sleep tonight with visions of Yankees baseball dancing in my head.
On Friday it will have been 183 days since Alex Rodriguez struck out against Jose Valverde and the 2011 season came to a crashing halt after the middle of the order failed to do anything against the Tigers in five games. But last season wasn’t meant to be for the Yankees. Instead we got to watch Lance “The Dance” Berkman take the Cardinals on a magical run and even single-handedly save their season in Game 6. (Will I ever get over how awful Lance The Dance was in 2010 and how good he became in 2011 for the Cardinals? Probably not.)
This season feels different. A year ago I was dreading the idea of A.J. Burnett and Freddy Garcia in the rotation, and I didn’t even like that Bartolo Colon was in the bullpen since I didn’t even want him on the team. Ivan Nova had yet to become a 16-game winner and Phil Hughes was coming off an 18-win season and we had to yet to find out that his “dead arm” would lead to one of the worst historical pitching starts to a season in baseball history.
I feel good about this Yankees team (because of their pitching depth) and I haven’t felt this good about the Yankees since at least 2009 and maybe even in the last eight to 10 years.
In February 2011, I wrote the “Yankees Order Of Importance” in which I ranked the 14 most important Yankees in reverse order based on what it would mean to the team if they missed significant time or performed so badly in 2011 that it was like they were missing time. How different were things all the way back in the Year 2011 (Conan O’Brien and Andy Richter voices)? Well let’s just say I ranked Phil Hughes as the second most important Yankee behind CC Sabathia and had Mark Teixeira third. I had A.J. Burnett ahead of Curtis Granderson for the sole reason that the season and rotation hinged on Burnett (this was obviously before Nova, Garcia and Colon became reliable). So yes, things were a lot different 13 1/2 months ago. Nova wasn’t even included on the list and Garcia and Colon were low-risk, high reward guys that were expected to land on the disabled list for good at some point.
Since so much has changed it’s necessary to revisit and update the “Order Of Importance” and adjust things to fit 2012. Here is the updated list in reverse order with 15 spots for 16 Yankees what it would mean to the team if they missed significant time or performed so badly in 2012 that it was like they were missing time. (There’s a quote in italics from last year’s “Order” for the players that were involved.)
Number 36, Freddy Garcia, Number 36
If Michael Pineda doesn’t have shoulder tendinitis or Andy Pettitte announces his comeback a few weeks earlier and is ready for Opening Day rather than May, Freddy Garcia is stuffed away into the bullpen for blowouts, routs and when Pineda, Phil Hughes or Ivan Nova can’t go five innings. Instead Garcia finds himself in the rotation after an awesome and shocking 2011 season that landed him a one-year, $4 million deal with the Yankees.
I enjoy watching Garcia pitch like I did Mike Mussina in 2008 and Orlando Hernandez in 2004. The repertoire Garcia uses to maneuver his way through AL lineups is masterful for a man who once threw hard with the best in the game. (And if you forgot how hard Garcia used to throw, Michael Kay will remind you on a broadcast, and likely during Garcia’s first start of the season.)
But Garcia is on borrowed time in the rotation unless he can pitch as good or better than he did a year ago. Garcia seems to be a smart guy, especially on the mound, and I don’t think a year of dominating (for the most part) the AL will cause hitters to adjust to him enough to knock him around. If his location is on, then his splitter works and if his splitter works, it’s going to be a lot like 2011. And if it isn’t, Pineda or Pettitte will be there to save the day soon enough.
Number 33, Nick Swisher, Number 33
Because when it comes down to it, if the Yankees are good enough to get back to October, I don’t know if I can sit through another postseason of his. I’d rather sit through Funny People again.
Well I sat through another one and I’m still here. This is Nick Swisher’s fourth season with the Yankees and it could be his last. It seems like 10 years ago rather than three that he was going to be a backup/platoon outfielder to spell Xavier Nady in right field. Swisher has been a valuable part of the lineup, an inconsistent defender (especially in Fenway Park’s right field) and a fan favorite … in the regular season. When the calendar turns to October, Swisher disappears. I know there are a lot of Yankees fans that don’t want to hear anything negative said about Swisher and that the postseason is a “small sample size” but when does it not become one?
Swisher is going to put up his 23-29 home runs and his 80-90 RBIs, but he’s ultimately going to be judged on his performance after Game 162 and beyond. Whether or not that’s fair that’s just the way it is, and his future and where he plays in 2013 will be determined by yet another “small sample size.”
Number 46, Andy Pettitte, Number 46 and Number 35, Michael Pineda, Number 35
(As of now these two guys aren’t being counted on to open the season, but that will likely change and they would climb the ladder toward the top of this list. Or go down the ladder to the bottom of this list since it’s written in reverse order.)
I thought Michael Pineda was going to be the Yankees’ No. 2 starter. I think a lot of people though he was going to be. Even if he wasn’t going to be slotted into the No. 2 spot, he was still going to be the Yankees’ second-best pitcher. Now Pineda is on the disabled list with shoulder tendinitis at a peculiar time when the Yankees were ready to announce their rotation. (Conspiracy?) I’m not saying that Pineda’s shoulder tightness has anything to do with him reporting to camp overweight and not throwing with the same velocity as he did last season, but I’m saying it’s a weird coincidence that he is now on the disabled list and temporarily out of the rotation.
I don’t think Andy Pettitte would be attempting a comeback and Roger Clemens’ his legacy if he didn’t think he could compete at the high level he did in 2010 while healthy. I believe in Pettitte and am anticipating his return to the rotation. I’m also still mad about him leaving the team hanging after 2010. If it wasn’t about his family, which he is saying now, then why did he say it was about that back then? (And yes, I still believe if Cliff Lee picks the Yankees over the Phillies, Pettitte comes back in 2011. And Lee would have picked the Yankees if the Mariners didn’t think Justin Smoak was better than Jesus Montero. AHHHHHHHHH!)
Number 11, Brett Gardner, Number 11
Some guys need just one season to prove they belong and don’t have to worry about job security. Gardner has had to prove it his whole career and will have to again this year.
A lot of people thought Brett Gardner could be the Yankees’ Jacoby Ellsbury or better. And if I remember correctly, two years ago Peter Gammons admitted that Gardner had passed Ellsbury. Well I think that race is over now.
Gardner doesn’t need to be Ellsbury for the Yankees with this lineup. He doesn’t even need to a spark plug for the offense or play a significant role. He just needs to play great defense and find ways to get on base and use his speed to change the game. If he can develop to be an even base stealer, that will be enough of an offensive contribution.
Number 55, Russell Martin, Number 55
This could be Jesus Montero too, but since we don’t know who the starting catcher will be, I’m going to go with Russell Martin since that’s what Brian Cashman told us at the breakfast and that’s what he’s sticking by.
Last year no one knew what to expect from Russell Martin. At the Hard Rock Café breakfast, Brian Cashman said Martin reminded him of Thurman Munson, but he also said he could end up trading Martin if Jesus Montero emerged during spring training and stole the job and became a viable big leaguer at such a young age.
Martin became the Yankees’ early season MVP with big hits (mostly home runs) to start the season and had a productive first year in New York with the bat and behind the plate. Martin doesn’t need to be counted on to produce offensively the way he was in Los Angeles, and in this lineup he doesn’t need to do anything other than worry about the pitching staff and playing defense. No, he can’t go hitting into inning-ending double plays all the time, but Martin anything he does with the bat is extra.
Number 65, Phil Hughes, Number 65
A year ago Hughes was the fifth starter. Today he is the No. 2 starter and essential to the 2011 Yankees. Let’s hope we see a lot of what we saw out of him at the beginning of 2010 and not a lot of what we saw out of him in his two starts against the Rangers in the playoffs.
A year ago I had Hughes as the most important Yankee not named CC Sabathia. He was going to be the Yankees’ second-best starter coming off an 18-win, All-Star season. He was finally putting it all together and realizing his full potential in the majors with a full healthy season. And how did Hughes repay my No. 2 ranking? With a “dead arm” and loss of velocity and this line in three April starts: 10.1 IP, 19 H, 16 R, 16 ER, 4 BB, 3 K, 4 HR, 13.94 ERA, 2.233 WHIP, .396 BAA.
Hughes was “pitching” for a spot in the rotation in spring training even if he really wasn’t since they Yankees weren’t about to send front-end potential back to the bullpen. However with Michael Pineda and Andy Pettitte set to return in the coming weeks, Hughes’ competition to stay in the rotation begins with his first start, and he will have to prove he is the pitcher from 2010 and not the pitcher from the 2010 ALCS or 2011 season.
Number 47, Ivan Nova, Number 47
At the end of April 2011, Nova was 1-2 with a 5.82 ERA in four starts (in two he lasted just 4 1/3 innings) and a relief appearance. On July 1 he was sent to Triple-A despite being 8-4 with a 4.12 ERA. He came back on July 30 and went 8-0 in his last 11 starts of the season, making his last lost of the 2011 regular season on June 3.
Nova’s spring training was U-G-L-Y. I feel like I need to take a shower after typing his spring training line: 22.1 IP, 31 H, 21 R, 20 ER, 5 BB, 17 K, 3 HR, 8.06 ERA, 1.614 WHIP, .323 BAA. OK, time to shower.
Thanks to the circus surrounding Pineda, the anticipation for Kuroda and everyone waiting to see what Hughes will do, Nova would have been able to fly under the radar at the beginning of the season. But with his bad spring and Pineda and Pettitte looming, everyone will be waiting to see if he continues this horrendous pitching, and if he does, the rookie that went 16-4 and shut down the Tigers in Game 1 of the ALDS will find out how bad New York can be when you’re struggling.
Number 42, Mariano Rivera, Number 42
What’s life like without Mariano Rivera? I don’t know. I don’t want to know. Whatever it is, it can’t be good.
I know it’s weird that Mariano went down a spot, but it’s understandable given how good David Robertson was in 2011.
No. 42 has hinted during spring training that this could be his last season with the Yankees, and while other Yankees know what his decision is, no one is tipping their hand to make it known whether or not this Friday will be the last Opening Day for the last man to wear No. 42 in Major League Baseball.
I won’t ever get used to not seeing No. 42 run out of the bullpen to come save the game and save the day for the Yankees if this is in fact the last season for the man that’s basically become a Greek myth.
Number 13, Alex Rodriguez, Number 13
A-Rod needs to be A-Rod this year. The 30-home run, 100-RBI streak is nice, but how about some consistency in 2011?
Like Sweeny Murti said, the most important category for A-Rod in 2012 will be games played. (Oh yeah, the Yankees only have six years left with A-Rod … no big deal.)
Number 2, Derek Jeter, Number 2
When Jeter got hurt on Opening Day in 2003 in Toronto, I was devastated. And since that day I have been scared to ever feel that way again if No. 2 were forced out of the lineup for an extended period of time.
How did Derek Jeter move up on this list while everyone continues to talk about an inevitable decline for his career? Maybe he moved up on this list just for that reason.
Jeter moved up because he is going to be a 38-year old starting shortstop in June and while that might be old to some he looks like a 21-year-old full of youth when you compare him to the defensive prowess of Eduardo Nunez. One DL stint for Jeter with Nunez starting at short was enough for me.
Number 14, Curtis Granderson, Number 14
I still wonder about what the Austin Jackson era in the Bronx would have been like after following his career in the minors and waiting for the call-up the way I wonder what Jason Street would have been like in college and the NFL if not for that unfortunate accident. Would the Panthers still have won State in 2006? Would they have won it easier? What would have become of Matt Saracen?
Curtis Granderson was so good last year that it’s ridiculous to expect him to duplicate that season and almost insane to think that he could. After a so-so opening campaign with the Yankees in 2010 that included a missed month with a hamstring injury all while Austin Jackson was hitting .293 and stealing 27 bases for the Tigers, Granderson made anyone who kept on debating the trade in their head forget about it. With A-Rod’s decline and the possibility of him missing extended time again as he ages, Granderson will be counted on to continue to put up power numbers.
Number 18, Hiroki Kuroda, Number 18
If the Dodgers had sorted out their ownership disaster a couple months earlier, Kuroda might still be a Dodger. Instead he takes his 3.45 career ERA and 1.187 WHIP to the Yankees revamped rotation.
I feel very good about Kuroda in the rotation behind Sabathia to start the season, and even though most pitchers don’t handle the NL to AL transition well, I think Kuroda will. The trade for Pineda helped to ease the arrival and expectations for Kuroda since he isn’t viewed as the new “toy” for Yankees fans in 2012. All of the pressure has fallen on Pineda for being traded for Montero, and this allows Kuroda (who at one time didn’t want to pitch on the East Coast) to just go about his business and not worry about all of the extra stuff like people like me being concerned with the state of the rotation at all times.
I would also like to take this time to thank my friend Dusty and his Dodgers once again for Russell Martin and now for Hiroki Kuroda. Thank you for not having real ownership in time for these two players to join the Yankees!
Number 25, Mark Teixeira, Number 25
When Tex got hurt in the ALCS I wasn’t devastated. That’s a problem. You should ALWAYS be devastated when your No. 3 hitter will miss the rest of the ALCS and the postseason.
Mark, Mark Mark. What are we doing to do with? I guess let you play first base and hit in the middle of the order for the next five seasons since you’re under contract.
Teixeira needs to find the .306/.400/.563 guy from 2007 or the dominant .308/.410/.552 player from 2008 or the .292/.383/.565 MVP runner-up from 2009. I don’t think .248/.341/.494 is cutting it or acceptable for a guy making $22.5 million in 2012 and hitting in the middle of the best offense of the game (even if he hit 39 home runs and drove in 111 runs.) The Yankees will still likely make the playoffs and could win the division if he hits like he did the last two years and forgets that the left side of the field is also in play.
Last season when I wanted Teixeira to hit fifth prior to Opening Day (it took 162 games for Girardi to make the move), I compared his play to Jason Giambi’s and how Yankee Stadium and the short porch changed their games and their approach. Sweeny Murti called me crazy and when Teixeira hit four home runs in the first five games of the year from the three-hole, I felt stupid.
It took Girardi until the playoffs to flip Teixeira and Cano and while I understand the Yankees did have the best record in the AL with Teixeira hitting third, it’s like John Tortorella not playing Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards together until the end of the season, but still being the No. 1 seed in the NHL … maybe they could have been even better.
Number 24, Robinson Cano, Number 24
Cano was the best hitter on the Yankees last year. There’s no reason he can’t be the same in 2011. And now that he has Scott Boras representing him, I’m sure he can taste his next contract. He’s going to want to continue to stack his resume.
Robbie Cano … don’t ya know! (Sorry I had to do that.) Cano has become the most important hitter in the lineup and one of the best all-around hitters in the game. He’s taken over the No. 3 spot in the order as Teixeira has also helped with this decision by basically giving it away.
Number 52, CC Sabathia, Number 52
If CC Sabathia doesn’t take the ball every fifth day for the Yankees (and sometimes maybe on short rest), well like Mike Francesa says, “You can pack up the bats and balls.” CC knows how crucial he is to the 2011 Yankees and he knows that there’s a pot of gold waiting for him at the end of the year if he can duplicate 2010 in 2011 and opt out and make the Steinbrenners take out a second mortgage on their house to make sure that he’s a Yankee next year.
Sabathia might hold the No. 1 spot until his contract expires at the end of the 2017 season. The only way he would lose this spot is if he began a Johan Santana-like injury decline or Phil Hughes and/or Michael Pineda develop into the No. 1-type starters that the Yankees think they can be.
Sabathia has already won 59 games in three years with the Yankees and is averaging a 20-8 season with a 3.18 ERA over the three years. He’s easily the best free-agent pitcher Brian Cashman has ever signed (he could be half as good as he has been and still hold that title), and he’s without a doubt the most important and valuable Yankee.
Follow Neil on Twitter @NeilKeefe