Okay, let's get this out of the way ... I preview the Bronx Bombers every year for Da Box, because I am the roster's/editorial staff's designated (and reviled?) Yankee fan. Since 2004, every year, I have pretty much picked them to win the AL East and to win the World Series. Lots of times, I am right, or at least half-right. Sometimes, I am wrong, evil triumphs and those mudblood Red Sox inexplicably wear rings, which is a fashion (I still think of as) out of style, really, since about 1918.
These various previews have varied in length and style and approach, but I really have found the best and most interesting thing to do is to analyze the Yankee roster through a game of "Better Get to Know the New York Yankees" through use of the brilliant, brilliant "Similarity Scores" indexing on the greatness of BaseballReference.com.
So let's get on with this groundbreaking edition of Better Know the 2012 Yankees ...
The methodology here is simple. First, we identify who the likely players to fill every key lineup, bench rotation and bullpen spot are. Then we look up those players on BaseballReference.com to identify the player or players (who play the same position) are in score on their current "Most Similar Though Age" listing ... finally, we riff a bit (poetically, one hopes, if not musically) on what that means to the current roster, pennant race, and Yankee hopes for the always-seemingly-inevitable (seriously, do you KNOW any New Yorkers?) October parade through Heroes Canyon in New York City. Stepping up to the plate first ... okay, well, actually, squatting behind the plate is the latest in a long histprical line of All-Star Yankee catchers.
C Russell Martin
Martin's current Most Similar is a realy fine player in Rich Gedman; but you know what? Gedman was a Boston guy, and we can't denigrate Martin with such a comparison. So who's second on that list? Why, look! It's our old pal, the tragically-taken-from-us, pre-Jeter captain himself, Thurman Munson! In 2011, Martin didn't hit much (.237) but did display at least a modicum of some power (18 homers and 17 doubles) -- his defense, while not quite up to his early billing (he won the NL Gold Glove in 2007 as a Dodger sophomore), it is more than adequate, and one of the beest defensive catching coaches in the game is his manager, Joe Girardi. So Martin may not be Munson overall, but it would not be shocking to see him tack 35-50 points onto his season's batting average and to knock in 80-90 runs. Hey, the Yanks won titles with Girardi the regular catcher (or splitting time with Mike Stanley), so not every pinstirped title demands a Munson, Berra or Dickey to strap on the shinguards. Boottom line? The yankees are just FINE here.
1B Mark Teixeira
In January of 2009, when the Yankees made Tex their latest multi-quadzillion dollar free agent acquisition, there were some cries of "no fair" and "we need a slary cap!" I'm not here to debate that point. The Yankees did wrap up arguably the best first baseman of his era. (I know, Albert Pujols is better. I said "arguably," and it's a weak argument. But Teixeira is really good.) His current most-similar is a name Bauxites will know pretty well -- former Marlin and Met (just kidding there!) Carlos Delgado. Now, I don't think Carlos is ever going to get into the Hall of Fame (like he probably should) but the comparison alone should give Blue Jays fans a sense of the guy filling the first baseman's uniform in the Bronx - he's Carlos Delgado, but with a significantly better glove -- four Gold Gloves so far. (Speaking o excellence at 1B, the #6 guy on Tex's Most Similar list will be equally familiar to Jay fans ... fellow named McGriff.) And we categorized Martin as a bounceback candidate? Tex, the .281 career hitter who last season at 31 cruised past the 300-homer and 1000-RBI career milestones, hit just .248. His career mark is .281 while his three-year Yankee totals are at "only" .266. (When your three-year totals also show 111 homers and 341 RPI, you can put "only" in quotes there quite justifiably.) Bottom line? Outside of Anaheim, no other AL team is better situated at 1B.
2B Robinson Cano
You know, as big of a Yankee fan as I am, and I really do appreciate Robby Cano as the best Yankee 2B since Joe Gordon, I just don;'t get it, I guess -- it seems like every '12 oreview I see mentions Cano as likely the "best" Yankee hitter with an inevitable move to the cleanup role shortly. I guess his 2011 Triple Crown slash numbers (.302/28/118) should convince me, but his list of Most-Similars does give one note to pause. #1 Carlos Baerga fell apart starting at age 27; #2 Bobby Doerr retired at 33; #3 Tony Lazzerri (speaking of great Yankees) fell apart quickly at 33; #4 Edgardo Alfonso was last remotely in the vicinity of All-Star quality at the age of 31. The average falloff age of those four? 31. Robby Cano turns 30 this year. So, yes, I fear the greatness of BBRef's Similarity engines in this case, and hope Cano has eight or nine more great seasons, including a couple of MVPs in him. I just dont see it. best second baseman in the AL Easr right now? Absolutely no question about it, and maybe the best in baseball. (Fun trivia: his mother's maiden name is Mercedes, whch is pretty much what kind of car he'd be if the 2B was an automobile.) Bottom line? Love Robby Now. Worried about Robby LaterMaybeSoon.
3B Alex Rodriguez
The sole "problem" (if you dare call it that) with the Similarity Scores method is a guy like Rodriguez, probably one of the 20 best and most productive hitters to ever play the game. So his "Most Similars" list reads like a HOF lexicon: Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle, and near the bottom of his Top 10 Most Similars, not entirely ironically, are Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds. You can't compare a shortstop-turned-third baseman to a list of outfielders and first bassemen! So let's focus on the two guys on his list who played at least some hot corner -- #9 Eddie Mathews (possibly the greatest third baseman to ever play the game) and #2 Mel Ott (who also spent plenty of time in the OF). For the first time in 2011, A-Rod was visited by mortality -- and he still put up Triple Crown slash stats of .276/16/62 in just 99 games. So while he may be, at this point, per his production, the most overpaid athlete in the history of history, he's still a mighty fine third baseman -- arguably the best in Yankee history. With attention focused so harsly on his infeild mates -- can Tex bounce back? Is Cano an MVP? Will Jeter walk on water and then change it into wine? -- don't be surprised if A-Rod quietly reverts to a stunning .305/40/130 type season. Most teams would be thrilled with HALF those counting stats in production from third base. Even if A-Rod falls considerably short of those marks, the guy is just two and a half years from becoming the fourth member of the 700-homer club. The Yankees are happy to have this particular set of "maybes" to worry about.
SS Derek Jeter
I guess the clubhouse guy knew something 17 years ago when he assigned Derrek Jeter uniform #2 -- the lowest Yankee uniform not yet retired. (It will be, as soon as Jeter hangs up his spikes.) Derek Jeter has never been the best shortstop in Major League Baseball -- alternately, the title has swung, thoughout Jeter's career, among guys like Barry Larkin, Nomar Garciaparra and Hanley Ramirez. last year, among the admittedly overblown "March to 3000 Hits" party, and overcoming an early-season injury, The Captain still hit .297, though his power shriveled to the point where he hit just six of his 240 career homers in 2011. Jeter probably should have moved to CF or even LF four or five years ago, kind of like -- wait, look who his Most Similar comp is! -- Robin Yount. DJ has 3,088 hits now, and probably skates past 3500 before entering Cooperstown on his first ballot try ... but this nonsense of him breaking rose's 4256 mark? Uh, no. Bottom line: He's The Captain for a reason. May be The Most Important Yankee in a lot of ways. But still, he's the second best shortstop in his own team's starting infield (at least that was true utnil A-Rod got "old") and has no business in a "best shortstop in the game" discussion any more.
LF Brett Gardner
Okay, seriously,in the post-(George)-Steinbrenner era, this guy may be the ultimate anti-Yankee. A New York draft pick (NOT acquired in an ill-advised trade or as a free agent) who doesn't hit for much power (15 homers in four seasons in homer-friendly New Yankee Stadium) but runs extremely well (Half again as many career triples as homers, and 49 steals in 2011 alone, giving him 96 over the past two seasons), and a defensive WAR that has led the American League in each of the past two seasons? What happened to the days of running all-or-nothing homer-happy stonegloves like Ron Kittle and Dave Kingman out to LF every day? (Oh, yeah -- that was before the Yankees started winning titles again.) The .264 career average is no great shakes, and he strikes out a bit too often (194 times over the past two seasons), but this is the ultimate "glue" guy in an otherwise star-studded Yankee lineup -- I'm thinking now of Willie Randolph during the Bronx Zoo days. You're probably not terribly familiar with Gardner's top two Most Similars -- old-timey stars Gus Williams and Jo-Jo White, but you may wel remember #3, former Tribe OF (he even has the same first name!) Brett Butler? There's your guy when you're thinking of Brett Gardner. Trivia: Derek Jeter is the Yankees' all-time leader in steals, with 339 entering this season. Gardner, with just 135, sits just a noodge outside the Top 10 and if he repeats last season's output in 2012, will move all the way to #6 in the franchise's proud history He needs just 100 to crack the team's top five. The bottom line? this guy is WAY more important than most casual fans realize.
CF Curtis Granderson
Yes, yes, Curtis Grandersonn struck out 169 ties in 2011, shattering Alfonso Soriano's nine-year-old club record in that category. But, guess what? The Grandy Man, with a completely insincere nod of apology to Robby Cano, is the best player on the New York Yankees. The Yankees and center field have always meant magic ... Combs, DiMaggio, Mantle, Murcer, Henderson, Wiliams ... no, Curtis Granderson hasn;t been in pinstripes long enough to join that proud tradition YET, but he's well on his way. 2011, his Yankee sophomore campaign, brought 41 homers and 25 steals, not to mention an AL-leading 119 RBI. His comps are not nearly as impressive a list as those of his Yankee CF predecessors; his top three -- Ron Gant, Richard Hidalgo and Preston Wilson, wouldn't make all that imposing of an OF for a pretender/contender. But sitting down at #8 is a name that made me think "Ohhh! THAT'S who Granderson's been reminding me of these last two years!" I grew up in Ohio and was absolutely convinced that Hall of Fame enshrinement awaited one Eric Davis, who to this day is probably the best "natural" baseball plaayer I have eve seen. If Granderson avoids Davis' proneness to injury, then his name, while it may never be bronzed on a plaque in upstate New York, could very comfortably fit in after "... Murcer, Henderson, Williams ..." in the list above. The bottom line? For extra credit, define him in six words or less. Ok. "He's a really good baseball player."
RF Nick Swisher
What will Nick Swisher do for the 2012 new York Yankees? Based on the first eight years of Swisher's career, the answer is pretty clear. He'll hit .250-.260, with 25-30 homers, 25-35 doubles, and knock in something in the neighborhood of 80-90 runs. He's very, very like his #1 Most Comparable (which makes sense, I guess!), Bob Allison, and a little less like -- but still noticeably similar to -- the next two on his list, Jose Cruz Sr. and Pete Incaviglia. Of interest, Swisher and the elder Cruz differ in one generational respect -- Jose was clearly the superior OF to his son, Jose Jr., while Nick is clearly the superior major leaguer to his dad, '70s backstop Steve Swisher. Trivia: Nick Swisher debuted with the A's in September of 2004 against the Jays, collecting a single in three at-bats. Nick will collect his 1000th career base hit and 200th areer home run at some point in 2012. Swish's predecessors in the Yankee RF lexicon include Babe Ruth, Roger Maris and Reggie Jacksom -- now, he'll never match those guys and barring a miraculous late-career surge, the 31-year-old will get precisely zero votes when his name is called for Cooperstown induction, but he's a really, really fine baseball player . The bottom line? That'll do, Nick. That'll do.
DH Raul Ibanez
One of the few Yankee "marquee" off-season pickups, Ibanez may see limited time in the OF, but was brought on board to be the first real "regular" DH the Yankees hav e had since Nick Johnson was trying to unseat Jason Giambi at 1B early in this decade. Ibanez's most Comparable is old pro Jeff Conine, but if you want a comparable player who was actually a DH, you're left with #4 Hal McRae and #9 (ex-Jay) Rico Carty. if Ibanez produces like either of those two 1970s All-Stars, the 2012 Yankees will be over the moon satisfied. The bottom line? I have my doubts about what Ibanez has left, but this is something the Yankees really needed to try.
Three of the four position players likely to spend a good chunk of the 2012 Yankee season sitting on the bench waiting for the injury that will send the Post, News and Newsday sports headline writers into post-apocalyptic frenzies of clevrness and puns, actually have NO Most Similar player comps at BBRef. For instance, catcher Franciso Cervelli, who was more or less the Yankee regular in 2010 at the age of 24 (he hit .271 but showed no power and was only decent defensively) before the acquisition of Martin, is the designated backup backstop. Middle infielder Eduardo Nunez, 25, in two seasons with the big club, has hit .267 and shown both occasional power and considerable speed (six homes and 27 steals in just 359 career AB). In the OF, Justin Maxwell (acquired in the off-season from Washington for a minor-league RHP named Adam Olbrychowski) is a big (6'5"), versatile kid who can play all three OF spots, run , and hit for a little power (nine homers and 11 steals in just 219 career AB). Then there's corner infielder Eric Chavez, who not long ago was most simimlar, says BBRef, to a likely HOFer in Scott Rolen, but who in recent years has battled injries and turned into a late-career Dean Palmer. That's still not too shabby, and Chavez could still start at a corner for a lot of teams; if anything happens to Teixeira or Rodriguez, the Yankees could do a lot worse!
Among notable Non-roster Invitees (NRIs) trying to stake a claim for one of the aforementioned roster spots, C Gustavo Molina, corner IF Russell Branyan, middler IF Bill Hall and OF Dewayne Wise are ... well, they're familiar names,, anyway. Hall could help, I suppose, and Branyan might hit 40 homers in Columbus -- but the NYY big club roster really is pretty set and predtermined. But wait, is that also true of the pitching staff?
Let's go to some rotational haiku, just because, well, why not???
1.) CC Sabatha
BIG lefty throws hard
Comps: McNally, Doc Gooden
Clearly, he's team's Ace
The bottom line? After the top two of McNally and Gooden, CC's Most Similar list is pretty impressive: Lefty Gomez, Roger Clemens, Vida Blue, Sandy Koufax, Tom Seaver, Greg Maddux, Jim Palmer, Mickey Lolich. Um ... wow!
2.) Hiroki Kuroda
Girardi likes his "polish"
But he's no Yu D.
The bottom line? the 37-year-old Japanese veteran is a signee from the Dodgers, for whom he was just 41-46 in four seasons But he did ring up an impressive-looking 3.45 cumulative ERA and strike out more than 7 hitters per 9 innings, not bad, even in a hitter's graveyard like Chavez Ravine. His Most-Similars? Trust me, a bunch of guys you've never heard of except for #10, fellow NYC veteran, crosstown Met R.A. Dickey.
3.) Ivan Nova
"Super" Nova shines
Seventeen and six in bigs
Comp: Dennis Leonard
The bottom line? After posting a 16-4 mark in his first full big league campaign, the righty Nova was just 1-1 (in one start and one relief appearancce covering 8-1/3 IP) in the ALDS. Still, the Yankee sports radio guys who said Nova was the best young homegrown Yankee pitcher since Ron Guidry might be on to something. He's not nearly as GOOD as Guidry, but still ...
4.) Michael Pineda
Cost: J. Montero
Comps: Beckett and Halladay
Will he be all that?
The bottom line? There is speculation in New York that the switch from Seattle to the homer-friendly environs of New Yankee Stadium may cause this deal to backfire on the Yankees. Totally worth the risk, though, and before the end of the season, he is very likely to be seen as the team's #2, not #4 member of the rotation. (At 6'7", 260#, he'll look right at home next to Sabathia on the depth chart, anyway!)
5.) Philip Hughes
Once bright star fades some
Comps: Lackey, Meche ... Halladay?
The bottom line? Yes, lest we forget, during his breakout 18-8 2010 campaign, Phil Hughes was an AL All-Star. He still has the stuff to do that again, but last year's 5-5/5.79 and his K/9 fell from 7.5 to 5.7. And yes, his #9 Most Similar is none other than Roy Halladay, who knows a thing or two about a BigHugeMassive comeback!
6.) Freddy Garcia or Andy Pettitte
Will Yanks need a sixth?
Every team seems to, right?
That haiku has three lines and four question marks -- about right, if the Yankees need to rely heavily on this deep spot in their rotation. And who gets the call? Garcia's Most Similar list includes Yankee old friend Bartolo Colon and Blue Jay old friend Pat Hentgen; those would both be nice outcomes. But Pettitte's Most Similar list reads like a homecoming court for Yankee stalwarts. His Top 10 includes, in order, David Wells, Kevin Brown, Mike Mussina, Dwight Gooden, Catfish Hunter, Herb Pennock and Whitey Ford.
The bottom line? If sentimentality plays any role in the decision -- and it shouldn't -- then Pettitte makes 25 starts in pinstripes in 2012, and probably ends up something like 12-7. That would send Mr. Garcia to the back of the bullpen. Speaking of which ...
As always, the Bronx bullpen begins and ends with the Greatest Closer in the History of the Game, Mariano Rivera. But the Yankees know that Rivera is at least publicly considering making this his final season in pinstripes, so there has been some attention given to collecting quality arms around him. But first, all hail the Sandman.
Rivera turns 42 later this year (symbolically, he is, and will be, the last major leaguer to ever wear that uniform number) -- and as we all know, thanks to Douglas Adams, "42" is the Answer to the great question of Life, the Universe and Everything. This has certainly been true for the Yankees since 1996, when Mo recorded the first five of his mind-blowing 603 (so far!) career saves. How good is Rivera? Consider the names on his "most similar" list -- Trevor Hoffman, John Franco, Roberto Hernandez, Doug Jones, Kent Tekulve, MikeTimlin on down to #10, another name familiar to Yankee fans, Rich "Goose" Gossage -- those names there represent more than two thousand (2000!) big league saves, and still, the list doesn't come remotely close to doing Rivera justice. I'm getting a little weepy-eyed ... let's move on, shall we?
Forming the supporting cast for what should legitimaly be one hell of a bullpen are #1 setup guy and potnetial Rivera heir Rafael Soriana (Most Similar is Doug Corbett, but then, more notably, second and third are Jay icon Tom Henke and Reds fireballer Rob Dibble); David "Houdini" Robertson (Dave Heaverlo, with a nod to #8 on his list, former 40-save guy Jeff Brantley); lefty Boone Logan (JC Romero, Neal Cotts, and hey, Jay fans, there's old pal BJ Ryan!) and speaking of recent Jays, former Yankee uber-prospect Joba Chamberlain comps to Oscar Villareal, but also to both Joey Mclaughlin and Bill Caudill. Joba threw off a mound for the first ime on Feb. 28, and will miss at least the first two months of the season, while out until mid-season (after Tommy John surgery last June) is February signee David Aardsma, who locked down 69 saves for the 2009-10 Mariners. Waiting in the wings, should something happen to that armada of setup wizards and former closers are RHRP Manny Delcarmen and LHRP Clay Rapada while organizational soldiers George Kontos and Cory Wade are also around. Annnnd ... there is also pitching depth in the pipeline prospect-wise.
The Yankees have prospects? Wait, don't they wantonly trade all their prospects for aging, overpriced veterans?
Well, that certainly used to be true, but praise be to Brian Cashman, 'tis not the case any more.
No, wait, didn't they just deal their #1 prospect this past off-season? Well, yes -- but Jesus Montero (who turns 23 in November) brought back Michael Pineda (who just turned 23 in January), so it's not merely a lame excuse to say "that was a different kind of trade." So who's left?
As hinted above, the Yankees' top two prospects are pitchers. Checking in at #1, and a NRI to camp this spring, is LHSP Manny Banuelos. The 21-year-old lefty already reached AAA last season, and is primed to be "Ready" if and when the last gasp of life gives way in the arm of Andy Pettitte. The #2 prospect is massive (6'8") RHSP Dellin Betances, who may be taking his more-than-a-strikeout-per-inning stuff to the bullpen, or who knows, could join Sabathia and Pineda to form baseball's best rotation-that-is-also-a-basketball-frontcourt.
The most intriguing name among positional prospects is 3B Dante Bichette Jr., who is atoning for his father's sin of closing out his career with the 2000-01 Red Sox by chasing pinstripes in New York. The Yankees' first pick in the 2011 draft (#51 overall), Bichette earned the Gulf Coast League MVP in his first pro season and is on the fast track to slide into the shoes of Graig Nettles and Mike Pagliaruglo when A-Rod takes his $30M salary to first base or DH in a few years.
IN THE DUGOUT
Joining the former defensive whiz/not much of a hitter Joe Girardi in guiding the Yankees in pursuit of their seventy-millionth pennant :-) are hitting coach Kevin Long (who started his minor league career brilliantly but, at least in part due to injury, never made The Show); veteran pitching coach Larry Rothschild (who made just seven career Major League appearances, all in relief, with the Tigers during the 1981-82 seasons); light-hitting infielders Mick Kelleher and Robby Thomson (who was actually pretty decent with the stick) coaching at first and third, repsectively); bullpen coach Mike Harkey (likely to be a big league pitching coach somewhere soon, if he doesn't succeed Rothschild)l and bench coach Tony Pena, who is absolutely certain to be a major league manager (again -- he skippered the Royals from 2002-05 and was AL Manager of the Year in 2003) pretty soon, maybe the one who takes Harkey with him.
So that's right, Yankee icon Don Mattingly is managing the Dodgers, carrying with him a resume that includes more All-Star appearances than the entire NYY managerial/coaching staff has combined. Well, you know the old saying -- those who can't, teach!
The bottom line?
This is a really good baseball team -- the best in the AL East, and one of probably four in the American League with a legitimate eye on winning a ring. (Hat tip, Texas, Los Angeles and Detroit).
This season goes really well for the Bronx Nine ... 99 wins and a division flag, but no World Series championship or even appearance. And hundreds of thousands of baffled New Yorkers will wander the streets wailing, "We didn't win???? Why? It's not fair!"
That's right, Empire Staters, in the legendary refrain of your old Brooklyn nemeses, once again it's wait 'til NEXT year, Yankee lovers ...