Despite winning yet another AL East title, the Yankees have to view 2012 as something of a disappointment. After surging to a ten-game lead midway through the season, the Bombers had to withstand a charge from the surprising Orioles, and while they managed to eek their way into the ALCS, their bats went totally silent in the ALCS, and they were swept by the Tigers in embarrassing fashion. Now, the Yankees are missing a few key contributors thanks to a newfound sense of fiscal responsibility, and those that are still around are dealing with age, injuries, and doubts about declining skills. The Yankees still have a great deal of talent, but Tampa, Baltimore, and now Toronto are lurking, and the Bombers are as vulnerable as they've been in the past 15 years.
Signed free agent 3B/1B Kevin Youkilis.
It may be difficult for Yankee fans to get used to cheering for Youkilis, who perhaps more than anyone embodied the Red Sox championship teams of 2004 and 2007. Youkilis fills a significant need for the Yankees, as he'll play third base most days, at least until Alex Rodriguez returns from offseason hip surgery. Youkilis is a player on the decline, and his defense at third base is questionable at best, but he should still provide a steady influence in the Yankee lineup, and is likely to find a semi-regular role even after Rodriguez returns.
Re-signed SP Hiroki Kuroda and RF Ichiro Suzuki.
The Yankees' Japanese imports gave the team more than they could have asked for in 2012. Kuroda was excellent all season, putting up even better stats than he had with the Dodgers (16-11, 3.32 ERA, 1.17 WHIP). He'll likely put up similar numbers as the Yankees' #2 starter in 2013. Suzuki's run with the Mariners in 2012 led some to speculate that he was finally losing his touch, but he heated up when he came to New York, hitting .322 with 28 runs scored and 14 steals in just 67 games. He'll play every day in right field for the Yankees.
Failed to re-sign C Russell Martin, RF/1B Nick Swisher, RP Rafael Soriano, and OF/DH Raul Ibanez.
Hard as it may be to believe, the Pirates outbid the Yankees for Martin. Martin connected well with the Yankee pitching staff, and hit 21 bombs at the plate (despite a .211 BA thanks to a BABIP below .225). The Yankees appear set to go into 2013 with Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart at catcher, at least until Austin Romine proves he's ready for the majors. Swisher was a consistent presence in the Yankee lineup throughout his tenure in New York, but heard boos for the first time during his 5-for-30 postseason, and it's hard not to speculate whether that soured him on coming back to New York. Soriano did a credible Mariano Rivera impression in 2012, but with Rivera returning Soriano became expendable, and he signed a big free-agent deal to close for the Nationals. Ibanez played more than the Yankees counted on thanks to Brett Gardner's season-long injury issues, and put up a credible performance including some big postseason hits, but didn't project to have much of a role in 2013 (despite the Yankees' hole at DH), so the team let him walk.
Signed free agent DH/1B Russ Canzler.
Normally Canzler would be a 25th man for the Yankees, but he actually has a decent shot at getting some playing time at DH when the Yankees aren't using that slot to rest their regulars, and to fill in in the outfield and at first. At 26, Canzler isn't much of a prospect, but he did lead the International League in doubles in 2012, and could produce enough to matter in AL-only leagues if he gets extended playing time.
Signed free agent OF Matt Diaz.
Diaz has a long history of smashing lefthanders, and while he's starting to do so at a somewhat lesser rate (hitting just .269 against them in 2012), he'll still fill an important role for the Yankees against tough lefthanders.
Signed free agent OF Juan Rivera
In signing with the Yankees, Rivera will be thrust into a competition with Matt Diaz and Russ Canzler for a role as a right-handed-hitting outfield option off the bench. Rivera, who began his career with the Yankees, batted .260 with a .745 OPS against left-handers last season while with the Dodgers.
Projected Lineup (vs. RH/LH)
1. Ichiro Suzuki, RF
2. Derek Jeter, SS
3. Robinson Cano, 2B
4. Mark Teixeira, 1B
5. Curtis Granderson, CF
6. Kevin Youkilis, 3B
7. Eduardo Nunez/Russ Canzler/Matt Diaz/Juan Rivera, DH
8. Francisco Cervelli, C
9. Brett Gardner, LF
The big question marks in the Yankee lineup are in the seven and eight holes. Eduardo Nunez has the highest-upside bat of the various DH candidates, but the Yankees would like him to develop as a shortstop, so they may be reluctant to use him at DH. The Yankees also use the DH slot to rest regulars, so we may see Nunez at short or third, or Canzler or Diaz at first or the outfield, when the Yankees play one of their established stars at DH. It's hard to know whether Alex Rodriguez would spend a majority of time in the DH role when and if he returns, which could result in a bunch of juggling that would likely see a severe reduction in playing time for Nunez.
Cervelli could put up some empty batting average at catcher, but he's unlikely to do any more than that. The Yankees might also be better served putting Gardner at the top of the lineup if he's healthy, but manager Joe Girardi has shown in the past that he prefers to use the ninth spot in the lineup as a "second leadoff man" if he can, so Gardner is likely to bat ninth.
1. CC Sabathia
2. Hiroki Kuroda
3. Andy Pettitte
4. Phil Hughes
5. Ivan Nova/David Phelps
Sabathia should be fine coming off surgery to remove a bone spur in his elbow, but any pitcher returning from an elbow procedure comes with at least a small degree of risk. Kuroda and Pettitte were great in 2012, but they'll be 38 and 40 respectively on opening day. Hughes was actually fairly steady for the Yankees despite giving up a ton of homers. Nova's 2012 didn't match his excellent 2011, and he'll compete with David Phelps for the last slot in the Yankee rotation. Phelps looked very good in a swingman role last season, and could be a valuable sleeper if he gets a solid opportunity. Michael Pineda may also factor in here if he returns in the second half of the season, but given that he'll have gone a year and a half without pitching at that point, it seems unlikely the Yankees will just drop him into the rotation without seeing some serious performance in the minors and/or the bullpen.
Closer: Mariano Rivera
Rivera's season ended in May due to a torn ACL, but he decided to return for his 19th season, and says he'll be ready for Opening Day. Even though he'll be 43 when the season starts, there appears to be no reason to expect any less than his usual dominant numbers. The age and injury bring some small element of risk, but Rivera showed no real sign of skills loss (8.6 K/9, 2.2 BB/9) prior to his season-ending injury, and he still comes with an aura of dominance that no other closer can match.
Key Bullpen Members: David Robertson is well positioned to pick up for Rivera once the future Hall of Famer finally retires. While he wasn't quite as dominant as he'd been in 2011, Robertson was still very good, putting up a 12.0 K/9, and dramatically lowering his walk rate from 4.7 to 2.8 BB/9. Robertson has fantasy value even in his current setup role, and with the departure of Soriano, Robertson is the unquestioned closer-in-waiting. David Aardsma and Joba Chamberlain provide good support from the right side, and Boone Logan is one of the more durable bullpen lefties in the game, leading the AL with 80 appearances in 2012.
Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:
When will Alex Rodriguez be healthy, and how will he produce when he returns?
The reports on Rodriguez' hip surgery were as good as could be expected, with doctors reporting they say less damage than they anticipated, and confirming that much of Rodriguez' performance decline could be attributed to his hip issue. While it's hard to count on an aging power hitter coming back from injuries to both hips, medical reports seem to indicate that he should return to something close to full strength. That's a rough gamble to take in a competitive league, but one that could pay off if you can tolerate the risk.
Francisco Cervelli's going to START? Really?
Yes, really, at least for now. The 2014 luxury tax rules are so punishing that even the Yankees have stuck to a budget, at least for the short term. The old Yankees would have retained Russell Martin, or signed Mike Napoli or A.J. Pierzynski, but the team appears content to roll with Cervelli and Chris Stewart for the short-term. GM Brian Cashman has indicated that Austin Romine will start the year in the minors, but if he hits he may make it to the majors by mid-season. Romine projects as a solid average, low-teen power kind of hitter, and should be at least competent behind the plate. The real gem in the Yankee system is 19-year-old Gary Sanchez, but he's at least two years away.
Who's going to DH?
This question may have a radically different answer after Alex Rodriguez returns. For the first part of the season, the DH slot may be something of a revolving door between Eduardo Nunez, Russ Canzler, perhaps Matt Diaz against lefties, and whichever regular manager Joe Girardi wants to give a bit of rest. When Rodriguez returns, it's unclear whether he himself will occupy most of the DH at bats, or whether he'll push Youkilis into frequent DH appearances.
Can the rotation stay healthy?
The Yankees are counting on a top three of Sabathia (returning from elbow surgery), Kuroda (really solid, but 38), and Pettitte (borderline Hall of Famer, but 40). If one of them goes down, the team could survive with both Nova and Phelps in the rotation for a while, but if they have any more issues, the rotation could be in some real trouble.
How long can Mariano Rivera keep it going?
Rivera looked great before his ACL injury last year, and his flawless mechanics and amazing athleticism should let him last as long as anyone. While there's not much of a track record on non-knuckleball pitchers lasting past age 43, if he comes discounted coming off of his injury issues, he's worth grabbing, particularly if you can pick up Robertson to back him up.
An MVP-caliber star in his prime in Robinson Cano, a variety of other talented hitters in Teixeira, Granderson, Jeter, Gardner, and Suzuki, and a good, if aging, starting rotation.
Most of the non-Cano regulars are either aging, injured, or both. The team has big holes at catcher and DH. There's a lot of uncertainty surrounding players like Rodriguez and Pineda, and a variety of players on the team may see their roles change significantly over the course of the season.
Rising: Brett Gardner - Gardner is one of the few Yankees who can qualify for this designation, given his age (29), and the significant value he showed from 2009-2011. Gardner changes the Yankee lineup when he's getting on base and wreaking havoc on the basepaths. While he comes with some degree of risk, he'll have had an entire offseason to recover from the elbow issues that plagued him in 2012, and he's a great candidate to put up 40+ steals and 100+ runs scored.
Declining: Curtis Granderson - While Granderson put up another big home-run total in 2012, there are strong reasons to be concerned here. Granderson appears to have gone for an all-or-nothing swing to drive balls over Yankee Stadium's short right field fence, and all other parts of Granderson's game are heading in the wrong direction. He hit just .187 over August and September, struck out 195 times, lost 45 points of OBP and 105 points of OPS over 2011, and stole just 10 bases after putting up 25 the previous year. Granderson put up his lowest WAR total since his rookie debut in 2005, and we'd suggest letting someone else overpay for the gaudy home-run numbers.
Sleeper: David Phelps - Phelps was an unsung hero for the Yankees last season, putting up excellent numbers in 11 starts and 22 relief appearances. Phelps doesn't have dominant stuff, but he can get his four-seamer up to 95 mph when he needs to, and he mixes in a good curve and a decent changeup. He may have tried to be a little too fine in his starts last season, walking nearly 3.5 BB/9 after keeping that rate around 2.0 BB/9 in the minors, but he balanced that out by being harder to hit than he had shown previously. Phelps has definitely earned a spot on the Yankees' roster for 2013, but it's unclear if he'll be in the rotation or the bullpen. Whatever role he finds, he's an interesting sleeper for 2013.
Supersleeper: Eduardo Nunez - It's a bit of a toss-up between Nunez and Russ Canzler for this spot, but Nunez clearly has more upside than Canzler, so he gets the nod. Nunez's strengths and weaknesses as a player are obvious. He has proven that he is a more than competent major league hitter, putting up a .272 average with a .701 OPS over about a full season's worth of at-bats. He's very dangerous on the basepaths, stealing 38 bases over that same span. Where Nunez fails is in the field. His arm is strong, but erratic, and the Yankees have gone as far as to experiment with him in the outfield in an attempt to find a position where he can be reliable. The team is likely to make its plan for Nunez fairly obvious in the spring via how much shortstop he plays as opposed to jumping around to different positions. There's an opening at DH, and if he can find his way into 400 at bats, Nunez could be looking at 30+ steals with some degree of power as well.
Mason Williams, OF - Williams is a toolsy center fielder who moved up a lot of prospect lists this past season, despite having his season cut short by a shoulder injury in August. Williams has excellent speed and good baserunning instincts, and has the bat speed to develop more power as he fills out. Williams is expected to make a full recovery from his shoulder surgery well before spring training, and if he doesn't hit too many developmental roadblocks he should be the Yankees' center fielder by 2015 or so. He profiles as a potential star center fielder expected to hit for average, while offering excellent speed and decent power.
Austin Romine, C - Romine missed much of last season with a back injury, which stalled his development toward becoming the Yankees' catcher of the future. Romine has a good arm behind the plate, and projects to develop mid-teens power with a decent average. He will start in the minors, but the door is wide open for Romine, at least for the near term, if he can hit in the early part of the minor league season.
Gary Sanchez, C - Sanchez seemed to put the attitude issues that plagued him in 2011 behind him, and put together a very solid season in 2012, hitting .290 with 18 homers across two levels. Sanchez has huge raw power that is starting to show in games, and while he needs to make a few mechanical adjustments to make his swing more efficient, the hit tool definitely appears to be there. Behind the plate, Sanchez has a good arm, but he's not terribly agile and it's still an open question as to whether he'll stick at catcher for the long term. Sanchez is still young for the level he's playing at, and regardless of whether he stays at catcher or not, he should be an impact bat in the majors with an ETA of 2015.
Mark Montgomery, RP - Montgomery has impressed in the Yankees' system since being drafted in the 11th round out of Longwood University in 2011. His first full professional season included stops at High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton, where he carried a combined 13.8 K/9 in 64.1 innings. After struggling with walks upon signing in 2011, his control improved at both stops, including a 2.2 BB/9 at Double-A. Montgomery's season culminated with time in the Arizona Fall League, where he was selected to pitch in the Rising Stars Game and put his plus-slider on full display. Look for him to return to Trenton to begin the season, but Montgomery could break through and become a viable late-inning option in the second half of 2013.
Tyler Austin, OF - Austin zoomed up prospect lists with a strong 2012 season, hitting .322 with a .960 OPS and stealing 23-of-25 bases across four levels. Austin shows very good bat speed, average to above average power, and a solid approach at the plate. He currently plays right field, but may profile at first base down the line (which could make him trade bait, as the Yankees still have Mark Teixeira in the fold for four more seasons). Austin is unlikely to be a superstar, but profiles as a regular major leaguer who can help fantasy teams if he reaches something close to his ceiling. He'll start 2013 at Double-A Trenton.
Slade Heathcott, OF - Heathcott, the Yankees' top draft pick in 2009, has a ton of tools, but his development has been slowed by shoulder injuries. He batted .307 with a .847 OPS as a 21-year-old in High-A in 2012, and while he's always had excellent speed, he vastly improved his success rate this past season, stealing 17 bases in 21 attempts. While Heathcott had just five home runs last season, his power is expected to further develop if he can stay healthy, and he has 30-homer upside down the road. If Heathcott can continue to develop, he could find a prominent spot in the Yankees' outfield by 2015.
Manny Banuelos, SP - While Banuelos will miss the entire 2013 season coming off October Tommy John surgery, he'll be just 23 when the 2014 season opens, and while he may no longer project as the #1 starter he once did, he should still get a shot at the Yankees' 2015 rotation if he bounces back well from the surgery.