On the eve of Opening Day, the Yankees head into 2011 with an offense that should be one of the best in baseball. The club led the majors in runs scored in 2010, with all the key pieces of that offense returning this season.
The entire infield could conceivably start for the American League in the All-Star Game this summer. Mark Teixeira remains one of the best first basemen in baseball, both offensively and defensively. In 2010, he hit 33 home runs and drove in 108 runs, yet will look to improve on a career-low .256 batting average. Robinson Cano had an MVP-caliber season in 2010, and will be expected to build on this success going forward.
Much of the talk this past offseason focused on Derek Jeter, whether it was about his contract, a possible position change, or a modified batting stance. At 36, while he showed some signs of decline during a subpar 2010, it would be foolish to say his career is finished, as some have suggested. After all, he is just a season removed from a very strong 2009, in which he hit .334, had an OPS of .871, and finished third in the AL MVP Voting. To make any kind of statement about his career being over with these numbers in mind is illogical. Questions persist about his future at shortstop, although it was wrong to assume this would be an issue in 2011.
Alex Rodriguez, on the other hand, had a relatively quiet offseason in comparison to years past in which he has dominated headlines. Despite missing 25 games in 2010, the third basemen still managed to hit 30 home runs and drive in 125 runs. Seemingly free from the hip injury that had slowed him down (again, relatively speaking) the past two years, Rodriguez will look to carry the momentum from a strong spring into the regular season. Rodriguez posted a .388 batting average and hit six home runs in exhibition games this preseason, according to The New York Times.
Outfielders Brett Gardner, Nick Swisher, and Curtis Granderson, and catcher Russell Martin will round out the starting lineup (the catching situation is discussed in Part 3 of the season preview). Following a season in which he stole 47 bases, Gardner’s speed is a valuable asset for a team that otherwise is not particularly fast. To make the most of this, Gardner will hit in the leadoff spot against right handers this season, according to MLB.com (the report says Jeter will take the top spot against lefty starters). Granderson was slowed by injuries in 2010 and will look to return to all-star form. Swisher had a strong season last year, earning a place on the American League All-Star team and posting a career-best .288 batting average, along with an OPS of .870.
As for the team’s bench, it will be highlighted by new acquisitions Andruw Jones and Eric Chavez. A common theme for the Yankees this offseason was the additions of once-successful players currently struggling to get back to a high level in the major leagues (Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, and Mark Prior, for example). Jones, who spent 2010 with the White Sox, and Chavez, who had spent his entire big league career in Oakland, fit into this role as well. Still, while a return to their all-star status is unlikely, the duo could still be of value. Jones’s glove will be an upgrade from that of 2010 reserve outfielder Marcus Thames, who offered little defensively. The former Braves star could also have an impact offensively vs. left handers, as he had an OPS of .931 against southpaws in 2010. Chavez, who had a strong showing in the 2011 preseason, will be able to fill in adequately at first base for an occasional Mark Teixeira off day, and more frequently at third, with the team looking to keep Rodriguez fresh.
Utility infielder Eduardo Nunez and backup catcher Gustavo Molina make up the rest of the bench. Nunez will take the place of Ramiro Pena (who was sent to the minors) as a reserve infielder, and Molina will start the season as Martin’s backup. Molina has appeared in only 23 games over the span of a three year big league career, and spent 2010 with the Red Sox. After the injury to Francisco Cervelli this spring, the door was believed to be opened for top catching prospect Jesus Montero to assume the backup catching job, but the organization evidently believed he would be better served beginning 2011 in Triple-A. Montero hit .247 this spring, with the team’s other prized catching prospect Austin Romine hitting only .150, according to Thomas Conroy of Yahoo Sports.