NY Yankees: The Ideal Opening Day Lineup

Joseph Browne@jbrownesportsNYCorrespondent IIJanuary 9, 2012

NY Yankees: The Ideal Opening Day Lineup

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    There has been considerable chatter in the netherworld and in the more mainstream media regarding the Yankees' lack of offseason activity. Most of the chatter has addressed the notion that the team should have addressed their glaring rotation needs, however the reality is that the needs of the team are far more complex than merely having to add a front-line starter.

    Age and performance issues abound throughout the projected starting lineup, so much so that the club could find itself relying as heavily on the production of rookie catcher/DH Jesus Montero as they are relying on the hopeful return-to-form of Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira.

    As the season progresses, it is not outside the realm of reason that the Yankees will be in search of a reliable stick to supplement a lineup that could very well be performing well below conventional expectations. There are so many things that have to go right for this Yankee lineup to succeed consistently and even if it does perform well during the regular season, it may be too littered with once-great hitters to be able to perform to the level it needs to in order to move beyond the first round of the playoffs, presuming the team makes the postseason at all.

    As it does not appear that Brian Cashman is waiting in the weeds to land a big bat, it will be incumbent upon Joe Girardi to demonstrate a level of flexibility and imagination with his lineup that he has not had a tendency to in the past.

    Girardi, typically content to pencil in the same names in the same slots night after night almost regardless of performance and all reasonable alternatives, will have to closely manage this aspect of his team in a way that he has not demonstrated an affinity for in the past. For evidence of Girardi's reluctance to tinker, we suggest you review the Yankee lineups throughout the Round 1 loss to Detroit in the ALDS. Same names, same places, same inconsistent attack night after night.

    Here, then, are our ideas as to where each Yankee should line up as the season begins. It should be understood that the intention here is to craft an attack that takes into consideration who these players are today as opposed to who they've been in the past or who they project to be going forward. Possible performance-based adjustments have been factored into the analysis as well and we'll also be pointing out how things may be changing as the season moves forward.

1. Brett Gardner

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    The time is now for Brett Gardner to prove he is the multi-faceted offensive threat he would appear to be. The days of long stretches of positive production followed by equally long dry spells must be a thing of the past and he simply cannot start 2012 the way he ended 2011 - .223 AVG/.324 OBP over August and September.

    Gardner, however, was a true force in the five game series vs. Detroit. He hit .417 with an OBP of .444 over 17 official AB's; and while this is, of course, not the expectation going forward, the Yankees would consider it a welcomed development if Gardner can be closer to the 2011 postseason version of himself as opposed to the version that struggled so mightily at the beginning and end of the 2011 regular season.

    Gardner in this slot allows Jeter to do what he has traditionally done best: drive the ball the other way and advance runners when necessary. The risk here, however, is that Jeter turns into a double play machine considering his ground ball to fly ball ratios.

    This is a chance the Yankees will have to take, at least to start the season. Regardless of where Jeter hits, the hope has to be that he is the player that he was from July through September of last year and not the player he was from 2010 through July 2011. If that's the case then he will compliment Gardner's capabilities nicely and the table will be set for the remainder of the lineup to take advantage.

2. Derek Jeter

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    No surprise here. Jeter, as is often forgotten, was one of the best 2-hole hitters of all time for much of his career prior to 2009. His inside out swing enables him to guide the ball the other way effectively and if Gardner can get on base and steal with regularity, then the Yankees could find themselves not as reliant on the big-inning as they have been in the past.

    The Yankee lineup has been in a kind of all-or-nothing funk for several seasons now so something as simple as Jeter moving a runner from second to third with less than two outs will result in quick runs that tend to add up over time.

3. Alex Rodriguez

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    Traditionally, the three-slot is reserved for your team's best hitter. Placing Rodriguez in the third slot in our lineup, however, is not an indication that this space considers the big third baseman to be that for the Yankees. Having said that, it can be easily argued that Rodriguez' offensive performance, good or bad, will have the most bearing on Yankee fortunes as the season progresses.

    As such, Rodriguez will need cover. He will need the kind of cover, in fact, that he himself provided for many three-hole hitters throughout his long career as a cleanup hitter. It's been a little over a decade since Rodriguez has been anything other than the every day cleanup for his team, not since the days, in fact, when Ken Griffey Jr. and he combined for one of the most lethal 3-4 combinations in history when they shared the field in Seattle.

    Time has a way of changing things, though, and for Rodriguez to provide the kind of production the Yankees will need from him, he'll have to have a more robust threat behind him than Mark Teixeira projects to be at this point.

    It was clearly apparent that Detroit was not in the least bit concerned with challenging Teixeira in the ALDS with fastball after fastball, and it was also clear that Teixeira struggled to respond in any substantive way. Whether this was due to a mechanical flaw in his swing or to the decline of his skills remains to be seen, but two years into a phase where he is batting significantly below his career levels can no longer be considered a bump in the road.

    With this all as backdrop, Rodriguez being moved to the three-hole leaves the cleanup spot up for grabs. As things are currently constituted, there is just one man on this Yankee team capable of carrying that load...

4. Robinson Cano

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    If you have any doubt that Robinson Cano can be the cleanup hitter the Yankees need, take a look at his performance over the past two seasons in that role vs. in all other lineup positions.

    Games Played as Cleanup Hitter: 69

    .320 AVG/14 HR's/64 RBI/.382 OBP/.545 SLG/.927 OPS

    Games Played in other Lineup Positions: 246

    .308 AVG/43 HR's/163 RBI/.364 OBP/.512 SLG/.876 OPS

    As seen from the above comparison, Cano is simply more effective as a cleanup hitter. Breaking the numbers down further, if Cano's production as a cleanup hitter is projected over a 162 game season, we see that he produces in the range of 33 HR's and 150 RBI, higher than his production in all other lineup slots when combined and averaged. Most glaring is RBI production, where Cano goes from producing an RBI in roughly two out of every three games to producing an RBI in every nine out of ten. Heady numbers indeed.

    It should be said that projections of this nature are never lab-quality, of course, however 70 games or so is a good sample size to work from.

    Additionally, it should be noted that Cano put up those numbers as a cleanup hitter without Rodriguez in the lineup and without Teixeira hitting behind him. Typically it would be Nick Swisher in the five-hole when Cano assumed cleanup responsibilities and regardless of how much Teixeira has struggled. he is still considered to be a more legitimate threat than Swisher by professional scouts and coaching staffs.

    If Rodriguez remains healthy and if Teixeira can rediscover his pre-2010 form, Cano could very well win the MVP this season. These are huge ifs, or course, so huge that the entire Yankee season hinges on them coming to fruition. If these things come to pass, however, Cano as the every day cleanup man makes the Yankee's lineup significantly more potent.

5. Mark Teixeira

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    While Teixeira appears to no longer be the hitter he was prior to 2010, especially from the left-side where the drop-off has been most significant (2009 as LHB: .282 AVG/30HR/91 RBI/.373 OBP/.579 SLG/.951 OPS vs. 2011 as LHB: .224/24HR/69 RBI/.325 OBP/.453 SLG/.779 OPS), the fact is that he is a major upgrade over Nick Swisher as protection for Robinson Cano, our projected cleanup hitter in this lineup.

    Teixeira, for his part, is reported to be working with Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long to make long-overdue changes to his lefty approach to compensate for the infield shift that opposing managers have used for much of the past two seasons. This shift has essentially neutered Teixeira as a lefty, and he's become quite Dave Kingman-esque from the left-side in that it is all or nothing in terms of his production.

    If Teixeira even approaches his pre-2010 form in support of Cano, then this Yankee lineup will be that much more lethal. It's a big if, again, but it is not yet a foregone conclusion that Teixeira is suffering from a decline in skills as much as he is a victim of his own inability to adjust to opposing strategies. If his approach can be altered from the left side, meaning he goes the other way more often and ultimately with regularity, look for the kinds of results the Yankees were expecting when they locked him up for eight years.

    If this does not come to pass and Teixeira is indeed the hitter in 2012 that he was in 2010 and 2011, the Yankees will still be better positioned to excel in the upcoming season due to the lengthening of the lineup that results from some of the other changes recommended thus far.

    There is another recommendation, however, that if undertaken could see the Yankees boast one of the deeper lineups in the game. We'll get to that recommendation in our next slide, however there is one hedge (a rather big one) that could see the entire house of cards come tumbling down.

    Specifically, the Yankees lineup is either far too brittle, old, or full of question marks to truly feel confident about. These lineup recommendations are therefore not simply cosmetic but considered to be essential for the team to thrive. For the first time in a long time, the Yankee lineup may be more reliant on the collective than it has been on the one-time, virtually assured reality that several superstars would carry the load.

6. Curtis Granderson

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    Simply stated, this is the season where Curtis Granderson will have to prove he's for real. Granderson has never before entered a season with expectations that he will be a major cog in the wheel, however 2012 will be that year. Producing 41 HRs and 119 RBI has a way of forcing people to notice and that includes the team you're with.

    It was Granderson's emergence in 2011 that was likely one of the reasons Brian Cashman did not feel compelled to seek an impact bat on the market this offseason and if the calculation is accurate, the Yankees are one year removed from being forced to adjust their roster.

    If this was a miscalculation, however, the team will find itself in need of an overhaul sooner rather than later. Going with the presumption that Granderson is the real thing, his placement in the sixth hole is by no means an afterthought.

    Though he did thrive in the two-hole with an abundance of protection behind him, it is now time for Granderson to provide some protection for others, namely Mark Teixeira and, to a lesser extent, Jesus Montero behind him. If Granderson can provide a steady power bat behind Teixeira, then Teixeira's adjustment away from being a dead pull hitter from the left side will go far more smoothly. Teixeira will see a more consistent regimen of fastballs in this scenario, making the process of re-learning how to use the entire field more streamlined.

    If Teixeira struggles, however, and Granderson starts the season hitting well, the recommendation would be to swap these two in the order sooner rather than later. While Cano is special enough to thrive without stellar support behind him, he can only benefit from having a solid bat in that spot.

7. Jesus Montero

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    If Jesus Montero is the hitter everyone in Yankeeworld is hoping he is, then Girardi will have a tough time keeping him this far down in the lineup. It might even be likely that Girardi has him slotted for the 6-hole with Gardner again hitting ninth. It remains to be seen how things shake out for Montero, of course, but our choice is to have him in the seventh slot to begin the season.

    In this position Montero could very well be a key reason why Granderson in the sixth slot produces the kind of numbers that at least approach his 2011 levels. Moving Granderson out of the two hole is a risk on many levels but Montero could mitigate those risks by being the force he is projected to be.

    Additionally, as teams try to figure Montero out, it is likely that he will benefit from having a solid regular season performer behind him in the order, and we're of course referring to our number eight hitter, Nick Swisher. It could develop that Swisher's presence leaves Montero being pitched around, however this would be a potentially dangerous scenario for opposing pitchers as Swisher is traditionally quite selective himself.

    Having the bottom third of your order being filled out by a projected 30 HR, 100 RBI hitter (Montero) and a consistent regular season threat (Swisher) is a nice luxury, though look for Montero to force his way towards the front of the lineup as the season develops.

8. Nick Swisher

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    Penciling in a hitter who has produced 20-30 HR's and 80-90 RBI in consecutive seasons as the number eight man seems absurd, however this is truly the best slot for Swisher when the entire lineup is taken into account.

    Moving Swisher up means moving others down and each man to this point in our lineup has a role that is directly related to their appointed slot. Additionally, Swisher simply does not add greater value in another slot and so it should be his responsibility to provide some cover for Montero at least in the beginning of the season.

    Swisher will no doubt be motivated to perform as this is the last year of his contract with the team. If he has another typically solid regular season followed by another poor postseason showing, presuming a Yankee birth in the playoffs, look for the Yankees to transition away from Swisher heading into 2013.

9. Russell Martin

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    Having a player in the nine-hole who produced 18 HR's and 65 RBI the previous season, his first in the American League, is as remarkably absurd as having Nick Swisher and his production in the eighth slot. With that said, though, there is simply no other place for Martin in the lineup.

    In the end, Martin is a luxury to the Yankees, at least at this point. If Yankee catching prospect Gary Sanchez is everything he is said to be, then Martin will be what he is today for at least two, more than likely three years; a superior glove behind the plate that will provide more than enough offensively.