When it comes to the New York Yankees, people usually don't think twice about tossing around the phrase "World Series favorites" on any given year.
Somehow, someway, the Yankees almost always seem to vault themselves into the playoffs by season's end, and 2012 will be no different.
The Yankees seemed like a sure-fire second-place team in 2011, with the potential to fall to third place if the pesky Rays could manage to keep winning. Those Rays did in fact keep winning, against all odds, but the Yankees were not the team left out of the postseason, as they took home the AL East title with the much-hyped Red Sox heavily underachieving and collapsing down the stretch.
Remember, this was a Yankees team that despite having an identical lineup to the projected 2012 team, had a much weaker starting rotation. After CC Sabathia, the Yankees' staff was made up of Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett, Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon. That's a bonafide ace, a one-year stud who wound up injured, an inconsistent mess, a breakout rookie and two washed-up veterans.
That rotation managed to lead the Bombers to a 97-win season, so what could the new revamped rotation of Sabathia, Nova, Michael Pineda, Hiroki Kuroda and Hughes (my guess for the fifth starter) accomplish? 100 wins is definitely a real possibility, and it could be even more.
But we have to remember how the 2011 Yankees performed in 2011. They had a bunch of guys carry the team with incredible years, while others underachieved and didn't quite live up to their potential.
In order for the Yankees to return to the top of the baseball world in 2012 and capture their 28th World Series title, they will need eight specific players to really prove their worth over the course of the rigorous 162-game season and into the playoffs.
When the Yankees whiffed on Cliff Lee last offseason, ownership took over and signed Rafael Soriano, the reigning AL saves leader, to set up the greatest closer of all time (who by the way I completely took for granted and don't mention on this list) in Mariano Rivera.
This move was meant to offset the lack of quality starting pitching for the Yankees, effectively shortening games to six innings with David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain covering the seventh.
However, Soriano quickly went down with injury after a somewhat rocky start to the season, but luckily, Robertson emerged as quite possibly one of the best relievers in the big leagues, earning an All-Star berth and the permanent role as Mariano's setup man.
Upon his return, however, Soriano pitched beautifully, enjoying a string of scoreless outings, showing that he might just yet step up and give the Yankees the two best setup men in baseball.
Imagine a Yankees team with a new dominant rotation protected by Joba, Soriano, D-Rob and Mo in the late innings.
2011 was a rebirth for Curtis Granderson.
The player who once had fans groaning about giving up top prospect Austin Jackson and the once-hyped Ian Kennedy finally showed New York what Brian Cashman saw in him.
Granderson hit 41 home runs and drove in 119 runs and scored 136 in 2011, setting career-highs in every category.
Even from the two-hole in the Yankees lineup, his 119 RBI were an AL-best, showing just how often Granderson was able to come through in the clutch.
His performance even placed him fourth in the AL MVP voting, behind Justin Verlander, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jose Bautista, but the argument could have been made that Granderson was the most valuable position player in baseball.
If the Yankees want to win the World Series in 2012, they're going to need Granderson's 2011 season to not have been a fluke.
While he has in no way been performing badly, Mark Teixeira has definitely not been the man the Yankees were envisioning when they signed him to that eight-year, $180 million contract three years ago.
Teixeira still has more pop in his bat than just about anyone in baseball, and he fully takes advantage of the shallow right-field dimensions in Yankee Stadium. However, while that right-field porch has proven to be a great ally for Tex, it may also be his greatest adversary.
Ever since discovering in 2009 that almost anything he puts in the air has a decent chance of leaving the park in the Bronx, he's been trying to hit a home run in almost every at-bat. This has caused just about every team in baseball to deploy a shift on the right side when Teixeira comes to bat. As you could have guessed, more often than not that's exactly where Teixiera hits it, and it becomes just another out.
So, to avoid the shift, Teixiera tries to go over their heads and lift the ball, but that leads to an obscene amount of pop-ups. What Tex needs to do this offseason is work with Kevin Long on hitting the ball the other way and not trying to drive every pitch he sees into the stands.
This is a guy who could easily hit north of .300 every year while still hitting 30-plus home runs and driving in well over 100 runs. His first year in the Bronx, when he still had his non-Yankee Stadium mindset, he finished second in the AL MVP voting. If he fixes his approach, he very well could win one of those awards with the Yankees, and that would only help them on their quest for a championship.
The newest player to don the pinstripes, Michael Pineda has a lot to prove in 2012.
He came over from Seattle in the trade that sent top prospect and likely future All-Star Jesus Montero over to the Mariners, and after Cashman's constant reassurance that Montero would only be traded for an ace, that's now exactly what the Yankees are expecting Pineda to become.
Pineda looked like the second coming of King Felix over the first half of the 2011 season, but after making the All-Star team as a rookie, he fell off in the second half. He wound up finishing with a 3.74 ERA and 173 strikeouts over 170 innings, placing fifth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting, right behind Yankees rookie Ivan Nova.
Pineda could become the Yankees third starter behind Sabathia and Nova with the stuff of a No. 2 in 2012, and if he can play a whole year like he played the first half of 2011, he'd pair up with CC to form one of the best one-two punches in baseball.
The Yankees need this trade to pan out if they want to win the World Series in 2012. They need Michael Pineda to be the real deal, and if he is, the Yankees will be the ones to beat in October.
When you're talking about players who are "vital" to a club's World Series aspirations, you have to talk about the best overall player on the roster, and in the Yankees' case, that player is Robinson Cano.
Cano has quickly risen to elite status on a team that's known for going out and "buying" elite players, not raising their own. The fact that Cano impressed the Yankees enough to stick with him and bring him all the way through the minors and into the big leagues shows you just what kind of player he is.
After hitting seventh for the 2009 championship-winning squad, Cano became the No. 5 hitter for the Yankees in 2010 and stayed at that spot up until the final week or so of 2011, when he finally displaced Mark Teixeira in the coveted three-hole—a spot usually reserved for the best hitter on any team.
Cano's ability to hit for average and power as well as his knack for coming through in the clutch and driving in runs makes him a perfect three-hitter, and I doubt the Yankees have any qualms about batting him and Granderson, two left-handed hitters, back-to-back in the order, as they are two of baseball's best lefties against left-handed pitching.
If Cano can keep putting together the kinds of years that we have quickly become accustomed to, then the Yankees have with them a player who could win multiple MVP's for them over the next couple of years.
Having the best player at his position never hurts a team's chances at the World Series, and Cano is no different.
With all the excitement over the acquisition of Michael Pineda and the signing of Hiroki Kuroda, everyone has seemed to forget about the guy who actually placed ahead of Pineda in the AL ROY voting—Ivan Nova.
Nova really came out of nowhere if you think about it. There was no hype as Nova worked through the minor leagues, no indications that he would become anything more than a possible back-end-of-the-rotation-type pitcher. He struggled upon his jump to Triple-A in 2009, but after fairing much better in 2010 while also winning a bunch of his starts, he was called up and pitched decently enough that people wondered whether or not Joe Girardi would pitch him in the playoffs despite only starting seven games.
In 2011, there was little to no question that Nova would be in the big-league rotation, but it was expected to be as a possible fifth starter. The Yankees expected to either sign Cliff Lee or retain Andy Pettitte, but when they got neither, Nova suddenly became a very important member of the '11 squad.
Originally the fourth starter behind CC, Hughes and A.J., Nova quickly showed he was much better than that and by the end of the year he was the sure-fire No. 2 starter and Sabathia's right-hand man (no pun intended).
Nova needs to prove that his rookie campaign wasn't aberration. If the Yankees get significant contributions from him as well as their other young righty, Pineda, they will have one of baseball's most dangerous rotations in 2012 as well as for the next five or six years.
It seemed only fitting that Alex Rodriguez held the hope of the Yankees' 2011 season on his shoulder and wound up striking out to end the year.
After easily the worst season of his career in 2011, A-Rod set out to make some changes this offseason.
He began by undergoing experimental surgery in Germany on his knee and shoulder, recommended to him by Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant. The surgery, called Orthokine, if effective, should help A-Rod return to his previous form by strengthening the parts of his body that have experienced the most wear and tear over the course of his career. That's not to say that A-Rod will suddenly put up numbers resembling his 2007 MVP year, but more along the lines of his usual 30-35 home runs and .290-.300 batting average.
Adding the old Alex Rodriguez to the Yankee lineup that managed to drive in 836 runs and hit a major league-best 222 home runs would make the Yankees offense undoubtedly the best in the game. There's a reason that the Yankees gave Rodriguez that ridiculous 10-year $275 million contract back in the 2007-2008 offseason.
They felt that he would be the best man possible to occupy the cleanup spot in the lineup for at least seven or eight of those years. He was the best player in baseball and can still be one of the best today.
A healthy A-Rod has never proven to be anything but a fantastic ballplayer, and fantastic ballplayers help teams win World Series championships.
CC Sabathia is without a doubt the most important player on the Yankees. Joe Girardi has said multiple times that if CC ever went down with a major injury, the Yankees would be in some serious trouble. You can't overvalue a true ace, and that's exactly what CC is for the Bombers.
CC looked on track to put up the best numbers of his career in 2011. By the All-Star break, he was 13-4 with a 2.72 ERA and only getting better. In July, he went 4-1 with a 0.92 ERA, but from there on, he wasn't quite the same.
Joe Girardi's indecision as to who should and should not be in the rotation led to a six-man rotation in the Bronx, which really messed with CC's head. On top of that, CC regained most, if not all, of the weight he lost over the offseason, adding onto the stress on his body during the most difficult part of the season.
If CC can get himself back into shape and stay that way throughout the season, he should be able to pick up right where he left off in July. Hopefully, Girardi won't continue his indecisive ways in 2012 and will actually make a decision on the fifth starter in spring training.
A healthy, happy Sabathia is the key to the Yankees' World Series run in 2012. With him, they could really be something great. Without him, they're nothing.