In 2008, the New York Yankees finished third in the Eastern Division of the American League. It was the first time since 1995 that they had not won the division.
In the offseason, management has inked two of the best pitchers in baseball to long term contracts, signing CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. They have also signed the best position player on the free agent market in first baseman, Mark Teixeira.
There are still question marks with catcher Jorge Posada coming off shoulder surgery; designated hitter Hideki Matsui having knee surgery for the second consecutive year, and starting pitcher Chien-Ming Wang coming back from a foot injury that ended his season.
But perhaps the biggest question mark facing the Yankees is whether manager Joe Girardi is really up to the task of leading the team that has invested so much in returning to their accustomed place atop major league baseball.
In 2008, Girardi was in his first season as Yankee skipper and had only one prior year of experience managing at the big league level.
And his initial season as leader of the Bombers was a picture of inconsistency. Without question, Girardi was faced with daunting challenges because of injuries.
Not only did Posada first go on the DL and then, after attempting to come back, had to be shut down for the entire year, but other stars were injured as well.
Johnny Damon, Alex Rodriquez and Derek Jeter all spent time on the DL with nagging leg injuries. Starting pitcher and staff ace, Chien Ming Wang, injured his foot running the bases in an inter-league game and missed most of the second half of the season.
And Joba Chamberlain, converted from set-up man to starting pitcher, went down with a strain in his throwing shoulder.
But even accounting for these injuries, the Yankees had so many different combinations on the field that fans were often confused tuning into a game and trying to figure out who was playing where.
Much of this has to be laid at Girardi's doorstep as he would have different infield and outfield combinations game after game.
Girardi started six different catchers through the year, with Jose Molina starting the most games with 81.
Eight different players started at first base, including regular Jason Giambi, Wilson Betemit, Shelley Duncan, Richie Sexson, Cody Ranson, Morgan Ensberg, Juan Miranda and Jorge Posada.
In addition, Xavier Nady, Chad Moeller, Johnny Damon and Jose Molina saw action at first.
Second base was a little more stable with Robinson Cano starting all but eight games. But Alex Gonzalez, Wilson Betemit and Cody Ranson also started there.
Third Base saw five different starters with Alex Rodriquez, Morgan Ensberg, Betemit, Gonzalez, Ransom and even catcher, Chad Moeller playing there.
Shortstop was usually the province of Derek Jeter who started 147 games despite some time on the DL. But Ransom, Gonzalez and Betemit also started there.
The outfield was a mish mash of players. Right field was the area of most consistency with Bobby Abreau starting 148 games there. But five other players started in right field at one time or another, including usual left fielder, Xavier Nady, a midseason acquisition from Pittsburgh as well as center fielder, Melky Cabrera and Hideki Matsui.
Johnny Damon started more games in left field than any other player, but only seventy-five total. He also started in center field in 33 games. Nady started most of the games in left after coming to the Yanks (45).
But during the course of the year, Matsui started twenty games in left, rookie Brett Gardner started fifteen games there, rookie Justin Christian started six games there and Cabrera started there once.
In center, Cabrera started 109 games but was eventually demoted to Triple-A Scranton. As stated above, Damon was there to begin thirty-three games; Gardner started seventeen in center and Christian was in center to start three games.
Players need time to get used to whomever is playing next to them. A third baseman needs to understand the range of the shortstop and vice versa. A center fielder needs to know what to expect when a ball is driven into the gap between him and the left fielder.
An infielder should know what to expect from a first baseman when he sets to make a throw.
Cut off plays, run downs, bunts, double steals all involve coordination between the various players on the fields.
In 2008, Girardi mixed and matched so much that there was very little consistency from game to game. He was asked about his methods and usually talked about wanting to make sure that his players were well rested for the stretch run.
But sports writers, television analysts, and fans alike were wondering in late August and into September when they looked at the line up Girardi had put on the field to see that Bobby Abreau was not playing or A-Rod was the designated hitter while Cody Ransom started at third.
Expecting Nady in left field when the Yankees needed to make up games, fans might turn on the game and wonder what Nady was doing as DH when Justin Christian or Gardner was in left.
Rumors out of the Yankee clubhouse included talk that veterans were not happy with the way Girardi was running the team.
For Girardi to put the Yankees back on top in 2009, he will have to find a line up and stick to it. That is barring injuries of course.
His regular behind home plate may be Posada if Jorge can bounce back from injuries and surgery. If he is okay, Posada should catch most of the games. But he will also be 38-years-old this year.
First base should be a no brainer, with gold glover Mark Teixeira playing there every day.
Cano returns to second, Jeter should play short and A-Rod is a fixture at third. If Girardi will leave them alone and play them as they would expect to play the Yankees should be better off.
The outfield however has many question marks. Abreau, the most consistent outfielder is gone. Nady was penciled in to play right, but now there is talk he is on the trading block.
Matsui should be the regular DH if Posada can catch. That means Damon will be the usual suspect in left field. But he is weak defensively and may present problems there.
Center figures to be the best outfield position for the Yankees defensively. Brian Cashman has said that Brett Gardner and Melky Cabrera will compete for that position. They are both superior defensive players but will each have to prove themselves at the plate.
But the primary task for Girardi is to ditch his experimentation of last year, stop juggling his players and put a team on the field that knows what to expect from their teammates.
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