CAPTION: Yankees fans are getting tired of seeing this face on the back cover of the Post every day. Those of us who still read, at least.
(This article is dedicated to the one and only Richie Rich, whom I wish was still with us, if only so he could enlighten us further about the way things are in the world, and what a geek I am for making sense.)
What a difference a month makes. I was planning on writing this in the beginning of February but things just kept getting pushed farther and farther back behind schedule, mostly because I have a job that takes me out back and shoots me with a 9-gauge shotgun of a deadline every March 1. My apologies. Let's review what we've learned in the month that's passed:
1. Alex Rodriguez used steroids while he was with the Texas Rangers, from 2001-2003. The fact that those Rangers lost about 95 games each year he was on the team becomes even more damning evidence that Alex is a selfish player - a good teammate would have shared, no?
2. Brett Gardner has gotten off to a hot start, hitting two home runs thus far in preseason and positioning himself to win the starting center field job over incumbent Melky Cabrera.
3. Alex Rodriguez still has no idea how to contain himself when he talks to reporters, to the point that he went on the record and said he wished Jose Reyes was leading off and playing shortstop for the Yankees (momentarily forgetting that the guy playing there right now is pretty good, and pretty popular...what's his name again?).
4. Joba Chamberlain will be the fifth starter in the Yankees' Opening Day rotation, instead of my preseason pick Phil Hughes.
5. Alex Rodriguez will be out somewhere between ten weeks and four months with either a cyst or a torn labrum in his right hip, will or will not require surgery or try to play through it, and will likely be replaced in the lineup by the lethal combination of Cody Ransom and Angel Berroa.
(By the way, Rodriguez still has nine years and up to $275 million left on his most recent ridiculous contract, and if his lower body starts to break down due to aging, PED-abuse, or any combination of the above, the Yankees are on the hook for every day and every cent.)
6. I picked a bad month to quit drinking.
Let's call this column what it is. Without further ado, I give you...THE STARTING EIGHT AND A HALF.
When the rumor of Rodriguez trying to play through his injury came out, my friend and statistical adviser Justin Fox said, "That sounds like he'll be back by Memorial Day and done by [July] 4th."
So, worst-case scenario, where do the Yankees stand without their cleanup hitter in the lineup indefinitely? What on earth are we gonna do with a lineup that includes Brett Gardner and Cody Ransom, on top of the big question marks surrounding most of the remaining regulars?
Is Jorge Posada's shoulder going to be able to withstand 90-100 games behind the plate? Are Matsui's knee problems behind him? Will they ever be? Has Johnny Damon ran into one too many walls? Which Robbie Cano shows up? Him most of all - if the Yankees are to muster some offense in A-Rod's absence, Cano and Nady are going to have to come through in a huge way.
What would I do if I were in Girardi's chair? It's time to use the speed we have at the top of the order and try to play a little National League-style ball...or at least as close as the Yankees are ever going to come to trying it.
1. Brett Gardner - CF
Although he's showing more pop than expected in his position battle with Melky Cabrera, it's Gardner's legs that earn him the job here - he amassed 13 SB in limited action after his call-up last fall. That could project to 40-50 if he fouls off enough pitches to earn a few walks. Even a mediocre on-base percentage will produce plenty of run-scoring opportunities when he's a threat to go first to third in a single at-bat, and the guys behind him are proven hitters.
2. Johnny Damon - LF
The regular leadoff hitter, in any regular circumstance. He's still guaranteed to hit at least .290 with 10-15 home runs and a solid on-base percentage, even at 36, and his downright terrible arm won't be so exposed in left field as it was in center.
Most importantly, Damon's still a decent base-stealing threat—certainly 20 SB is squarely possible—which provides a great complement to Gardner's raw speed. Count on these two guys to drive pitchers crazy when they get on base, leaving them less focused on the bigger, scarier bats ahead...
3. Derek Jeter - SS
Yes, I know. I'm a crazy, crazy man who knows nothing about baseball. Derek Jeter hasn't hit more than 20 home runs since 2004. He's driven in 100 runs a grand total of...let's see...once in his career (1999). But he's good for at least a .300 batting average, and with the protection of someone a little more menacing than Bobby Abreu, he'll get enough good pitches to hit that 15-20 homers and 90 RBI is absolutely possible.
If nothing else, his batting average will go up—Jeter is the first to admit he's not a power hitter because he likes to hit too much. Seeing better (more generous) pitches would pay some dividends.
4. Mark Teixeira - 1B
(Hey look everyone, a switch-hitting first baseman with a sick glove who hits a guaranteed .280 with 30 HR and 100-120 RBI! Can we keep him?)
We've already covered how happy I am to have Tex in pinstripes, but now he's got a much, much bigger role to fill in the offense. Count on his numbers to be lower than average these first few months of the year, as pitchers will tend to be much more careful pitching around him now that they don't have the grisly specter of Rodriguez waiting for them in the on-deck circle.
He's got a good eye, and so he'll still get on base plenty. And he'll still get some opportunities to drive in runs. But don't expect an enormous April or May without A-Rod's bat protecting him in the lineup.
5. Hideki Matsui - DH
If he's healthy, Godzilla can still mash with the best of them. But at 35 years old and coming off his second knee surgery in four years, who can say if he's healthy? We're going to have to wait and see and keep our fingers crossed all year—as we are with a couple other members of this line up (Damon, Jeter, Posada) that age and all its indignities does not catch up with the big fella mid-season.
6. Xavier Nady - RF
First of all, did you guys know Nady played 3B in college? (No? Me neither. Let's leave it alone.) Second, here we see a guy who will need to prove his worth in pinstripes very early on—preferably by having a first half comparable to his first half with the Pirates last season. Otherwise, Nick Swisher or top prospect Austin Jackson will get a shot at the position, and Nady will likely find himself in another new uniform by the trade deadline.
7. Jorge Posada - C
Let's be perfectly clear: if we lose Posada for any extended period of time this year, our season is as over as it was last year. No one player—not even Rodriguez himself—is as important to this Yankee lineup than Jorge.
Having a plus-offense catcher is a luxury for most teams (see: Varitek, Jason; Suzuki, Kurt; Kendall, Jason; etc.) and Posada's experience with managing the Yankee pitching staff is irreplaceable, as we learned the hard way last season with the Pudge Rodriguez tragedy. If we lose Jorge, we're done. Jorge is 36 and coming off shoulder surgery. I really did pick the wrong month to quit drinking.
8. Robinson Cano - 2B
Robinson Cano hit .340 in 2006, and around .300 in both 2005 and 2007. My boy Justin Fox himself states, "Much has been made of his woes during the 2008 season, and I won't rehash them here other than to see that save for an offensive lapse of 50 games at the start of the season...Cano played at his previously established level."
The short version: don't worry about it. Count on him to hit around .300 or a little higher and put to rest a lot of the doubts surrounding him after his off-year in 2008.
9. Cody Ransom / Angel Berroa / Eric Duncan / Justin Leone - 3B
Ohhhhh, boy. This is going to be a long first half. Early signs point to Ransom as the starter, as Girardi seems to favor his hard-nosed attitude and solid glove over these other three glowing options. Whoever it is can be counted on to do the bare minimum. Girardi might even send Wang up as a pinch-hitter on his off-days...or do you think the Steinbrenners might not like that?