Is it too early to panic about the Yankees?

Nick Laham

Is this the year the Yankees finally break down completely? You know, because they're old? And cheap? I don't know if Grant Brisbee's still picking the Yankees -- I mean, I would ask him except we're not exactly on "speaking terms" these days -- but the closer we get to Opening Day, the more it seems like the Yankees aren't particularly interested in winning the 2013 World Series.

In fact, if you're the panicky sort of Yankees fan, it's probably not too early to panic. To wit, here's Brian Jackson over at It's About the Money:

I’m going to be honest: until Brian Cashman raised the possibility that the Yankees may be prepared to head to Spring Training with the roster as it stands now, I hadn’t really appreciated how precarious their offensive situation is. I mean, I knew they’d lost a lot of production, of course, but I don’t think it had ever really hit me how much of a liability the offense could be in the (none too far-fetched) worse case scenario... for a team whose front office has taken to reassuring fans that they still spend $200 million on the roster, there’s barely a position at which the Yankees don’t have serious questions and/or limitations with their projected starter.

Jackson then runs through each lineup position, with this comment about Robinson Cano: (Arguably the only non-problem, though his sudden problem hitting lefties is worrisome).

Look, every baseball player is a potential problem. In 1958, Stan Musial batted .337; in '59, he batted .255. Sure, he was 38 years old. But he could have struggled at 37, too. He just didn't. Baseball players are generally predictable, but specifically they're just full of nasty surprises. Remember Lance Berkman last year? Adrian Gonzalez? Justin Upton?

That said, if you make a list of the best hitters in 2011, you'll find that a large majority of them also performed quite well in 2012. Now, let's look at the New York Yankees. We should start with this fact: In 2012, the Yankees were one of the two best-hitting teams in the American League. The finished second in the league in scoring, second in road scoring, and essentially tied for first in road OPS.

Of course, the 2013 Yankees won't be the same as the 2012 Yankees. They'll have a different catcher, and a different left fielder, and a different right fielder, and a different Designated Hitter, and they'll have a different third baseman until sometime in the summer when Alex Rodriguez comes back. Here's the thing, though ... They could easily be better in left field, and better at third base.

Let me run through each lineup position, with last year's and this year's regulars and a short-hand prediction:

Catcher - Russell Martin / Chris Stewart (down)
1st Base - Mark Teixeira / Mark Teixeira (same)
2nd Base - Robinson Cano / Robinson Cano (same-ish)
Short Stop - Derek Jeter / Derek Jeter (down)
Third Base - Alex Rodriguez / Kevin Youkilis (same-ish)
Left Field - Raul Ibanez / Brett Gardner (up)
Center Field - Curtis Granderson / Curtis Granderson (same)
Right Field - Nick Swisher / Ichiro Suzuki (down)
D. Hitter - Eric Chavez, etc. / Etc. (down)

The problem for the Yankees is simple: They've got a number of positions that are likely to be worse this season, and just one that's likely to improve. Yes, there will be some surprises; there always are. But projections do work, and so it's safe to predict that the Yankees will not be one of the league's two -- or three, or four -- best-hitting teams this year.

Which will indeed be a real problem, unless their pitching (and defense) makes up the difference. And I'm not seeing how that's going to happen. The return of Brett Gardner to left field should make for better defense in the outfield, but Youkilis at third and recovering-from-a-broken-ankle Derek Jeter could be shaky. The pitching staff will be almost exactly the same as last year, with Mariano Rivera replacing Rafael Soriano (same-ish) and the club hoping that Andy Pettitte's still effective at 41 and healthy enough to make at least 20 starts.

As this team is currently composed, it's foolish to expect a 1965-style meltdown, even while allowing for the possibility. But this isn't a 95-win team; it's a 90-win team, and 90 probably doesn't get you into the postseason. Seems like Brian Cashman still has some work to do, without which this should be a really interesting season with a lot of empty seats behind home plate in the Stadium.

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