I cannot remember feeling as excited for any other baseball season as I do for the 2010 season (Editor's note: Agreed!). Any title defense season is cause for excitement, but I was too young to appreciate it in the 90s. I've been a baseball fanatic since I was about four years old, but over time my understanding of the game has caught up to my passion for it. 2010 comes at the right time. I understand the game better than at any other time in my life, and I have more time to dedicate to being a fan than I ever have before. The time between now and Sunday should fly by.
As the start of the season approaches, here are the six players whose performance will most impact the team and its probability for success. Every player is important, of course, but some players are more important than others. Here are those players, in reverse order:
6) Curtis Granderson - The Yankees need Granderson to have a stellar season for several reasons. First among them are investment reasons. The Yankees parted ways with fan favorite Johnny Damon to acquire a young talent the team had its eyes on for some time. Logistically this was a classic case of buying low. Granderson is young, on a good contract, and coming off a down season. The Yankees are betting they can save money and lock down a plus talent in CF for years to come.
Granderson also needs to be successful for the lineup to work, not just to make Brian Cashman look smart. The Yankees lost two 20-plus homer powers in Damon and Hideki Matsui. They replaced those players with about the same number of home runs, but the responsibility for roughly 75% of those bombs will fall on Granderson's shoulders. Even if the power is there, but Grandy struggles to get on base, then the team loses the advantage of having a circular lineup.
Finally, Granderson is a diverse player. If he has a solid season then Joe Girardi can choose to bat him 2nd, or in the 6th or 7th spot. He can play Johnny Damon's former role, or he can make sure pitchers are honest in their dealings with Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano. Given that 1/3 of the team's lineup is new, this flexibility may be important later in the season.
Taken as a whole, Granderson is a critical cog in the Yankee machine. I believe he'll fit like a glove, but the pressure is on.
5) Jorge Posada - On most teams catcher is an 8th or 9th hitter, a .700 OPS guy who lives by his defense. On the Yankees catcher bats 5th or 6th and is a major offensive contributor. Jorge's offensive performance allows the team to carry a player like Brett Gardner without major consequences. The Yankees need Jorge's bat to defy age for at least one more season, or the team risks losing a major advantage on offense.
4) Derek Jeter - The talk that Jeter was past his prime and on his way out was never louder than at the end of the 2008 season. Nevermind that Jeter battled injuries most of that season, the conventional wisdom was that the Yankee Captain was finally losing his edge. Then 2009 happened, and Jeter put up one of his best seasons ever.
Derek turns 36 next year so the questions remain, as they probably will for the rest of his career. If he hits the way he did last season then he gives the Yankees the highest OBP among American League leadoff hitters. If he too begins to give way to age then the Yankees may struggle at the top of their lineup.
3) Javier Vazquez - Since I joined Yankeeist, Larry has only rejected one of my submissions. On the day between Games 5 and 6 of the World Series back in November I freaked out and wrote a piece that used medical evidence to argue against starting our pitchers on three games rest. I'm not a doctor. But I didn't need to be one to see that the Yankees needed a 4th starter last postseason.
The Yankees went out and got one of the NL's best starters, who also happened to be an innings eater. The Yankees don't need Vazquez to post a 143 ERA+ in 2010 as he did in 2009 (although it would be nice). The team really only needs him to be average, and durable. The offense can take care of the rest. So long as Vazquez can contribute his career averages through the postseason then he'll be able to feast on the Joe Blantons of the world.
2) Alex Rodriguez - A-Rod's redemption project began in May last year, reached fever pitch when he knocked in 7 runs in one inning, and climaxed in the playoffs. Now, he needs to do it all again. With Tex and Alex hitting the Yankees have arguably the best 3-4 punch in all of baseball. If one of them is off his game then the team may begin to hurt for the lack of Matsui and Damon as well.
With all due respect to Mark, Alex is still the straw that stirs the drink. Career-wise, he's the better hitter. Last season, he was the better hitter. There are many reasons to believe A-Rod will perform this year. I've made my thoughts well known. But there are also reasons to argue that A-Rod will begin to decline. He's aging. He's playing on a surgically repaired hip. Will he tire again mid-season, not because of injury but because he's no longer using PED's. These are legitimate questions. The Yankees are a different team when A-Rod is hitting. The team doesn't repeat in 2010 without him.
1) CC Sabathia - CC Sabathia's 2009 was one for the history books. He had one of his best seasons ever. He went 11-2 after the All-Star break, effectively carrying the team. He pitched on short rest in the ALCS and the World Series. The team won each time he did. Sabathia was everything a team needs an ace to be, and more. He stepped his game up from July onward, and never looked back.
The Achilles heel of the 2004-2008 Yankee teams was a lack of pitching depth, followed closely by a lack of a lights-out, power-pitching ace. That's why the Yankees signed Sabathia. But he put a lot of mileage on his arm last season. He's also a slow starter, which may hurt the team in the loaded AL East. The Yankees need a repeat performance from Sabathia in 2010.
For my part, I believe the 2010 Yankees are better on paper than the 2009 team was at the end of the season. I also believe they are better on paper than any other team in baseball. I also believe the team will play well. I'll stop short of making any kind of prediction because I'm extremely superstitious, but I will go out on a limb and say that any major story line surrounding the performance of the team will involve at least one of those 6 players heavily.