I’ll be honest.  When we sent out the data call for standings predictions, I picked the Yankees to win the AL East.  Honestly, it was really hard not to.  They already had an incredibly solid club as they entered the offseason, and then they went and added Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda to their anemic rotation–in the same night.  That’s right, in the matter of mere hours, Brian Cashman turned the Yankees biggest weakness in 2011 into one of it’s biggest (projected) strengths in 2012.  The rotation goes six deep with the odd man out likely moving to the bullpen (or in Ivan Nova‘s case, the minors).

Entering the season, the Yankees will return nearly their entire starting lineup from last season; the only change is at DH where Jorge Posada recently vacated the position when he retired.  While this might seem like a good thing (they were second in baseball in runs scored last season), it does carry some potential pitfalls.  First off, each player is another year older.  While this is beneficial to the younger players like Robinson Cano and Brett Gardner, for grizzled vets like Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, it’s just another deeper into their decline.  Secondly, it’s a completely different season, so some players like Curtis Granderson, for instance, will suffer some degree of performance regression.

Still, considering the considerable talent they have on their roster, the Yankees should have no problem making up for any age-related or performance-related regression they might experience.  If not, they’re the Yankees, so they can always spend their way out of a jam.

Catcher:  Russell Martin (2011 stats – .237/.324/.408); Francisco Cervelli (2011 stats – .266/.324/.395)

After two terrible seasons at the plate, Martin was released by the Dodgers during the winter of 2010.  The Yankees picked him, and he promptly had a monster April, hitting six home runs; thereby making Brian Cashman look like a genius in the process.  Much to the chagrin of the Yankee fanbase, Martin’s success at the plate was short lived, and his power production regressed back to his performance baseline (.368 SLG after May 1st).  Luckily, he was still a positive asset as his defensive skills and ability to work counts/draw walks remained.  In 2012, look for more of the same.  His stats probably won’t look as attractive though unless he has at least one monster month.  Francisco Cervelli serves as Martin’s backup.  He’s the epitome of a replacement level catcher, and it’s not hard to envision a scenario where he’s supplanted by Austin Romine at some point this season.

First Base:  Mark Teixeira (2011 stats – .248/.341/.494)

While Teixeira’s numbers are pretty respectable, I think it’s safe to say this isn’t what the Yankees were expecting when they signed him to an eight year $180M contract in December 2008.  His biggest problem seems to be his stubbornness.  Like many left-handed power hitters, he tends to be a little “pull happy.”  To minimize the damage he can create, teams been using the “Williams/Bonds shift” on Teixeira in hopes of taking away additional hits.  Needless to say, it’s worked.  Over each of the last two seasons, his BABIP has declined from a consistent .300 average down to .268 and .239 respectively; all of this despite maintaining consistent strikeout, walk, and batted ball rates.  If Teixeira can learn to hit the ball the other way more often, his overall offensive production should improve.  Good news is that he’s an above average defensive first baseman, so he’s still providing All-Star quality value for the Yankees.

Second Base:  Robinson Cano (2011 stats – .302/.349/.533)

Cano took a tiny step back this past season as his walk rate dropped from 8.2% in 2010 to 5.6% in 2011.  Outside of that one dent in the armor, he was unbelievably productive racking up an impressive .375 wOBA to go along with 28 home runs.  As he enters his age-29 season, I expect more out of the same from the Yankee second baseman.  With the exception of his woeful 2008, he’s been about as consistent as they come offensively.  One thing to watch:  the Yankees hold an option on Cano’s 2013 season.  Will they pick it up, or will they try to negotiate an extension while he’s still under contract?  Leadership has been loathe to do this in the past, but they might make an exception for Cano.

Third Base:  Alex Rodriguez (2011 stats – .276/.362/.461); Eric Chavez (2011 – .263/.320/.356)

While its clear A-Rod is no longer the elite talent he once was, he’s still remarkably productive when healthy.  The problem is that he’s frequently not healthy.  Over a ten year stretch from 1998 to 2007, he played in at least 150 games eight times.  Since 2008, he’s played in only 498 games, or an average of 124.5 per season.  Chances are, we’ll never see him crack the 40 home run barrier, and we’ll certainly never see him crack 50 again.  Still, if the Yankees can get 25-30 home runs, a .365 wOBA, average defense, and around 130-140 games out of him this season; they should be pretty happy with their return on investment.  Eric Chavez is a serviceable backup, but he should only be allowed to hit against righties in the rare opportunities he’s allowed to start.

Shortstop:  Derek Jeter (2011 stats – .297/.355/.388); Eduardo Nunez (2011 stats – .265/.313/.385)

Contrary to popular belief, Derek Jeter is not dead yet.  While some may joke that “yet” is operative word in that sentence, I disagree.  It’s true that his power has completely escaped him.  Yes, he hits way too many ground balls.  Yes, the range to his right is so far gone that the phrase “Past a diving Jeter” could easily be turned into a drinking game that would get you hammered beyond belief by the time the fourth inning rolled around.  All of this is true.  Still, he’s a solid 2 fWAR player that should remain a useful asset for the next season or two.  At this point, the Yankees aren’t looking to the Captain to be a star at the plate.  They need him to be a role player.  Hopefully, Girardi follows through on that thought process and drops him to the bottom of the order where he belongs.  Eduardo Nunez is exactly what you’d expect out of a utility infielder (read: mediocre hitter)–well, minus the defensive abilities of course.

Left Field:  Brett Gardner (2011 stats – .259/.345/.369)

While Gardner isn’t the most gifted hitter on the team, he does a couple of things very well:  he works counts, draws walks, and runs the bases very well.  All of that said, Gardner excels most on the defensive side of the coin where he’s earned more than 5 wins in defensive value over the past two seasons.  He has good instincts, tremendous range, a solid arm, and a sure glove.  The fact that he hasn’t won a Gold Glove yet is nothing short of embarrassing.  Gardner has become one of the most undervalued players in baseball.

Center Field:  Curtis Granderson (2011 stats – .262/.364/.552)

In 2011, Granderson put together the kind of season many envisioned from him when he was traded to the Yankees during the winter preceding the 2010 season.  Armed with a rebuilt swing, he took advantage of the shallow right and right-center field fences as he launched a career high 41 home runs.  While Granderson strikes out far too often to ever hit for average consistently, he more than makes up for it with his above average walk rate.  He’s a good base runner who’s still capable of stealing 20-25 bases perennially.  One area where his skills don’t quite make the grade is on defense where UZR, DRS, and FRAA all rated him as a below average defender.  The Yankees will keep him in CF for now as he contributes more than enough offensively to make up for his defensive deficiencies.  I don’t think we’ll see Granderson put up another 7 fWAR season in 2012, but 5 wins seems like a pretty safe bet.

Right Field:  Nick Swisher (2011 stats – .260/.374/.449)

Nick Swisher’s stat line doesn’t really do his season justice.  Through May 31st, Swisher had produced a mediocre .293 wOBA; a number that was 22% below the league average.  From June 1st on, he produced the following wOBAs:  .460 (June), .389 (July), .402 (August), and .284 (September).  Ok, the September performance was pretty bad, but his summer performance was outstanding.  Add to that a pretty solid season defensively, and you end up with a player who is undervalued perennially.  Swisher has been a consistent 3-4 fWAR player since joining the Yankees prior to 2009.  I don’t see any reason to expect anything less (or more for that matter) in 2012.

Designated Hitter:  Raul Ibanez (2011 stats – .245/.289/.415); Andruw Jones (2011 stats – .247/.356/.495)

Ibanez doesn’t take walks, runs the bases poorly, and plays defense atrociously.  Luckily, he hits for power–but that’s about it.  Luckily, he signed with the Yankees, an American League team, so he’ll never have to play defense–except when Joe Girardi goes momentarily crazy and slots him into LF for the night.  Ibanez will receive most of his plate appearances against RHP, and that’s a very good thing.  He produced only a .254 wOBA against LHP. Andruw Jones will be the other side of the platoon.  He’ll receive most of his plate appearances against lefties who he had a .400 wOBA against.

Starting Pitcher 1:  C.C. Sabathia (2011 stats – 19-8, 3.00, 1.23)

Sabathia is one of a handful of true major league aces, and at age-31 he’s showing no signs of slowing down.  He still generates plenty of whiffs with his slider and changeup, and he induces a ton of ground balls with his sinker.  Last season, he struck out 23% and walked only 6% of the batters he faced, while producing a solid 46% ground ball rate.  After putting together six consecutive seasons with at least 5 fWAR, he seems like a very safe bet to remain on of the best pitchers in baseball.

Starting Pitcher 2:  Hiroki Kuroda (2011 stats – 13-16, 3.07, 1.21)

Kuroda comes to New York after pitching in Los Angeles for four successful seasons.  While changing leagues, leaving the pitchers haven of Dodger Stadium, and age related regression certainly could have an effect on Kuroda’s overall performance, he’s been so consistent since coming over from Japan that he seems like a pretty safe bet to make the transition.  Kuroda uses his sinker to get ground balls, and his splitter and slider are nasty out pitches that generate a ton of whiffs.  His ground ball tendencies should help him avoid the homer happy tendencies that occasionally plague Yankee starters.

Starting Pitcher 3:  Michael Pineda (2011 stats – 9-10, 3.74, 1.10)

Last season, Pineda induced strikeouts 24.9% of the time, a rate of more than one per inning.  He has good command as evidenced by his 7.9% walk rate and 3.15 K/BB ratio; both excellent ratios for a 21 year old.  In terms of his batted ball profile, I’m a little concerned about his fly ball tendencies.  When he was pitching at the homerphobic Safeco Field, this wouldn’t have been a problem.  Now that he’ll be pitching half of his games in the homer friendly Yankee Stadium, it could become an issue.  While it’s tough to call him an extreme fly ball pitcher with a 0.81 GB/FB ratio, it does make him more likely to suffer from homer prone tendencies.  Still, with his otherwise great peripherals, he’s talented enough to avoid the pitfalls that plague lesser pitchers.  A 3.75 FIP with 170-180 innings should a reasonable projection for 2012.

Starting Pitcher 4:  Phil Hughes (2011 stats – 5-5, 5.79, 1.49)

To call Hughes’s 2011 season a massive disappointment would be an understatement of massive proportions.  After coming off of a promising 2010 season, he fell completely flat in 2011 struggling with a downturn in velocity, poor location, and an inability to miss bats.  Looking to 2012, he’s under a lot of pressure to recapture the success he experienced between April and June 2010.  So far this spring, he’s off to a good start, producing a 2.03 ERA with a 8/2 K/BB ratio in 13-1/3 innings.  Given his struggles and the Yankees starting pitching depth, Hughes is likely to be on a short leash.

Starting Pitcher 5:  Ivan Nova (2011 stats – 16-4, 3.70, 1.33)

I considered throwing Freddy Garcia in this spot.  Since Nova is clearly the more talented of the two pitchers, I decided to go with him.  Nova is a solid, albeit unspectacular pitcher.  He has good natural sink on his fastball and changeup that allows him to induce a ton of ground balls.  He won’t strikeout a lot of batters, but he could probably improve his rate if he used his slider (22% whiff rate) a little more often.  Considering his below average 14% strikeout rate, his 8% walk rate is a touch too high.  If he’s going to have sustained major league success he’s either going to strikeout more or walk fewer batters.  His 4.01 FIP suggests his 2011 season wasn’t a fluke.  I expect a similar season out of him in 2012.

Relief Pitchers:  Mariano Rivera (2011 stats – 1.61, 0.90, 61); David Robertson (2011 stats – 1.08, 1.13, 67); Rafael Soriano (2011 stats – 4.12, 1.30, 39); Boone Logan (2011 stats – 3.46, 1.34, 41); Cory Wade (2011 stats – 2.04, 1.03, 39); George Kontos (2011 stats – 3.00, 1.17, 6); Freddy Garcia (2011 stats – 3.62, 1.34, 147)

The backend of the Yankee bullpen looks like it’s in excellent shape.  Rivera returns for his 16th season of domination out of the closer role.  At some point you have to figure he’ll finally hit the wall, but he hasn’t yet.  He still induces plenty of strikeouts, limits walks, and saws off more bats using his cutter than any other pitcher in baseball.  The man is a machine.  Out of the set up role, Soriano and Robertson return to fill up the seventh and eighth innings respectfully.  If both pitchers are on their game this season, the Yankees could be practically unbeatable from the seventh inning on.  Logan, Wade, Kontos, and Garcia will fill out the lower leverage and mop-up innings.  As of right now, the Yanks could have one of the best bullpens in baseball on paper.  Imagine how fearsome it would have been had Joba Chamberlain not hurt his ankle in the most gruesome of ways.