Commentary

Breaking out the Yankees crystal ball

From conundrums to comebacks, we present our pinstriped predictions for 2012

Updated: April 4, 2012, 11:09 PM ET
By Andrew Marchand and Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

We have the ESPN New York crystal ball out one more time. Will the Yankees win the AL East? The World Series? Who will be the most important player on the team? Who will improve? Who will regress? Who's going to lose his job? And what is the biggest decision Joe Girardi will face? It is prediction time.

We'll give you ours; you give us yours.


MIY (Most Important Yankee)

[+] EnlargeCC Sabathia
Robert Mayer/US PresswireIt's no secret CC Sabathia carries a lot of weight in this Yankees pitching staff.

Marchand: It is still CC Sabathia. While the Yankees have more depth with their starters than any time in recent history, there is only one certified ace. Carsten Charles Sabathia is the man the Yankees can least afford to lose at any point. He is the rock of the rotation. Besides winning games, he makes life easier for the rest of the starters and the bullpen by eating up so many innings.

Matthews: My vote goes to Big Mo, Mariano Rivera, because if the unthinkable happens and Mo's body suddenly remembers that it's 42 years old, it scrambles the entire Yankees bullpen. If Mo can't go, you're probably moving David Robertson into the closer's role and Rafael Soriano into the setup role. Which means, with the injury to Joba Chamberlain, a whole parade of largely undistinguished middle relievers trying to shore up what used to be an unshakable bridge to the ninth inning. That's a problem the Yankees are likely to have to deal with next year. If it happens a year early, they're in trouble.


YOTWU (Yankee On The Way Up)

Marchand: Phil Hughes is the Yankees' comeback player of the year. A year ago, the 87 mph spring training fastballs were a precursor to a lost season. This year, determined to avoid "fat camp," Hughes arrived ready to pitch. He looked excellent in spring training and may even have a better season than 2010, when he really only had about two great months.

Matthews: I'll say Eduardo Nunez. Despite his defensive liabilities, Nunie has a live bat and this year, with Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez likely to need DH days and full days off to remain fresh, he's going to be asked to do even more than last year. I can even see him getting some significant ABs as the right-handed DH this season, but more about that later. Last week, Brett Gardner told me that when he played with Nunez as a teenager, Nunez was the best hitter he ever saw. He's a lot bigger and stronger this year, so I expect bigger things from him.


YOTWD (Yankee On The Way Down)

[+] EnlargeAlex Rodriguez
Kim Klement/US PresswireIs this the year Alex Rodriguez loses his cleanup spot?

Marchand: I don't think the Yankees have anyone who is about to go in the tank. The most interesting names to mention would be Rodriguez and Jeter.

In the spring, Jeter looked like the Jeter of the second half of last year. A-Rod's skills are still outstanding, just not elite anymore. His biggest problem is his inability to stay healthy.

So, drumroll, please, my YOTWD is Robertson. As talented as he is, I think down is the only direction he can go. He earned his nickname of Houdini with the bases loaded. His ERA was 1.08 last year. All the fancy stats demonstrated more positives.

This season, he will still be good, just not that good. By this time next year, it could be a fight between Robertson and Soriano for Mo's old throne.

Matthews: Gutsy call by Marchand because most of the indicators from Robertson's 2011 season say he will get better, not worse, if such a thing is possible. My vote goes to the one and only A-Rod. Alex has not been able to stay healthy for a full season since 2007 and on July 27, he will turn 37. If you told the Yankees A-Rod will be able to play 125 games this season, I think they would sign up for that in a heartbeat.


YMLTLHJ (Yankee Most Likely to Lose His Job)

Marchand: Since I can't say nobody, I will go with someone who I think is really good and had the right attitude -- Ivan Nova. The Yankees are always itching to demote him, from Joe Girardi not letting him throw a full five innings at times in 2010 to last year when he was sent down at 8-4. Nova is a fighter, so he will do his best to ward off the Killer Ps, Andy Pettitte and Michael Pineda, but it seems like the Yankees have his number.

Matthews: I would be inclined to go with Raul Ibanez except for the fact the Yankees don't have a viable alternative as the left-handed DH. So I'll go with his right-handed counterpart, Andruw Jones. I have a hunch that by midseason, Nunez is going to start taking some of Druw's ABs away against left-handed pitchers.


Girardi's toughest call will be ...

Marchand: ... When to put Pineda in the rotation. This will be an organizational decision, but it is going to be a tough call unless Pineda is the lights-out Pineda in his rehab, and looks like the All-Star Pineda of last year. How to utilize Pineda this year is a tougher situation than handling Pettitte's return.

If Pettitte pitches like he can, he is taking someone's spot. The Pineda question is a bit more complicated, because the 23-year-old may be the most important future Yankee and, thus, has a "Handle with Care" patch sewed on his pinstripes.

Matthews: When to move Rodriguez out of the cleanup spot. It won't be easy for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that A-Rod identifies himself with the glamour position in the batting order, but if the production doesn't warrant it, Girardi has three other options, namely Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson. At some point this season, the thought will cross his mind to do it, but I'm not sure he'll ever be ready to pull that trigger.


The Yankees will finish ...

Marchand: ... In first place in the AL East, but will fail to make the World Series. In the East, I believe they will win because they are more of a complete team than the Red Sox or Rays. The Rays' pitching is awesome, but they barely made the playoffs because they don't hit enough. That will be a problem again. The Red Sox are going to score a lot of runs and will take a wild card. The Yankees will finish with 95 wins.

In the end, though, I foresee the Rangers going back to the World Series for a third straight time. And the Buffalo Bills of baseball will lose to the Phillies in seven games.

Matthews: I agree the Yankees will win the AL East, because even though the team is a year older, I believe the bench is deeper and, on paper at least, the starting pitching is better. I'm thinking the Yankees finish first with around 96 wins, with the Rays and Red Sox battling for the wild card. But I think the AL champion will be either the Rangers or the Tigers, and whoever it turns out to be will lose to the Phillies in the World Series.

Andrew Marchand is a senior writer for ESPNNewYork. He also regularly contributes to SportsCenter, Baseball Tonight, ESPNews, ESPN New York 98.7 FM and ESPN Radio. He joined ESPN in 2007 after nine years at the New York Post. Follow Andrew on Twitter »
Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
Follow Wallace on Twitter »  Chat archive »

EDITORS' PICKS

ALSO SEE