COMMENTARY | The New York Yankees have a lot of star power in C.C. Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano, but it may be the performance of a few lesser-known Yankees that make the difference between a 90-win season and another postseason appearance. Below are five Yankees who I believe will have a breakout or comeback season this year:
- Brett Gardner: Thanks to Curtis Granderson's broken forearm, opening day will likely mark the beginning of the Gardner Era in centerfield. Whether he hits at the top or bottom of the Yankees batting order, Gardner's presence in the lineup will make for some exciting at-bats. After missing most of last season with an elbow injury, Gardner has already come roaring back this spring, bunting his way on base in spring training games and, earlier this week, making a headfirst dive into first base on an infield hit. (Yes, it was a boneheaded thing to do in a spring training game, especially after the team lost Granderson to injury, but it showed Gardner's competitive nature, which is good.) He might not hit for power, but Gardner gets on base with regularity and often steals his way into scoring position. In 2010, he had a .383 OBP in 150 games and stole 47 bases. In 2011, he had a .345 OBP and led the American League in stolen bases with 49. Limited to 16 games last season, Gardner seems ready to take center stage this season.
- Kevin Youkilis: The former Red Sock has a new look, a revived batting stance, and a one-year contract. Need more motivation? He's coming off a 2012 season that saw him traded from the Boston Red Sox, where he was a fan favorite, to the Chicago White Sox. The former All-Star's season was plagued by injury and he finished the season with a combined .235 batting average - nearly 50 points below his career average. "The Greek God of Walks" still gets on base at a regular clip (.384 OBP over the past four season) and should fit in well toward the bottom of the Yankees order and may have a full-time time role at third base even if Alex Rodriguez returns this season.
- David Phelps: Currently battling Ivan Nova for the final spot in the Yankees rotation, Phelps will have a place on New York's roster regardless of who wins out. In 11 starts last season, Phelps went 2-2 with a 3.77 ERA (1.26 WHIP). As a reliever, he sported a 2.76 ERA (1.11 WHIP) in 22 games. Phelps, 26, was primarily a starter in the minor leagues but has shown that he can excel as both a starter and a reliever. In other words, he could be an asset for Joe Girardi, especially if he can continue to limit the number of homeruns allowed and average about a strikeout per inning. In his first spring training appearance earlier this week, Phelps gave up three hits and no runs in two innings without walking or striking out a batter. Sure, it was an early test, but Phelps showed that he's ready to compete for the starting spot.
- David Aardsma: The Yankees are Aardsma's sixth team since the former first-round draft pick debuted with the San Francisco Giants in 2004. After missing the entire 2011 season while he recovered from a hip injury and (later) Tommy John surgery, Aardsma signed a one-year, $500,000 deal with New York with a $500,000 team option for 2013. Aardsma appeared in one game last season, but there's reason to believe why Brian Cashman thought it was worth exercising Aardsma's team option - righties only hit about .230 against him and he strikes out about one batter per inning. (Incentives could raise Aardsma's 2013 salary to $1.5 million.) Aardsma, who's only 31, recently told MLB.com that he's feeling like he used to feel in spring training, which is good. In 2009 and 2010, he saved a total of 69 games for the Seattle Mariners and, at times, had electric stuff.
- David Robertson: Over the past two seasons, Robertson has made 135 appearances. His ERA over that stretch was an impressive 1.84 and went along with a 3.55 strikeout to walk ratio. Although Robertson faltered in his attempt to take over the closer's role after Mariano Rivera's injury last season, he proved himself invaluable over the remainder of the year. Girardi has already said that Robertson will serve as Rivera's set-up man this season, perhaps a cue that he thinks Robertson, who will turn 28 in April and will be a free agent at the end of the season, is the Mighty Mo's heir apparent. (Sorry, Joba Chamberlain.)
Howard Z. Unger is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn, New York. For the past 15 years, he has written about sports, media, and popular culture. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, New York Post, and New York Times.
- Sports & Recreation
- Mariano Rivera
- David Phelps
- David Aardsma