10:52 am Apr. 3, 2012
As the Yankees speed toward Friday's regular season opener against the Tampa Bay Rays, the team has very few unresolved questions.
Michael Pineda's shoulder tendinitis has, at least temporarily, resolved the questions about who will make up New York's five-man starting rotation. (That's usually how such questions are resolved; seldom does a team truly have too much pitching.)
The bullpen looks ready to go, from future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera closing to a quality group of supporting cast members like David Robertson and Rafael Soriano.
And the Yankee offense should be typically productive, with much expected from an outfield of Nick Swisher in right field, Curtis Granderson in center field and Brett Gardner in left field. Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano hold down the right side of the infield while providing known, elite quantities of offense, and Russell Martin is a perfectly decent catcher, both offensively and defensively.
So the biggest question marks for New York heading into the season are also the team's two best-known players: shortstop Derek Jeter and third baseman Alex Rodriguez.
The performance of these two won't likely be the difference between making or missing the playoffs. With New York's surrounding talent, their 2012 campaign is shaping up to be something between 1998, when the Yankees won 114 games, and 1999 and 2000, when they merely won the American League East.
But it is difficult to know exactly what the Yankees should expect from both of their aging front men.
With Derek Jeter, the question is one of effectiveness on the field.He turns 38 on June 26, and that advanced age simply hasn't been kind to players attempting to play the young man's position of shortstop. Jeter's first half last year appeared to prove the point: His OPS at the All Star break was an uncharacteristically low .683. He rallied in the second half, however, raising his OPS to .811, a stone's throw from his career mark of .832.
But in total, here's how the Jeter picture looks over the past two years: an OPS of .710 in 2010 and .743 in 2011, just 131 games played last season-his first season below 150 games since 2003-and an age that obviously works against him.
ZIPS, a projection system by Dan Szymborski, expects Jeter to put up an OPS of .661 in 2012, which would be his worst season at the plate ever. And Jeter's defensive range, never a strength, certainly hasn't gotten better with age, either.
As for Rodriguez, who will turn 37 in July, the aging pattern he's followed is typical for a post-peak portion of a career. His OPS was a robust 1.067 in his 2007 campaign, then .965, .933, .847 and .823 in the four years since. A player with five seasons of at least 161 games on his record played in 138 or less each of the past four years, with a career-low 99 games in 2011. If he continues down this pasth of both declining productivity and health, he'll cease to be a net asset at third base, let alone justify the enormous contract he is still owed-$29 million in 2012 alone, and $143 million over the next six years.
Still, it is hard to be pessimistic about either player, considering that in both cases, they are doing all they can to at least delay the effects of time on the body. Jeter, on the strength of that second half, believes he is ready to return to the full-season levels he enjoyed as recently as 2009. Rodriguez, after undergoing a treatment on his knee recommended by Kobe Bryant, has been productive this spring. It isn't hard to imagine another great season from each of baseball's best players over the past two decades.
What is hard to imagine, for most other teams in baseball, is having the luxury of Jeter and Rodriguez on the roster without relying on them to carry the team.