The New York Yankees are the 2012 American League East champions. Phew. For awhile, it got dicey for the record-setting "Bronx Bombers" this year, who let a 10-game lead on July 18th turn into a first-place tie with the surprising Baltimore Orioles in just a month and a half. They never completely fell out of first place though, and on the last day of the season, they managed to get their first two-game lead since September 2nd, clinching their 18th AL East title in the process. Thanks to the Texas Rangers dropping seven of their last nine games while choking away the AL West to the Oakland Athletics, the Yankees even managed to snag the best record in the league at 95-67, ensuring themselves of home-field advantage through the ALCS.
Now that the regular season is over, the Yankees will eagerly await their first-round opponent, which will be the winner of the Wild Card playoff between Baltimore and Texas tomorrow night. The Yankees are scheduled to begin their Division Series on Sunday at either Camden Yards or The Ballpark Formerly Known as The Ballpark in Arlington. Home-field advantage in the Division Series is silly like that this year thanks to Commissioner Selig.
The Yankees do not yet know who they are playing, but they do have an idea of who on their team is most important to the playoff run. Who will the Yankees most rely on to guide them to a 28th World Series title and yet another championship banner?
10. Ichiro Suzuki (LF)
Ichiro has got to be feeling terrific. At one point, he must have thought that he was never returning to the playoffs after experiencing them during his rookie year with the 116-win 2001 Seattle Mariners. 11 years later, he is finally back and ready to actually make it to the World Series this time. The July 23rd trade to the Yankees energized him, and he hit .322/.340/.454 with a 116 wRC+, marks that were much better than his last couple seasons with Seattle. He led the team with 14 stolen bases and adapted to a new corner outfield position admirably, giving Yankees fans a breath of fresh air after being subjected to Raul Ibanez in left field for the first half of the season after the injury to Brett Gardner. Ichiro was red-hot during September, hitting .362/.376/.486, a month that ranks among the best in his career (as Matt Keegan covered the other day). Unsurprisingly, the Yankees played some of their best baseball all year while Ichiro was smacking singles left and right, winning 19 of 28 down the stretch. The Yankees have seen what they can do while Ichiro plays like the Ichiro of old, and they will be hoping that their big mid-season addition stays hot in what might be his last shot at a World Series
Career postseason numbers: 10 games, 43 PA, .421/.488/.474, 2 2B, 3 SB, 2 CS, 4 K
9. Curtis Granderson (CF)
It is a bit odd for the man who has led all of baseball in total home runs since the start of the 2011 season to be considered the ninth-most important player to the Yankees' playoff run, but the truth of the matter is that fans should know what to expect from Granderson by now. He'll most likely hit a homer (like the 43 he blasted this year), strike out (like the Yankee record of 195 he set this year), or take a walk (75 this year, second on the team). Granderson has become a master of the "Three True Outcomes," with 45.8% of his total plate appearances this year resulting in one of these events. The Yankees know Granderson will strike out, and it will probably happen in the middle of a rally or in excruciating scenarios, like a runner on third base with less than two outs. However, they will gladly take it as long as Granderson remains the power threat that he has been over the last two years. If his power slumps though, it could get ugly.
Career postseason numbers: 27 games, 121 PA, .267/.375/.535, 6 2B, 3 3B, 5 HR, 3 SB, 1 CS, 22 K
8. Nick Swisher (RF)
If this list was titled "Top 10 Yankees for Whom the 2012 Playoffs are Most Important," then Swisher would absolutely be at the top of the list (which would have a very grammatically awkward name). Yankee fans might be seeing Swisher's last at bats as a Yankee after a fine four-year stint since they dumped Wilson Betemit on the Chicago White Sox in exchange for Swisher. As a Yankee, he's hit .268/.367/.483 with 105 homers, a 127 wRC+, and 15.1 fWAR. Even though he has been on playoff teams on each year of his Yankee career, he has never hit well in the playoffs, posting just one good playoffs series out of six attempts (the 2010 ALDS against the Minnesota Twins, in which he hit .333/.385/.750 in the three-game sweep). A good playoff year would go a long way toward both the Yankees' hopes at a 2012 World Series and Swisher's future contract negotiations. He's one of the most popular players on the team and it will hurt to likely see him go, but if he posts another October clunker, it will not be nearly as painful. He has a huge legion of fans rooting for him, and hopefully he can make them proud.
Career postseason numbers: 38 games, 147 PA, .169/.295/.323, 7 2B, 4 HR, 36 K
7. Hiroki Kuroda (SP)
A good #2 pitcher is essential to a team's playoff success. It is nearly impossible for one starting pitcher to win a playoff series almost entirely by himself like Christy Mathewson did with the New York Giants over 100 years ago in the 1905 World Series (three shutouts in five games). The "1-2 punch" of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling dismantled Joe Torre's Yankee dynasty by shutting them out in the 2001 World Series. Thus, the Yankees will be putting a lot of hope into Kuroda's potent right arm as the playoffs commence. Kuroda has pitched so well in 2012, that a decent case could be made that he should start Game 1 over ace CC Sabathia. The fact that this argument can even be made is a testament to what a great decision it was to sign Kuroda in January. He leads the starting staff with a 3.32 ERA and 126 ERA+, proving the naysayers wrong that said it was not possible for a pitcher to come from the National League West and have any success in the offense-heavy AL East. His playoff numbers are a little skewed, as he badly roughed up in one start against the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2009 NLCS; otherwise, he threw 12.1 innings of two-run ball in two 2008 playoff starts. The Yankees will be hoping he provides much more of the latter than the former against the Rangers or Orioles on Monday.
Career postseason numbers: 3 starts, 2-1, 5.27 ERA, 13.2 IP, 17 H, 8 ER, 3 BB, 8 K
6. Alex Rodriguez (3B)
Oh, Centaur. How quickly people forget the 2009 playoffs, wherein you went berserk on Twins, Angels, and Phillies pitching en route to a .365/.500/.792 postseason with six crucial homers in 15 games. There were game-tying homers against All-Star closers Joe Nathan and Brian Fuentes, then the game-winning double in Game 4 of the World Series against Brad Lidge, immortalized in this GIF. Those fantastic moments on the Yankees' road to their most recent World Series title helped erase memories of A-Rod's playoff struggle from Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS through 2007. In the past two years though, the home fans have become restless again as A-Rod struggled in playoff losses to the Rangers and Tigers. A-Rod showed fans how he could completely carry a team when he caught fire during the playoffs three years ago, and if he could do so again, then the pressure will greatly decrease on the rest of the hitters in the batting order. When he returned from the DL on September 3rd, he played very well, hitting .292/.346/.444 in 18 games before a short cold streak. It looked like he might be starting to heat up again in the last two games against the Red Sox, even getting his first extra-base hit since September 14th. Hopefully it was not just a byproduct of facing the horrible Red Sox pitching and it means A-Rod is ready to put the team on his hindquarters and gallop toward another World Series title in 2012. Do it for Chiron, A-Rod!
Career postseason numbers: 68 games, .277/.386/.498, 16 2B, 13 HR, 8 SB, 3 CS, 63 K
The top 5 will come soon in another post. Stay tuned.