Continuing yesterday's countdown of the top ten players most important to the New York Yankees' 2012 playoff run, we will skip the formalities and get right to it.
5. Rafael Soriano (RP)
Take a big step back, Yankee fans. Rafael Soriano is not Mariano Rivera. No one except Mariano Rivera is Mariano Rivera. Temper expectations. Rivera's playoff career is amazing, but he also blew saves in the playoffs on occasion. Chances are that Soriano will probably do so at some point as well. The Yankees will hope he keeps these occasions to a minimum though as they experience their first postseason without Rivera in 31 years. Although Soriano has been much more of a "one-inning closer" than Rivera was in his prime, manager Joe Girardi has shown throughout the season that he is not afraid to go to Soriano a little early if a setup man falters. Soriano will also be seeking some atonement for last year's ALDS loss against the Detroit Tigers. He only allowed one baserunner in 4.2 innings, but it was a devastating seventh-inning homer in Game 3 to Delmon Young that gave the Tigers a 5-4 lead and later the win immediately after the Yankees rallied to tie it at four. Fair or not, Soriano took some heat for that one hit after the series, particularly because it followed an underwhelming debut season in pinstripes. A good playoff run this year would no doubt increase his value on the open market if he opts out of his current contract, which reports have indicated he will do in the off-season.
This year however, Soriano has been by far the team's best reliever. It is essential that he continue to be the same dominant pitcher who pitched to a 2.26 ERA and a 185 ERA+ out of the 'pen this year. If the Yankees give him a late lead, they will be relying on him to shut the door, and to not give the other team even the slightest idea that they could come back. He doesn't have to be Rivera, he just has to be as steady as Jason Motte was last year for the St. Louis Cardinals. Untuck away, Sori.
Career postseason numbers: 6 games, 4.70 ERA, 7.2 IP, 1 Sv, 5 H, 4 ER, 0 BB, 5 K
4. Mark Teixeira (1B)
Much like Nick Swisher, Tex badly needs a good playoff series. He had some great moments during the Yankees' 2009 playoff run, like the walk-off homer in Game 2 of the ALDS against the Minnesota Twins and a game-tying homer in the fourth inning of World Series Game 2 against the Philadelphia Phillies. Unfortunately, those were two of only 11 hits for him that year in 61 at bats. He had a good ALDS in 2010 against the Twins, batting .308/.357/.615 in the sweep with a big homer in Game 1, but that's been his only over-.250 playoff series in his Yankee career. He went hitless in the ALCS against the Texas Rangers until he went down with a hamstring injury. He had three hits in the ALDS loss to the Tigers last year.
Alex Rodriguez finally met the playoff pressure of his high contract in with an awesome postseason in '09. Now, it's Teixeira's turn to do so. The Yankees will be paying him $22.5 million per year until 2016 regardless. He has a bad calf that will make it hard for him to perform, but the Yankees need him to avoid being a rally-killer. At the very least, he has to get on base so that Granderson behind him can drive him in--his .332 OBP in 2012 was his lowest since his rookie year.
Career postseason numbers: 31 games, 143 PA, .207/.315/.322, 5 2B, 3 HR, 31 K
3. Derek Jeter (SS)
Yankees fans have come to simply expect Jeter to get hits in the postseason like it's no big deal. However, it is simply mind-boggling to wonder how often Jeter has had outstanding playoff series during his 18-year career. He has played in 31 different playoff series, and he has exceeded a .900 OPS 13 times. Just like his regular season play in the previous two years though, his playoff performance has not been as spectacular as in the past (.250/.284/.344).
2012 has been a renaissance year for him with a league-leading 216 hits and a .316/.362/.429 triple slash, so Yankee fans will equally be hoping his postseason bring memories of '09 and before back to life. 38 years old or not, he is the sparkplug to the Yankees' offense and the captain of the team. There will always be pressure on him in the playoffs due to this position and his terrific performance in the past. It will be up to Jeter to again rise to the occasion.
Career postseason numbers: 152 games, 704 PA, .307/.374/.465, 31 2B, 4 3B, 20 HR, 125 K
2. CC Sabathia (SP)
When the Yankees won the World Series in 2009, Sabathia was one of the biggest members of that team, both physically and emotionally. Unlike Teixeira, he earned every dollar of that big salary in the playoffs, pitching to a 1.98 ERA in the playoffs and winning the ALCS MVP with a 1.13 ERA in 16 innings against the Los Angeles Angels, making a few starts on three days' rest. His playoff ERA since then though has been a combined 5.84 in three series. When the Yankees signed him in December 2008 and re-signed him to a longer contract last November, they forked over a lot of money with the expectation that he would lead the pitching staff.
CC's 2012 was fine year statistically, but he missed some starts with injuries for the first time since 2006, and he only hit the 200-inning plateau with an eight-inning start against the Boston Red Sox at the end of the season. It would be silly to point to his regular season as an indication that he is slowing down on the mound though. His ERA and FIP this year were nearly identical to his '09 numbers (3.38 vs. 3.37 and 3.33 vs. 3.39, respectively). He walked fewer men per nine innings (1.98) than any season since his Cy Young campaign of 2007. If CC can keep it up, then the Yankees can go into each playoff series knowing they just need to win a couple games outside of CC's starts.
Career postseason numbers: 16 games, 4.81 ERA, 86 IP, 93 H, 46 ER, 46 BB, 82 K
1. Robinson Cano (2B)
Jeter might be the sparkplug of the offense, but Cano is the accelerator. His total fWAR this year was over double that of any other Yankee (7.8). He hit .313/.379/.550 with a team-leading 148 wRC+. Jeter had a slightly-higher batting average and Curtis Granderson hit 10 more homers, but Cano is simply a more complete player than either. For all the grumbling about Cano occasionally reaching for pitches out of the strike zone, his .379 OBP was highest on the team and he trailed only Granderson and Swisher in total walks with 61 while striking out many fewer times than either. His 345 TB was eigth-highest in team history since divisional play began in 1969. How could such a phenomenal season go under the radar?
The answer lies within that annoying RISP statistic. In the previous two seasons, Cano seemed to finally be over the "bases-empty MVP" moniker, hitting .322/.407/.515 in 2010 and .318/.373/.636 in 2011. He took a step backward in 2012, hitting .268/.393/.436, which would be okay for most players, but not for someone expected to be the focal point of the offense. Cano ended the season red-hot on an amazing nine-game multi-hit-game streak that saw him go 24-for-39 with seven doubles and three homers, a scalding .615/.628/1.026 pace. The three days off might cool him down, but he has shown how dangerous he can be when carrying the team before. If he is not hitting, then the Yankees offense is going to struggle to score runs, barring an incredible postseason by another member of the offense in place of Cano. If he wants to be paid like a superstar when his current contract expires, then now is the time to prove that he truly deserves it.
Career postseason numbers: 42 games, 176 PA, .258/.307/.491, 8 2B, 3 3B, 8 HR, 22 K