Despite being the most significant non-returning player signing of the offseason, the Yankees didn't bring Kevin Youkilis in with high expectations. His eroding offensive skills and 1-year deal pointed to him being nothing more than a plug-in at third base, a regressing, broken down former All Star brought in to temporarily replace the regressing, broken down former All Star the Yankees already had at third in A-Rod. As the everyday third baseman for the first half of the season, the Yanks would probably hit Youkilis 6th or 7th against right-handed pitchers, 2nd against lefties, and through a combination of walks and the occasional HR here and there get enough production out of him to help keep the offense going until A-Rod returned in July. That plan quickly fell apart with the injuries to Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira, and got thrown further out of whack with the recovery setback to Derek Jeter's ankle. Youkilis now finds himself as the #1 right-handed bat in the lineup and arguably the second-biggest power/run-producing threat in the middle of the Yankee batting order. For at least the first month of the regular season, the Yankees are no longer looking at Youkilis as a cog on the offensive wheel; they need him to be one of the pedalers that keeps the wheel moving. Youkilis had a very good and surprisingly powerful Spring Training. How well he manages to keep that performance up on an everyday basis could be a major determining factor in the Yankees' ability to keep the ship afloat while their walking wounded recover.
The first thing that Youkilis did after passing his physical and reporting to Yankee camp was hook up with world renowned swing doctor Kevin Long. As he's done with many other current and former Yankee hitters, Long went to work on Youkilis' swing mechanics to try to shorten and speed it up. Youkilis has had trouble keeping up with fastballs, especially ones on the inner half, as he's gotten older and struggled with injuries the past 2-3 years. Long's proven method of eliminating excess pre-swing motion was expected to help create a little more bat speed and allow Youkilis to not only catch back up to those fastballs but be able to turn on them and drive them for power like he did in his prime. The physical results of Long's tinkering were a slightly shorter stride towards the pitch and quieter hands on the pre-swing load, as shown here in one of Mike Eder's GIF-tastic posts for the old TYA. The on-field results were pretty damn good too.
I know I've mentioned this in a couple earlier posts, but in case you haven't been paying close attention to Youkilis' ST numbers (and I wouldn't blame you if you haven't), they've been impressive. After a slow start in his first week of games, Youkilis seeemed to get his timing down with his new mechanics and started crushing the ball again. He ended up hitting .280/.339/800 in his 50 ST at-bats, with 13 of his 14 hits going for extra bases and 6 of those 13 XBH going over the fence. Those results in that sample size against a watered-down level of pitching competition certainly aren't enough to predict a major turnaround for Youkilis, but they are encouraging.
Based on the last few lineups Joe put on the field in the final spring exhibition games, Youkilis looks like a lock to hit in the 4-spot of the batting order, right behind Robinson Cano. With few offensive threats behind him in the order, Youkilis is going to not only have to produce from the cleanup spot but also offer protection for Cano, the only true "dangerous" hitter left in this lineup right now. If Youkilis can continue to hit the ball with authority and prove his spring camp results weren't a fluke, pitchers will have to think twice about pitching around Cano in RISP situations. If he can't, Cano won't see much to hit and the entire Yankee lineup becomes much easier to navigate. You have to think Cano knows this, and he's proven to be guilty of getting over-aggressive at the plate at times throughout his career. If Youkilis struggles and teams try to pitch around him, that could lead to Cano starting to press and swinging at bad pitches ahead of him to try to compensate, which would lessen Cano's impact. As the 3-4 hitters, the Yankees need both Cano and Youkilis to be productive and I believe their combined success in that endeavor is tied to Youkilis' performance more than Cano's.
As with A-Rod, there's major injury risk that comes with Youkilis, and I'm sure Joe was planning to work regular rest/DH days in for him throughout the early part of the season to try to keep him as healthy as possible. That option is no longer on the table, and Youkilis is likely to be on the field every day for these first few weeks, be at third base against RHP or first against lefties. Chances are he's going to break down eventually because of this heavy early-season workload, but the Yankees are all but out of options at this point because of their other injury problems. If Youkilis can at least be productive and continue to hit for power while he's healthy and in the lineup every day, that will make losing him to a DL stint later on a little easier to swallow.