As the focus shifts from the hot stove season to the start of spring training, the talking points are shifting along with it. Case in point, Buster Olney's ESPN article yesterday about the toughest lineup decisions facing teams as they prepare for the 2014 season. The article is Insider only, but the important part for the purposes of this blog was the one on the Yankees and their slight dilemma of where to bat Brett Gardner. Olney's case for hitting Gardner 2nd is a sound one. Gardner's speed and patience are a great fit at the top of the lineup where they can be used to wreak havoc on the basepaths with Jacoby Ellsbury, and he has shown a knack for getting on base (.352 career OBP). The Yankees best bet to set the table for the middle of their lineup would probably be to use Ellsbury and Gardner as a 2-headed leadoff monster.
Of course, no discussion about the top of the Yankee batting order would be complete without mentioning Derek Jeter, and Olney correctly points out that Jeter's legend and resume will factor heavily into Joe's decision on where to bat him. Olney predicts that Jeter will start the year hitting 2nd and at least get the chance to prove he can still be productive with the bat, a prediction I agree with but a decision I'm not sure about. The debate about who should hit 2nd is hardly the only one to be had when discussing the projected starting lineup. Look 1-9 and you'll see that the Yankees have questions to answer about almost every other spot in the batting order as well.
The middle of the batting order is completely new from last year's team and almost completely new from what we've become used to over the past 2-3 years. The most familiar face is that of Mark Teixeira, who's a pretty big wildcard in terms of what to expect power-wise after his wrist injury. Teix himself recently expressed concern about how the wrist will feel when he starts playing again, and with the way his production has been trending the last few years he's not nearly as likely as Jeter to get preferential treatment when it comes to his lineup spot. Teix could conceivably hit anywhere from 3-6, but right now 6 looks the most likely based on the hitters ahead of him.
The 3-4 spots figure to be taken up by the new guys. You could make a case for either in either spot really. Both Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann offer similar batting averages, high contact rates with low K rates, and good power from the left side of the plate. I think Beltran would get the nod based on a higher recent average, but it's really 6 one, half dozen the other. That would put Alfonso Soriano in the 5-spot ahead of Teix, but he could yo-yo up and down every spot in the middle of the order at some point. Joe could hit him 3rd against left-handed starters or bump him down to 6 if he's slumping or Teix proves he can still be productive.
The bottom third of the order is where the other half of the Gardner-Jeter question gets asked. If Joe bats Jeter 2nd to start the season, where does he hit Gardner? Does Gardner get the 7-spot based on tenure and familiarity with Joe? Does Joe go back to hitting him 9th to set up the "double leadoff hitter" thing with Ellsbury like he did earlier in Gardner's career? And if Jeter gets moved out of the 2-spot, how far down does Joe drop him? I can't see it being lower than 7th, but what if Jeter doesn't hit at all and Kelly Johnson hits for good power?
Attempting to answer all these questions and nail something down could become a moot point when you factor in the bench and the high day-to-day turnover that could start once the regular season really gets going. Between multiple guys needing regular days off, multiple guys getting rotated through the DH spot as a way to get some rest, and Joe's tendency to play L/R matchups when it makes sense, there's going to be a new player or 2 in the lineup almost every day. Most of them will be hitting in the 7-9 spots, but their insertion for a player hitting higher in the order will trigger all the shuffling in the 2-6 spots for whoever isn't getting a day off. It's going to be a near-constant shuffle and it's going to be on Joe to find something that works to keep everybody fresh and give the team a chance to win every day. The only thing we know for sure right now is that Ellsbury is hitting leadoff. After him, it's (sorta) up in the air.
(Photo courtesy of the AP)