PP Spring Training Report: 2004 Yankee Lineup

During the last great Yankee dynasty, the starting rotation was the strength of the championship and pennant-winning teams. While pitching is still a strength for the Yankees, the Bronx Bombers have apparently returned with an all-new Murderer's Row for the 21st century. If you like high-powered offense and tons of fireworks at the plate, just keep your eyes on the Yankees in 2004.

Projected 2004 Lineup:
1. Kenny Lofton, CF
2. Derek Jeter, SS
3. Alex Rodriguez, 3B
4. Jason Giambi, 1B
5. Gary Sheffield, RF
6. Jorge Posada, C
7. Hideki Matsui, LF
8. Bernie Williams, DH
9. Miguel Cairo/Enrique Wilson, 2B

If anyone's counting, there are 38 All-Star Game appearances in that lineup.  The only position that the Yankees don't have a former All-Star at are left field and second base.  There's also two former MVPs and 10 Gold Gloves scattered around.  If this isn't one of the most dangerous lineups assembled since the days of Ruth and Gehrig or Mantle and Maris, I don't know what is.

Lofton Is All Smiles

Kenny Lofton, Opening Day Age 36
With Bernie William's eligibility for Opening Day in question due to an appendectomy, Lofton will start the season in centerfield.  The two players will swap around the centerfield duties once Williams returns from the surgery, with the other player either riding the bench or seeing time at DH. 

Lofton's signing came as a surprise to many Yankee fans, who are extremely used to seeing Bernie patrolling center.  The signing, in retrospect only makes sense from one angle.  Lofton's main contributions to the team won't be in the field, but from the leadoff spot of the lineup.  Excluding Derek Jeter (who everyone but me sees as not a leadoff hitter), the Yankees were without a man that could handle the duties that batting first entails, namely getting on base and running said bases.  Even at 36, Lofton is pretty capable of that.  He's been a leadoff hitter for his whole career, now he gets to do it in pinstripes.

The signing of the former Brave and Indian doesn't make sense from a defensive point of view, as Lofton's - like Bernie's - Gold Glove days are long behind him.  The signing of Travis Lee causes further questions as well, because Lee is talented enough at first base to push Giambi to the DH slot, which obviously means someone has to sit.  This all remains to be seen.

Derek Jeter, Age 29
Can you believe that our dear captain turns 30 this season?  It seems like yesterday that he was a fresh-faced kid playing shortstop for us.  Now we have a grizzled and savvy veteran man entrenched in Yankee mystique and the number two hole.  Jeter actually had a great season last year, finally bucking his downward trend and posting his best batting average since his huge 2000 season.  Barring another freak injury like the one he suffered right at the start of 2003, The Captain should return to being the singles and doubles machine that he was not too long ago.

2003 marked the first time that Jeter spent any significant time on the disabled list.  With his shoulder fully healed, and his thumb in proper condition, there's really no reason to think that Jeter can't stay healthy and produce at the level that Yankee fans have become accustomed to.

A-Rod Is Learning His New Position

Alex Rodriguez, Age 28
One of the greatest shortstops in history is now the third baseman for the greatest team in history.  Most baseball people don't think that A-Rod will have any trouble adjusting to his new position.  His excellent athleticism and strong throwing arm should be sufficient to eventually become a mainstay at the hot corner.  It's to be expected that he'll have a relatively rough first season at third, but over the long haul, he'll be just fine. 

The other question (and yes, I'm ignoring the Jeter/A-Rod soap opera, for the sake of all of our sanities) is how he adapts to working in the bright lights of New York City.  A-Rod was born in New York, and he's always been media-savvy.  So, for me, this isn't so much of a question.  In the middle of this lineup, Rodriguez could drive in 140 runs with his eyes closed, but will anything less be cause for scrutiny from Big Stein?

Jason Giambi, Age 33
Giambi suffered through his worst season as a major leaguer, and he still hit 41 homeruns, drove in 107 runs and walked 129 times.  There's good reason to think that his sorry .250 batting average was a fluke caused by all of his various injuries (namely that he had never hit below .291 in a full season in his whole career).  Without an eye infection, with his knee in better shape than before, and with a slimmer overall package, Giambi should bounce back nicely this season.

Sheffield Brings A Lot To The Yanks

Gary Sheffield, Age 35
Sheffield brings something to the Yankees that they haven't had in a while: a power hitter that doesn't strike out often.  Sheffield struck out far fewer times than every single Yankee regular in 2004, while hitting more homeruns than all but Giambi and Alfonso Soriano.  With his ludicrous bat speed and ability to get on base and absolutely destroy the ball, Sheffield will provide a higher level of protection for the rest of the Yankee lineup.  The only question about him is durability, as he is getting on in years and has a history of minor injuries.

Jorge Posada, Age 32
Posada finished third in the AL MVP voting last season, behind new teammate A-Rod and Carlos Delgado.  He set career highs in homeruns and RBI while posting his best OBP and SLG totals since 2000.  2003 was probably Posada's peak year, and decline is expected, but he is still in a class that few other catchers can even look at.  Turning a position that is generally a weakness on teams into a strength is part of what will make this Yankee offense so prolific.

Hideki Matsui, Age 29
Matsui's debut went very smoothly in 2003, as he finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting.  Matsui is actually a rather average player in the majors, with inflated RBI totals, but he blends in exceptionally well with the Yankees.  Instead of being a left-handed masher (like Giambi), Matsui is a finesse hitter that strikes out less often.  Matsui's other gift is his ability to hit with runner on base - something that plagued the Yankees in 2003.  Godzilla in America is far more like a left-handed Derek Jeter than he is like Giambi, except that he pulls the ball and puts it on the ground more often.  If he adapts this season and starts lifting the ball more, he'll ground out less and probably hit more singles and even homeruns.

Bernie Williams, Age 35
Bernie is actually going to miss opening day, meaning Travis Lee will probably start in his stead at DH or 1B (with Giambi at DH), but he's not expected to miss more than a few days from his surgery.  Williams is in a make or break year of his career.  He needs to prove to everyone that 2003 was a fluke and that he is capable of hitting .300 with reasonable power like he used to be.  His days in centerfield are similarly numbered.  If Bernie can't bounce back, and this is a real possibility, he's going to turn into one expensive bench player when the Yankees turn around and sign Carlos Beltran after this season.

Cairo Will Play Some 2B In 2004

Miguel Cairo/Enrique Wilson, Age 30
Cairo and Wilson are the frontrunners to play second base for the now-Soriano-less Yankees.  Wilson might get the nod based on experience with the Yankees and his switch-hitter feature, despite that Cairo is probably the better hitter (though I use the term "better" loosely).  Either way, this is going to be the lone weak link in the Yankee lineup.  One dark horse candidate to take some ABs at second is former-Yankee Homer Bush.  If Bush's hip is in good condition then he can seriously run, and he was always a guy capable of hitting for average.  Bush is in Spring Training with the Yanks, where they'll see if he can make the team.

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