02/14/11 4:26 PM EST
Girardi confident in lineup, focused on rotation
By Bryan Hoch / MLB.com
Derek Jeter is in line to continue as the Yankees' leadoff hitter, Girardi said on Monday, as the team banks on the 37-year-old making good on his new contract and rebounding from a down 2010 season.
"We signed him to be our shortstop and we signed him to be our leadoff hitter, and he's got a pretty good track history of what he's done in the game of baseball," Girardi said at George M. Steinbrenner Field, where the Yankees' pitchers and catchers officially reported to camp.
Girardi said that Jeter's summer swoon led to a career-low .270 batting average last year, but he was encouraged when Jeter hit .287 (33-for-115) in the season's final month, finishing the year just 74 hits shy of the 3,000 mark.
"The month of September, he was back to being Derek, I thought," Girardi said. "I'm not really too concerned about him as our leadoff hitter. But as we all know in this game, you have to prove yourself year in and year out, no matter who you are."
Jeter is no stranger to that. After general manager Brian Cashman confronted Jeter following the 2007 season, telling him his defensive range had become a problem, Jeter focused on agility training to improve and win back-to-back Gold Glove Awards in 2009 and '10.
Just feet from where Girardi held Monday's event, Jeter found a platform during a December news conference to accept responsibility for the season, vowing to prove those who doubt him wrong again.
Girardi believes he can, otherwise saying that the Yankees will have a lineup that "will probably be pretty similar to last year," even though hitting coach Kevin Long would like to experiment this spring with different combinations.
Brett Gardner's return from a lingering wrist injury offers Girardi a measure of confidence, as well as the progression of MVP candidate Robinson Cano last year and a late-season surge by Curtis Granderson.
Girardi was also encouraged by the acquisition of Russell Martin, who may prove to be a sharp buy-low move in replacing Jorge Posada as the everyday catcher.
"I think we've improved," Girardi said. "We've gotten younger in certain positions, we've gotten younger behind the plate."
Though there are bench decisions to be made as well, the majority of the manager's focus is on the starting rotation, where the Yankees have CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett locked in for spots.
Beyond those three, Girardi and his coaches figure to spend most of the spring evaluating a group of contenders that will include Ivan Nova, Sergio Mitre, Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon, plus a group of younger candidates as well.
Also mentioning David Phelps, Adam Warren and Dellin Betances, Girardi said that the decisions for the fourth and fifth starters will take a while.
"We're going to look to everyone in our camp," Girardi said. "We're going to have an open competition for that fourth or fifth slot, and we're not going to make a decision early. ... Basically, we have an open competition until March 30."
Girardi feels that his bullpen is stronger than it was at this time last year, boosted in large part by the acquisition of American League saves leader Rafael Soriano, who will now be setting up for closer Mariano Rivera.
Lefty Pedro Feliciano and returning hurlers Joba Chamberlain and Dave Robertson will complete a mix that could help the Yankees significantly shorten games on the back end.
"The bullpen is extremely important, I think, in baseball and in our division," Girardi said. "We have a lot of clubs in our division that, they're patient. They like to see a lot of pitches and your bullpen comes into play."
Still, the course of the Yankees' winter had many pundits downgrading New York's chances in an improving AL East. Even Cashman noted at one point that the Red Sox looked better on paper than the Yankees, except for the bullpen.
But when someone asked Girardi if he felt like his team could actually wind up being the underdogs in the division, Girardi chuckled and seemed to know better.
"I don't know if you're ever a New York Yankee [and] felt like you were the underdog," Girardi said. "It just sounds kind of funny to hear someone say that. And I never really got too caught into someone saying you're the favorite or you're the underdog.
"What I get caught up in is when you start playing the games and where you end up -- not what happens on paper."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.