April 6, 2012; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; New York Yankees relief pitcher Mariano Rivera (42) talks with shortstop Derek Jeter (2) and teammates on the mound in the ninth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay Rays defeated the New York Yankees 7-6. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

The Competition: New York Yankees

Continuing our 5 part series “The Competition” with our ALDS opponent in 2011 – Those Damn Yankees! There is no team in any sport that I love rooting against more than the Yankees. When they lose, I cheer. Any misfortune they suffer makes me smile. So… perhaps I’m a little biased. Nonetheless, I’ll do my best to be fair in comparing the Tigers position-by-position to the boys in pinstripes.

First Base: Prince Fielder vs. Mark Teixeira
Advantage – Detroit
Everyone who panned Illitch’s signing of Fielder pointed to the extreme unlikeliness that Fielder would remain a potent offensive force into his mid 30′s, while the deal would continue to pay him in excess of $20 million per season. Hard to argue with that. But he’s 27 now and in his prime. Teixeira, on the other hand, turns 32 today and put up offensive numbers in his age-30 and age-31 seasons (.841 combined OPS) well below those from his age 27 to 29 peak (.957 combined OPS). He’s still a better defensive first baseman than Fielder, but barring a major rebound at the plate that isn’t enough

Second Base: Ryan Raburn vs. Robinson Cano
Advantage – New York
Cano is one of the best. Raburn is not. If Raburn matches his best numbers offensively and Cano matches his worst defensively this one could be almost a wash.

Third Base: Miguel Cabrera vs. Alex Rodriguez
Advantage – Detroit
This takes nothing away from Alex Rodriguez, who is not just a hall-of-famer but a first ballot lock. But… Cabrera is in his prime and Rodriguez looks to be well past his. If he’s healthy, Rodriguez is probably a little bit better on the defensive end (despite the age) but his .362 wOBA the past two seasons doesn’t come close to Cabrera’s .433. The health aspect is obviously another concern – Rodriguez has spent time on the DL in each of the past four seasons, playing in fewer than 99 games last year for the first time in more than a decade. He’s going to turn 37 in July, and his odds of staying healthy and or matching his offensive production from the past few years aren’t that great.

Shortstop: Jhonny Peralta vs. Derek Jeter
Advantage – Detroit
This isn’t just because Peralta (.353 wOBA) had a great 2011 and Jeter (.332 wOBA) didn’t. I won’t dispute that Jeter has a better long-run track record (.369 career wOBA), but that run has been very long. Entering his 18th season in the majors, Jeter is more icon than contributor at this point and (as a believer in advanced defensive metrics like DRS) I feel compelled to mention that Jeter has been and continues to be one of the worst defenders in baseball at his position. Peralta – perhaps surprisingly given his build – has not been.

Catcher: Alex Avila vs. Russell Martin
Advantage – Detroit
My mind still boggles that the Yankees managed to get ahold of Martin for absolutely nothing in the kind of transaction you see in fantasy leagues but never in the real MLB. Apparently the Dodgers couldn’t even take the time to trade the guy (who had real value) due to cash flow constraints. They simply cut him, like an NFL team with cap problems, and the Yanks (who else?) snapped him up. While it still grates that the richest got richer by capitalizing on the suffering of the almost-as-rich mired in a lengthy and paralyzing divorce battle, Martin still isn’t as good of a hitter as Alex Avila.

Right Field: Brennan Boesch vs. Nick Swisher
Advantage – New York
Swisher too is over 30, but he remains just a little better than Boesch at the plate and just a little better in the field.

Center Field: Austin Jackson vs. Curtis Granderson
Advantage – New York
Our beloved Granderson has been transformed from an all-star into an MVP-candidate by a combination of Yankee coaches and short Yankee porches. There’s a reason the Yanks gave up not only Jackson, but also Phil Coke and Ian Kennedy, to get the guy and I don’t think it’s an underestimation of Jackson’s abilities.

Left Field: Delmon Young vs. Brett Gardner
Advantage – New York
Here’s a good one… and it all comes down to one big question, just how good is Brett Gardner’s defense? I’m inclined to believe that the gap between his glove and Young’s glove is actually 20 runs are more. Though Gardner is easily the Yankees worst regular hitter, that 20 runs is easily enough to compensate for any expected gap between his and Young’s offensive contributions. Remember, Gardner actually outhit Young in 2011 (because Young was so awful, not because Gardner was great) and he helps to make up for the lack of power with wheels.

DH: “Committee”/Andy Dirks vs. Raul Ibanez/Andruw Jones
Advantage – Nobody
Ibanez and Jones are over the hill (is this a common theme for the Yanks…?) but they’re still almost certain to outhit the guys like Dirks that the Tigers will be inserting into the open lineup spot on a rotating basis – especially given that they are able to take advantage of those huge platoon splits. You might think that using guys like Ibanez and Jones in the role is actually the perfect use of a DH spot… So why don’t the Yankees win outright? The Tigers DH solution provides a big boost to team defense – the Yanks doesn’t. How is that possible? Well – if Delmon Young DH’s and Andy Dirks plays left, the boost to defense is big. The role is still, in a sense, filled by Dirks (since Young is already listed above and matched up against Gardner). The same is true if Cabrera DHs and Kelly plays third or Raburn DHs and Inge plays second, etc… I’m not so sure the Yankees wouldn’t be better off going the Tigers route, given the number of aging players on their roster. Of course, if Ibanez doesn’t bounce back from a terrible age-39 season in Philly – he will be outhit by Dirks and friends too.

Bench: [Ramon Santiago, Brandon Inge, Don Kelly and Gerald Laird] vs. [Eric Chavez, Eduardo Nunez, Chris Stewart and Andruw Jones*]
Advantage – Detroit
Nunez is something like a Santiago with sloppy glove play. After countless injuries, 34-year-old Eric Chavez has posted only a .629 OPS over the past four seasons (as compared to an .833 OPS before 2008) – that makes him match up poorly against our Don Kelly on the offensive end as a backup at third base. Laird and Stewart both play the position well but fail to hit. Laird has a lot more big-league experience than Stewart and has done more with the PT he has had. Jones is part of the DH platoon mainly due to age, though he’s no longer a great fielder (and he was once) he’s still good enough to fill in if needed in the outfield. He’s also a vastly better hitter than Mr. Inge, even if both only see play against lefties.

Rotation:
[The injury to Pineda throws this a bit out-of-whack, I honestly don't know what the rotation ordering would be were Pineda ready to start the season on-time and I don't know who gets bumped when he comes back. I've chosen to slot him in as the fifth starter and bump the existing fifth starter, Garcia, back to the 'pen]

#1: Justin Verlander vs. C.C. Sabathia
Advantage – Detroit
Verlander had the better 2011 and he’s a few years younger, so he gets the nod here – but this one is really so close that any distinction is arbitrary. Both guys have been amazingly durable and both have career ERAs of exactly 3.52. Really.

#2: Doug Fister vs. Hiroki Kuroda
Advantage – Detroit
The two guys have almost identical career ERAs, but Kuroda is 37 and making the transition to the American League after a career played in the NL West. I’ll take my chances with Fister.

#3:
Max Scherzer vs. Phil Hughes
Scherzer did not meet expectations last year – due in large part to a high BABIP and an inability to strand runners. Phil Hughes was a hot mess and while Scherzer needs a rebound to 2010 production to prove that he can be a top-of-the-rotation starter, Hughes needs to do the same just to have a job next year. If he has a bad April, it could be him that loses his job when Pineda comes back and not Freddy Garcia.

#4: Rick Porcello vs. Ivan Nova
Advantage – Nobody
Nova had a very good 2011 season – but he came out of nowhere to do it (the Yankees were desperate to let him start in the first place) and it’s still kind of hard to imagine him repeating it. Their other peripherals aren’t far apart – neither strikes out a ton, both get a lot of ground balls. Porcello walks fewer batters, but Nova might be a bit better at keeping the ball in the park. Which one has a better 2012 is going to come down to BABIP… last year that edge went to Nova, ZiPS predicts that advantage will stick. I’m skeptical.

#5:
Drew Smyly vs. Michael Pineda
Advantage – New York
Pineda was supposed to be the Yankees big acquisition of the offseason, another top-of-the-rotation starter to back up Sabathia but he starts the season on the DL with shoulder trouble and reduced velocity. If he’s his old self by mid-May, there’s no contest between him and Smyly. But… if he doesn’t make it back? Then the Yankees just keep throwing Freddy Garcia out there every fifth day and chances are he puts up better numbers than Smyly or any other rookie lefty the Tigers have.

Closer:
Jose Valverde vs. Mariano Rivera
Advantage – New York
Somehow, Rivera continues to be elite – with a 1.91 ERA in 2011 at age of 41. He’s now 42, in what will apparently be his final season, and hasn’t shown any signs whatsoever of diminished ability. You could do a lot worse than Papa Grande in the 9th, but he’s simply not this good.

Rest-of-Bullpen: [
Joaquin Benoit, Phil Coke, Octavio Dotel, Luis Marte, Daniel Schlereth & Collin Ballester] vs. [Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, Boone Logan, Cory Wade, David Phelps & Freddy Garcia]
Advantage – New York
There aren’t many teams with guys that are unquestionably better than Benoit and Dotel – the Yankees are with Robertson & Soriano. There’s nothing wrong with the bottom end of their ‘pen either. I’d say the Yankees are going to win a lot of close games by riding this bullpen, just like they did last year.

There is still a lot to like about the Yankees team – if you’re capable of any kind of positive feelings for that franchise. Nonetheless… a lot of their guys look to be on the wrong side of 30 and trending downward. Things could break right for them in a lot of ways (especially if Pineda makes 30 good starts) but a big disappointment due to DL trips looks more likely to me. Tigers took them down in a 5-game series last year and if they meet again in October I expect the same thing to happen.

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