Around the Horn: Middle infielders

Around the Horn: Middle infielders

With the start of Spring Training just around the corner, the time has come to start sizing up the 2010 Yankees, piece by piece. will go around the horn and break down each area of the Yankees, continuing with the middle infield.

NEW YORK -- The waves of applause were cascading from Yankee Stadium's three quivering decks on the evening of Nov. 4, and Derek Jeter's wide grin was flush with satisfaction.

"This is right back where it belongs," Jeter said, the metal of a 27th World Series trophy glinting in the stadium lights.

It was the culmination of a long wait for Jeter, who had left for each winter since the 2000 celebration with a bitter flavor, unable to enjoy the accomplishments unless the Yankees were the final team standing.

On the occasions when the Yankees were bounced from the playoffs early -- or in the case of 2008, missed it altogether -- Jeter couldn't bear to pick up the remote and watch the World Series. It just didn't matter, unless he was the one having that kind of fun on the game's biggest stage.

The younger Yankees could soon be spoiled in that regard. Consider the elation of Robinson Cano, who fielded the final out of Game 6 and tossed it to Mark Teixeira at first base, joyously spinning his hat backwards and untucking his jersey before even reaching the pile at the mound.

Cano and Jeter will be back together in 2010 for their sixth year as the double-play combination up the middle, coming off a campaign during which the duo became just the fifth pair of Yankees teammates to collect 200 hits in the same season.

If you think the Yankees are heading to Spring Training with anything on their minds other than repeating, you just haven't been paying attention.

"Our goal when we come into the season is to win a championship," Jeter said. "That's how it is every year. You don't go home and celebrate regular-season championships. You don't go home and celebrate getting to the World Series. Our goal is to win it. That's been my mind-set since I've come up, and it never changes."

The Yankees' captain turned in yet another consistent season at the plate in 2009, hitting .334 with 27 doubles, 18 home runs, 66 RBIs and 30 stolen bases in 153 games. The campaign marked Jeter's 11th season with at least a .300 batting average, trailing only Lou Gehrig (12) and Babe Ruth (13) for the franchise lead in that statistic.

Behind the strength of one of his best offensive seasons, the 35-year-old Jeter ranked second in the Major Leagues with 212 hits and fourth in batting average. The American League's overall top vote-getter for the All-Star Game, Jeter finished third in the AL with a .406 on-base percentage and tied teammate Johnny Damon for fourth with 107 runs scored.

A spring switch with Damon seemed to click with both parties, as manager Joe Girardi liked the idea of having Jeter bat leadoff. Though Jeter said that there was no difference, his success at the top of the order projects to keep him there in 2010, even as Damon has been replaced in the lineup by designated hitter Nick Johnson.

"In Derek's case, he's constantly interested in doing nothing but improving," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "That's why he's one of the greatest players who ever played for the Yankees."

The last Yankees batter at the old Yankee Stadium and the first Yankee to hit at the new cathedral, Jeter had a historic moment on Sept. 11 against the Orioles, when he lined a single to right field off Chris Tillman for his 2,722nd hit over his 15 seasons in pinstripes -- surpassing Gehrig for the most hits in franchise history.

"Lou Gehrig, being a former captain and what he stood for, you mention his name to any baseball fan around the country, it means a lot," Jeter said. "I think passing him makes it stand out that much more."

"The difference is [Derek Jeter's] hard work -- what he does in the winter, the way he takes care of himself. He continues to work during the season, and he's been great. We've seen him make plays to the left, to the right, that have been great plays."
-- Manager Joe Girardi

As impressive as Jeter's continued success at the plate was, much attention was paid to his renewed form on defense. Jeter entered the 2007-08 offseason focusing more heavily on agility conditioning, perhaps burning from a conversation with Cashman when Jeter was told that his defense had negatively impacted the '07 club.

Experiencing incremental improvement in 2008, Jeter really saw the benefits in '09, committing just eight errors -- his fewest in any full season of play, resulting in a .986 fielding percentage that led all AL shortstops.

"The difference is his hard work -- what he does in the winter, the way he takes care of himself," Girardi said. "He continues to work during the season, and he's been great. We've seen him make plays to the left, to the right, that have been great plays."

If Jeter's ears were burning a little bit about his glovework, then Cano was also motivated by outside chatter. Cano's early promise prompted former skipper Joe Torre repeatedly to predict that he was looking at a young Rod Carew, but a drop in production in 2008 raised questions about Cano's commitment and work ethic.

"People were saying that I'm lazy and stuff like that," Cano said. "It feels good, because last year, there were a lot of people on the other side of the field saying, 'Maybe he's doing this, not doing that.' It's good to bounce back the year after and put up some good numbers, so they know that you're a guy who works."

Cano, 27, hit .320 with a team-high 48 doubles, 25 home runs and 85 RBIs in 161 games at second base for the 2009 Yankees, believing that he had compiled one of his best all-around seasons.

Indeed, Cano finished with career highs in runs (103), hits (204), doubles and homers, ranking third in the AL in hits and total bases (331) while tying for third in the league in doubles.

His 67 multihit games were second most in the Majors behind the Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki (73), and he counted an 18-game hitting streak among his season highlights. Getting past a wave of adjustments in 2008 seemed to help.

"I knew I had to go through that one day," Cano said. "Maybe a few guys like [Albert] Pujols, A-Rod -- they can be the guys that do the same thing every year and get better. But that's the kind of thing that made me stronger. I learned that not everything is easy. I had to keep working hard, and you see the benefit this year."

Cano became just the third Yankees second baseman to collect 100 runs scored and 200 hits in the same season, joining Alfonso Soriano in 2002 and Snuffy Stirnweiss in 1944. Cano's 861 hits as a second baseman since his debut on May 3, 2005, rank most among all second basemen in that time span, outpacing the Phillies' Chase Utley by 16 hits.

Yet for all of Cano's success at the plate, there were also perplexing moments. He turned it on for a stronger second half, but closer examination of his statistics revealed an odd trend -- his numbers fell off with runners in scoring position, hitting just .207 (38-for-184) in that situation.

"As long as I hit it hard and I hit it right at people, I couldn't get frustrated," Cano said. "I knew I was swinging good and these things happen. I go up and down. You've got to be ready when you go through slumps.

"I would say sometimes it's just luck. You're going to have those days when you hit it right at people. You're going to have those slumps when you strike out with men on base. You've got to be ready and find a way to get out of it."

Cano seemed to do a nice job of not taking whatever offensive struggles he might have gone through out into the field, Girardi said.

"I look at Robbie, and offensively, he's had a great year," Girardi said. "But I think he's had a Gold Glove second-base year as well. The plays that he has made -- whether it's been to his left or his right, turning double plays or fly balls that he's caught running down the line -- Robbie has had a tremendous year."

Cano remains under contract through the 2011 season, with club options for '12 and '13 on a deal that still plays as an affordable one in the Yankees' universe. Though Jeter's pending free agency will be a topic of discussion, he seems likely to re-sign with the club after the season.

Part of the equation is that the Yankees can't envision seeing Jeter log his 3,000th hit -- he's 253 shy entering 2010 -- in any other uniform. But perhaps more than ever, it's difficult to imagine the Yankees without Jeter as their anchor, considering the influence he exudes over teammates new and old.

"He's been in this situation so many times, and it's good to look back there and have that guy behind you with all the experience," CC Sabathia said during the World Series. "It makes you feel calm."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.