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Looking back: Lessons learned

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What do we know on the last day of 2012 that we didn’t know on the last day of 2011?

Here are 10 things we learned in the past year.

[2]Alex Rodriguez is less dependable than ever
Last winter, there was hope. Rodriguez was finally healthy, he was going to have a full offseason of regular training and he showed up in spring training full of optimism. I honestly believed he was going to have a good year, and his slugging percentage was climbing month by month until that broken hand at the end of July. After that, it was the long recovery, then the horrible production down the stretch, then the postseason on the bench, then news of another hip surgery. Optimism for Rodriguez is hard to find these days.

Ichiro Suzuki could finish his career with the Yankees
Think about that. Could you have predicted that a year ago? After two months with the Yankees late last season, Ichiro has now signed a two-year contract that means the Yankees will be a very real part of his American legacy. Granted, he’ll go into the Hall of Fame with a Mariners cap — and he’ll be remembered as a Mariners player — but there’s at least an outside chance that he’ll reach 3,000 hits with the Yankees, and many of those end-of-his-career images will be in Yankees pinstripes. He’s one of the most interesting players in the sport’s history, and he’ll be forever linked with this franchise.

Chris Stewart might be the Yankees Opening Day catcher
Yep. Could happen. I actually like Stewart, but I can’t say I could have predicted this a year ago.

[3]Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes have swapped places
A year ago, it was Nova who was coming off a strong second half while Hughes was coming off an injury-filled disappointment. Today, it’s Hughes who’s coming off a strong second half and Nova whose season was nearly a complete bust. Because Hughes has been around for so long, it’s easy to forget that he’s less than a year older than Nova. The potential for growth isn’t significantly different between these two, and now it’s Hughes who seems locked into a rotation spot while Nova will have to prove himself all over again come spring training.  

Mariano Rivera is human
After doing so many superhuman things, it was a routine batting practice fly ball that finally broke the greatest closer of all time. He can fall down, just like everyone else. Perhaps the lesson we really learned from Rivera’s torn ACL is that the Yankees can — and inevitably will — move on without him. Rivera had been a constant for the better part of two decades, and despite many young pitchers being projected as his heir, last season he passed the torch to a short-term fill-in who has since opted out of the organization. The lesson: At some point, Rivera’s career is going to truly end, and there’s really no way to perfectly prepare for it. Just stock up on quality arms and see what happens.

David Aardsma; Kevin Youkilis; Hiroki Kuroda; Michael Pineda; Ichiro Suzuki
It’s worth noting that, one year ago, these players had absolutely no connection to the Yankees.

[4]Impact pitchers are hard to find
Maybe we knew this a year ago — actually, I’m certain we knew this a year ago — but consider these events of the past year: Pineda had shoulder surgery, Manny Banuelos had elbow surgery, Jose Campos was shut down, Dellin Betances was demoted, Nova was left off the postseason roster and Andrew Brackman had his career further disintegrate as a member of the Reds minor league system.

Impact bats should be on the way
Prospects are suspects. That’s the saying, and it’s absolutely accurate. But for the first time in a long time, the Yankees farm system has multiple position prospect — legitimate guys who could have a big league impact — who are only a couple of years away. At this time last year, the system was all about Jesus Montero. Two years before that, it was Austin Jackson who was on the verge. Now the Yankees have Mason Williams, Tyler Austin, Slade Heathcott and Gary Sanchez who could certainly be in Double-A and maybe Triple-A by the end of the season. And given the Yankees financial approach, there’s actually reason to believe they might actually keep a few of them. The Yankees minor league pitching took a significant step backwards in the past 12 months, but the top hitting prospects stepped forward.

[5]Derek Jeter has some tricks up his sleeve
Here’s the thing about Jeter: He is already among the most respected and revered players in the game. We all know he’s a Hall of Famer. We all know he’s the face of the franchise. We all know he’s surprised us in the past. But this year Jeter showed us something new; an ability to truly bounce back from disappointment. It started at the end of 2011 — and that second half gave a glimmer of hope at this time last year — but the season he delivered in 2012 was a true milestone in his career. It wasn’t his best year, but it was the year that proved he could still be an elite player even after so many had dismissed him. We already knew everything we needed to know about Jeter, yet he still found a way to surprise us. 

The fiscal cliff is real
For the Yankees, the fiscal cliff hits in 2014, when payroll will not go beyond the $189 million luxury tax threshold. It can go right up to that point, but beyond it, there’s no wiggle room. A year ago, we knew about this plan, but in the past year — past two months, really — it’s become increasingly evident that the Yankees truly plan to stick with it. They’ve limited long-term spending this offseason, and in the past 12 months both Hal Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman have made public statements about trimming payroll. It’s going to happen, and that reality has settled in during the past year. What that means for Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson is still a mystery.

Associated Press photos