Cano among Most Important Yankees

Robinson Cano is the Yankee to watch this coming season.

Yes, we know there are great players up and down this New York Yankees lineup, including Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. And we understand that the starting rotation is both strong and deep with CC Sabathia anchoring the staff.

And, yes, it's hard to argue that the bullpen isn't better with Joba Chamberlain pitching in front of closer Mariano Rivera.

Still, Cano, the Yankees' starting second baseman, will figure in more than most want to believe. His play in 2010 will be a big reason the Yankees are champions again, or fail to be the last team standing in October.

The Yankees -- who open up the regular season against the Red Sox in Fenway Park in Boston on Sunday night -- will need Cano to break out and have a season where not just Yankees fans know about him.

Cano, still just 27, will be on stage, in a position to solidify himself as a true star.

Manager Joe Girardi's plan is to bat Cano, starting his sixth major league season, in the fifth spot behind A-Rod. Cano will have big shoes to fill. Fifth was where Hideki Matsui, now with the Angels, batted often and came through a lot.

That five hole is an important spot. You have to make teams pitch to Rodriguez because they know if they put him on base the guy behind him will make them pay.

There'll also be a lot of RBI chances. Cano, whose highest RBI total was 97 in 2007, should easily drive in more than 100 runs. There will be plenty of people to knock in.

So far, Cano, despite a lifetime .306 batting average, hasn't proven he can hit in the clutch. Last season, he batted a woeful .207 with runners in scoring position. Entering this season, Cano is batting a mediocre .256 with RISP in his career. He's hit .331 with nobody on.

That has to change. Cano, who hit .320 with 25 homers and 85 RBIs in 2009, has to be more patient and make pitchers come to him. Often, it appears that Cano is the one getting himself out. And that just can't be the case anymore.

Cano can't be the player that gave up at-bats in the postseason, swinging at bad pitches and too early in the count. In the World Series, Cano batted .136 (3-for-22) with just one RBI. That won't work this postseason.

Despite all the paltry numbers from the past, Girardi still believes the time has come for Cano. "It's the ability to hit for average," Girardi told the media down in spring training. "I think Robbie has matured as a person and as a player. I like what I see. His work ethic is tremendous."

Hitting in the clutch is the last piece to Cano's game. The glove is certainly there. Cano made some impressive plays last season, including the playoffs. His error total was down to 12, his lowest total in a season since 2006, when he made nine in 118 games.

Cano can hit for both average and power. But there's a big difference between batting sixth and seventh, where he has mostly hit since joining the Yankees in 2005 at 22, and batting fifth.

The Yankees got strong numbers out of the fifth spot last season. Matsui, Cano and Jorge Posada combined to bat there in 142 of the Yankees' 162 games. In all, the fifth spot produced a .256 batting average with 32 homers and 101 RBIs.

It's Cano's turn now. Cano must be the hitter he is when no one is on base. Not just during the regular season, but when it matters most.