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Yankees starting pitchers will be tested by a difficult schedule early on

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Yankees starting pitching may be the key to the season and it will be tested early by a stretch of talented lineups.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When the Yankees take the field in early April to play games that matter, they'll do so with as good a shot as any team to win the American League East. Their lineup is a year older, but it retains the power it brought last season, plus the addition of an offensively competent second baseman. Their defense should also be solid across the board, except for Carlos Beltran, and their bullpen could be the best in baseball. The rotation will be stacked with talent as well, though health and consistency remain questions for a staff that has four young arms and a veteran coming off as rough an offseason as possible. It would benefit the rotation to face an easy slate of batters to acclimate themselves early on, but instead they will face some of the toughest lineups in the league to start the year.

American League offenses are usually tougher than the National League, thanks to the designated hitter. Last year, AL teams average 710 runs scored on the season while NL teams could only average 666. The Yankees will begin their season with an AL-heavy slate, and will not play an NL team until they visit Arizona on May 16th. Of the 15 teams in the AL, the following seven featured the most potent lineups in 2015:

The Yankees 2016 schedule

April 4-7 Houston (5)
April 8-10 @ Detroit
April 12-14 @ Toronto (1)
April 15-17 Seattle
April 19-21 Oakland
April 22-24 Tampa Bay
April 25-27 @ Texas (3)
April 29 - May 1 @ Boston (4)
May 3-5 @ Baltimore (7)
May 6-8 Boston (4)
May 9-12 Kansas City (6)

The first series of the season is against an Astros team that hit very well last year, despite playing in a pitcher-friendly park. They will get a full season of Carlos Gomez and Carlos Correa, who got off to an unbelievable start to his career. Houston finished with only three fewer home runs last season than the dominant Blue Jays, so CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka–who seem to be a bit homer prone–could have a tough time.

After hosting Houston, the Yankees will travel to Detroit to play a team that should be greatly improved over last year. A healthier Victor Martinez, and the newly added Justin Upton will go a long way toward improving the team's offense. The Yankees will visit Toronto April 12-14, which should be a big test for the staff out of the gate. With an impressive stable of right-handed power hitters, perhaps we should hope that series doesn't line up with a CC Sabathia start.

Luckily the staff should have the opportunity to hit its stride in mid-April during a home stand that will feature some of the worst lineups in baseball. Seattle's lineup features three excellent offensive players in Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager and Nelson Cruz (when healthy), but then there's a massive drop-off in talent. On the other hand, the Rays feature a starless lineup (barring a huge year from Evan Longoria) and few players that are even close. Tampa Bay has only three players projected to be better than a 103 OPS+ next season, and no one projected higher than 114. Oakland is in arguably an even worse situation than Tampa Bay with no one projected over 106. If Oakland hits well this season, it will be considered one of the biggest surprises in baseball.

Late April into early May should be particularly brutal, as the Yankees will face some of the best batters in in absolute bandboxes. Texas, Boston, and Baltimore each feature veteran lefty sluggers who punish righties when they try to get cute, so the Yankees' stable of young and talented right-handed arms will be put to the test for two straight weeks. Their reward will be the return of Aroldis Chapman on May 9th, just in time to play the defending world champion Royals. Kansas City will return with most of their punch from last year's team that defeated the Mets' superior pitching in October.

Starting pitching will be the key to New York's season, and it will be tested early. It remains to be seen as to who the Yankees' best starting pitcher will be over the course of the year, but that early test may force certain players to step up in order to keep games competitive. If the starters can manage to weather the early storm, maybe we'll be looking for another roster weakness instead.

All statistics from Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference and ESPN