Yankees' pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Tampa, Florida, two weeks from tomorrow with no more big moves likely to take place to help supplement their roster. Big additions have been made to the team that failed to make the playoffs last season for the second time since 2007 in hopes of getting back to October baseball, but there have also been two sizable subtractions in the form of Mariano Rivera and Robinson Cano. How does the team stand two weeks away from spring training getting underway, and which positions are going to need the best showing in Tampa for fans to feel good about the team's chances?
Landing Masahiro Tanaka earlier this month gave the Yankees an exciting rookie to look forward to in their rotation for 2014 and beyond. The Japanese right-hander dazzled with the Rakuten Golden Eagles last season and was rewarded handsomely for all the potential that scouts think he can bring to MLB. If Tanaka can translate his success in Japan to a productive first season in the United States, the Yankees will likely consider his contract money well-spent for now. CC Sabathia was given an extension to be the ace of the Yankees for the foreseeable future but diminished velocity following offseason surgery last year has put his ace status in doubt going forward. Sabathia has all but conceded that he doesn't expect his velocity to return, vowing to learn to pitch without it. That's not a comforting thought from the player who was supposed to be the go-to guy for the Yankees now and at least a bit longer in the future.
Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova had inconsistent 2013 campaigns, each turning in one spectacular half and one underwhelming half. Kuroda is one year older and the Yankees aren't going to be able to afford to send Nova to the magical land of Triple-A where he seems to always realize that he's actually a really good pitcher. The fifth spot in the rotation could go to David Phelps or Michael Pineda, with Pineda obviously drawing a bit more interest in what kind of pitcher he will be able to be. Pineda has yet to pitch in a big league game for the Yankees since the trade that brought him to New York following surgery on a torn labrum. Can he be the pitcher the Yankees traded for even after a surgery that has forever changed pitchers in the past? The rotation is going to need to have a few surprising seasons for the Yankees to win the division.
This is a mess. Thinking as optimistically as you can doesn't change the fact that the Yankees' infield is an ugly mishmash of players ranging from questionable to bad. If there is a player in the infield that you can really feel good about, it's probably Brian McCann. The Yankees suffered through an entire year of Chris Stewart to make it to the promised land of a left-handed catcher with a power swing perfectly suited for Yankee Stadium. First base was supposed to be less of a question in 2014 with the return of Mark Teixeira, but wrist tightness that Teixeira has admitted may last all season is not the comforting news anyone wants to hear. If Teixeira has to miss any sizable chunk of time from a flare up of pain or tightness in his surgically repaired wrist, the offense and defense at first base takes a tumble. The other and only slightly less poor scenario is that Teixeira plays at an incredibly reduced level because of his wrist bothering him for the entire season. A broken Teixeira is still probably better than the alternatives.
Setbacks surrounding his newly metal-filled ankle kept Derek Jeter off the field in 2013 but that is supposed to be mostly behind him now. How behind can the insertion of screws and plates be in an ankle of a shortstop that is almost 40 years old? Probably not very far. Jeter is going to need a lot of DH days just to get through the season and the backup picture of Brendan Ryan and Eduardo Nunez comes with a pretty big downfall in at least one important aspect of the game. Nunez can't field, or hit very well either for that matter, and Ryan is not going to light the world on fire with his bat to say the least. If Jeter were to re-injure his ankle and miss a chunk of time, one of those guys would become an every day player. Few people have the stomach to watch that again in 2014.
Third base and second base are huge voids that the Yankees haven't really done much to fill so far. The departure of Cano and the suspension of Alex Rodriguez has left those spots without any desirable options available to the team. Stephen Drew is still on the market willing to play a position other than shortstop, but his lefty/righty splits are concerning and his numbers away from Fenway Park last season were beyond ugly. The internal options of Kelly Johnson, Brian Roberts, Yangervis Solarte, and Nunez don't inspire a ton of confidence either. Someone (probably multiple someones) is going to need to be much better than expected. Who out of that group has the most chance to outperform what most believe they can do? Middling seasons from the infield as a whole seems like it would be too much for the rest of the team to overcome.
The outfield is probably the lowest on the concern totem pole with the additions of Carlos Beltran and Jacoby Ellsbury. Still, it's not without questions. Can Ellsbury and Brett Gardner shake concerns about their health? Will Beltran's knees hold up if he is forced to play right field on a regular basis? Will Alfonso Soriano continue his hot-hitting that he brought to the Bronx after being traded to New York at the deadline last season? There are questions, but just not ones on the same level as the infield or starting rotation.
Mariano Rivera, the Yankees' longtime security blanket, is not walking through that bullpen door this year. David Robertson is set to be the closer and he will probably do a fine job, but there are still at least some concerning spots in relief that don't wear #30. There is, of course, the chance that Robertson doesn't seamlessly fill Rivera's shoes in the ninth inning and the Yankees are left without a closer until close to the trade deadline. Robertson is very good, so there's no reason to worry too much about that until he gets a real shot at closing games beyond the three-game sample size of two years ago.
The bridge to Robertson will be filled by the likes of Shawn Kelley and Preston Claiborne. Neither is likely to end up the shutdown setup guy that Robertson was, but neither is likely to be a total train wreck either. Matt Thornton slots in as the main left-hander in replacement of Boone Logan, but his recent loss of velocity makes the already-infuriating LOOGY spot seem a little more uncertain. Some promising kids from Triple-A have a shot to make the bullpen, like Dellin Betances and Chase Whitley. The case of the bullpen isn't dreading what we know to be terrible but the fear of the unknown. Everything might fall into place nicely and no one has to worry. It's just that we have very little to go on as far as knowing where the bullpen stands at this point.
The Yankees are still paying Ichiro Suzuki a lot of money. It's possible that some team wants to take on his salary in return for another ugly salary, but Ichiro will probably hang on as the fifth outfielder in 2014. There isn't much in the way of a backup first baseman if Kelly Johnson becomes the every day third baseman. Both backup shortstops have pretty big flaws in their game. Second base barely has a starter, much less a backup. The bench proved to be very important in 2013 when nearly the entire team went down with an injury at one point or another. If anything near that scale happens again in 2014, the replacements are another clown car of uninspiring. It's unreasonable to think that All-Stars will sign with the Yankees for the pleasure of sitting on the bench, but preparations do have to be made. The Yankees did a really poor job of that in 2013 and 2014 doesn't look a whole lot better.
The good thing about spring training is that it gives everyone a look at the team before the games count. There are still players out there that the Yankees could bring in if they really wanted to. This team has a certain level of excitement about it that last year's team really didn't after the new additions like McCann and Tanaka. Seeing those guys in action for the first time in Tampa should be really interesting to watch. The battle for the fifth starter should also be an interesting one to follow. If everything shakes out right, the team could be a force in the AL East. Still, those nagging questions remain.
Which area of the team are you most concerned about heading into spring training? What moves would it take for you to feel better about them? Do you feel like the Yankees have done enough to get back to the playoffs this season?