12 burning Bombers questions

February, 12, 2014
Feb 12
12:00
AM ET
Jacoby Ellsbury, Masahiro Tanaka, and Carlos BeltranAP Photo, Getty ImagesThe Yankees missed the playoffs, then promptly reloaded. So what can fans expect in 2014?
NEW YORK -- Every baseball season begins the same way. Players report for spring training. Reporters start asking questions.

Some of those questions, naturally, cannot be fully answered until the season is over, and sometimes not even by then. But that doesn’t stop us from asking them, or trying to guess at their answers.

In that spirit, as the Yankees' pitchers and catchers prepare to report to training camp on Friday, we begin asking our questions today. And coming off only their second playoff-less season in two decades, this year's Yankees team faces some serious issues.

We’ve come up with a dozen questions the Yankees need to answer if they’re going to have a bounce-back 2014 season.

1. Who's on First? This is an easy one, although since he played in just 15 games last season, you might have forgotten about Mark Teixeira. He is said to be healthy and ready to go following wrist tendon surgery, but what kind of player will he be? Teixeira will turn 34 in April, and by his own admission last season, may well be in the start of a decline. And as a frame of reference, Jose Bautista, who had the same surgery in 2012, had a pretty good 118 games in 2013 -- .259 BA, 28 HRs, 73 RBIs, .856 OPS -- but was nowhere near the force he had been in his MVP-caliber 2011 season.

2. What's on Second? Well, it won't be Robinson Cano, doncha know? Right now, the job belongs to Brian Roberts, the veteran Baltimore Orioles second baseman who was signed to a one-year deal by the Yankees as a free agent this winter. Roberts, a career .278 hitter who has averaged roughly seven HRs a season over 13 years -- his high was 18 in 2005 -- will make no one forget Cano at the plate or in the field, but he is a serviceable player who should fit in well.

3. I Don't Know's on Third? Again, we do know who it won't be: Alex Rodriguez. Right now, barring a last-minute signing or the picking up of a late spring training castoff (a la Lyle Overbay last year), it will either be new signing Kelly Johnson or old pal Eduardo Nunez. With the exception of the circus that seems to follow A-Rod, neither can be seen as an improvement: Johnson's past three seasons pretty much mirror A-Rod's production for power, averaging 17 HRs a season, but his BA over that span is .226 and his OPS barely scrapes .700. Nunie, of course, is Nunie -- always an adventure in the field, rarely an explosion at the plate.

4. A short season for the shortstop? Derek Jeter remains a huge question mark, since beginning with spring training last year he was never able to play two back-to-back games in the field and return healthy. True, he’s had more time to heal this winter and presumably will benefit from a normal offseason workout routine. But he will also turn 40 this June and you have to guess he'll spend a lot of his time as a DH this season.

5. Nervous ninths? You betcha. With Mariano Rivera gone, the ninth inning of a Yankees game will not be the same this year, and probably never again. Even if David Robertson rises to the occasion -- and he certainly has the capability to do so -- there's just no way anyone in the stands, or the Yankees' dugout, for that matter, will ever head into a ninth inning with a one-run lead thinking, “This one’s in the bag." With Mo, that was a nightly occurrence, but with Robertson's penchant for putting runners on base -- and admittedly, usually leaving them there -- there will be a lot of sweaty palms in the ballpark before that last out is made.

6. Crazy eighths? Probably, because the Yankees didn't just lose their closer when Mo retired, they lost their eighth-inning guy as well. And no one in baseball set up his closer better than Robertson, who in moving up leaves a gaping hole behind him. Who in the Yankees' bullpen will step up to fill it? Right now, the guess is Shawn Kelley, who was a revelation last season after recovering from a second Tommy John surgery.

7. From whom will the Yankees get minor contributions? As in, from the minor leagues? Well, in the three-part series Andrew Marchand and I did last week on the Yankees' farm system, maybe no one. GM Brian Cashman is hopeful 22-year-old phenom Manny Banuelos, coming off Tommy John surgery, will show enough in spring training to make the team as perhaps the second lefty out of the bullpen. Cashman also believes 24-year-old right-handed flamethrower Jose Ramirez could make an impact. And there is still hope for Dellin Betances, as there should be for any 25-year-old who can hit 97 on the gun.

But aside from those three pitchers -- and J.R. Murphy, who will be given a shot to win the backup catcher's job behind Brian McCann -- there isn’t much on the farm that is ready to be harvested. Gary Sanchez, Slade Heathcott, Tyler Austin and Mason Williams are all several years away.

8. Will the new offense make up for the loss of Cano and A-Rod? Possibly. The Yankees lost their best bat in Cano, but you have to remember they got virtually nothing out of the catcher's spot last year -- .213-8-43, .587 OPS -- and McCann will make a huge difference there. Also, Carlos Beltran should be a major upgrade over Vernon Wells, Jacoby Ellsbury -- if he can stay healthy -- is a more powerful version of Brett Gardner, and the Yankees will have the benefit of a full season of Alfonso Soriano, who figures to get the bulk of the right-handed DH duty. It might be difficult to replace the home runs lost with the departures of Cano and Curtis Granderson, but didn't we say that before last season, too? The 2013 Yankees matched the 2012 Yankees for home runs -- in April, anyway. Overall, last year's club hit 101 fewer homers than its predecessor.

9. Can CC find his lost V-LO? Who knows? Sabathia will turn 34 this season and barely avoided finishing as a .500 pitcher for the first time in his career. More alarming was his ERA, which skirted 5.00 (4.78) and was the highest of his career. Most alarmingly of all, the big man’s velocity has steadily declined over the years, from a high of 94.1 in his first season as a Yankee, to an average of 91.4 in 2013. Publicly, the Yankees continue to maintain they believe CC will find those lost mphs this season, but plenty of pitchers his age have had to make the adjustment from thrower to pitcher and he may now be one of them. Also, for those of you who believe he was "too thin" last season, he looks to have lost even more weight this winter. If size = velocity, that may turn out to be good news for CC's cardiologist but bad news for the Yankees.

10. Can Hiro go the distance? It's a legitimate question now that Hiroki Kuroda has shown a disturbing tendency to fade down the stretch in both his seasons as a Yankee. In 2012, he went 4-1 in September but posted a 4.71 ERA. That was good compared to last year, when, to borrow Graig Nettles' famous line about Sparky Lyle, he went from Cy Young to Sayonara virtually overnight, going 1-7 with a 5.40 ERA over the final two months. Hiro turned 39 on Monday and if the Yankees hope to go far in October -- or even get there in the first place -- they need him to stay strong to the finish.

11. Will Masahiro Tanaka come as advertised? Depends on what you’re expecting. Cashman might have offered a clue this weekend when he told ESPNNewYork.com's Ian O'Connor that he felt the 25-year-old right-hander could develop into "a really solid, consistent number three starter." Later, Cashman said his words had been “misconstrued" and that he meant Tanaka could be a No. 3 "this year." Whatever. At $155 million, Tanaka has got to be better than that, hasn’t he? And all those teams who lined up to bid on him couldn't be wrong, could they?

All we know is, there's always a lot of adjustments to be made when coming from the Nippon Baseball League to MLB. Some make it seamlessly, like Kuroda and Yu Darvish. Others struggle to keep up, like Daisuke Matsuzaka. And some never make the adjustment (dare we mention Kei Igawa?) Sabathia, Kuroda and Ivan Nova form a nice foundation for a starting rotation, but if Tanaka can’t make the adjustment, all the offense in the world is unlikely to help the Yankees.

12. Is Cashman on the hot seat? Highly doubtful. The GM is in the final year of his contract, but he made some gutsy choices this offseason and if the team rebounds the way it might, he should reap much of the credit. Besides, Hal Steinbrenner is not George M. Steinbrenner; he has shown no inclination for scapegoating or knee-jerk firings and I can't see him kicking Cashman to the curb if the team fails to produce. Now, might Cashman decide to walk on his own?

Well, that’s just one more question that we can ask today, but won't be able to answer for another six months. At least.
Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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TEAM LEADERS

WINS LEADER
Masahiro Tanaka
WINS ERA SO IP
13 2.77 141 136
OTHER LEADERS
BAJ. Ellsbury .271
HRB. McCann 23
RBIB. McCann 75
RB. Gardner 87
OPSB. Gardner .749
ERAH. Kuroda 3.71
SOH. Kuroda 146