- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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Here are five key questions for the Yankees as they head into Opening Day on Friday:
No. 1: WHAT CAN WE EXPECT OUT OF ALEX RODRIGUEZ?
Of course, the first question is about Alex. Who else could it be about?
A-Rod is the Yankees' highest-paid and most closely-watched player. And even though he is no longer the most dangerous bat in their lineup -- that distinction belongs to either Robinson Cano or Curtis Granderson -- he still sits in the cleanup spot in the batting order, a position he does not want to give up, nor does Joe Girardi seem inclined to move him from.
So what kind of player will Alex Rodriguez be in 2012?
Well, he will be an older player; he turns 37 in July. He will be a player coming off an injury-riddled season in which he appeared in just 99 games and hit just 16 home runs, a career low. He will be a player who needed hip surgery two seasons ago, knee surgery last year, and a blood-spinning treatment called Orthokine this offseason. He will likely never be the player he was in 2007, when he won his third MVP award, or even the player he was in 2010, when he hit 30 home runs and knocked in 125.
It all depends on how many games he plays in this year. Girardi has said he will mix in DH days and off days to try to keep his aging third baseman fresh, but he tried that last year and it didn't work. Asked this weekend how many games he thought he could play in 2012, A-Rod said he would prefer not to put a number on it.
Let's say he plays 120 games. In that case, 25 homers and 90-100 RBIs are not unreasonable expectations. But will it be enough?
No. 2: ARE WE TAKING CC SABATHIA FOR GRANTED?
With all the talk about the Yankees' rotation this offseason and spring, one element of that rotation was taken as an automatic: CC Sabathia.
After having won 59 games in three seasons as a Yankee, it is not unreasonably assumed that we can pencil in the big guy for another 19-21 wins and a sub-4.00 ERA.
But is that fair to Sabathia, or realistic for the Yankees?
It must be remembered that in August and September of last season, Sabathia was pretty ordinary: 4-3, 4.06 ERA. And after allowing just six home runs the first four months of the season, he surrendered 11 in the final two.
Now, maybe he really was bothered by having to work within a six-man rotation, which is not going to happen this year. And maybe the extra weight he put on over the course of the season, since shed, wore him down. Certainly, the Yankees thought enough of his future here to extend his contract in the offseason.
But Sabathia also had a sub-par spring training, and his worst outing of all was probably his final tune-up against the Marlins on Sunday. That means that going to last August, Sabathia has not only not been a great pitcher, but not even a very good pitcher for the past four months he has worked. He says he will be fine when the season opens Friday. But how can we be sure?
It may turn out that if the Yankees don't have enough starting pitching this season, the problem will not be at the back of the rotation, but right at the top.
No. 3: CAN CURTIS GRANDERSON COME UP WITH AN ENCORE?
With Rodriguez admittedly diminished and the Yankees having lost one of the great advantages of their lineup with the retirement of Jorge Posada, an offensive standout behind the plate, it becomes all the more imperative that they get power numbers out of their outfielders. And one of them, Brett Gardner, is simply not suited to the task.
That is why the Yankees need Granderson to continue to hit the way he did in 2011. Oh, maybe not 41 home runs; it's quite possible that last season was Granderson's career year. Still, you have to figure the Yankees have penciled him in for 30-35 home runs and 100-plus RBIs.
Certainly the way he hit lefties last season was a revelation, and he seems to rarely have slipped back from the strides he made with Kevin Long late in the 2010 season. He still strikes out too much, but this spring he looked very much like the hitter he was at the end of last season, which is very, very good.
I still don't think he should be batting second; a power bat like that needs to be lower in the lineup. But it certainly seems reasonable, and perhaps vital, that Granderson comes close to the numbers he put up last season.
No. 4: HOW WILL NICK SWISHER PERFORM IN HIS CONTRACT YEAR?
There is a school of thought that the reason Nick Swisher has never performed well in October -- in 38 postseason games, his batting average is .169 and his OBP .295, 85 and 65 points below his regular-season numbers, respectively -- is that his unbridled enthusiasm during the rest of the season turns into self-applied pressure in the playoffs.
That same school of thought says that, this season, October begins in April for Swisher, that in his mind every at-bat will seem crucial, and he will squeeze the bat handle into sawdust just thinking about the money he will make -- or lose -- when he hits the free-agent market next winter based on his 2012 performance.
There is some validity to the theory, especially because Swisher's postseason struggles are spread over five seasons with three teams. So it's not just New York playoff pressure that seems to get to him; it's playoff pressure, period.
Swisher came to camp newly jacked up after a winter of intense workouts, and with his enthusiasm seemingly as high as ever. But one thing I've noticed about Swish is that the more he struggles, the more he broods, and the smile can quickly leave his face after a few 0-for-4's -- as opposed to, say, a Derek Jeter, whose demeanor remains the same no matter what.
For that reason, it is important that Swisher avoid getting off to the kind of slow start he did last season, because this season he's going to hear the clock ticking on that contract year.
If he can get out of the blocks fast, Swisher should be fine. If not? Well, sometimes October rolls around early in these parts.
No. 5: WILL WE SEE DEREK JETER 2010? OR 2011?
Actually, the real question is, will we see the Derek Jeter from the second half of 2011, after he returned from the DL following a calf injury and after he had put the chase for 3K in his rear-view mirror with an unforgettable day at Yankee Stadium?
There's no question that Jeter looked like a finished product in 2010, so much so that this proudest of Yankees willingly submitted to a swing makeover by the hitting coach, an experiment he quickly abandoned.
And there's no question that for the first half of 2011, Jeter was no better than he had been in 2010 and maybe even a little worse.
Then came the calf injury, the two weeks off, the brief stint in Tampa with Gary Denbo, and presto! It was a new Jeter who hit the ball with authority through July, August and September, finishing up at a more than respectable .297. More notably, the number of groundballs he hit declined, and with them, the number of rally-snuffing double plays.
Jeter was so productive in the second half that this spring there was hardly a question in camp about who would hit leadoff this season; except for some days when Jeter is off and a righty is pitching, Gardner seems permanently relegated to the No. 9 hole.
And Jeter had a terrific spring, hitting .342 and again whacking the ball with authority.
The question, as always, is, can he keep it up? Jeter is as determined to succeed as any athlete I have ever covered, but he will turn 38 in June, and already he has dealt with calf issues (albeit the other one) this spring.
Having a rejuvenated Jeter at the top of the lineup all season will insure that the Yankees' offense remains as potent as it was last year. But if he turns the clock back in a negative way -- back to his 2010 performance -- then another thing the Yankees take for granted, that they will score runs in handfuls, becomes the biggest question mark of all.