Lately, when the Yankees make news in Spring Training, it’s usually off the field. Over the last decade, there have been various press conferences to announce retirements or make controversial admissions, but rarely have the Bronx Bombers used the exhibition season to forge their roster. This year, however, the team’s braintrust will need every last minute of Florida sunshine to make sure the 2014 season still looks bright when the Yankees break camp in April.
Conservatively, there at least five important jobs up for grabs in Spring Training, chief among them being the team’s fifth starter. Michael Pineda, David Phelps, Adam Warren and Vidal Nuno are all vying for the role, and, according to Joe Girardi, each pitcher is starting off on an equal footing. Although it’s hard to believe Pineda won’t be given a slight edge, the performance of all four pitchers will play a significant role in determining who will round out the rotation. Meanwhile, with David Robertson slated to close, the Yankees will need to choose his replacement in the eighth inning. Shawn Kelley enters camp as the odds on favorite to win the designation, but he could be pushed by upstarts like Preston Claiborne or any of the trio that loses out in the fifth starter competition. Regardless of which reliever the Yankees designate as their late inning setup man, just about every bullpen role will likely remain fluid in the early part of the season, with the team possibly exploring a trade or reclamation signing like Ryan Madson or Joel Hanrahan.
There are also several important roster battles being waged by position players. The back-up catcher competition includes three contenders, including Francisco Cervelli, who, despite being the front runner, will have to re-claim his role after an injury and suspension riddled 2013. Nipping at his heels are Austin Romine and J.R. Murphy, although a strong spring by either could just as easily result in a trade.
After years of boasting one of the best infields in baseball, the Yankees now have more question marks than exclamation points around the horn. Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson are the team’s current answers for second base and third base, respectively, but it’s really more like “what” and “I don’t know”. It’s a stretch to think Scott Sizemore, Brendan Ryan, or Eduardo Nunez will push Roberts or Johnson for supremacy at each position, but if either incumbent should falter badly in March, Brian Cashman could wind up speed dialing other teams for a trade or cozying up to Scott Boras and Stephen Drew. Needless to say, the Yankees less than inspiring infield options not only place an onus on spring performance, but underscore the level of off season neglect in an area that used to be a relative strength.
Uncertainty about the Yankees’ roster does not exist only on the margins. The team also needs to resolve serious concerns about established star players. In particular, the health of CC Sabathia, Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira are of paramount concern. More so than results, the Yankees will be looking for all three veterans to show signs of revival this spring. Whether it’s improved velocity by Sabathia, full mobility from Jeter, or the absence of discomfort in Teixeira’s surgically repaired wrist, the Bronx Bombers need to hope that each All Star will get through the exhibition season in full health so they can hit the ground running on April 3. With the team so dependent upon the performance of these three veterans, a set back to just one could serve as an early stumbling block in what figures to be a very tight pennant race.
Finally, Masahiro Tanaka will also take center stage this spring. Although there will likely be an irrational amount of scrutiny placed upon his performance, the Yankees main concern should be helping the Japanese right hander get acclimated to pitching in the major leagues. Establishing a routine, developing communication patterns, getting comfortable with the new ball, and settling his living arrangements in New York are just some of the items that could become a distraction, so it would be in the Yankees’ best interest to have Tanaka settled on all accounts so he can focus on pitching once the team heads north.
Normally, the focus of Spring Training would be the transition of high profile additions like Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Brian McCann, but the relative uncertainty in Yankees’ camp has somewhat overshadowed their introduction to pinstripes. That’s probably a good thing, but at what cost? Although the mere presence of such players at Steinbrenner Field is reason for justifiable optimism, the team’s lack of depth also makes missing the playoffs for the second straight season a reasonable possibility. That’s what makes this year’s spring training so important. Unlike past years when March was nothing more than a formality, the decisions made over the next month could have a significant and immediate impact during the regular season. With the American League likely to be very competitive, the Yankees can not afford a false start. So, for the Bronx Bombers, the pennant race begins now, not in April.