Complete New York Yankees 2014 Spring Training Preview

Peter Richman@ peter_f_richmanCorrespondent IFebruary 10, 2014

Complete New York Yankees 2014 Spring Training Preview

0 of 9

    Chris McGrath/Getty Images

    The pinstripes and interlocking "NY" look the same, but what about the new identity of the team as 2014 ushers in a new era? What does that change mean, and how would you begin to identify with the present state of the franchise?

    Maybe those thoughts don't matter to you, and what's solely important on the cusp of spring training is the eventual on-field product who will be wearing pinstripes. A starting nine who, if healthy, could form one of the most formidable offensive forces in Major League Baseball.

    It's their hopeful ascension to the top of the bitter American League East and their return to prominence in October—all behind a Japanese star pitcher, a premier center fielder, an iconic postseason switch-hitter, a stalwart catcher with great locker-room conscience and the captain who's had a hand in the last five World Series titles.

    But no matter the 25-man apparatus which ultimately operates on the surface, it's hard to ignore the structural changes from this past offseason. And there's no simple Point A to Point B—from Game No. 162 in 2013 to suddenly hopping a flight to spring training in 2014.

    For a complete New York Yankees spring training preview—stacked to the brim with an offseason recap, injury updates, coaching storylines, lineup projections and more—we have to cover the context into which this version of the organization heads to Tampa.

    There's a fault line forming in the Bronx since last season. It runs between the transformed, attractive team we'll see on the field and the shifted foundational pieces beneath the organization's surface, the most integral of which have been removed since Game 162.

    It's not that 2014 is suddenly the year of the rupture and the collapse at the epicenter, but it feels like there are tremors on the eve of camp because a number of anxious, cosmetic fixes were made to correct what went wrong in 2013.

    Yet for all the signings this winter, and despite paying for what they see as the cost required to win, the Yankees could be entering spring training teetering on a fancy idea of success and a reality of coming up short.

    Continuing the trend to throw cash at free agents, they've repeatedly failed to properly value the MLB draft, player development or real trust in the farm. And that's just one issue; one of the few unchanged aspects. 

    That free will to spend is a pragmatic modus operandi when there's a working foundational structure already in place—take the 2008 spending antidote and the 2009 outcome. 

    But this isn't 2009, and putting a flashy lineup on the field should translate to revenue but it may not translate to contention.

    We're in a new era in which the power structures of success have changed not only in MLB, but also within the longtime leviathan of the league, the Yankees.

    The closer, who was the greatest security blanket in the history of finishing ballgames, is gone; the lefty workhorse, who was one of the most consistent, reliable Yankee pitchers to begin ballgames, is out; the scrappy second baseman, who came up through the system as a teenager and blossomed into one of the most valuable players in the game, has apathetically left at age 31; and the captain, who is on a one-year deal while he turns 40, is both returning from injury and staring at his own career's twilight for the first time. 

    The infield is unresolved and worrisome; the bullpen competition between at least a dozen unproven names.

    And still the Yankees could win 95 games in 2014.

    They could capture the division crown and make a run in the postseason—and Yanks brass may look cunning by season's end.

    With or without true Yankee "success" through overvaluing and overspending, they will still be one year delayed in setting into motion what could be a smarter long-term model. One that, in part, finds undervalued pieces from outside and trusts the younger, unproven ones from within.  

    This isn't meant to castigate or doom the organization; it's a reminder that things are simply different in the Bronx, and that there's a heck of a lot to consider about the larger trends, changes and identity of this organization as they head to Tampa.

    We're already arrived to the second week of February, so regardless of who this team is, and who this franchise really is, it's time to preview the Yankees ahead of 2014 spring training.

    On the dawn of camp, and with Opening Day officially on the horizon, strap in for a definitive guide to the Bombers. We'll get into outlining some lineups, bullpen makeups, hot players to watch and even key position battles to follow.

    Same old pinstripes and interlocking "NY" heading to workouts, but the beginning of the latest era—the post-Rivera, -Pettitte and -Cano one giving way to the latest Tanaka, Ellsbury, McCann and Beltran one. There are many roster decisions to come and an impending 162 games which could get them back to their winning ways, but it could also prove to be uncharted territory for fans and players alike. 

     

    All common statistics courtesy of the hard-working people of Baseball-Reference, and advanced statistics/metrics derived from the great folks at FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. 

    Peter F. Richman is a Featured Columnist for the New York Yankees. You can follow him on Twitter: 

Offseason Recap

1 of 9

    GM Brian Cashman led the offseason like it was 2009 all over again; but will it work?
    GM Brian Cashman led the offseason like it was 2009 all over again; but will it work?Mark Mainz/Getty Images

    Who's out

    Key Hitters

    • Chris Stewart, C
    • Lyle Overbay, 1B/OF
    • Robinson Cano, 2B
    • Alex Rodriguez, 3B*
    • Kevin Youkilis, 3B/1B
    • Mark Reynolds, 3B
    • Jayson Nix, SS
    • Curtis Granderson, CF
    • Vernon Wells, OF
    • Travis Hafner, DH

     

    Key Pitchers

    • Andy Pettitte, SP
    • Phil Hughes, SP
    • Mariano Rivera, RP
    • Joba Chamberlain, RP
    • Boone Logan, RP

     

    Who's in

    Hitters

    • Brian McCann, C (5 Years, $85 million)
    • Brian Roberts, 2B
    • Kelly Johnson, 2B/3B
    • Dean Anna, INF
    • Jacoby Ellsbury, CF (7 Years, $153 million)
    • Carlos Beltran, RF/DH (3 Years, $45 million)

     

    Pitchers

    • Masahiro Tanaka, SP (7 Years, $155 million)
    • Matt Thornton, RP (2 Years, $7 million)

    Note: [bold]=impact player; *=suspended

     

    Impact

    Robertson, Thornton and Tanaka

    The Yankees spent $465 million to win. After some devastating departures, they ensured they'd take the best available talent. Save for re-signing Cano, they largely succeeded with that goal.

    It's a toss-up between Mariano Rivera and Robinson Cano for the most significant offseason loss.

    But David Robertson will be the closer—at least it's not up in the air like many other parts of the 2014 picture. Surely a few kinks and nerves will present themselves and be worked out. Rivera was the cornerstone of the Yankees for two decades. You immediately felt safer when "Enter Sandman" would begin and the bullpen door would swing open.

    And having the greatest closer of all time is obviously not just a warming presence for fans; he contributed to a team-wide conscience.

    Nevertheless, Robertson gets his shot this year. You should care much less about Hal Steinbrenner "declaring" Robertson the closer than about some of the lukewarm things D-Rob has had to say of late. You're not in love with how, a few days ago, he said to Kevin Kernan of The New York Post, "I think I know I can do it. It’s just a matter of actually stepping out there and doing it." 

    But he cleaned up that peculiar "I think I know I can" bit with the following:

    Throwing the eighth or ninth inning is the same deal, you have to get three outs and you can’t give up the lead. In my eyes, I am not going to try and over-think the whole situation. ... I’m going to do everything I can to hold [the job] and help us win ballgames. I just have to throw strike one and strike two and get outs.

    And Rivera's absence obscures the larger impact on finding Robertson's replacement: Who will be the new setup man?

    Signing Matt Thornton was pragmatic. He's the lefty-specialist replacement for Boone Logan, who had really started to settle into his role in the Bronx. There is some worry about the 37-year-old's injury history, but if healthy, the Yanks have a 6'6" southpaw who has held lefty hitters to .232/.296/.350 over his 10-year career.

    Andy Pettitte will be another sorely missed Yankee pitcher, though the Bombers added the best starting pitcher available when they signed Masahiro Tanaka to the fifth-largest pitching contract in MLB history. 

    Whether Brian Cashman is tempering expectations as a ploy to take some of the pressure off the Japanese star is up for debate. But the bottom line is he told Colin Cowherd on ESPN Radio, "We view him to be a really solid, consistent No. 3 starter," and, "If we get more than that, all the better. He's got a great deal of ability."

    There are some questions about the impact of his past workload on his future performance, and while the velocity of his heater has been emphasized, the flatness of its plane has been ignored. Sports Illustrated's Albert Chen noted that "though he can dial it up to 96 mph, his fastball is flat as a pancake and usually tops out in the low 90s."  

     

    Replacing Cano and Granderson

    As for Cano's exit, it seemed that losing Robbie, as well as Granderson, appeared to severely hurt the offensive side of the ball: In 2013 Cano had the 12th highest WAR (6.0) in MLB, the second highest WAR among second basemen and the best slugging (.516) and wOBA (.384) at his position. He was a guy with 30-homer, 100-RBI potential every year. 

    And Granderson proved to be a near-40-homer, 115-RBI bat every year, but that doesn't tell the full story. In three-and-a-half years, he hit .245/.335/.495, struck out 549 times, had just the 10th best WAR among center fielders and matched that with the fourth highest strikeout rate.

    Offensively, the Yankees accomplished plenty this offseason to offset those two bats and upgrade at a few positions, such as picking up the best available catcher on the market in Brian McCann to replace Chris Stewart.

    In a Sunday Q&A with the New York Post's Steve Serby, Girardi said of the new Yankee catcher, "I’m very excited about having him just because of what he brings to the table offensively, but more the personality that he brings behind home plate I think will be very important."

    Then there's Jacoby Ellsbury (for Granderson) and the addition of Carlos Beltran's bat.

    Defensively, it's a mixed bag: Ellsbury had the fourth best DRS (13) and sixth UZR (10.0) among center fielders last season. And, of course, anyone not named Chris Stewart is an upgrade behind the dish—thanks to McCann. 

    But the loss of Cano at second base is a tremendous factor. Adding Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts seems to have formed a below-average three-headed utility infielder along with Eduardo Nunez. 

    Part of the narrative is that the Yanks had a largely successful offseason. But the other is critical of their wild spending again to numb the pain and assuage the failure of the previous season—just like in 2008—and it is doubtful of their 2014 success.

    But it's important to consider the context of last year—when health was a large reason that the contender on paper missed the postseason.

    Here's what Cashman said to the New York Post's George A. King III:

    We lost a high-profile player in Robinson Cano and [now] have a huge hole in the middle of the diamond. Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Robinson Cano are gone. We added significant pieces but lost a significant piece. I am not saying anything. We were a championship-caliber team last year until the injuries, and if this team stays healthy we will be a championship-caliber team.

    The Yankees are better on paper following the 2013 offseason; but wealth won't tell as much as health in 2014. 

Injury Updates Entering Camp

2 of 9

    The Captain's health is a major question mark heading into 2014
    The Captain's health is a major question mark heading into 2014Associated Press

    Injuries

    • Derek Jeter (ankle)
    • Mark Teixeira (wrist)
    • Alex Rodriguez (hip)*
    • Francisco Cervelli (hand)
    • Alfonso Soriano (thumb)
    • Michael Pineda (shoulder—2012 surgery)
    • CC Sabathia (hamstring)
    • Manny Banuelos (elbow—2012 Tommy John)#

    Note: [bold]=impact; *=suspended; #=minor leaguer

     

    Analysis

    Infield Woes

    The three biggest stressors in life are health-, family- and work-related. 

    The 2014 Yankees infield is a combination of all three.

    Infield health: Jeter and Teixeira both missed nearly all of 2013 due to injury, and 2014 is the first season in each of their careers where they will return from significant time off.

    A-Rod's hip is still damaged but will likely be intact much sooner than his human-interaction skills. Brian Roberts has apparently tried to injure as many body parts as possible during his 13 years in the bigs. 

    Infield family: Jeter is definitely family, so despite turning 40 this summer, he already got his one-year deal and the starting shortstop and No. 2 batting spot are both his to lose. But what if Jeter isn't hitting? Can you move family to the bottom of the batting order? Can you keep close family around for another year (2015) and beyond if they deteriorate in front of your eyes?

    And infield work: Where does the confidence level sit at the workplace should the infield carousel begin if or when Jeter, Teixeira or Roberts goes down before Opening Day? Where does it drop if two of them aren't ready to go April 1 in Houston? And how's showing up to the workplace when it's extremely dubious that all three make it with not only health, but also production, intact through six months of baseball?

    Brendan Ryan backs up at short, but he might as well leave his bat in the dugout. Eduardo Nunez, if he makes the 25-man roster, backs up Roberts at second or the lefty-hitting Johnson at third (in a platoon role), but he hasn't proven to be a major league-caliber fielder—and that's being generous.

    Scott Sizemore enters the picture somewhere in there but, due to an ACL tear, hasn't played a full season since 2011 when he struck out 93 times in 93 games. And Dean Anna probably comes next, and he's definitely got contagious enthusiasm, but he's never played a big league game.

    Last year, Jeter initially "recovered" from his fractured ankle, only to return in July, strain his quad, return again in late July, strain his calf, return for the end of August and call it a season by early September. 

     

    Updates

    Here's the outlook, though: The good news comes from a few mouths to our ears. Per the Associated Press via ESPN, Jeter took on-field batting practice on Feb. 3 for the first time since 2013, and "hit with authority to all fields during a five-round, 39-swing session," and even "took grounders at shortstop for the first time this year, fielding 34 balls at his usual position."

    After Jeter's third straight day of practice, David Phelps, whether in an attempt to curry favor for the No. 5 role or because he was the only available soul to comment, told Anthony McCarron of the New York Daily News, "Derek (Jeter) looks amazing. That’s awesome."

    "You can tell he’s determined to go out there and do well,” Phelps added. "If you had to place a bet on it, you know he’s going to go out there and have a good year. I’m really looking forward to seeing him play again. He’s having a lot of fun right now."

    As for Jeter's own perspective? He's of course been known to downplay his health but said, per the AP via ESPN, "Everything is good so far, knock on wood," and continued, "I remember when I was 35, everyone said that was it. He can't play anymore. End of my career. So, it's really nothing different. Eventually, somebody is going to be right, you know what I mean?" 

    Teixeira's also been feeling good since his first swings and real workouts have come following his season-ending wrist surgery; though it's more mental. When ESPN New York's Matt Ehalt asked the first baseman if he's confident about returning as the same player, Tex replied:

    I am. It's two steps. The first step is making sure you're healthy. If I'm not healthy then obviously I won't be the same player. That's why my concentration right now is making I'm sure 100 percent healthy. We'll worry about the swing, we'll worry about 162 game season after I know I'm healthy.

    But he explained the reality—the physical one—to The Wall Street Journal's Daniel Barbarisi: "I'm expecting until June, and maybe even through this entire season, it'll be a little tight."

    The tightness isn't a surprise, either. Teixeira's doctor had prognosticated prior to the operation that the wrist would be tight for up to a full year after. So Tex is preaching patience while not trying to be the hero and respecting the healing process, per Ehalt's report: "There's plenty of guys that come back from injuries and come back way too fast and get reinjured. That's not in my plans this year."

     

    Pineda and Banuelos

    And how about more work, or business, related to the rotation: The Yanks gave up their former golden child, Jesus Montero (though an eventual bust), in order to bring in Pineda, and he hasn't thrown a pitch in the majors since 2011. 

    According to Andrew Marchand and Wallace Matthews of ESPN New York, "Michael Pineda's shoulder is repaired and his body is in shape." The No. 5 role will be up for grabs with David Phelps among others, but management is probably hoping he wins it to feel better about that investment.

    Right, Cashman? "He's gonna compete for the last spot and hopefully he wins it," the GM said, per Marchand and Matthews. Cash then had some tough love: "But if it's not him it'll be somebody else. I can't tell you the shoulder surgery is behind him. He's someone who had a massive shoulder surgery and he's trying to come back. He'll either pitch for us or he'll pitch for Scranton." 

    Per the same report, Manny Banuelos, who will compete for that same back-end role, or likely head to Scranton, told Marchand and Matthews his elbow was feeling back to normal, and said he will work harder than in the past in an effort to prove to Cash and Hal that he deserves to be in the bigs. 

    Speaking of cash, the GM responded to a question about handling criticism of the farm system, per Marchand and Matthews: "The talent happens to still be there so therefore the projections still have a chance to occur. Hopefully we can start to cash in on that this year."

    One scout told the two ESPN writers that Banuelos still projects as a future No. 3 if healthy.

    But Marchand and Wallace sum up the implications for the Yankees' identity and confidence best, saying, "The Yankees' farm system's rebirth in the near term centers around these two comeback stories. ...The possible resurgence of Banuelos and Pineda gives Cashman hope for the other prospects in the Yankees' farm system, many of whom have not panned out as expected."  

Coaching Staff Analysis

3 of 9

    Girardi and Tony Pena stayed, but who left town and who's on the hot seat for 2014?
    Girardi and Tony Pena stayed, but who left town and who's on the hot seat for 2014?Associated Press

    Who's out

    • Mike Harkey, Bullpen 
    • Dana Cavalea, Strength and Conditioning*

     

    Who's in

    • Gary Tuck, Bullpen
    • Matthew Krause, Strength and Conditioning
    • Trey Hillman, Special Assistant (Major and Minor League Operations)
    • Mike Quade, Roving Outfield and Baserunning Instructor

    Note: [bold]=impact; *=fired

     

    Who's on the Hot Seat

    • Kevin Long, Batting
    • Larry Rothschild, Pitching

     

    Analysis

    Girardi

    Robinson Cano apparently didn't want to play for Joe Girardi, according to George A. King III of the New York Post. But Cano's out, and Girardi is back at least through the 2017 season after signing a $16 million extension in October. 

    The Yankees of course missed the postseason after finishing at 85-77, only good for third in the AL East. But there were a significant number of injuries, and the team literally faced an identity crisis: They were forced to use so many different players they broke the franchise record for a single season. .

    Girardi has the right attitude for his critics, saying, per MLB.com's Bryan Hoch, "I wouldn't have come back if I didn't think we could win a championship. I know there's a lot of work to be done. I know there's a lot of holes that we have to fill, and there's people leaving and people retiring, but I have faith in our organization."

    Many fans don't love his style, and many more probably feel he over-manages game situations and the bullpen. But he's not on a "hot seat," per se, if you consider he boasts the best record by any MLB manager in his six-year tenure, per Hoch's report, and that he led the Bombers to their 27th title in 2009. 

    For Girardi, the discussion sort of begins and ends with the theme of this team preview's introduction: Though he kept a sinking ship afloat in 2013, it was with a large chunk of that "working structure" of the latest era still in place.

    Hoch reminds us of the real issue at hand:  

    The biggest challenges of Girardi's managerial tenure may be ahead. The Yankees are in a transitional phase, as the "Core Four" has been reduced to just one -- team captain Derek Jeter, the last man standing after the retirements of Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte. (Jorge Posada retired two years ago).

    Over the course of Girardi's contract, he will have to handle the final years of Jeter's career as well as the ongoing situation with Alex Rodriguez...

     

    The Hot Seat

    It's more the Yanks' hitting and pitching coaches, Kevin Long and Larry Rothschild, who are invariably on a sort of de facto hot seat. It's hard to imagine that either of them stays aboard if the team misses the playoffs for a second straight year; and it's not out of the question to consider their firing if, midseason, either the floodgates open for opponents' bats or there is a serious drought in Yankees lumber.

    2014 will be Long's eighth year with the Yanks. Last year was atrocious offensively (22nd in HR, 16th in runs), but Long didn't exactly have an ideal lineup.

    Over his career as Yankees hitting coach (2007-13), New York leads MLB in total home runs and is second in runs scored. They also led the league in single-season homers three times ('09, '11 and '12), finished third in '10 and fourth in '07, led in single-season runs three times ('07, '09 and '10) and were second in runs three times. 

    Rothschild begins his fourth year with the Yanks. Over his three-year span (2011-13), New York pitching has the third most wins in MLB (277), the third best strikeout rate (7.80), fifth best walk rate (2.84), eight xFIP (3.78) and third highest WAR (60.4). 

    His greatest task in 2014 will be in three significant areas: Most importantly, to ensure all the means—in regards to mechanics, mentality, maturation and health—are there for Tanaka to succeed in his first season on the bump in America. Next, continue to closely monitor, mentor and develop Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda—in terms of game managing and developing their confidence and identities as back-end guys.

    And third—which is easier said than done—he has to have not only an open mind and willingness to be flexible with his relievers, but also has to have a short leash. The bullpen is a completely open race for six or seven spots, but the ones slotted into the Opening Day 25-man roster are not stuck there for 2014; nor will they be.

    There are several viable relievers who could be great in larger roles in Scranton yet exceptional if given the right opportunity and the right role. A lefty who fails to to factor as a big league starter in 2014 could end up being the go-to LOOGY by August; a competitor for the seventh- or eight-inning role in the spring could end up being the godsend of middle relievers by May.

     

    New Hires

    Which brings us to one of two impact hires: new bullpen coach Gary Tuck. Mike Harkey had been brought back to the staff for 2014 along with Girardi, Long and Rothschild, but the six-year Yankees coach took the Arizona Diamondbacks opening for the same role.

    As Chad Jennings of The LoHud Yankees Blog pointed out of success under Harkey, "the Yankees have gone 491-17 when leading the game at the end of the eighth inning, the most such wins in the Major Leagues over the stretch."

    During the span, Yankee relievers led the AL in holds (478), were second in MLB in saves (279), fourth in MLB in strikeouts (2,775) and gave up the third fewest hits in the AL (2,606).

    According to a Yankees press release, Tuck will enter his 32nd MLB season as a player, scout or coach. He may look or sound familiar because he was the Boston Red Sox bullpen coach for the past six seasons, and he has been a part of the Yanks organization several times before—as a Triple-A strength coach in '89, major league catching and bullpen coach in '90 and catching instructor in the '90s and early '00s.

    He was a coach or scout with Yankees during the seasons in which they won the '96, '98 and '99 championships, as noted in the release. 

    The new strength and conditioning hire is worth noting, if only because of the inordinate amount of injuries, and reinjured body parts, which befell the Yankees, and because the former one, Dana Cavalea, was booted.

    The new coach, Matthew Krause, held the same role for the last nine seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, and he was with their organization since 2003. 

Lineup Preview

4 of 9

    The Yankees could show off one of the more formidable lineups in MLB
    The Yankees could show off one of the more formidable lineups in MLBJohn E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Spo

    Starting Lineup

    • Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
    • Derek Jeter, SS
    • Carlos Beltran, RF
    • Mark Teixeira, 1B
    • Brian McCann, C
    • Alfonso Soriano, DH
    • Kelly Johnson, 3B
    • Brian Roberts, 2B
    • Brett Gardner, LF 

     

    Bench

    • Francisco Cervelli, C
    • Eduardo Nunez, INF
    • Brendan Ryan, INF
    • Ichiro Suzuki, OF

     

    Analysis

    Who Bats No. 1, 2 and 9?

    Last week, one Yankee said the following to Dan Martin of the New York Post, "A lot of things can happen before Opening Day. They know what I’m capable of doing. I don’t think this … means they’re trying to force me out. I’m planning on going to spring training and helping the team win. It’s definitely something I want to be a part of."

    That was Brett Gardner speaking on the impact of the Ellsbury signing. The former center fielder, who will likely shift to left, added that Girardi had phoned him around Christmas to assure him of his continued place in the team: "They still envision me playing a big role on this team," Gardner explained, per Martin.

    After New York snagged Boston's center fielder and leadoff man, it appeared Gardner was inevitably trade bait for a starting pitcher. But what seemed like skill-set redundancy should really prove a boon for 2014.

    Defensively, Ellsbury replacing Gardner in center is a sneaky blessing. Gardner is fast, of course, but consider one of his defensive metrics from 2013: His negative-0.3 UZR/150 (ultimate zone rating per 150 innings) was only 11th among center fielders while Ellsbury's 12.9 was sixth; among all outfielders, Gardner's was 33rd and Ellsbury's was 15th.

    It's not that moving Gardner to left "hides" him in the corner; more positively speaking, the Yankees simply replaced his center fielding capabilities from 2013 with a more valuable asset.

    They upgraded their leadoff hitting center fielder on the basepaths, too. For all of Gardner's speed and stolen bags in 2010 (47 SB) and 2011 (49 SB), he returned in 2013 to only swipe 24 of 32. Ellsbury stole 52 of 54 bases in 2013. 

    Offensively, Gardner had a tremendous season and really established himself as a spark plug for what was often a completely dormant offense. He hit .273/.344/.416, with career bests in hits (147), extra-base hits (51), doubles (33), triples (10) and homers (8), and put up 108 wRC+ and 3.2 WAR, the second of which was second behind Cano.

    But without the added bonus of stolen bases, and with Girardi in all likelihood to tip his hat to his captain with the No. 2 spot for Opening Day, it's hardly inefficient or unfortunate to have a leadoff-hitter type in Garder as the No. 9 hitter. Worst-case scenario, Jeter is hurt or unproductive, and Girardi can reward Gardner if he starts off hotter.

     

    The Production of the No. 3-6 Hitters

    Let's phrase this as a question: Why can't the No. 3-6 hitters in this projected lineup combine for 100 home runs and 400 RBI? If healthy, that's an average of 25 homers and 100 RBI.

    Beltran's 162-game average is 28 homers and 108 RBI; Teixeira's is 37 and 119; McCann's is 26 and 97; Soriano's is 34 and 96. 

    The sum of those averages comes out to 125 homers and 420 RBI. 

    Not to mention that, up to this point in the lineup, every batter has outstanding protection: Ellsbury (lefty) is protected by Jeter (righty); he's protected by switch-hitting Beltran, who's backed by switch-hitting Teixeira; he's followed b McCann (lefty), who's protected by Soriano (right). 

    The big "if" is Teixeira's wrist since he is the cornerstone of this chunk of the batting order, and since we know his wrist is tight. But bottom line: that is some kind of depth for the regular season, and in late-game situations and the postseason, you'd hate to be the opposing manager trying to figure out those matchups. 

     

    Johnson, Roberts, Nunez 

    First off, a third base platoon of Kelly Johnson and Eduardo Nunez is better than a declining A-Rod who would have been returning form injury and a media circus.

    Now that that's off to side, the unfortunate part is that the Yanks are stuck with Kelly Johnson and Eduardo Nunez, unable to this point to defensively replace Cano, offensively replace (the old) A-Rod and insure Teixeira.

    Newsday's Erik Boland captured the unexceptional outlook:

    [T]he injury-prone Brian Roberts will get the first shot at replacing [Cano]. Kelly Johnson leads an unremarkable pack of options at third base, a group that includes Scott Sizemore, Eduardo Nuñez and Dean Anna. Derek Jeter, 39, will try to come back from an injury-riddled 2013 in which he played only 17 games. It's impossible to project anything regarding first baseman Mark Teixeira, who is coming off surgery on his right wrist.

    But here's my catch for the largely assumed Johnson-Nunez platoon: Take the blinders off for the standard lefty-righty switches.

    Instead, it may be best to just start the hotter hitter as the season goes on. (They could even think about a platoon of Anna and Roberts at second, but more on that later.)

    Here's why: Johnson, a lefty, actually hits slightly better for his career against lefties (.276/.336/.434 vs. 244/.335/.424) and hit much better against lefties in 2013 (.291/.337/.349 vs. .218/.295/.429). And Nunez, a righty, hits only slightly better against lefties for his career (.272/.313/.414 vs. .264/.314/.357) and hit much better against righties in 2013 (.277/.321/.371 vs. .225/.279/.373). 

    If the at-bat sample size bothers you, how about that Johnson's strikeout rate (per nine innings) was 26.3 against righties and down to 17.9 against lefties in 2013. Nunez's rate was also worse against lefties (17.7) than it was against righties (13.9) in 2013. 

    This isn't all to ignore that Johnson has many more homers against righties for his career, but they came in many more at-bats against righties. If you look at his home-run-per-fly-ball (HR/FB) rate, moreover, he only boasts a 12.3 percent compared to 10.7 against lefties. And the most obvious advantage for Nunez is only truly seen in his 95 wRC+ against lefties and 81 against righties. 

    Finally, a note on Brian Roberts: The Yankees probably overpaid, and before they overpaid, they completely overvalued a formerly formidable AL East second baseman. He hasn't played a full season since 2009, and he really didn't hit that badly in 77 games last season, but it's basically a matter of "when" he hits the DL, and what production the Yanks can possibly get out of the 36-year-old when he's off of it.

    But, then again, if he's healthy, Roberts' addition of another switch-hitting bat would only help in the final third of the order.

     

    Bench

    I like the Yanks to carry just four bench players in this scenario in order to maintain seven arms out of the 'pen. This probably flip-flops through 2014 if Teixeira needs a viable backup not named Johnson or Brendan Ryan.

    It's not out of the question to fill the 25-man with an extra infielder and one less reliever, in other words. As Boland remarks, "The infield, on paper, makes the bullpen look steady by comparison."

    Cervelli, despite injury and his Biogenesis suspension, is the favorite to back up McCann. Remember, he essentially won the starter's job to be split with Stewart out of 2013 camp before breaking his hand.

    Ryan is the favorite to back up Jeter and Ichiro is the favorite over Zoilo Almonte for a fifth outfielder.

Rotation Preview

5 of 9

    It doens't have to be, but 2014 could be Nova's time to shine
    It doens't have to be, but 2014 could be Nova's time to shineAssociated Press

    Starting Rotation

    • CC Sabathia, L
    • Hiroki Kuroda, R
    • Masahiro Tanaka, R
    • Ivan Nova, R
    • Michael Pineda, R 

     

    Analysis

    CC's Turnaround?

    As his fastball velocity continued on a three-year dip since 2011, Sabathia's consistency and stats took a hit as well. The ace of the staff since coming over in 2009, he posted his worst ERA (4.78), compiled his worst WHIP (1.37) and gave up the most homers of his career (28). He also struck out the fewest batters (175) since becoming a Yankee and had his highest hits-per-nine-inning rate of 9.6. 

    In his Sunday Q&A with the New York Post's Steve Serby, Girardi was asked about CC's velocity and said, "I think CC will come in and have a much better year this year. I think it’s a year where he’s been able to physically do the things that he needs to do in the offseason, and he has not been rehabbing, and I think that’s important, I think he’ll have a much better year."

    It's not worth emphasizing his career-worst 14-13 record since it doesn't begin to tell the story of the above information. And his 2013 xFIP of 3.76 looks awfully similar to his 3.77 in 2009 when he went 19-8—and to his 3.63 in 2010 when he won 21 games.

    CC has been the No. 1 starter since '09, of course, but out of the primary five starters in 2013 (Sabathia, Kuroda, Pettitte, Nova and Hughes) he was third in WAR (2.7), fourth in ERA, fourth in walk rate and fourth in home run rate.

    If CC needed the extra support from management to have a turnaround in 2014, the GM proved he was the wrong person to ask.

    Mike Puma of the New York Post spoke with Cashman last week and asked him whether Sabathia was an "ace." Here's what Cash had to say: "CC is the leader of our staff, but obviously after last year I don’t know if you can consider him in that [Clayton] Kershaw category. But he is the leader of our staff.”

     

    Is Tanaka No. 2 or 3?

    During a radio interview, Cashman recently opined the following of Tanaka, who went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA last year in Japan, per Anthony McCarron of the Daily News:

    There is definitely some unknown because of the transition. We scouted him extensively. Certainly, we look forward to adding him into the mix with the rest of our rotation. That’s what we look at him as: A solid, potential No. 3 starter in the big leagues.

    If we get more than that, all the better. He’s got a great deal of ability.

    Those [growing pains] are things he’s going to have to work through and adjust to. We look forward that he is a Yankee and we will be in position, with our experience in the past, to maximize his potential as he goes through that.

    Then, definitively, Cashman remarked, "No, he is not someone who is going to, in the front end of this thing, pitch in the front of the rotation."

    The No. 3 slot should be perfect for Tanaka, at least to start 2014, and Kuroda's experience certainly adds to his favorability for No. 2 heading into spring training. 

    Nobody is ignoring Tanaka's splitter, which might be the best on earth, but trepidations about how his overpowering arsenal in Japan translates to MLB are enough to hold off on jumping the gun before he's started a big league game. 

    Baseball America's Ben Badler recently praised Tanaka, noting that when he's "firing the splitter up to 90 mph, starting at the belt and bottoming out of the zone...the result is a lot of collapsed back legs and foolish looking swings."

    Badler also points out his above-average control, mid-90s heater and an underrated slider, all of which he maintains well into a ballgame.

    One NL scout, per Badler's report, praised that under-discussed slider: "I definitely thought it was a weapon. I really liked it early in the count. It was 80-82 when he used it early in the count as a get-me-over pitch. When I say get-me-over, people think soft, but it had teeth to it. Once it gets to 85 and up, it’s dirty. Guys were straight up missing it.”  

     

    Nova's Year?

    Is Nova ready to break out in 2014? You'd have to believe so. But it's another story whether or not he will ultimately shine.

    With Kuroda signed on for another season and the addition of Tanaka, Nova finds himself looking at the No. 4 slot heading to Tampa.  

    He will be 27 for his fourth full season, coming off a 2013 in which he led the primary five starters in ERA (3.10) strikeout rate (7.49) and home run rate (0.58). 

    He may not be the most important Yankee pitcher heading into 2014. But with steady improvement in ERA, WHIP, missing bats and keeping runners off the bases, and with most of the talk deflected toward CC, Tanaka and the No. 5 battle behind him, Nova might just breeze through the season as the most successful and valuable arm.

     

    Pineda

    We know Pineda is fully healthy following his 2012 shoulder surgery—healthy enough to pitch for the Yankees in 2014 if he wins the No. 5 competition and proves to be the pitcher for whom New York traded a few years ago: The one with the 3.74 ERA, 1.0 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, 3.2 WAR and All-Star appearance—all in his age-22 rookie year, no less.

    On Sunday, Steve Serby inquired from Girardi about any updates, and the skipper first replied, "So far, so good. Everything looks pretty good, and I’ll obviously be down there very shortly and start seeing his bullpen."

    But could the battle for the back-end role affect Pineda mentally?

    After all, Phelps ended up logging plenty MLB experience to give him a possible edge over a guy who hasn't logged a big league inning in three years. And there appear to be more expectations, more anticipation and greater pressure on Pineda.

    Said Girardi: "Sometimes my biggest concern in spring training is, when you have spots open, guys try to do too much. I really don’t care what you do Feb. 25, I really don’t. I just want you to prepare to compete, basically from March 12, March 15 on, and that’s when you’re going to be truly evaluated."

Bullpen Preview

6 of 9

    Rivera will enjoy his first time away from baseball, but the idea might keep Girardi up at night
    Rivera will enjoy his first time away from baseball, but the idea might keep Girardi up at nightAssociated Press

    Bullpen

    • David Robertson, R*
    • Shawn Kelley, R
    • Matt Thornton, L
    • Preston Claiborne, R
    • Vidal Nuno, L
    • David Phelps, R
    • Cesar Cabral, L

    *Closer

     

    Analysis

    The bullpen is the least answered piece to the 2014 Yankees puzzle. To sum it all up, the holes in the infield, the uncertainty over Jeter, Teixeira and Roberts and the Tanaka hoopla has hidden the panic-inducing state of the Yankees' relief corps.

    There is a surplus of suitors, a lack of talent and even less experience.

    The above projected group of arms is one realistic outcome by Opening Day, though it is not necessarily likely. It's also not even close to a sure thing, and it could look utterly different by April.

    Half of it includes the "favorites" entering camp: Robertson as the closer, Kelley as the setup, Claiborne in the seventh, Thornton as the lefty specialist and each of Phelps, Nuno and Cabral missing the No. 5 starter role.

    Nuno, or even someone like Mark Montgomery, could slot ahead of Phelps for the first long-relief duty, but Phelps is the front-runner ahead of spring training. Nuno and Cabral could both compete for Thornton's backup or as the second option to eat innings.

    For now, this simply projects the most trusted arm in the ninth and the next two in the eight and seventh. Claiborne could conceivably beat Kelley for the eighth, Betances could surge through the spring to steal one of their roles and a guy like Nuno could even win out the No. 5 role as a much-needed lefty.

    If your head hurts, at least you're not forced to make these decisions.

    Girardi , though, certainly seemed to understate the logjam, even sounding level-headed when prompted by the New York Post's Steve Serby:

    The bullpen is probably a situation that we will have to concentrate and work on the most in leaving spring training, where last year it was probably a little bit more set than it is this year. But this year, with David Robertson more than likely assuming the closer role, we expect him to fill that need, you have to solve somewhat of your eighth-inning guy, and some of the guys that are vying for that fifth position could also be in the bullpen.

    "Concentrate and work on the most" is definitely a vague and positive way of implying that they have no candidates to truly write home about, and that nobody in New York has any idea how the bullpen will ultimately shake out.

    Baseball Insider Andy Martino of the Daily News paints the more candid picture on the cusp of spring training: "As for the Yanks, their offseason spending has partially obscured a worrisome pen...The likes of David Robertson, Shawn Kelley, Preston Claiborne, Cesar Cabral 'headline' a group that doesn’t exactly offer reassurance."

    There's also the consideration of how management's hopes might factor into, or more than, spring performances.

    If Cash and Girardi want someone like Manny Banuelos to be a starter no matter the level in 2014, do they exclude him from the bullpen conversation and send him to Scranton if Pineda wins out?

    If they don't see as much starter upside in a guy like Betances, does he head to camp with an advantage over guys who are straddling the line between Triple-A starters and MLB relievers?

    Accordingly, Martino reported in the same article that "The team hopes that Dellin Betances will emerge as an effective bullpen power arm, and it will have the ability to make significant in-season acquisitions. ... though, they will open camp next month awash in late-inning uncertainty."

    See: Girardi's face in above picture.

Prospects to Watch

7 of 9

    Mason Williams is a prospect to watch, especially to see how he recovers from his 2013 dip in production
    Mason Williams is a prospect to watch, especially to see how he recovers from his 2013 dip in productionKim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    From the 40-Man Roster

    Hitters

    • Dean Anna
    • Slade Heathcott
    • Gary Sanchez

     

    Pitchers

    • Manny Banuelos
    • Dellin Betances 

     

    From the Non-Roster Invitees

    Hitters 

    • Mason Williams
    • Tyler Austin

     

    Pitchers

    • Chase Whitley
    • Mark Montgomery

     

    Analysis

    Hitters to 'Keep an Eye on'

    If you're heading to Tampa this spring or planning to stay updated on progress reports of the Yankees' prospects, the next few months will be more about whom to watch for over the course of 2014 than about who will crack the Opening Day 25-man roster prior to the 2014 season—as least, as far as non-pitchers go.

    Many fans probably wonder about the shelf life of the Yankees' director of amateur scouting, Damon Oppenheimer, and the senior vice president of baseball operations, Marc Newman.

    And the criticism is primarily tied to the absence of impact Yankees prospects in the short term.

    The questions are: Who exactly are the true Yanks' top prospects? Are they even projected MLB starters this year? Why have few, if any, of them reached Triple-A? How long do I have to wait for Gary Sanchez? And what ever happened to prospects like Tyler Austin and Mark Montgomery?

    Let's start with Austin and his teammate Mason Williams, who are Double-A outfield prospects to keep on an eye on. It's because of their upside in light of regressions in 2013—especially since neither has reached Scranton yet, 2014 spring training will be a great way to gauge these two, in particular. 

    Williams was the 2010 fourth-round pick, and Austin was the Yanks' 2010 13th-rounder, and both have generated a fair amount hype in recent years.

    If they both perform avoid further statistical decline and buoy hopes of their long-heralded upside, either one could get a call-up to the Bronx similarly to Zoilo's last season.

    The two personnel/scouting figures, who have come under fire despite hanging on to their jobs this past offseason, appear to share a qualified attitude toward the farm—and on players like Austin and Williams; it's that frustrating one that continues to tell fans and prospects, "Not this year, and maybe not next year, either."

    Speaking with the Daily News' Anthony McCarron from the Yanks' minor league complex, Newman said, "We’ve got some bright dudes here. (The system) is going to go back up, odds are," but added, "it’s hardly a predictable world."

    Oppenheimer spoke with Kevin Kernan of the New York Post about Williams and Austin and said, "These guys are both going to be fine. They have great makeup and ability. We feel they will be every day major league players some day."

    This insistence on the future—that "some day" line—underscores the lack of role players in 2014 which led to the Yankees' wild spending spree to correct holes through the free-agent market.

     

    Sanchez

    We can't forget about one more high-profile name: Gary Sanchez. He's long been the most touted prospect, of course, and notably possesses the biggest bat in the farm and a cannon of an arm. He's got major power potential and the capability to spray line drives deep to all fields.

    But, as Norris reminds (subscription), his blocking and footwork behind the plate need work, raising questions about his upside as a legitimate two-ay player. And worse, there's just no room for him in the near future with the five-year McCann signing and three-year Beltran contract adding to a deep pool at DH in the Bronx.

    There's no way he breaks camp this spring, but he might be the most worthwhile prospect to watch in Tampa because it could be his last for the Yankees if they see more value in trading him.

     

    Hitters to 'Closely Watch'

    The first two names from the above list, Dean Anna and Slade Heathcott, go beyond keeping an eye on; you should definitely watch these two during the spring. The blue-collar infielder and the blazing-quick outfielder have the best shots to make an impact this year.

    As I've profiled in the most recent weeks, I like Dean Anna as a dark horse to break camp with the big league team. I'm not yet excited by Scott Sizemore's return to health or baseball, and I'm not sold on signings like Yangervis Solarte or Zelous Wheeler.

    Although you'd expect Nunez to win the first backup competition behind Brendan Ryan, I mentioned earlier that the Yanks very well may run with the extra bench player and one less bullpen arm. In that scenario, I love Dean Anna to get his first shot in the bigs behind Nunez, and I'd love to see him earn Nunez's role, forcing the latter to Scranton as an expendable washout.  

    He's 27, and he's been blocked from the bigs more because of the excess of infield prospects at his last stop in San Diego than ability. And for all the talk of Nunez and Johnson at third, what about Roberts and Anna at second? He has the flexibility to play anywhere in the infield and has an unbelievable attitude.

    The left-handed hitting, six-year minor league veteran, was acquired this past fall and has a career .286/.386/.428 line, and in Triple-A in 2013, he hit .331/.410/.482 with 165 hits, 73 RBI, 38 doubles and only 65 strikeouts, while putting up .400 wOBA, 140 wRC+ and winning the Pacific League batting title. 

    Slade Heathcott, on the other hand, is a long shot to break camp, but he is absolutely an impact prospect to watch, nonetheless. Baseball America ranked him the No. 2 overall Yankees prospect in 2014, and one of their writers, Josh Norris (subscription required), noted that Heathcott has drawn player comparisons to Bryce Harper for his all-out playing style.

    The 6'0" speedster, a 2009 first-round pick of the Yanks, projects as a pure center fielder over a corner spot because of his exceptional range and defensive talent. He needs to improve his plate discipline further, but with an above-average arm and ability to use the whole field as a slash hitter, he could be a key to the future of the Yankee Stadium outfield. 

    The only catch is he'd have to slide to a corner to see playing time this year or shortly thereafter, and with the current outfield depth in the Bronx, he might be stuck in right or left unless he calls a different team home. It's hard to imagine New York letting him walk, however.

     

    Pitchers

    There are several pitching prospects heading to Tampa with realistic shots to crack the roster. We could list any number of dark horses or sleepers to keep an eye on, but there are a few favorites who stand out entering camp.

    As mentioned earlier, Manny Banuelos finally makes his return in 2014. By 2011, he was one of the most heralded prospects in baseball. But after a short stint in Triple-A, made only six starts in 2012 before being shut down for Tommy John and ultimately missing all of 2013. But he's got three above-average pitches with which to work, he brings value as a lefty and he's healthy for the first time.

    Even if he looks excellent in Tampa this spring, he doesn't have a great shot to capture the No. 5 role, but the Yanks could certainly try him out in long-relief situations or test him later as a sixth starting option. 

    There's been a good amount of chatter on Dellin Betances this winter, and rightly so. He's 6'8", 260, and sports a 95 mph fastball and 80 mph slider. He has not only shown steady improvement the past few seasons, but he was outstanding in Scranton in 2013: In 84 innings, he posted a 2.68 ERA, 1.1 WHIP, struck out 108  (11.57 K/9) while walking 42 and giving up only two homers. 

    When the Daily News' Anthony McCarron recently asked about Betances, pitching coach Larry Rothschild said, "He’s a guy that we need to take a close look at this spring. He’ll have every opportunity."

    Betances is a curious, powerful prospect to watch because he enters the fray anywhere from stealing a seventh- or eight-inning spot to being sent to the minors to start the year. 

    I like Chase Whitley as a sleeper because he's major league ready, having pitched in relief in Scranton in both 2012 (3.25 ERA, 80.1 IP) and in 2013 (3.06 ERA, 67.2 IP). He's not flashy or physically imposing, but he's a 24-year-old who would not be a bad option with a fastball-changeup combination.

    Finally, keep on eye on Montgomery. He's only 23, and had a down year amidst health issues in 2013 despite an excellent 2012. But he still holds the best slider of any Yankee prospect and could have the best upside of any reliever.

    MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo stated his much stronger opinion in November that "Of the players who have yet to reach the big leagues, reliever Mark Montgomery is the one who probably has the best chance at soon impacting the 25-man roster, though his shoulder woes this year might make one pause before he gets a guaranteed spot at the back end of the bullpen."

Breakout Candidates

8 of 9

    Will Zoilo Almonte be taking more curtain calls in 2014, or are his 15 seconds up?
    Will Zoilo Almonte be taking more curtain calls in 2014, or are his 15 seconds up?Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Hitters 

    • Brett Gardner
    • Zoilo Almonte*

    Pitchers

    • David Phelps
    • Vidal Nuno

    Note: *=not on projected Opening Day 25-man roster

     

    Analysis

    Hitters

    We said Gardner truly "established" himself in 2013. But, in due time, we could be discussing 2014 as his true "breakout" year.

    As long as he isn't traded, Gardner will factor as an every-day starter in 2014, and his positive trends, which have largely related to his hot hitting and improved power, should extend into the new season.

    He admitted that the trade talk was hard to ignore, even if it didn't bother him, per Erik Boland of Newsday, but said of Ellsbury, "I'm looking forward to playing alongside him and pushing each other and getting the best out of each other."

    He could spend the whole season in the nine hole, and the Yankees wouldn't be complaining. It'll be his fifth full season in the bigs, all with the Yanks, and he's coming off a year where he changed the narrative on himself from scrappy slash-hitter to role player and difference-maker. 

    He put up his career high in slugging (.416), OPS (.759), hits, homers, triples, doubles and RBI.

    Finishing 2014 with his first .300 batting average, while hitting 15-20 homers with 70-80 RBI is surely not out of the question.

    If he can erase whatever demons prevented him from attempting to steal bases last season, he could be the ultimate bottom-of-the-order offensive package at 30 years old. He attempted 56 in 2010 and 62 in 2011, but only 32 last year.

    There just seems to be a confidence and drive about Gardner. Maybe it is a result of maturity from four full seasons and his increased duty in 2013, but either way he sounds secure in his abilities, his role and his pride: "[I] just prepare for this season mentally and physically and get ready to go," he said at a recent charity event hosted by Thurman Munson's widow, via NorthJersey.com's Pete Caldera. And commenting about whether he knew much of Munson, Gardner replied, "I didn’t grow up as a Yankees fan when I was little, but I grew up as a Yankee."

    Zoilo is included in this discussion as a dark horse to break out in 2014. Despite his absence from the earlier projected bench, Ichiro is not a lock for the season to factor ahead of Almonte on the depth chart given his limited range and diminished production. And f the Yanks carry an extra bench player, Zoilo could get the call that way.

    He was underwhelming in his first stint with the big league club in 2013, hitting just .236/.274/.302 in 34 games. But he is only 24 and has steadily improved as he has climbed through the system—batting .274 in Low-A in '09, .278 in Single-A in '10, .293 in High-A in '11 and .297 in Triple-A prior to his call-up. 

    He is a solid fourth outfielder with decent speed and the ability to hit from both sides of the plate using an aggressive approach. As MLB.com noted, he has "a bit of an all-or-nothing approach at the plate," which certainly has been boom (21 HR in '12) or bust (105 strikeouts), but adds that "there's definite strength there and some refinement at the plate might allow him to tap into more power." 

    If he's called up again in 2014, some early and extra work with Kevin Long could see Zoilo have a breakout type of year. 2013 was a small sample size and he's already proven he can hit at the highest minor league level.

     

    Pitchers

    Both David Phelps and Vidal Nuno join a few others vying for the No. 5 starter role this spring, but both of them could have breakout years in 2014—out of the bullpen.

    That may be a tougher pill to swallow for Phelps, who said, via the Daily News' Anthony McCarron, "I would obviously love to be a starter. I think I’m capable. I just have to go out and show what I’m capable of. If it’s not that, I don’t have a problem pitching out of the bullpen. But at the same time, I do want to start." 

    For his career as a starter, he's 7-7 with a 4.39 ERA, and as a reliever he has a .355 ERA. He started 12 games in 2013, but he just didm't impress or give you confidence to wrap up the rotation moving forward. He went 6-5 with a 4.98 ERA, 1.4 WHIP and 3.6 BB/9.

    Cashman said, per McCarron, that Phelps "has done a nice job for us. I think he can start and I know he can relieve. It’s just where he matches up in the rotation compared to the other candidates."

    But the doubts, and potentially losing the job to Pineda could fuel Phelps for a rebirth out of the bullpen in 2014. 

    As for Nuno, he's had a sub-.300 ERA in each of his stints from Staten Island to Scranton, putting up a cumulative 1.95 in 2011 across 106.1 innings in Single-A, Double-A and independent ball, a 2.54 ERA in 138.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A in 2012 and a 1.44 ERA and 10.8 K/9 in 25 innings in Scranton before his call-up last year. 

    It'd be foolish to preemptively count out the 26-year-old southpaw from the wide-open starter competition. Cashman told McCarron in the same report, "Anybody who wants it and takes it can have it. Obviously, Warren, Phelps and Pineda are easy names to throw out there, but if someone else emerges, so be it."

    In his major league debut, Nuno appeared in five games, started three of them and tossed 20 innings to a 2.25 ERA, 4.50 FIP and 1.1 WHIP.

    And if Nuno doesn't take the job, he brings incredible flexbility as a middle or long reliever or as a LOOGY. He has a two-seamer, a four-seamer and arsenal full of a curve, slider, change and cutter. He can mix and match speeds, change the hitter's eye level and hit both sides of the plate.

Position Battle Predictions

9 of 9

    Nunez may win a backup job this spring, but it doesn't mean Jeter—or we—should trust him
    Nunez may win a backup job this spring, but it doesn't mean Jeter—or we—should trust himThe Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports

    Backup CatcherFrancisco Cervelli 

    Cervelli beats his biggest competition, Austin Romine, as well as J.R. Murphy for McCann's backup job out of camp.

    The soon-to-be 28-year-old had the starting gig gift-wrapped in 2013—or at least to split with Stewart—but spoiled it when he fractured his hand in April. Things got worse for Frankie when he suffered a setback in rehab and then accepted his 50-game suspension. 

    He avoided arbitration when he signed a $700,000, one-year deal last month, and he's hitting .271 for his career. 

    Quotable

    "You’d think Cervelli and Romine would have a stronger position going in, but Murph would want to say a lot about that, I’m sure. ... We’ll see how it is. We’ll play it out. And a lot can change between now and spring training. We just traded a catcher today in (Chris) Stewart. With depth comes opportunity.”  

    —Brian Cashman, per Mark Feinsand of the Daily News (Dec. 2, 2013)

     

    Backup Infielder: Eduardo Nunez

    Nunez enters camp as the front-runner to beat out Sizemore, Anna, Solarte and others. His experience and sense of urgency in a make-or-break spring training will win out. 

    Quotable

    "Thus far, I'm pleased with the way everything's going. ... Obviously I have to prove that I'm healthy and on the field. But they said if I can show that I'm ready to go that I have a chance to make the team and help the club out in some fashion or another."

    —Scott Sizemore on his recovery from a torn ACL, per Adam Berry of MLB.com (Feb. 7, 2014)

     

    5th Outfielder: Ichiro Suzuki

    Ichiro proves to be the safest option entering camp and by April 1.

    Zoilo will be called up again in 2014, and it'd be great to see one of Heathcott, Ramon Flores or Austin see some time. But by Opening Day, I don't see the Yanks pulling the trigger on an unproven player.

    Quotable

    Ichiro's chase for his 4,000th hit between Japan and the Majors was a highlight of the 2013 campaign, but the Yanks seem uncertain how they will use the 40-year-old this year. They would likely entertain trade offers for Ichiro, who is due $6.5 million in the final year of his contract.

    Otherwise, Ichiro could help the Yankees as a reserve outfielder, coming off the bench late in games or pinch-running. Those reduced tasks could present a challenge for Ichiro, who has been accustomed to playing a starring role over the last two decades.

    Bryan Hoch of MLB.com (Feb. 6, 2014)

     

    No. 5 Starter: Michael Pineda

    Pineda shows up healthy and hungry to Tampa, and he beats out Phelps, Adam Warren and Nuno for the final spot in the rotation. 

    The decision isn't made until the tail end of camp, and the notion of using six starters is entertained before the season even begins. This isn't to say Pineda won't be a bust, but he's the front-runner as of this week.

    Quotable

    "We're hoping that we get some mileage out of Michael Pineda. He was a big acquisition for us."

    —Cashman, per Newsday's Cory Derespina (Jan. 23, 2014)

     

    Primary Middle/Long Relief: David Phelps

    Phelps loses the starter race and slides back into his role as a go-to innings eater. He'll be challenged by Warren, Jose Campos and Jose Ramirez, and non-roster invitees like Matt Daley, Robert Coello and Chase Whitley. 

    Stiff competition, and a guy like Nuno or Montgomery could make a serious run as well.

     

    Primary Lefty Specialist: Matt Thornton

    Thornton was signed for this role specifically, and it's his to lose. He replaces Boone Logan and may see a decent challenge put up by Nuno or Cabral.

     

    7th Inning: Preston Claiborne 

    As mentioned earlier, Betances could be a tremendous option here, but given Claiborne's experience and impressive first half of 2013, I like him as the favorite heading into camp. Mark Montgomery should also get a long look this spring.

    In his first 25 games Claiborne posted a 2.43 ERA, 1.0 WHIP, walked five and surrendered two homers. In his final 19 games, he stumbled to a 6.53 ERA, 1.5 WHIP, walked nine and gave up five homers.

    It's a tiny sample size, but his best numbers came when he pitched in the seventh inning in 2013: 10.1 IP, 1.74 ERA and nine strikeouts.

     

    Setup Man: Shawn Kelley

    Kelley found a huge role out of the Yanks' 'pen in 2013, and the flamethrower is the obvious successor to Robertson after co71 strikeouts in 53.1 innings (12.0 K/9).

    The 29-year-old was another case of a hot starter and slower finish last year. In his first 34 games, he posted a 3.67 ERA, 1.1 WHIP, 51 strikeouts, 13 walks and whopping 13.4 K/9. But in his final 23, he had a 5.68 ERA, 1.6 WHIP, 20 strikeouts, 10 walks and 9.5 K/9.

    In a tie game in 2013, opponents hit .143/.217/.190 with 10 strikeouts, two walks, three hits and one run in 23 plate appearances, and with two outs and runners in scoring position, opponents hit just .167 in 39 plate appearances.

    Quotable

    Kelley could become the primary setup man, though he said in a recent telephone interview he’s been preparing for “whatever they need me to do, coming in with men on base. If they want to give me an inning later in the game (than last season), that’s OK by me.”

    Kelley said he started throwing earlier this winter than usual. ... “I’m older. But I’m right where I want to be right now. I’m looking forward to what this spring brings.”

    —Mark Feinsand interviewing Kelley for the Daily News (Feb. 7, 2014)