Five questions for the Yankees in 2015

Some thoughts on the Yankees’ upcoming season as I watch a spring training game on YES with a rare night off from high school basketball…

1) Starting pitching health – how durable is this group?

The Yankees had a ton of injury problems with the starting rotation last season, with CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda all missing significant chunks of time. Really, only Hiroki Kuroda, who’s now pitching in Japan, was able to last the entire season.

And starting pitching was far from the team’s biggest issue last season!

But the Yankees simply can’t survive with 80 percent of the rotation on the disabled list this year, so the starters’ health is a huge concern in 2015. Sabathia is back and claims to be good to go. Tanaka, who opted to dodge Tommy John surgery, also looks sharp in a few spring training innings. Pineda is back. Nathan Eovaldi, acquired from Miami in a winter trade, has been durable in his years with the Marlins. Nova, rehabbing from Tommy John should be back at some point around the All-Star game. That’s not a bad group of pitchers…if they stay healthy, that is.

New York Yankees starting pitcher Michael Pineda throws before the first inning during a spring training baseball exhibition game against the Tampa Bay Rays, Monday, March 9, 2015, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Chris Capuano suffered a right quad injury on Monday and it looks like he’ll be out until May. He had been penciled in to take Nova’s fifth spot in the rotation, but Esmil Rogers, Adam Warren and Chase Whitley probably compete for the job through the rest of spring training.

Still, if the Yankees have any hope of contending in 2015, they’ll need their top four – Sabathia, Tanaka, Pineda and Eovaldi – to pitch to their potential and also rack up about 200 innings apiece.

2) Will the big-money free agents from last year rebound at the plate?

The Yankees’ offense struggled for plenty of reasons in 2014. Derek Jeter limped to the finish line. Second base was a black hole following Robinson Cano’s free agency dash to Seattle. Alex Rodriguez missed the whole season on a PED suspension.

But the part that hurt the most was the free agents the club had spent so much money on – notably Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann – struggling mightily. Beltran hit .233 with 15 home runs in 109 games. McCann played in 140 games but hit .232 with a .286 on-base percentage.

Jacoby Ellsbury had a fine year, hitting .271 with 70 RBI and 39 steals, but he was often hitting out of position lower in the batting order with other players being injured and Jeter often locked into the No. 2 hole behind Brett Gardner.

The Yankees addressed some of the offensive issues by resigning Chase Headley to play third base. Rodriguez returns, likely as a regular DH. Garrett Jones will add some left-handed pop and versatility in the corner outfield spots and as a backup first baseman. The club also hopes Stephen Drew, named the starting second baseman, and Didi Gregorius, acquired to play short, can hit just enough to justify their top-notch defending.

But the real key here will be McCann and Beltran. Can these guys get on base and drive in runs in important middle-of-the-order spots? If they don’t, it’s hard to see this Yankees’ offense being much better than last year’s team. But if they can rebound back to their career averages, more or less, they’ll be improved.

3) The middle infield situation – did the front office do enough?

It’s the second season for the Yankees post-Cano. It’s also the first full season without Derek Jeter since 1996. The new middle infield pairing is a bit lacking in superstardom.

New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius waits on the play during the fifth inning of a spring training exhibition baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles in Sarasota, Fla., Tuesday, March 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Didi Gregorius came over from Arizona in a winter trade. He has a reputation as a fine defender but he’ll have some work to do with the bat to justify his playing time, even if he hits in the No. 9 spot on most days.

Drew was a dud in 2014, thanks in large part to his missing spring training as he awaited a contract offer after rejecting the Red Sox’s qualifying offer following the 2013 World Series. Drew ultimately returned to Boston and hit .176 in 39 games. He was sent to the Yankees in a trade and hit .150 in 46 games. So was that just a lost season he can blame on not getting a full head start in the spring? Or is it a sign that his better days are behind him? Either way, he’ll also have a new position to learn at second base, where he’ll play on most days.

Brendan Ryan is also on the roster, another top-tier defender who struggles at the plate.

Jose Pirela and Rob Refsnyder are two of the Yankees’ top second base prospects, but the club opted to give Drew $5 million on a one year deal rather than go with a kid…at least for now. If Drew struggles, look for one of these youngsters to get the call pretty quickly.

Will this defensive-minded approach help the Yankees more than it hurts?

4) The bullpen should be pretty darn good, but who’s the closer?

Even with David Robertson bolting to the south side of Chicago in free agency, the bullpen will be the Yankees’ biggest strength in 2015.

Dellin Betances had an historic year in a set-up role and Adam Warren also returns after a solid year in relief.

The Yankees signed lefty Andrew Miller away from the Orioles and traded for another lefty in Justin Wilson. There are some competitions for the other spots as well, which leaves the Yankees relief crew in good shape for the season ahead.

The one question is: who closes the games? Manager Joe Girardi has played it pretty close to the vest so far, hinting that he may use both Miller and Betances in the ninth inning depending on the matchups and the schedule and things like that. That sounds fine in a vacuum…but the closer by committee approach rarely works.

I don’t know exactly why that is, but the theory has something to do with the fact that guys tend to like having established, defined roles. Perhaps the mix-and-match will work with these guys and their personalities, but it’s going to be a question that’s going to nag Girardi all season long. That’s half the reason why managers like assigning roles to relief pitchers as well. Put the seventh inning guy in during the seventh inning and if it goes wrong, it’s the pitcher’s fault. Pick the wrong guy in a closer-by-committee style and the blame falls on the manager.

So it shouldn’t be a big deal one way or the other, but expect this storyline to follow the team throughout the year unless Girardi makes those inning-related distinctions clear for his relievers.

New York Yankees pitcher Andrew Miller throws during a spring training baseball exhibition game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Wednesday, March 4, 2015, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

5) What’s the deal with Alex Rodriguez?

What is A-Rod going to bring to the table this year? It’s a fascinating question for a team that probably could do without him and likely would rather have him somewhere else in 2015.

Rodriguez turns 40 on July 27. He didn’t play at all in 2014, and that’s coming off a 2013 season that was marred by a hip injury. Really, the last time we saw peak A-Rod was 2010.

So there’s no guarantee that Rodriguez can provide much of anything for the Yankees offensively. He certainly won’t be needed in the field as long as Headley stays healthy, either.

Rodriguez is merely a part-time DH making $20 million a season.

That’s not to say A-Rod can’t contribute this year. That diminished role and the focus solely on hitting might keep him healthy for the entire season. The lingering doubt here is whether Rodriguez will be healthy enough to survive an entire season, on top of wondering how much he’ll produce. By the way, he’s under contract through the end of 2017.

The Yankees can’t be counting on A-Rod for much, but his return to the big leagues will be an unending saga no matter what happens.

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