Yankees camp report: Bombers have big talent, but oh so many questions

TAMPA, Fla. -- If  New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi seems even more guarded, intense and, yes, tense than usual this spring -- and he does -- it may have something to do with a roster that’s slightly older, less healthy in some key areas and, for the first time in years, downright questionable at two everyday positions.

This could be a dicey year indeed for the Yankees, who have won at least 87 games a remarkable (and record) 17 consecutive seasons, as Joel Sherman of the New York Post recently pointed out. This team could test that incredible run of consistency, if only a thing or two (or three) goes wrong.

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Beyond the obvious health questions surrounding all-time greats Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter and all-time publicity gatherer and would-be great Alex Rodriguez, plus the unanswered questions at catcher and designated hitter, the organization isn’t nearly as deep as usual. It’s not deep on the roster, and it certainly isn’t deep at the upper levels of the minor leagues, where recent injuries and underperformance have left the franchise almost bereft of upper-tier prospects at the upper levels.

The Yankees will still enter the year favored by many to win the American League East, and there’s enough star power to justify such a prediction. However, their lofty status at present may have something to do with name recognition, history, momentum and perhaps some skepticism about whether the revamped Blue Jays will come together, or the 2012 surprise Orioles can improve off a season in which they went 29-9 in one-run games and won a startling 16 consecutive extra-inning games.

Word out of the Yankees clubhouse is almost universally optimistic, as usual. But it’s based on all the old reasons. Outsiders, though, see the old players. And they wonder.

Even if career miracle men Rivera and Jeter do their thing despite age and health questions (and who should ever doubt them?) there are enough issues with the good and great players on the team who are mere mortals to wonder if their run of almost unbroken success could soon come to a close.

"I don’t think they are a playoff team," one competing GM said, flat out.

Another GM wondered why the Yankees behaved somewhat like the small-market, low-revenue Rays this winter, when they brought back many of their own but let other fine players leave (most notably Nick Swisher , Rafael Soriano and Russell Martin ) while adding only one high-salaried new player -- their old Red Sox nemesis Kevin Youkilis . Nonetheless, the payroll remains in excess of $200 million, and is only topped by the Dodgers at present.

The Yankees keep a constant eye on their well-known goal to get their payroll below the $189 million payroll threshold for 2014, although that objective has been downgraded from a mandate to a guideline. If they don't make the playoffs for a second time in 19 years, presumably the whole $189 million idea will be out the window entirely.

Those two rival GMs are far from the only ones who believe there's a real possibility the Yankees could be October outsiders for the second time since Buck Showalter's second season, 20 years back, when the turnaround began in earnest with smart trades and newfound patience. Now, they could finally be ripe for a downturn.

"They are a little long in the tooth," one rival owner observed of the Yankees.

Yankees teams are typically a little older than most everyone else, but this one is especially ancient (at least by baseball standards). The good news is that the players who are the oldest are the best. Or at least that seems like it could be good news.

The incomparable Rivera is 43. Andy Pettitte , who came to camp last year fresh off a season of retirement as a camp instructor, is 40. Ichiro is 39. Hiroki Kuroda and Jeter are 38, and A-Rod will be approaching 38 (at least) by the time we see him on a baseball field again.

The Yankees kept Rodriguez rehabbing his second rebuilt hip in New York, they said for rehab reasons. But A-Rod, a star now only in articles like the latest one in Miami New Times article, has turned into an expensive font of negative news and is clearly better from a distance at this point. There are enough baseball questions to answer here without bringing up the subjects of PEDs, HGH and potential suspensions.

Yankees GM Brian Cashman, who has piloted the team through almost all the great 17-year run (all but the first two), has conceded this team probably won't produce as many runs or home runs with the losses of Swisher, Martin and Raul Ibanez -- the club's 245 home runs in 2012 were an MLB high, and their 138 dingers at home were an American League record -- but the GM has posited that the pitching can be the strength to carry them.

"I just know we have a lot of talent," Cashman said. "If we stay healthy, we have a chance to make a little noise." (Cashman conceded that depth is an issue, after years where it wasn’t.)

The return to health of Brett Gardner helps ease the sting of losing Swisher’s switch-hitting power, and the return of Rivera allowed them to let Soriano moves to the Nationals after he rejected the Yankees $13.3 million qualifying offer. Provided Rivera, the oldest player in the majors, can be anything close to what they’ve come to expect, (and who’s to doubt him?), the pen should still be excellent. "Age is what you feel it is. In my case I don’t think about it," Rivera said. "I feel great."

Setup man extraordinaire David Robertson , who was used a lot the past two years and showed it late, can be the best eighth-inning guy in the game, provided they don't become over-reliant on him. David Aardsma should provide depth to a balanced, above-average pen that includes Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan and Clay Rapada .

The rotation is the clear strength, however. Sabathia may be able to carry an even bigger load after a winter elbow cleanup, and he had better. "They'd be in trouble if anything happened to Sabathia," one rival manager said. (Of course, that's true of just about any team and its ace.)

Meanwhile, Kuroda was everything Cashman could have hoped for in his first year in the Bronx. Pettitte returns to see if he can continue his amazing streak of non-losing seasons (it’s 17 and counting for him). Hughes should have extra incentive as a free-agent eligible pitcher, though his bulging back disk has slowed him early in camp. Ivan Nova rounds out a sterling rotation that could carry them to their 28th title, and allow Girardi to changes his jersey (and maybe relax a little).

The main issues are really of a positional nature, starting at catcher, where the Yankee really, truly, apparently are going to pick among Francisco Cervelli , Chris Stewart , Bobby Wilson and maybe Austin Romine . So if you’re scoring at home, that’s three career backups and a prospect who’s yet to prove he can hit and is the clear longshot in the distinctly unfamous field.

Cashman assures us that this is it, that they will find one from that field of four. And while Martin hit .211 and seemed not to be unanimously popular with the coaching staff for some unknown reason, he is a rare catcher who has good power, a fine arm and excellent athletic ability. Well, among the foursome left, at least they can find an arm or two. “Whoever’s back there, we’ll figure it out,’’ the notoriously un-finicky Sabathia said, assuredly.

The DH spot is also a Rubik’s Cube until A-Rod returns -- if and when he does. Travis Hafner , a disabled-list regular in recent years, is likely to get the bulk of the at-bats against right-handers, while Jeter plus righty-swinging candidates Juan Rivera and Matt Diaz look to go against left-handers.

Jeter looks great, according to all the reports (and he wouldn’t tell you if he wasn’t). “I’m fine,’’ he said. “Nothing’s changed.’’ Well, technically, it’s not every year he returns from a broken ankle with a plate inserted. But it’s Jeter. So you get the point.

Overall, the infield should be excellent. Second baseman Robinson Cano , the team’s best player, is heading into his walk year. Youkilis should be OK as an expensive one-year fill-in, even if he slipped the first day and admitted the obvious, that he’ll always be a Red Sox at heart, turning himself into early tabloid fodder.

The outfield is a bit lefty heavy but otherwise should be fine, with Curtis Granderson expected to be OK with his expected switch to left field. He said he’d prefer to play center the day before they broke the news, but he’s a team player and wouldn’t think of making waves. International star Ichiro seemed revived by being in the Bronx after a couple years sleepwalking in Seattle.

The roster retains surely possesses plenty of name recognition. But that doesn’t keep folks from wondering when the jig will be up.

The first rival GM pointed out three main areas of concern -- age, injuries and lack of depth in the upper minor leagues. He also wondered about the ability of Jeter, Pettitte and Kuroda to repeat their excellent performance from a year ago. Then, he got even more pointed.

"I think they are weak at third base and in the outfield," the GM said. "Ichiro may not repeat. Granderson brings a low batting average and tons of strikeouts. Gardner is hurt a lot, and not all that productive when healthy."

Of course, folks have been wondering about the Yankees for years. And for 19 consecutive seasons, they’ve answered the questions with ease, going at least 12 games over .500 in each of those seasons. In all but one season since 1995, they've reached the playoffs, the exception being 2008, when they won 89 games and finished three games out of the playoff picture in Girardi's debut as Yankees manager.

Every year, the playoffs seem to be a given. This year, for the first time in awhile, they might not be. And if they aren't, you have to wonder how much longer the Joe Girardi era goes.

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