Five keys to a Yankees postseason

Yankees fans are wondering if Phil Hughes will return to 2010 form. (Julie Jacobson/The Associated Press)

The Yanks entered 2011 in an unfamiliar position: underdogs. All off-season, the media focused on the Red Sox additions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, and the Yanks failure to sign Cliff Lee. The bombers do, however, return a very talented team. Several things will need to go their way to outlast the competition in a difficult AL East or wild card race.

5. Health

While not as calamitous a situation as a few years back, the Yankees still went through 2010 with the second-oldest average age for pitchers and fifth oldest for hitters, both over 30 years. Developing stars like Phil Hughes and Brett Gardner hasn’t turned back the clock for the aging core, which remains a huge health risk for 2011. Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada have been sidelined frequently in recent years, but otherwise, the 2011 Yankees roster has been fairly lucky in the health department. Adding aging players, like Andruw Jones and Eric Chavez, may add depth in case of an injury to a starter, but it only makes the roster older and more susceptible to injury as a whole.

4. Catcher

After finally understanding the injustice of throwing Posada behind the dish five times a week, the Yankees entered this past winter looking for a new catcher for the first time in a decade. Without many promising options, they settled on former All-Star Russell Martin, hoping he would bounce back to the complete force he was in 2007 and 2008. So far, so good, as he has busted out of the gate with three HRs, eight RBIs and two steals with a .300 average through two weeks. Perhaps more impressive, he’s played every inning so far, as the bombers wait for backup Francisco Cervelli to return. Like many on the Dodgers, Martin underperformed and seemed uncomfortable during the swan song of Joe Torre’s coaching career. Given that the Yankees eventually do give him some time off (as being overworked by Torre in 2008 certainly aided his downfall), Martin seems like a fair bet for an above-average overall performance behind the plate this year. As important as Martin is to the Yankees in 2011, their triple-A catchers’ progress is much more important. Whether the Yankees utilize uber-prospect Jesus Montero to bolster their offense or as trade bait for an impact starting pitcher, his defensive progress in Scranton will be of vital importance to the Yanks in 2011 and the future.

3. Comeback Seasons

Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson and Derek Jeter all had their worst seasons in 2011. Rodriguez spent all offseason working on flexibility drills and came to camp in tremendous shape. Granderson’s age and previous track record of success would indicate hope for a natural rebound. Jeter, perhaps, is the biggest question mark. He seemed to lose the ability to hit the ball with authority for nearly all of last year. After signing a three-year extension, the storyline in the NY papers and the Yanks season will focus on his efforts at rebounding to past performance levels.

2. Rotational Depth

The Yankees came into the 2011 season with everyone focusing on what seemed to be their glaring weakness. It has been awhile since the Yankees had as much uncertainty in their fourth and fifth rotational spots. Freddy Garcia and Ivan Nova both had decent spring trainings and even Bartolo Colon has looked okay so far. However, third starter Phil Hughes has looked terrible and is missing a few ticks off of his fastball in the young season. After a solid season in 2010, a collapse for Hughes would be devastating for the bombers chances this year. Nova and Garcia both had serviceable performances in 2010. In seven starts with the Yanks Nova posted a 4.5 ERA, while registering 23 starts in triple-A to the tune of a 2.86 ERA. Garcia managed a 4.64 ERA in 30 starts with the White Sox. If one of these rotational issues becomes a lingering problem, the Yankees do have some in-house alternatives for a change. Their season-ending, double-A rotation in 2010 featured three sure-fire future major league starters in Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances and Andrew Brackman. Between the three, one would think the Yankees will get above replacement level production in the show from one of them in 2011’s second half. In case you haven’t heard, the Yankees also have a knack for trading young talent to patch holes in the Bronx. With these three arms and their bevy of catching prospects, they will have plenty of ammunition to make a deal for a rotational stalwart.

1. A.J. Burnett

Perhaps no player exhibits the maddening inconsistencies of a talented, but wild, flamethrower as Burnett. On any given night, A.J. can take the mound and look like the second coming of Walter Johnson, but he’s just as likely to look like the second coming of Todd Van Poppel. He’s really never been able to string a few quality starts together, let alone a few quality months. However, his 2010 season was especially dreadful. After posting back-to-back seasons with around a 4.0 ERA, Burnett finished with a 5.26 ERA in 2010. Although the Yanks were hoping for more when they signed him to a hefty contract before 2009, my bet is that they’d be thrilled with another 4.0 ERA in 2011.

While the concern over the Yanks rotation entering the year was overblown, the rotation is the main issue preventing them from yet another relevant October. The bullpen is probably the best in baseball and the lineup can match up with any team, yes even the one in Boston. If the Yankees can avoid the injury bug and get league-average performances out of their third, fourth and fifth starters, there is no reason to believe they won’t make the playoffs again this year.

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