Five questions for the New York Yankees


A slimmer Phil Hughes is ready to lock down a spot in the Yankees' rotation. (Kim Klement/US Presswire)

Spring training; a time when all MLB teams have a clean slate and, at least theoretically, a shot at the playoffs. But every team has a few questions to answer and the Yankees are no different. So, here’s a look at five questions facing the New York Yankees as they head toward the 2012 season.

Who will be the fifth starter?

This is a great problem for the Yankees to have given the shaky state of the rotation as recently as mid-January, when they traded for Michael Pineda and signed Hiroki Kuroda. So will it be Franchise Phil or The Chief who comes out of spring training with that fifth spot?

Phil Hughes, 25, showed up at camp in great shape after admitting what our eyes had already discerned: He was not in the best physical condition last year. Hughes, who spent much of the season on the DL with a fatigued arm, went 5-5 with a 5.79 ERA last year. When he came back at the end of the 2011 season, it was all about the Phil Hughes fastball meter. Could he still throw 93 mph or was his velocity gone? If Hughes can get back to his 2010 form when he won 18 games, you have to think the job is his, but it’s getting late early (as Yogi Berra says) for Hughes to be an undisputed rotation option.

Freddy Garcia, who is a full decade older than Hughes, gave the Yankees’ rotation a much-needed shot in the arm (pun intended) in 2011. Last year, the crafty veteran did not have a good spring, which is why spring training numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. But when Hughes went down with his arm issues, Garcia stepped up and won 12 games. He also had one of the best ERAs on the Yankees pitching staff: 3.62. If he pitches well this spring, it’s going to be all on Hughes’ performance whether or not Garcia breaks camp as a starter or in the bullpen.

Can CC Sabathia keep the pounds off in the second half of the season?

Last spring, Sabathia showed up at camp 10 to 15 pounds lighter, and this year he did the same. The only problem last year was the 6-foot-7 pitcher packed on the pounds again (and then some) by the end of the season. Did the weight gain adversely affect his performance? Possibly.

Sabathia went 19-8 with a 3.00 ERA last season. After August 1, though, the lefty went 3-3 with a 4.30 ERA, and in two starts during the ALDS against the Detroit Tigers, he allowed nine hits and five earned runs for a 6.75 ERA. Plus, Sabathia had knee surgery last offseason and that extra weight can’t be good for his repaired knee.

GM Brian Cashman had a conversation with CC about his weight issues during the offseason. The pitcher does not have a weight clause in his contract, and Cashman said the conversation was “frank” and something they “needed to have.”

I don’t quite understand how a professional athlete who has access to all sorts of exercise and training resources, as well as the money to hire, for example, a nutritionist, can get out of shape. Maybe he should hire the popular girls from the middle school to follow him around. Then when he goes for the Cap’n Crunch, he’ll be treated with a chorus of “Ew. Seriously? So gross.”

Will the Yankees get production from the DH spot?

Former catcher Jorge Posada was supposed to be the full-time DH last year. I have to admit, I though the switch-hitter would, after a period of adjustment, do well in the position. Boy, was I wrong. Posada was awful from the right side, which limited his playing time as Andruw Jones got the majority of at-bats against lefties.

This year, the Yankees look to platoon again. The team will use the DH position to spell such aging stars as Derek Jeter, A-Rod and Mark Teixeira. Jones will again get DH time against left-handed pitching, while the recently signed Raul Ibanez will play against righties.

The stats for the DH position in 2011 were not particularly good from the Yankees: .249 AVG, .329 OBP and .427 SLG. One hopes there is nowhere to go but up from those numbers.

Can Michael Pineda handle the pressure of New York?

Will the bright lights of the big city adversely affect Pineda or will he shine in the spotlight? The young righty had a great start to his rookie season in Seattle, going 8-6 with a 3.03 ERA, but wilted down the stretch with a 5.12 ERA and only one win after the All-Star break. One of the main concerns is he needs to develop a solid third pitch to complement his fastball and slider. His change-up has been weak. Pineda will spend spring training working on the change, so Yankee fans shouldn’t freak out if the 23-year-old gets lit up a few times during his appearances in Tampa.

Fans will most likely be patient with Pineda early on during the season, but if he struggles for an extended period of time, you can bet the Bronx boo-birds will start chirping.

Can Alex Rodriguez stay healthy?

Once again, A-Rod comes to spring training in excellent shape, just like last year when he was recovering from hip surgery. He hit the cover off the ball early in the season before a combination of knee, shoulder and thumb injuries limited him to less than 100 games for the first time in his career. This time, the All-Star third baseman says he’s learned “less is more” and is going to focus on corrective exercises instead of his usual boot-camp-like workout regime.

He’s 36 now, so how healthy can we expect him to stay during the next six years of his contract (dear God, I still can’t believe they extended him for that long)? Of course, he has Eric Chavez to spell him a couple of times a week. Anyone else find it bizarre that the Yankees signed a guy who’s perpetually injured to give their star player some rest? My bets are on Chavez hitting the DL before A-Rod this season.

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