Rotation tops key questions as Yankees open camp

February 17th, 2016

TAMPA, Fla. -- In the wake of their all-too-brief postseason experience, the Yankees headed into the winter following a mandate from Hal Steinbrenner's desk, as the managing general partner desired to see a younger and more athletic roster on the field to play championship-caliber baseball.

General manager Brian Cashman met that challenge head on, believing that the trade market was the most likely avenue to upgrade a team that posted 87 victories and finished second in the American League East. One former Yankee who knows a little bit about winning in New York thinks they have pulled it off.

"They've got some pieces in place and some good talent," Andy Pettitte said this week. "Like always, every year, there's a lot of great expectations and you look forward to the upcoming season. You just hope that you can stay healthy."

Beginning the offseason by trading for outfielder Aaron Hicks, a former first-round Draft pick, the Yankees hoped they were adding a third name to the young group of Didi Gregorius and Nathan Eovaldi, both of whom New York acquired last offseason as they were poised to take a step forward.

The Yanks plugged a hole at second base by trading for Starlin Castro, hoping to see the same results that the Cubs did late last year after watching the young talent -- who turns 26 in March and already has 991 hits under his belt -- seamlessly switch infield positions and contribute down the stretch.

Unable to upgrade the rotation, the Yankees instead assembled the Majors' best bullpen by importing closer Aroldis Chapman from the Reds. Cincinnati's asking price fell in the wake of offseason allegations of domestic violence, which the Yankees acknowledge will be a delicate subject to handle.

After long discussions, Steinbrenner and Cashman determined that the payoff of teaming Chapman with Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances was worth the risk. Catcher Brian McCann, who faced Chapman five times while with the Braves (1-for-5, one strikeout) offered the trade a positive review.

"You don't see it. You don't," McCann said. "You've got to swing right when the ball is about to get released, and your chances then are slim. [Chapman is] dominant. He's one of those guys that when he comes into the game, the other team feels like it's over. And we have three of those guys, so we're excited."

With pitchers and catchers set to report to George M. Steinbrenner Field on Thursday in advance of their first workout Friday, here are three Yankees questions that must be answered:

1. Who will step up to stabilize the rotation?

A shaky rotation is the Yankees' main concern, with Masahiro Tanaka coming off surgery and unsure if he will be ready for Opening Day. Michael Pineda's goal is to complete 200 innings, but he said the same thing last year (160 2/3). Eovaldi set a career high with 14 wins and, in 11 late-season starts, Luis Severino convincingly stated his case to remain at the big league level. CC Sabathia offered some encouraging performances after committing to a knee brace, and Ivan Nova should be better in his second year back from Tommy John surgery.

2. Can the Yankees count on Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez again?

The sluggers combined for 64 homers and 165 RBIs in 2015, even though Teixeira didn't play after Aug. 26, and Rodriguez seemed to fade late in the year. His surgically repaired right wrist finally healthy, Teixeira's production was less of a surprise than what the Yankees got out of Rodriguez, who returned from a historic suspension to do and say all of the right things on and off the field. Rodriguez took nicely to a full-time designated-hitter role and, as he prepares to turn 41 in July, the Yankees no longer view him as an option in the field.

3. Will Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner be ready to spark the lineup?

The Yankees saw how dynamic Ellsbury and Gardner could be at the top of the lineup early in the year, as Ellsbury hit .324/.412/.372 with 14 steals before sustaining a right knee sprain on May 19 at Washington. His year ended with a benching in the American League Wild Card game. Gardner went on to earn his first career All-Star selection but faded in the second half, his performance impacted by several nagging injuries. The Yankees must find a way to keep them healthy so they can make a difference on the bases and in the field.