Friday, February 6, 2015

The Yankees pitchers and catchers report exactly two weeks from tomorrow, as the countdown to spring training inches closer to an end. The Yankees, on paper, don't look like a team threatening to win a championship this season, but that doesn't make them worth watching with camp around the corner.

Here are my top five storylines to watch when the Yankees roll up to Steinbrenner Field on Feb. 20:

1. The Alex Rodriguez circus returns to town

Arguably the biggest story in baseball this spring is A-Rod's return to the Yankees after serving his year-long suspension in 2014. The last time we saw the embattled third baseman on the field he was coming off of his second hip surgery, playing 44 games for the Bombers in 2013 while appealing his 211 game ban handed down by then MLB Commissioner Bud Selig.

A-Rod came back that year to hit .244 with seven homeruns and 19 RBIs in those 44 games that season, as the Yankees would eventually miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008, effectively beginning the months of battle between Rodriguez, Major League Baseball, and the MLB Players' Union.

Who knows what kind of shape A-Rod will arrive at camp in. Who knows if he's still even capable of playing at the major league level after a full year of watching from home. No story will be bigger than this, at least from the Yankees' perspective, and the baseball world is going to be watching very closely at the events happening in Tampa over the next month and a half.

2. Who's going to win the closer job?

The Yankees made a pretty bold decision this winter in letting David Robertson walk after just one year as their closer with Mariano Rivera now in retirement. Instead, the Yankees are going with Dellin Betances, who took the league by storm last season by striking out just about everybody he faced, and Andrew Miller, who the Yanks signed to a four-year, $36 million contract before Robertson eventually signed with the White Sox.

I still to this day, until the two candidates can prove they're more valuable, that the Yankees should have kept Robertson around on a two-three year deal, giving Betances another couple of years at the big league level before throwing him into the closer role with very little experience.

I'm not doubting his abilities as a pitcher -- the man struck out 135 batters in 90 innings while posting a 1.40 ERA for crying out loud -- but I need more.

At the very least, Miller keeps the Yankees having two power arms that the backend of the 'pen, and will probably end being the 8th inning guy come Opening Day.

3. How will Didi Gregorius adjust as Derek Jeter's replacement?

It was almost a year ago that Jeter announced 2014 would be his final season. He's gone now, and Didi Gregorius is the man tasked with replacing a legend. Expectations for the soon-to-be 25-year-old shortstop will be high this season, and for the wrong reason. Nobody can replace Derek Jeter. The only way to recover from his loss is to send somebody else out there and move on.

A career .242 hitter in 190 big league games with the Reds and D-Backs, the Yankees will be counting on Gregorius to be much more valuable in the field than at the plate. Looking back on Jeter's range and ability to play shortstop everyday in his final years, Gregorius will be an immediate upgrade for the Bombers are one of the most important positions on the field.

4. This rotation is very scary

I wrote about it the other day, the Yankees are going into spring training that raises much more questions than answers right now. CC Sabathia coming off of knee surgery and has been in steady decline the past few seasons. We don't know how much you can trust him. Masahiro Tanaka dealt with some elbow issues that could come back to haunt him -- knock on wood that doesn't happen. And you never know how many innings Michael Pineda has left before his next injury.

Brandon McCarthy's gone. Hiroki Kuroda's gone. David Phelps's gone. And Ivan Nova won't be back until at least June because of Tommy John surgery.

The Yankees didn't splash the cash for one of the big free-agent starting pitchers this winter -- though Nathan Eovaldi was a nice pickup -- and will go into the season with a rotation that will really have to overachieve to succeed.

5. Can Jacob Lindgren impress enough to win a bullpen job?

The Yankees' top overall pick from last summer's draft was invited to camp on Thursday, and will get a chance to prove himself in major league camp after dominating hitters across Low and High-A ball, and Double-A ball last season.

Andrew Miller already gives the Yankees one dangerous lefty in their bullpen, and it wouldn't hurt to have a second.

The "Strikeout Factory" hasn't been a pro very long, and could already be a Rookie of the Year caliber pitcher this season.


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