“I know a town where real life’s a game, baseball’s all that’s real. At night all the faces light up, as the players take the field.” — Widespread Panic
On the calendar above my desk, I’ve written two words on the date February 16: Spring Training. My flight to Tampa leaves in a few hours. Pitchers and catchers officially report tomorrow.
Baseball is back, and the Yankees have 47 days to answer these 10 questions before opening day.
1. Who is the No. 5 starter? Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain or a surprise choice from the Alfredo Aceves Group of dark horse candidates? I honestly believe it’s an even race between Hughes and Chamberlain. Best pitcher this spring wins the job.
2. Where does the rotation’s odd man out open the season? In the bullpen or Triple-A? It’s difficult to keep that sort of talent out of the big leagues, but there is a lot to be said for stretching out both Hughes and Chamberlain, giving them enough innings to start this season and in the future. I don’t think Triple-A will happen for either of them, but Brian Cashman has said it’s a possibility.
3. Is Brett Gardner an everyday outfielder? With Randy Winn and Marcus Thames coming to camp, the Yankees have two veterans to fight for Gardner’s job.
4. Who is the starting center fielder? If Gardner is an everyday outfielder, should he start in left or center? It will either be him or Curtis Granderson, and neither is a bad defensive option. Either one would be a defensive upgrade in left.
5. Who bats second? Derek Jeter will return to the lead-off spot, but who replaces Johnny Damon in the No. 2 hole? Nick Johnson has the on-base percentage. Granderson has the speed. Could someone else sneak into this conversation or is it two-man race?
6. Is it worth keeping a Rule 5 pick on the roster? Not so long ago, Jamie Hoffmann was the Yankees best option as a right-handed, reserve outfielder. That might not be the case now that Thames is in the mix. There’s a lot to like about Hoffmann — including more speed and better defense than Thames — but will a team like the Yankees really carry a Rule 5 pick when there’s a more proven option available?
7. Does the team need a second lefty? Count on Damaso Marte making the opening day roster, but will he be the only left-hander in the bullpen? Boone Logan, Royce Ring, Kei Igawa and possibly Wilkin De La Rosa will be pleading their case?
8. If not a second lefty, who rounds out the bullpen? Let’s not forget that Jonathan Albaladejo opened the past two seasons in the big leagues, and frankly, I’m not willing to completely rule him out for a third opening day roster. Albaladejo, Mark Melancon, Sergio Mitre, Ivan Nova, Edwar Ramirez, Romulo Sanchez and few other dark horses could be competing for a bullpen spot that might or might not be available. Another related question: Could anyone from that group beat out Chad Gaudin, Alfredo Aceves or Dave Robertson?
9. Who is the utility infielder? Unless the Yankees make a move between now and April 4, there are only three candidates for the utility job: Ramiro Pena, Eduardo Nunez, Kevin Russo and Reegie Corona. Of that group, only Pena has major league experience.
10. Have any bullpen roles shifted? Mariano Rivera is set in the ninth, but how does the rest of the bullpen stack up. Assuming Hughes or Chamberlain is in the major league pen, is he definitely the eighth-inning guy? What about Robertson? Is Aceves a long man or a one-inning, late-inning reliever? Does Marte pitch to lefties or play a role in the setup competition?