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The year ahead

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Happy New Year everyone! The Yankees have traded in their 2013 calendar — one full of bad times — for a 2014 calendar that brings hope of something better. Fewer off-the-field problems. More on-the-field success. And, fingers crossed, not a single lawsuit! Here’s a look ahead to what we might expect in the next 12 months. What are we going to be focused on as we make our way through 2014?

Alex Rodriguez [3]JANUARY
Clarity at last
For two reasons, the new year should start with significant news that sets a clearer picture of the road ahead. First, we could know the fate of Alex Rodriguez within a couple of weeks (or even a few days). Not that his soap opera will be finished – not by a long shot – but at least we’ll know the status of his bat and his salary in 2014. Also, by the end of January we’ll know which team has signed Masahiro Tanaka. Getting him on the market was a big step. Now he has to actually sign.

No more Mariano
There are always familiar faces missing when pitchers and catchers report to Tampa, and this spring, the absence of Mariano Rivera is sure to be the most noticeable. Andy Pettitte retired once before – and spent a few years playing in Houston – so it’s not going to be completely unfamiliar opening camp without him. Rivera, though, has been a source of stability year after year. All eyes will be on Dave Robertson, and whoever else is brought in to provide some options in the late innings.

Derek Jeter at shortstop
Not sure how long it will take to find out just how well Derek Jeter has recovered and just how much he can do, but at some point during the spring training schedule we should learn a thing or two about what to expect from the Yankees captain. Can he physically play shortstop? Is there reason to believe he’ll produce at the top of the order? How much does he have left?

The new-look Yankees
Whatever happens with Tanaka and Rodriguez, the Yankees are already a significantly different team than last year. Jacoby Ellsbury at the top of the order, Brian McCann behind the plate, someone new at second base, and Mariano Rivera enjoying retirement. The Yankees are going to break camp with a bunch of new faces, and the first month of the season will be a process of figuring out what exactly those new guys are capable of doing.

Mark Teixeira [4]MAY
How’s the first baseman?
Give Mark Teixeira a month – he’s usually a slow starter anyway – but at some point in May, the Yankees are going to want to see some real production from their first baseman. The fact he’s coming back from wrist surgery is reason for at least mild concern about his ability to drive the ball, but the Yankees need power from Teixeira. If he’s not going to hit for a high average like the MVP candidate he was a few years ago, that’s not a complete loss as long as he’s still hitting homers and driving in runs. The second month of the season could be enough time to know whether he’s still able to do that.

Good young arms
The Yankees have already said that they fully expect Manny Banuelos to open the season in the minor leagues. But that doesn’t mean he has to finish the season in Triple-A. By June, he’ll be more than a year and a half removed from Tommy John surgery. How will he look at that point? The Tommy John success rate is pretty high, and it wasn’t that long ago that Banuelos was considered one of baseball’s best left-handed pitching prospects. If he pitches well, Banuelos could be a big league option sometime during the summer. Speaking of which, how’s Michael Pineda going to look in June?

Trade deadline
Last year, the Yankees made their big splash well before the deadline, and the acquisition of Alfonso Soriano really did help the Yankees stay afloat and in the playoff hunt until late September. Given all of the uncertainty in the infield and on the pitching staff, there’s a solid chance the Yankees will need help again in 2014. Maybe the deadline is an opportunity to add some stability. Of course, if this offseason hasn’t done its job, the trade deadline could be a chance to trade away Brett Gardner, Dave Robertson or Hiroki Kuroda to get some sort of value before they become free agents.

Is this working?
Not much to do about it at this point, but unless there’s another scandal about to break – and let’s not rule that out – August is probably going to be all about winning and losing. Maybe this is when a guy like Banuelos can make an impact, or maybe there will be an unexpected injury waiting to resolve itself, or maybe some sort of waiver trade to solidify the roster. Move or not, August will be – as it almost always is – a month to fully define the team heading into the final month of the year. Whether the Yankees are good, bad or in between, we should know in August.

Manuel Banuelos [5]SEPTEMBER
Expanded roster
Best-case scenario is that September call-ups are a relatively small part of the season’s final month. If the Yankees are in the hunt, surely a minor leaguer won’t show up and instantly play a key role. But September call-ups also provide an interesting opportunity to see who might be on the verge of a bigger role the following season. J.R. Murphy made a solid impression as a September addition in 2013. So did Cesar Cabral. It seems possible that a guy like Slade Heathcott could be a September call-up who’s playing for a spot on the 2015 radar.

Postseason or bust
What would happen if the Yankees missed the playoffs two years in a row? Could Joe Girardi – even after signing a new four-year deal – survive another season that ends without a meaningful game in October? Would the front office prepare the most overwhelming offseason of all time? Would the fan base revolt? Playoff baseball is the key – and a deep playoff run in the goal – and making those things happen is the only way October will be measured.

The future of Brian Cashman
If the Yankees fail to make the playoffs, then this major offseason event might happen a month earlier. Bottom line is this: Brian Cashman’s contract expires at the end of the year. Do the Yankees want him back? Does he want to come back? Do the answers to each of those questions depend entirely on what happens during the season? Whatever the outcome, the Yankees offseason – and future offseasons – will be significantly impacted by the person put in charge.

Goal not a mandate
We saw this year that the Yankees were able to spend lavishly in November, but still enter December with a series of questions about the luxury tax and the goal to cut payroll beneath $189 million. It could very easily be the same way next winter. At this point, I don’t think anyone truly expects the Yankees to get below $189 million this winter, but they could do it next winter. The incentives are still in place, and quite a bit of money will be coming off the books. If the Yankees can’t reach their financial goal this winter, can they reach it next winter?

Associated Press photos