Looking four years into the future is tricky. It’s the reason teams generally want to avoid long-term contracts; things can change quickly and irreversibly. This winter, though, the Yankees committed to another four years with manager Joe Girardi. If he lasts the length of the contract, Girardi will have been the Yankees manager for a full decade.
But as Michael pointed out this morning, there’s no guarantee Girardi will last that long. We’ve seen teams bail on managerial contracts in the past, and the Yankees could do that with Girardi if things don’t work out. Instead of looking four years down the road, though, I’d rather focus on the next nine months.
Here are four challenges Girardi faces in this first year of that four-year deal.
1. What to do with Derek Jeter
Best-case scenario, this is an easy one. If Jeter shows up in spring training with strong legs and reasonable range in the field, and if he’s still a solid table-setter at the top of the lineup, Girardi’s choice will be handed to him. Plug Jeter into his regular position, put him back at the No. 2 spot in the order, and all’s right in the world. The trick is going to be managing Jeter if he’s struggling at the plate, or if he’s incapable of playing his brand of little-range-but-nearly-error-free defense at shortstop. Girardi went through some tough times when Jorge Posada’s production was slipping at the end of his career. Girardi might — might — face something similar with Jeter.
2. Handling the Japanese media
Girardi has gotten much better with the New York media during his time as Yankees manager, and in my opinion, he’s always been especially good at handling the foreign writers and reporters. He’s patient, and he seems rarely bothered when a question is about a player who didn’t necessarily play a big role in the game. He understands that those guys have a very specific job to do. The trick is that this year could bring attention similar to Matsui-level coverage. There are three big-name Japanese players on this team. Hiroki Kuroda is about to turn 39 years old, Ichiro Suzuki is about to be a backup for the first time in his life, and Masahiro Tanaka is going to be perhaps the most talked-about player in the city. Things could get dicey, and Girardi’s going to have to address issues while doing his part to protect his players.
3. Determining playing time
With four outfielders for three spots, the Yankees are clearly banking on their outfielders — primarily Carlos Beltran and Alfonso Soriano — getting regular turns at designated hitter. Problem is, Jeter is also going to need a few DH days. And it probably makes sense to have Brian McCann’s bat in the lineup on the days he doesn’t catch. And Mark Teixeira might have to DH a little more than usual as well. Determining playing time isn’t only about who plays third base day-to-day, it’s about who rests and who doesn’t. How often should Beltran play the field? What about Brian Roberts? Along those same lines: What’s the start-by-start workload limit for Kuroda and Michael Pineda?
4. Assembling a bullpen
This might not happen during the month of March. Putting together the Yankees bullpen could be a season-long process with Girardi finding a handful of reliable arms, and then mixing in a few hot hands from time to time. As it stands, it seems that only Dave Robertson, Shawn Kelley and Matt Thornton are locked into relief jobs. Preston Claiborne also pitched well at times last year, and surely one or two of the rotation candidates will fall into relief roles, but there aren’t many bullpen assignments that seem obvious. Girardi’s going to have to pick seven guys to break camp, then he’s going to have to adjust as necessary.
5. Mixing and matching the lineup
Most managers seem to prefer a set lineup. Maybe one that changes slightly depending on the opposing starter, but a lineup that’s generally consistent from day to day. The Yankees might not have that this season. We already know they’re planning to platoon at third base, and it seems unlikely that Roberts can play second base six days a week, and the outfield has four guys for three spots, and the DH spot is going to have to rotate a little bit. Girardi is going to have to maintain some level of consistency, while using a lineup that might be anything but.
Associated Press photo