Some Questions Still Unanswered

This column was originally published on Feb. 17, 2010.

The first day of pitchers and catchers is the first official day of the season. It’s a day that represents the closing days of winter and the excitement for spring and summer. It grants new life to the 29 teams that didn’t finish the previous season with a win, and gives hope to clubs looking to be this season’s dark horse. Today is that day.

Coming off a world championship, Tampa should be relaxed for the first time in a decade. New York’s real baseball problems are in Port St. Lucie at Mets camp where Omar Minaya is trying to build a rotation on the fly and trying to figure out exactly who is going catch that rotation. No one in Queens is satisfied with the situation at first base or in right field, and the team’s center fielder isn’t going to be ready for Opening Day. It’s a good time to be a Yankees fan.

But even with the Yankees boasting a team as good if not better than their 103-win club of a year ago, there are still a handful of minor housekeeping matters to be taken care of over the next six weeks. Here’s five questions surrounding the Bombers at the beginning of spring:

1. Can the veterans stay healthy?
The difference between the 2008 and 2009 Yankees was 14 regular season wins and another 11 wins in October. A serious rash of injuries created this difference. Aside from Alex Rodriguez missing the first month of the season, the Yankees were remarkably healthy in 2009. In 2008, they weren’t as lucky.

The injury bug wreaked havoc on the ‘08 Yankees, landing the following players on the disabled list at least once: Jonathan Albaladejo, Wilson Betemit, Chris Britton, Brian Bruney, Joba Chamberlain, Johnny Damon, Dan Giese, Phil Hughes, Jeff Karstens, Ian Kennedy, Hideki Matsui, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Alex Rodriguez and Chien-Ming Wang. Starters landed on the DL, as did their replacements, and their replacements’ replacements. It was a disaster from Opening Day through Game 162 in what was the worst season in the Bronx since 1993.

This season, the Yankees are somewhat younger than they were a year ago after trimming Johnny Damon (36) and Hideki Matsui (35) from the roster. However, there is still cause for concern as the team’s superstars get up there in age.

Here are the current ages for the starting lineup: 26, 27, 28, 29, 29, 31, 34, 35 and 38.

Here are the current ages for the starting rotation and closer (Hughes and Chamberlain included): 23, 24, 29, 33, 33, 37 and 40.

There are a lot of 30s listed there, and they are all very significant players on the roster. The Yankees are going to need good fortune and a bill of health similar to 2009 to make another October run, and they are going to need to leave camp healthy.

2. Who’s going to play center field?
When the Yankees traded for Curtis Granderson, I thought they finally had a long-term solution in center field. I was also thinking that Johnny Damon was going to be back in left, but that is clearly not the case. As of now, it looks like Granderson will be in left and Brett Gardner in center, and maybe that is for the better.

The Yankees lost 24 home runs and 82 RBIs from Damon, and 28 home runs and 90 RBIs from Hideki Matsui. Granderson is going to be asked to make up for the offensive production lost with Damon. Nick Johnson will be an upgrade in the on-base department over Matsui, but he isn’t going to be able to provide the power that Godzilla gave the Yankees at DH – unless he becomes a product of the short porch.

With Granderson in left, there will be less wear and tear on his body than there would be in center, allowing him to be stronger offensively. No one is counting on Gardner’s bat anyways and any offense he can provide the team is a plus, but not needed.

If the Yankees feel that Granderson’s game has diminished in center like it appeared to be during the final weeks of last season, then Gardner is the right man for the job. It’s safe to say whatever decision is made at the end of spring training will be changed more than once throughout the year.

3. Who’s going to be the long reliever?
Joe Girardi didn’t think it was necessary to have a long reliever on the Opening Day roster last season. It didn’t take him long to change his mind.

Early on, the bullpen was overtaxed and it didn’t help that the team was asking Edwar Ramirez, Phil Coke, Jose Veras and Brian Bruney to get important outs. Chien-Ming Wang pretty much caused the bullpen fatigue for the first couple of weeks of the season, and the relievers didn’t recover until the Yankees finally made wholesale changes. The same thing can’t happen this season.

Chad Gaudin and Sergio Mitre will be the long reliever candidates since no matter what the Yankees say, the competition for the fifth spot in the rotation doesn’t include them.

When it comes down to it, Gaudin is the better option. He is more reliable (3.43 ERA in 42 innings with the Yankees) and has had previous success in the majors. Gaudin’s high pitch counts forced Girardi to have a short leash with him in most of his starts, but the ability to help the team is certainly there. I don’t know if you can say the same for Mitre.

Mitre might only be a little over a year removed from Tommy John surgery, but it’s not like he was some stud before his injury. Mitre allowed 71 hits in 51 1/3 innings with the Yankees last season, and posted a 1.63 WHIP, which was only worse than the pitcher formerly known as Chien-Ming Wang’s 2.02 and the always-exciting Edwar Ramirez’s 1.96. I would like to think that the best team in baseball would have someone more reliable than Mitre in the bullpen and serving as the long reliever. Give it to Gaudin.

4. Which A.J. Burnett will show up?
The difference between winning 95 games this season and 105 games depends on which A.J. Burnett comes to pitch.

There’s no doubt that Burnett has No. 1 stuff, but many times, he pitches like a No. 5. His potential no-hitters can quickly turn into four-run deficits, and when his game begins to south, there is no way to right the ship until five days later.

Burnett proved himself in the postseason after finishing the regular season with just 13 wins in 33 starts. His performance in Game 2 of the World Series made up for all the eggs he laid throughout the summer, but it wasn’t enough to fully gain his trust.

When Burnett takes the mound, you hope that you get the guy who allowed one hit to the Red Sox over 7 2/3 innings in August and not the guy who allowed a grand slam to Jason Varitek in April. The season won’t be won or lost because of Burnett, but he has the ability to make the Yankees untouchable in the division and the league.

5. How will the Yankees handle Derek Jeter’s contract situation?
A lot of newspapers will need to fill space between now and the end of the season, and they will argue about the contract status of Derek Jeter to do so.

When Jeter, Casey Close, Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner sit down to hammer out a new deal for the face of the franchise and the face of the game, they are going to give Jeter what he deserves: whatever he wants.

Jeter isn’t going to be given a low-ball offer filled with incentives like Joe Torre was, and he isn’t going to be left hanging in the balance like Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada were. Jeter is going to be given a multiyear deal for a lucrative amount of money, and there is no other way it will happen and there is no other way it should.

Speculation can be justified when it comes to the contract statuses of Mariano and Girardi, or with Posada at the end of next season, and that’s because they are not Derek Jeter. There is only one Derek Jeter, and because of that, he ‘s going to get treated and taken care of in a way that no other player will or should. End of story.