Saturday, March 5, 2011

Spring Training Spotlight: New York Yankees

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-Digger's Daily-

The Texas Rangers crushed any hopes the Yankees had of back to back titles as they dismantled the world champs in the ALCS. New York's off season nearly turned into the Bronx Zoo II. Yankees had many decisions to make. How much to offer aging stars Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera?. Could they lure free agent Cliff Lee to the Bronx? Would Andy Pettitte return for one more year? What will become of the starting rotation?

Most questions were answered relatively quickly. But, the process was very muddied. Cliff Lee spurned Yankees cash and returned to Philadelphia. Andy Pettitte recently announced his retirement. No Yankees fan was prepared for how captain Derek Jeter's contract renegotiation played out in the press. Tensions nearly boiled over as Yankee brass went public with negative comments before a deal was finally consummated.
Talk around town is how will New York manage to field a competitive starting rotation? CC Sabathia represents the Yankees only true performer. AJ Burnett has a Cy Young repertoire but hasn't pieced it together in pin stripes. #3 man Phil Hughes was sensational during early 2010 but tapered off in the 2nd half. Plenty of spring competition for rotation slots 4 and 5. Young stud Ivan Nova is projected to be their 5th starter. 2005 Cy Young winner Bartolo Colon has looked impressive this spring trying to prove his right arm is finally sound. Colon hasn't pitched a full season since winning the '05 award.

Yankees relief corps promises to be one of the franchises best ever. Rivera returns as the closer chasing MLB's all time saves record. New York signed former Rays closer, and probably heir apparent to Rivera, Rafael Soriano as their new setup man. Coming across town from the Mets is southpaw specialist Pedro Feliciano. Joba's role now appears to be middle relief specialist to get New York over the hump when starters fail to go deep into games.

Much has been made regarding lack of Yankees starting rotation depth. Well, there's plenty of future stars on the horizon. Nova gets his shot this spring to prove he's ready to handle major league batters. One of the most pleasant surprises this spring is southpaw 19 year old sensation Manny Banuetos. A tremendous talent who possesses poise beyond his years and a major league arsenal firing away from a powerful left arm. He looks like a young Johann Santana. Scouts from around the league also have their sights set on following the progress of Dellin Betances and Andrew Brackman, Yanks GM Brian Cashman continues to be steadfast against mortgaging New York's future. With good reason. If these young guns remain healthy and live up to their billing... then Yankees have another dynasty decade in the making.

New York's lineup has a few minor tweaks. Jorge Posada's catching days are over. He's the new full time DH. Russell Martin will guide the staff while top catching prospect Jesus Montero figures to secure the official backup role. Montero reminds me of Mike Piazza. Explosive bat with questionable defensive skills. Make no mistake, this kid can flat out pound baseballs. I predict he'll soon be starting catcher or involved in a blockbuster trade. Bench depth received a major boost this winter. Andruw Jones figures to platoon in LF and fill in at all three OF positions when needed.

Can Mark Teixeira avoid another horrid beginning? 2009-10 April performances were flat out ugly. Alex Rodriguez is completely locked in this spring for the first time in years. Derek Jeter's swing is still off. What's happened to Jeter since last May? Believe it or not, free agent signee Eric Chavez may win a roster spot. Chavez' signing might prove to be one of the winters shrewdest moves if this guy can finally put an end to perennial injuries. EC will back up 1B/3B, fill in at DH and be the top lefty PH. Utility infielder Ronnie Belliard might make the team as a versatile backup. Plenty of decisions left for manager Joe Girardi. Making cuts will quickly become a difficult process.

When it comes to picking the AL East division winner most seem to be looking in Boston's direction. Not so fast. AL East is wide open in 2011. All divisional games will be tough. Baltimore and Toronto vastly improved. Boston and Tampa retooled. Yanks represent AL's strongest lineup and relievers. Will it be enough to overcome a question mark riddled rotation? If New York's rotation solidifies and comes out blazing then there's no stopping this crew. If they falter, it'll be a long summer of vocal headline making discontent from the Steinbrenner clan. We're only a few short weeks away from finding out how 2011 unfolds.

I'm expecting AL East baseball to be 2011's most exciting race.


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