New faces, added depth could key successful 2014
Spring camp resolves handful of questions on Yankees' revamped roster
TAMPA, Fla. -- The Yankees learned not to watch each of Derek Jeter's steps so closely, marveled at how Masahiro Tanaka adapted to his new workplace with relative ease, and were able to spend more time on the field instead of the trainers' table.
For those and several other reasons, this is wrapping up as a successful spring for the Yankees. They are ready to exit this Grapefruit League dress rehearsal and see how their revamped roster plays for real, beginning on April 1 against the Astros in Houston.
"I like the guys that we have," said Jeter, who began the spring by announcing that 2014 will be his final season. "I think we have a lot of talent here, a lot of optimism. The bottom line is, you have to perform on the field, but I like the guys that we have."
W: Feldman L: Sabathia
Around the time Jeter was scribbling notes for his Facebook post read around the world, Yankees manager Joe Girardi was devoting his attention to a roster pockmarked by question marks that could only be answered by a full seven weeks in the Florida sun.
New York's infield of Mark Teixeira, Brian Roberts, Jeter and Kelly Johnson reported with legitimate concerns at each spot, and the rotation included a great unknown in Tanaka, who spun a perfect 24-0 season with Japan's Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles into a seven-year, $155 million deal.
Add in a fifth starter battle that included the nearly forgotten Michael Pineda, who still has yet to throw his first official pitch in a pinstripes uniform, and David Robertson's unenviable move into Mariano Rivera's territory as Yankees closer. And after all that?
"It's been pretty good," Girardi said. "Knock on wood, we've been pretty healthy in Spring Training. I think we've gotten the guys ready that we feel we need to get ready to go. I think it's been a pretty good spring."
Jeter has preached for years that teams go as far as their pitching, and the Yankees feel that they have reasons to be encouraged. It starts with CC Sabathia, who is in the process of re-inventing himself as he prepares for his 11th career Opening Day start and sixth with New York.
Citing the wear and tear of 2,775 big league innings, Sabathia has acknowledged that his fastball velocity may never crackle in the high 90's again. That doesn't mean he cannot win; Sabathia has rediscovered his changeup, still trusts his slider and is toying with a cutter borrowed from Andy Pettitte.
"I feel like I set the tone," Sabathia said. "We do have a great pitching staff and our offense has gotten better, but I do put a lot of pressure on myself to go out there and try to lead the staff."
Hiroki Kuroda showed a recharged battery after last year's second-half sputter and Ivan Nova has impressed with a mature attitude. The fifth starter competition flashed depth, and Tanaka -- despite beginning the season as the No. 4 starter -- appears to be living up to the hype as a solid big league-ready starter.
"Everything he's handled with ease, as if he's done it before," general manager Brian Cashman said. "He feels like he's been a part of this organization for more than the six or eight weeks it's been. [Hideki] Matsui was like that too; he's just fit in since Day 1."
Robertson received strong votes of confidence from Rivera and Yankees management over the winter, and he will pace a bullpen with a good deal of turnover. Shawn Kelley and Matt Thornton will fill prominent roles, with contributions from hurlers like David Phelps, Adam Warren and Dellin Betances.
"I'm committed to that [ninth] inning," Robertson said. "I've got to finish it. I'm your last chance, and you're not going to beat me today."
Coming off an 85-win season -- one that the Yankees believe they overachieved in, for what it's worth -- the offense was the largest area of upgrade. It started behind the plate with Brian McCann, who swings a power bat and has received rave reviews from the team's pitchers for his leadership and game-calling.
"It's humbling to put on this uniform and to share that little dirt area with the catchers in the past," McCann said. "As a baseball fan, that's a pretty cool experience."
Jacoby Ellsbury adds speed, spark and defense to the top of the order, trading in his Red Sox pedigree for the duties of setting the table for Jeter.
"I'm looking forward to it," Ellsbury said. "I'm excited for Opening Day, excited for the season to get underway. I know all the guys are anxious to get going."
The heart of the order features Carlos Beltran, who has quietly enjoyed a productive spring, and the welcome return of Teixeira. Limited to just 15 games last season, Teixeira has shown nary a wince or grimace stemming from his surgically repaired right wrist.
"I think the great thing is, look at our lineup," Teixeira said. "We're back to being the Yankees again. Last year, we weren't the Yankees. We had so many injuries and we had so many guys that should have been in there to be lots of anchors. That's back."
Alfonso Soriano extends the lineup as a dangerous designated hitter and part-time outfielder, while Johnson has worked long hours with infield coach Mick Kelleher to mold himself into a capable third baseman; so much that the Yankees have backed off the idea of platooning Johnson at the position.
"I think he's done a pretty good job in Spring Training understanding what his role is," Girardi said. "I think it's going to be just fine."
Roberts has seemed to be a fit at second base, buddying up with Jeter to hold down the middle infield. Health is Roberts' main concern after missing 445 games over the last four years, but he has had an incident-free spring.
The Yankees also feel good about their bench depth, which is highlighted by Francisco Cervelli, Eduardo Nunez and, of course, Ichiro Suzuki -- arguably over-qualified to be a fifth outfielder, but still trying to find a niche on a restocked roster that considers it mandatory to get back into postseason play.
"I think we have very good depth," Girardi said. "Last year with all the injuries, we just kind of ran out of depth. This year, I think our front office did a tremendous job."