With Opening Day upon us, the Yankees are set to deploy a completely different lineup than they did last year. Injuries, signings, suspensions, and trades contributed to this big swing in the roster, and fortunately it's for the better. The Yankees' lineup tonight will be a vast upgrade from 2013, and their rotation looks younger and stronger, with upside that could make them one of the strongest in baseball. Still, questions remain about the 2014 season, questions that will only be answered by performances on the field and in the front office. Here are the big questions and narratives that will run throughout the 2014 season.
Can They Stay Healthy? After a year of bizarre injury problems, the Yankees have replaced a portion of their roster and added a ton of depth to the system. Surprisingly, the Yankees have remained healthy thus far, and only Brendan Ryan will be on the disabled list. It's hard to see how far this team can stay healthy with both Derek Jeter and Brian Roberts manning the two middle infield positions. Perhaps the two most demanding defensive positions on the field have been handed to a 39 year old that played 17 games last year, and a 36 year old that's played just 192 games over the last 4 years.
Both players have looked fine defensively, at least as fine as upper 30 year olds can look at the position, but leg and back injuries remain a concern for both Roberts and Jeter. Whether these two players can stay healthy and productive will be a major factor for to the 2014 club, as they'll show up in big situations both offensively and defensively. If they can't stay healthy, the Yankees will have to turn to Brendan Ryan, Dean Anna, Yangervis Solarte, and Eduardo Nunez, a tier of players that doesn't look so different from the ones that haunted their troublesome 2013 season.
Are They Old? We know that Roberts and Jeter are old, but the next group of mid 30 year olds in CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira are on the fence. Both players had poor 2013 seasons, with Sabathia being highly ineffective with diminished velocity and command, and Teixeira hardly playing after his pre-season wrist injury. The Yankees owe both players a ton of money, and it's possible that they've reached a point where age and playing time has caught up to them.
Teixeira will need to show the Yankees that his wrist is healthy again, but that hasn't stopped the first baseman from complaining about stiffness. Though it's given him no pain, the first baseman is aware of the difficulty he'll have in overcoming his 1 year hiatus, and 2014 will prove whether or not the Yankees over-invested in the switch hitter. Similarly, Sabathia has to show that he can again be effective with his fastball, either by pitching with better command or re-gaining his velocity. They'll be important parts to the 2014 season, but with their long term deals, these two players also represent the Yankees' future production.
Were They Worth The Money? After investing half a billion dollars in new players, the Yankees came up with a chunk of the roster that's no guarantee to succeed. Masahiro Tanaka's large investment comes without any experience in a major league game, and his transition to the MLB might be more difficult than we expect. Though his upside is a potential MVP player, Jacoby Ellsbury has dealt with not only injuries over his entire career, but diminished power in his last couple of seasons. Staying healthy and taking advantage of the right field porch could prove the Yankees' invested wisely, but there's also a ton of risk considering the length of his contract. Carlos Beltran also took a relatively long term deal to land, one that'll keep him under team control through his age 39 season. He'll need to prove that he can remain productive over the next three years, despite his offensive production slipping. He'll also need to stay on the field and prove that his legs are healthy as he plays the outfield along with Alfonso Soriano.
Brian McCann has one of the toughest jobs of all, though the Yankees didn't commit nearly as much as Tanaka or Ellsbury, he'll have a huge say in both the offensive and defensive side of the game. Offensively, McCann will start the season as the cleanup hitter against right-handed pitchers, but he'll also have to learn a whole new pitching staff. With a number of young guys added to both the rotation and bullpen, McCann needs to contribute with both his bat and his glove by scoring runs and saving them.
The last two guys that'll have to prove their value have already earned their spotlight with the Yankees. Hiroki Kuroda returns with a new $16 million deal, and at 39 years old, he'll have to show that his late-season struggles were bad luck. Kuroda looked a little too hittable in Spring Training, but his ability to command the ball has remained. Meanwhile, Brett Gardner's new extension will only be justified if he can stay healthy. His value is undeniable defensively, and his bat is underrated as he can do a remarkable job of extending at bats to a hefty number of pitches. Gardner has shown that when he plays regularly, he's one of the most valuable players in the game, but from such a gritty player, health will not be the easiest obstacle to overcome.
Can The Yankees Build A New Core? Finally, with Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and now Derek Jeter retiring, and with Robinson Cano headed to the Mariners, the Yankees need to build a new young core of players if they want to repeat their dynasty. They've added Tanaka through international free agency, but they also need to add young players that are cost controlled. Despite having deep pockets, the Yankees cannot sustain all their costly long term deals to players in their 30's without having a few cheap impact players. The team does have some very young players coming through the system in 2014, and it'll be fun and important to watch the production of Ivan Nova, Dellin Betances, and Michael Pineda. These three pitchers could emerge as the future core of this club.
Offensively, the Yankees still need to add high-impact depth. Their farm system has quite a few names that could emerge as top prospects, and watching the farm system in 2014 should be a lot of fun with guys like Manny Banuelos, Gary Sanchez, Mason Williams, Slade Heathcott, Tyler Austin, J.R. Murphy, Eric Jagielo, Aaron Judge, Ian Clarkin, Greg Bird, Luis Severino, Gosuke Katoh, Jose Ramirez, Mark Montgomery, Ty Hensley, and Luis Torrens. The Yankees also plan to go on a spending spree in the international free agent market this July, spending around $15 million to $20 million on the top tier of international prospects. Assuming other teams adhere to the spending restrictions, the Yankees could potentially add a handful of top international prospects to the system in an attempt to build the new core for the next Yankees dynasty.