01/01/11 10:00 AM EST
Yanks enter '11 with unfamiliar uncertainty
By Bryan Hoch / MLB.com
Since there will be no such ceremony when the Yankees put the pinstripes back on in April, it is fair to say that they have some work to do in climbing back to the top of the mountain.
The 2010 season ended more abruptly than they would have liked, reaching the end of the line on an October evening in Arlington during the American League Championship Series, just two victories shy of the World Series.
For the most part, the Yankees figure to head into 2011 with the same key components that powered their push last season, though they will need to have several questions answered along the way if title No. 28 is to be secured.
Here are 10 of the Yankees' biggest questions as they head into 2011:
1. What will the price be of waiting for Cliff Lee?
The Yankee playbook typically goes as follows: Identify top target, make highest offer, sign player. It worked with CC Sabathia in 2008; not so much with Lee in '10. The pitching landscape is scarce at this point, and while general manager Brian Cashman promises to monitor the free-agent and trade markets, it is possible the Yankees could be searching for pitching into the season -- after all, they almost got Lee from the Mariners in early July, and could try something similar later on. Right now, their rotation would figure to feature Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes, followed by rookie Ivan Nova and journeyman Sergio Mitre. It may not look terrific, but there will certainly be other candidates in the mix by February.
2. How do they get 'Good A.J.' to the mound every fifth day?
When he was with the Blue Jays, Burnett gave the Yankees such headaches that Derek Jeter once went to Cashman, telling him that he needed to get this guy on their side. But the Yankees endured different problems with Burnett in 2010, as he suffered through a miserable year that saw him post the highest ERA (5.26) for any Yankees starter ever with more than 180 innings. Burnett's mechanics were out of whack, and he seemed to battle concentration issues as well. New pitching coach Larry Rothschild will begin working with Burnett in January, as the hurler converted a barn at his Maryland residence into an indoor pitching area. The Yankees signed Burnett to be a top-of-the-rotation starter and he needs to pitch like one.
3. Is Andy Pettitte really going to call it quits?
True, Pettitte seems to do this every year, toying between pitching and staying at home with his family. But Cashman and Girardi both sensed Pettitte was more serious about it when he packed up for Deer Park, Texas, in October, and Pettitte has told the Yankees to proceed as though he's not coming back. Injuries may play a part. A two-month stay on the disabled list was agonizing for Pettitte, who felt unable to help the team, and he was also hurt during the playoffs. But if he returns, the rotation would essentially just replace Javier Vazquez with Ivan Nova, which makes it much more appealing than it looks now. Pettitte knows the door is open and there's money waiting for him, if he indeed wants to put the spikes on for another summer.
4. Can Jeter change the opinions?
It took longer than expected and some feelings were bruised along the way, but Jeter and the Yankees finally agreed on a three-year, $51 million deal in December. Now Jeter needs to prove that signing a 37-year-old shortstop coming off his worst offensive season wasn't a bad idea. Jeter showed a side of himself few have seen at his press conference, flashing anger toward the Yankees for putting him through the process of being a free agent and telling him to shop himself to other clubs. He needs to use that as motivation to come back strong in 2011 and ward off thoughts that he should be dropped in the batting order.
5. How long will Mariano Rivera continue to be great?
Someday, the bullpen gates will swing open for the ninth inning in the Bronx and Rivera won't be the one answering the call. Obviously, the Yankees don't believe that's going to happen in 2011 -- or 2012, for that matter, since they've just inked the 41-year-old closer for another two years. And why not? Rivera continued to be great in '10, posting a 1.80 ERA and converting 33 of 38 save chances. They have bigger problems, for sure, but Rivera admits his body is more creaky than it used to be and he will have to be handled with care.
6. Is Russell Martin going to be a good fit behind the plate?
Now that Jorge Posada has been moved to a full-time designated-hitter role, the Yankees figure to entrust the catching duties to Martin, who signed a one-year contract in December. Martin is a low-risk, high-reward pickup, hoping to bounce back from injuries and return to the form that made him one of the best catchers in the National League in 2007 and '08. If Martin can't, the Yankees could go with their original plan to put power-hitting prodigy Jesus Montero behind the dish. Austin Romine and Francisco Cervelli would also be in the mix.
7. Should they pencil in another typical Alex Rodriguez season?
Given how many questions have been asked about A-Rod during his time in New York, the Yankees will gladly field this one. We already know Rodriguez can win here, and he's become a better teammate over the last few years. The biggest concern is that balky right hip which requires consistent monitoring. A-Rod gave the Yankees another 30 homers and 125 RBIs in 2010, but he'll turn 36 in July and manager Joe Girardi will have to keep a close eye on his third baseman so as not to wear him down for the stretch drive.
8. Can the same outfield have a better performance?
The Yankees aren't making any changes with their outfield, so Brett Gardner will be back in left field, joined by Curtis Granderson in center and Nick Swisher in right. That same group will try to improve after mixed results in 2010. Gardner's speed is a plus, but it was clear that he paid a price for a hit-by-pitch in June, as the resulting wrist injury nagged him all year and finally required surgery in December. For his second year in New York, Granderson needs to come back as the guy the Yankees saw in September and October after Kevin Long re-tooled his swing. Swisher's switch-hitting stroke improved greatly after he tired of looking at a .249 batting average in '09, improving it by 39 points last year. He must continue his motivated workout plan and keep the numbers moving in the right direction.
9. What should the bridge to Rivera be made of?
It won't be wood, as in Kerry Wood, who surprised many by signing a one-year deal with the Cubs for much less ($1.5 million) than the multi-year deal he wanted from the Yankees. So the Yankees must move on, realizing that it was Wood (0.69 ERA in 24 appearances) who made their bullpen a strength down the stretch last year. With Cashman not willing to compete with closer money for free agents, they may patch from within. Joba Chamberlain isn't being considered as a starter, which frees him to reclaim the eighth-inning job he lost due to inconsistency. David Robertson could also be a candidate, and he would like to bounce back after struggling through a tough postseason.
10. Should the Yankees be afraid of the Red Sox?
They don't give out Hot Stove League championships, but if they did, there might be a ceremony at Fenway Park. Then again, the Yankees have won winters before and they didn't translate to titles. In any event, Red Sox look much more formidable with the additions of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, and a word to the wise for the Yankees' catchers: it was almost laughable how the Red Sox ran wild on Rivera and Posada in September. They'll probably try that again. Lefty workhorse Pedro Feliciano comes over from the Mets and will join Boone Logan in the bullpen. They'll need that, because Boston features a ton of dangerous lefties in Jacoby Ellsbury, Crawford, Gonzalez, David Ortiz and J.D. Drew.
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.