New York Yankees Roster Battles: The Most Intriguing Spring Position Battles

Peter AlfanoContributor IIMarch 15, 2012

New York Yankees Roster Battles: The Most Intriguing Spring Position Battles

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    Job openings don't occur often with the Yankees.

    Consider, for example, that Derek Jeter has been a fixture at shortstop and Mariano Rivera has been a bastion of the bullpen since the end of Bill Clinton's first term as president.

    Similarly, Alex Rodriguez has been the third baseman since 2004 and Robinson Cano has held down second since 2005.

    By those standards, Mark Teixeira is a relative newcomer taking over first base in 2009. And Teixeira isn't expected to relinquish the position anytime soon.

    When people talk about change with the Yankees, it usually involves the starting rotation. This season is no exception. The back end of the rotation is a work in progress if you take manager Joe Girardi at his word.

    For that matter, there are also some variables involved in the guys behind the plate who will be catching those pitchers.

    The Yankees are expected to use a platoon at the designated hitter position with Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones, but will Eric Chavez become part of the mix?

    Can Ibanez move ahead of Nick Swisher in the starting outfield? 

    While Rivera is the undisputed all-time closer in baseball, there may be renewed competition for the set-up role if Rafael Soriano can bounce back from his disappointing first season in New York and David Robertson falters.

    Let's take a closer look at some of the positions that are for the taking on the Yankees.   

Can Francisco Cervelli or Austin Romaine Eventually Become the Starting Catcher?

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    Although he is only 29, Russell Martin's batting average and OBP continue to slide since he came up with the Dodgers in 2006.

    Despite a fast start in which the carried the Yankees early last season, Martin finished with a .237 batting average, the lowest of his career. He did hit 18 home runs, the most since he hit 19 in Los Angeles in 2007, and does add significant pop behind the plate.

    Francisco Cervelli, however, has been remarkably consistent in his back-up role with the Yankees the past three years. He is a good receiver, and while he doesn't hit for power, his lifetime average is .272.

    Martin figures to do the bulk of the catching as long as he remains injury-free and doesn't become a defensive liability.

    The wild card in the catching equation is Austin Romine. He is only 23, but may be the catcher of the future. He has a strong arm and is more than adequate defensively. He can also hit, although he doesn't have the potential of Jesus Montero, who was traded tlo Seattle for Michael Pineda.

    It's difficult envisioning the Yankees turning over their pitching staff to a kid who started only four games getting a taste of big league life with the Yankees in 2011.

    He could move up in the pecking order, though, if Martin or Cervelli get injured or don't perform as expected.  

Will Raul Ibanez Be Solely a DH or Could He Switch Places with Nick Swisher?

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    The Yankees appear to be using the designated hitter role as a stepping stone to retirement. Raul Ibanez, who will be 40 on June 2, will get the majority of at-bats with Andruw Jones starting against lefties.

    Ibanez batted .245, 35 points below his career average,for the Phils in 2011, but he still can reach the seats and drive in runs. He had 20 homers and 84 RBI, which are good numbers for a corner outfielder.

    In fact, here is an intriguing thought. Nick Swisher, who is only 30 and a kid by Yankee standards, hit 23 homers and drove in 85 runs last season. He batted .only 260. 

    On the surface, this gives the Yankees a lot of flexibility. Ibanez can get some playing time in the outfield with Swisher taking a day off or giving Mark Teixeira a break at first. Manager Joe Girardi can use Ibanez and Jones in the same lineup if either Swisher or Teixeira are slumping for get injured.

    Jones, who is 34, hit 13 home runs and drove in 33 runs in 222 plate appearances and had a .495 slugging percentage, and there is Eric Chavez added to the mix. He might get most of the action at third when Alex Rodriguez is rested, and perhaps an occasional start as the DH. 

    Chavez, who is also 34, has spent the past five seasons mostly sidelined with injuries.

    So there are two ways of looking at this: Girardi has a lot of options that will enable him to gives these older players enough rest to keep them fresh over the long grind, or everyone will look their age and play like it too.

    The key may be Ibanez and how he fares in his return to the American League.

Even with Michael Pineda, the Yankees Rotation Remains Unsettled

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    Trading Jesus Montero to the Seattle Mariners for Michael Pineda, signing free agent Hiroki Kuroda and dumping A.J. Burnett on the Pittsburgh Pirates were supposed to transform the Yankees Achilles heel into a strength.

    Entering spring training, the Yankees had CC Sabathia and Kuroda penciled in the top two spots of the rotation, with Ivan Nova and Pineda next in line.

    That ostensibly left Hughes, who is trying to regain the form that made him an 18-game winner in 2010, fighting it out with Freddie Garcia, who at 35, was 12-8 last season with a respectable 3.62 ERA.

    Manager Joe Girardi loved this new-found depth in the rotation, knowing that prospects such as Dellin Betances are about ready to compete for a spot as well.

    But as much as spring training is about hope and expectations, it can also dampen spirits and raise issues as well.

    Kuroda, remember, is 37 and logged a lot of innings in Japan before joining the Dodgers in 2008. In four seasons in L.A., he was 41-45 with a good ERA of 3.45.

    But how will those numbers translate to the hitter-happy American League and Yankee Stadium, which will never be described as a pitcher's park like Dodger Stadium?

    Garcia, meanwhile, was hit on his throwing hand by a ground ball during an exhibition game. The X-rays were negative, but the bruise might delay his next spring start.

    Nova has had some good and not-so-good performances, which usually means nothing for an experienced pitcher, but makes managers a little apprehensive when it is a young guy who had a breakthrough year in 2011.

    More troubling for the Yankees is that they appear fixated on Pineda's velocity instead of his physical progress and mental preparation for life under the microscope in New York. The 23-year-old is reportedly hitting only 92 miles per hour on the radar gun, about three mph below what he averaged in his rookie season with the Mariners last year.

    You even hear the Yankees talking about possibly sending their prized acquisition to the minors to finish losing 10 pounds and find the rest of his fastball. That won't play well in the Big Apple if Montero is tearing it up in Seattle.

    Hughes appears to be solidifying his rotation spot. He came to camp in better shape and is throwing well. The question is, will it last?

    And now you can Andy Pettitte to the mix. Will the Yankees have an embarrassment of riches in their starting rotation or a bunch of embarrassments?

Will the Reliever Who Precedes Mariano Rivera Be the One Who Succeeds Him?

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    Who was the best pitcher in the Yankees bullpen in 2011?

    Mariano Rivera, right?

    Rivera had another of his incomparable years, with 44 saves, a 1.91 ERA and WHIP of .897. He now has 603 saves, the most in major league history.

    But there was another Yankee reliever who was equally impressive in the set-up role. David Robertson, who will turn 27 in April, may have become the front-runner as Yankees closer-of-the-future with a season even the team's front office couldn't have expected.

    Robertson pitched in 70 games and was 4-0 with a 1.08 ERA. His WHIP was 1.125, which means manager Joe Girardi did not have many uncomfortable moments watching Robertson get himself into and out of jams.

    Managers, however, don't pencil in similar statistics for pitchers after they have done it only once. The question this season is whether Robertson can come close to matching 2011 after three years of inconsistency in the bullpen.

    Robertson isn't off to a good start. In fact, he isn't off to any start yet. He suffered a bone bruise on his foot when he slipped while moving boxes into his spring training home.

    How will a delayed spring training affect him? No one knows.

    But it does give Rafael Soriano a chance to move back into the set-up role he inherited when the Yankees signed him last year. In 2010, Soriano saved 45 games and had a 1.73 ERA for the Tampa Bay Rays.

    He was in the last year of his contract, so the Yankees swooped in and signed him for the set-up role and insurance in case Rivera was injured or suddenly looked his age.

    He was a big disappointment, however. In 42 games, he was 2-3 with a 4.12 ERA. Injuries limited him to 39 innings.

    Soriano is only 32, and if he can bounce back, he will give the Yankees potentially three shutdown relievers from the seventh inning on. And apparently, he knows he is going to have competition for the closer's role if Rivera retires after this season.