Complete New York Yankees 2014 Season Preview

Peter RichmanCorrespondent IMarch 27, 2014

Complete New York Yankees 2014 Season Preview

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Expectations are everything in the Bronx; they're hard to ignore when the club's history and current spending produce and project them so high.

    They're more difficult to forgo because last season's 85-77 record left the team short of the postseason and sent them into the biggest reactionary frenzy since the winter that mended and retooled the 2008 debacle into the 2009 World Series champions.

    And now, following a successful spring training, what had been on-paper, calculated, anxious anticipation has become justified, high expectation for the regular season. The refashioned yet untested 2014 Yankees resemble a more cohesive, well-rounded and productive team than anyone may have predicted a month ago.

    But even with optimism continually rising, no team's 2014 outlook is more bipolar than New York's. Think about how stunningly dominant, effective and efficient this ballclub could be with all its pieces in harmony; yet think of how many unstable, moving parts could send the same club into a tailspin. 

    The only remaining questions linger out in the bullpen, but doubts will hover until the team plays like a sustainable, formidable contender for more than 30 games.

    There's one final factor—the most significant one—yet to be mentioned. It focuses on one player, in particular, and whether he diverts the pressure away from others like David Robertson, Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda and Jacoby Ellsbury ultimately hinges on his own performance.

    Because as much as this team looks and feels like the 2009 model, that one key difference is the captain, Derek Jeter, who will begin his final year of baseball.

    And that final year, which was once impending, will unavoidably be set in motion on Tuesday in Houston, as just three games remain in spring training before the team heads west for Opening Day.

    The following slides will get you ready for the Yankees 2014 regular season, which includes: a recap of spring training; a breakdown of the lineup, rotation and bullpen; and prospects and breakouts candidates to keep an eye on. It ends with a preview of the Astros series and predictions for the team's final record and playoff situation.

     

    2014 spring training statistics and information courtesy of Yankees.MLB.com and current as of March 26; pre-2014 statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference, unless otherwise noted.

Spring Training Recap

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    C Francisco Cervelli
    C Francisco CervelliDavid Manning-USA TODAY Sports

    Overview

    An excellent spring training and month of March has yielded favorable results overallthough for the several hot starts on both sides of the ball, there have been just as many mini-slumps and poor performances.

    Admittedly, the new triumvirate of Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran were collectively unremarkable the past month, though Beltran is the least to blame (.292, 2 HR, 3 2B, 9 RBI). McCann leads the team in strikeouts (11), and Ellsbury is batting .143.

    There's still no real contingency plan if Teixeira over-swings and tweaks his wrist in April, and he's not playing well at the moment, regardless (3-for-30, 8 K). Jeter's gone 7-for-49 with nine strikeouts and a team-high nine GIDP. He has also committed an error at shortstop. 

    The ace of the staff, CC Sabathia, sounds confident enough and pitched that way this spring (17.0 IP, 1.59 ERA, 16/3 K/BB), though his new body and trailing doubts from last season will follow him for the start of the regular season. Hiroki Kuroda was the lone weak point of the team's starters, getting knocked around (12 H) in just 8.1 innings of work.

    Preston Claiborne, who had already been making a strong case to go from projected late-inning arm to DFA (5.2 IP, 14.29 ERA, .452 opponent average), may have sealed the deal on Wednesday when he couldn't record an out (4 H, 6 ER, 1 HBP, 1 BB).

    A good chunk of the pitching staff and several bright spots of prolific hitting have mitigated the picture, however. Michael Pineda looked sharp while winning the fifth spot in the rotation (15.0 IP, 1.20 ERA, 16/1 K/BB), and you couldn't discern between Masahiro Tanaka (15.0 IP, 3.00 ERA, 16/3 K/BB) and someone who'd gone through spring training for years.

    Of players with at least 20 at-bats, three hit in the .400s, four hit in the .300s and six hit .250-.299. Two surprise hitters were the most impressive: backup wonder Francisco Cervelli hit .417, drove in seven and totaled a team-high four home runs, and non-roster invitee Yangervis Solarte led the camp with a .459 average while driving in eight and adding two homers.

     

    Standouts: Position Players

    PlayerABHRHRRBIBBSOBAOBP
    Y. Solarte, 2B371792856.459.524
    F. Cervelli, C3615104725.417.462
    A. Garcia, CF311340615.419.438
    Z. Almonte, LF361371234.361.410
    Z. Wheeler, 3B341130655.324.410

    Back on March 4, Solarte spoke about his goals. The second baseman has never reached the bigs, and at this point he was just five games into camp but had already gone 7-for-9 with two homers. Through an interpreter, he said the following, via MLB.com's Bryan Hoch:

    I don't even want to mention the word "Triple-A" at this moment. My dream is to play in the Majors. I got very hurt when I did not get called up to the Majors last year, so I feel that I can't get my heart broken like that again.

    I'm tired of the Minors. I feel that I have done everything I could do. I love playing baseball, I have worked so hard, I have met every goal that I had. Now I feel that the next challenge is the Major Leagues.

    Originally, just one backup-infield spot had remained with Brendan Ryan re-signed this offseason to a two-year, $5 million contract. But with Ryan set to start the season on the disabled list, as NJ.com's Brendan Kuty reports, the door is open for Solarte.

    The question is whether, along with likely option Eduardo Nunez (because of MLB time), he will be chosen over Scott Sizemore (.316) or Dean Anna (.297).

     

    Standouts: Pitchers

    PitcherIPHERHRBBSOWHIPERA
    C. Cabral, LHP8.0300681.130.00
    D. Betances, RHP11.14104100.710.79
    M. Daley, RHP8.2510190.691.04
    Y. Tateyama, RHP8.06111110.881.13
    M. Pineda, RHP15.014201161.001.20
    C. Leroux, RHP13.2921090.661.32
    C. Sabathia, LHP17.010303160.761.59
    A. Warren, RHP9.28214101.241.86
    D. Phelps, RHP20.220624141.162.61

    Phelps and Warren lost the battle for the No. 5 spot in the rotation, but they each impressed this spring. According to Joe Girardi, per Kuty, their respective performances all but secured their spots on the 25-man roster.

    Dellin Betances' showing didn't just stand out this spring; he could prove to be a major power arm in the bullpen in 2014. The New York native stands at 6'8", 260 pounds and overpowered Grapefruit League opponents. 

    It's also worth noting how well three of the NRIs pitched this month. Matt Daley, Yoshinori Tateyama and Chris Leroux all exceeded expectations and could sneak into the big league relief scenario should Girardi and Cashman need to experiment as the season progresses.

     

    Notable Cuts (Spring Stats)

    • Austin Romine, C: 28 AB, .179, 6 K
    • John Ryan Murphy, C: 26 AB. .077, 1 HR, 6 K
    • Ramon Flores, LF: 27 AB, .259, 1 HR, 1 2B, 5 RBI
    • Mason Williams, CF: 24 AB, .167, 2 2B, 4 RBI
    • Tyler Austin, RF: N/A
    • Slade Heathcott, CF: N/A
    • Gary Sanchez, C: 11 AB, .364, 2 HR, 3 RBI
    • Manny Banuelos, LHP: 1.0 IP,  4 H, 7 ER, 1 HR, 3 BB, 2 K, 63.00 ERA
    • Chase Whitley, RHP: 4.2 IP, 8 H, 7 ER, 1 HR, 4 BB, 4 K, 13.50 ERA
    • Bryan Mitchell, RHP: 3.0 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 5 K
    • Mark Montgomery, RHP: 4.1 IP, 1 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 2.08 ERA

Injury Updates Entering Opening Day

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    SS Brendan Ryan last played March 4  due to a pinched nerve in his back.
    SS Brendan Ryan last played March 4 due to a pinched nerve in his back.Associated Press

    Returning from Injury

    • Derek Jeter, SS (ankle)
    • Mark Teixeira, 1B (wrist)
    • Michael Pineda, SP (shoulder) 

     

    Injury Updates

    Brendan Ryan (back)

    NJ.com's Brendan Kuty reported on Wednesday that the Yankees will "wait until the very last second, but they will put backup shortstop Brendan Ryan on the 15-day disabled list to start the season."

    His last game was March 4, and he was initially scratched from action because of an oblique strain. But upon returning, he suffered a pinched nerve in his back, around the neck area.

    Expect the Yankees to clear a roster spot in Ryan's absence. In addition to rehabilitating his body, he'll need to get the reps at the plate that he missed this spring.

     

    Jacoby Ellsbury (calf)

    "I feel like I could just hop right in there and play right now and be ready to go," Ellsbury said on Tuesday after playing in a minor league game, via ESPN New York's Wallace Matthews

    The new Yankees center fielder has not played since March 14 because of a sore calf. MLB.com's Bryan Hoch reports that Ellsbury will not play in a Grapefruit League game until the club knows for sure that a DL stint can be avoided. For the meantime, Ellsbury will continue to get more minor league action.

Lineup Preview

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    The new trifecta; (from left) Beltran, McCann and Ellsbury.
    The new trifecta; (from left) Beltran, McCann and Ellsbury.Associated Press

    Projected Lineup

    1. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
    2. Derek Jeter, SS
    3. Carlos Beltran, RF
    4. Mark Teixeira, 1B
    5. Brian McCann, C
    6. Alfonso Soriano, DH
    7. Kelly Johnson, 3B
    8. Brian Roberts, 2B
    9. Brett Gardner, LF

     

    Projected Bench

    • Ichiro Suzuki, OF/DH
    • Eduardo Nunez, INF
    • Dean Anna, INF
    • Francisco Cervelli, C

     

    Analysis

    This will be Derek Jeter's final season, but it will also be the initial experiment of the post-Robinson Cano era. Brian Roberts takes over at second base on a one-year, $2 million deal and brings a very useful switch-hitting bat to the bottom third of the order (.262, 92 wRC+ vs. LHP; .288, 109 wRC+ vs. RHP).

    Kelly Johnson will fill in for the suspended Alex Rodriguez, playing an everyday role at third base for the first time in his career. 

    The McCann/Ellsbury/Beltran splash upgrades the Yankees at three positions. Ellsbury stole 52 bases last season and had 13 DRS and a 10.2 UZR/150. His 113 wRC+ from 2013 projects to add a huge boost to the leadoff spot.

    In his postseason career, Beltran is a .333/.445/.683 (1.128 OPS) hitter with 16 homers and 40 RBI. Brian McCann has hit 20 or more home runs in seven of eight full seasons.

    Girardi has a lot of good pieces to work with and could conceivably do some shifting of the order—especially in the bottom third. In a recent article, I made a case based off weighted runs created for an alternate—and "ideal"—lineup against lefties that sees Jeter as the leadoff man, with Ellsbury hitting No. 2, Soriano hitting No. 5 and McCann at No. 6. 

    The most formidable part of the order is clearly Nos. 3-6, though, as each of the batters in those spots has the potential for 30 home runs and 100 RBI.

    Expect Girardi to give Ichiro some spot starts in order to rest Beltran or Soriano. Ichiro can also be used as a pinch-hitter or a late-game defensive substitution in right. Almonte had a great spring, but with no room for him in the Bronx to start the season (barring a last-minute Ichiro trade), expect his return to come around midseason.

    I'm favoring the Yankees to go with Nunez because of his experience and strong second half in 2013 (.284/.321/.426, 20 RBI, 101 wRC+) that saw him heat up in the final two months (.295/.321/.487, 2 HR, 7 2B, 119 wRC+). After him, I like Dean Anna to get his first crack at a spot on the big league roster after batting .297 this spring and also due to the fact that he's already occupying a spot on the 40-man roster (unlike Solarte, unfortunately).

    Since Romine and Murphy have been optioned to the minors, Cervelli slides into the backup catcher role. After his prolific camp, expect him to have a great month of April in limited time. 

Rotation Preview

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    Sabathia, Tanaka and Nova each speak a different language but have had strong camps in Tampa.
    Sabathia, Tanaka and Nova each speak a different language but have had strong camps in Tampa.Associated Press

    Rotation

    1. CC Sabathia
    2. Hiroki Kuroda
    3. Ivan Nova
    4. Masahiro Tanaka
    5. Michael Pineda

     

    Analysis

    After a sparkling spring, Pineda had won the final spot in the rotation by Sunday. Per the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Barbarisi, Girardi said: "We weren't sure what we were going to get from Michael. He threw extremely well. It was what we wanted to see from him. He improved with each outing, and at times was dominant."

    After Pineda missed the entire 2012 and 2013 seasons, the Yankees are fortunate to have such an imposing force as the fifth starter. The 6'7", 265-pound, 25-year-old fanned 16 over 15 innings of work this spring to go along with a 1.20 ERA.

    "I feel so happy," Pineda said, per Barbarisi. "I've been working so hard for the last two years to be in New York, to help my team, and today they make me happy. Because I'm working so hard all the time to be here."

    The more interesting news came Monday, when Girardi announced that Tanaka would be the No. 4 starter instead of the expected No. 3, per Erik Boland of Newsday.

    Because of the similar styles of Kuroda and Tanaka, the move is intended to break up the comfort level of opposing batters. It's also a "concession to the continued adjustments Tanaka is making to the big leagues," writes Boland. "The biggest of them...is pitching every fifth day, compared to every sixth or seventh day in Japan."

    It's not a complete surprise since Larry Rothschild hinted at it back on March 15, per Boland. More recently, he said: "I think we weigh the schedule a little bit where [Tanaka] can get extra rest early in the season to try to keep him strong through the year."

    This spring he was certainly effective (15.0 IP, 3.00 ERA, 16/3 K/BB), but he wasn't dominant (12 H, 5 ER, 1 HR). Here's one scout's qualified characterization, per the New York Daily News' John Harper:

    He’s better than [No. 4] but I’m not sure how much better. His splitter is getting swings and misses but I need to see if hitters will chase it after they see it a couple of times.

    And I haven’t seen him be able to dial up a 97 on his fastball when he needs it, as I heard he could. So far I’m seeing an average fastball, so I need to see if he can get into counts where the splitter can be a put-away pitch. I don’t think he has to be a No. 1 for the Yankees to be OK because their pitching looks better than I expected. But he has to be more than a No. 4.

    Sabathia, meanwhile, quelled much of the worry about his weight loss (17.0 IP, 1.59 ERA, 16 K), and despite Nova's hitability (21 H, 8 ER), he didn't give up the long ball in 19.2 innings this spring and struck out a team-high 21 batters.

    The only minor red flag was Kuroda. Though he recorded eight punch-outs and allowed just one walk in 8.1 innings, he also allowed 12 hits and six earned runs.

    Overall, the rotation looks poised for a remarkable 2014 campaign.

Bullpen Preview

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    Dellin Betances continued an impressive spring when he worked out of a bases-loaded jam on Sunday.
    Dellin Betances continued an impressive spring when he worked out of a bases-loaded jam on Sunday.Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Bullpen

    • David Robertson, CL
    • Shawn Kelley, SU
    • Matt Thornton, LHP
    • Dellin Betances, RHP
    • Cesar Cabral, LHP
    • Adam Warren, RHP
    • David Phelps, RHP

     

    Analysis

    Following the Yankees' 10-6 loss to Toronto on Wednesday, Girardi was asked about the final bullpen spots, per ESPNNewYork.com's Wallace Matthews: "I think we look at taking our best team when we leave. In saying that, we have some tough decisions to make over the next three days, and it’s really less than that because we leave in three days."

    David Robertson is, and will always be, the first Yankee closer after Mariano Rivera. He tossed only six innings this spring but was his normally dominant, consistent self—allowing no runs, one hit and two walks while striking out five.

    Kelley is the second lock for late-inning duty, and despite four hits and a solo home run, the hard-throwing righty excelled in the Grapefruit League with seven strikeouts and no walks over 6.2 innings. 

    After them, not only does 26-year-old Betances deserve a role, but he has the potential to blossom into the most heralded bullpen arm in 2014. He's proven capable of overpowering hitters this spring (10.1 IP, 0.87 ERA 9 K, 4 H, 1 ER), and he has the closer-type arsenal and makeup to pitch late in games.

    On Sunday, he showed his mettle when he entered the game with bases loaded and one out in the seventh. He promptly struck out Jose Bautista on four pitches—reaching back for 95 and buckling his knees with a sharp-biting curve—and induced a fly-out from the next batter.

    "Those guys don't give at-bats away, not even in spring training," Girardi said, per Matthews

    As for the losers of the fifth-starter competition, both Phelps and Warren are virtual locks for the big league club, with the former slated for longer relief duty, the latter for middle relief and both for spot starts.

    Vidal Nuno, the third loser of the starter battle, will be up for the second lefty gig behind Thornton. Cesar Cabral and Fred Lewis are also strong options. "I mean, we always want to have two lefties. No question about that," Cashman said Wednesday, according to NJ.com's Kuty.

    However, per Kuty, Nuno said he's been asked to focus on becoming a long reliever, which wouldn't seem to coexist with both Phelps and Warren. If that leaves Lewis and Cabral, I like Cabral based off his superior spring (8.0 IP, 0 ER, 3 H, 8 K) and strengthened by Lewis' poor outing on Wednesday (0.2 IP, 2 ER, 2 H, 1 BB, 0 K).

    The primary red flags were an abysmal spring for Claiborne and a slow start for Thornton (2.1 IP, 3 ER, 7 H, 1 K), who has since picked it up (1.2 IP, 0 ER, 0 H).

    The biggest takeaway is that the bullpen situation appears much less daunting than it did a month ago. In fact, there's a bit of confidence in what is a corps of mostly unproven arms.

Prospects to Watch

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    CF Adonis Garcia batted .419 in 22 games this spring.
    CF Adonis Garcia batted .419 in 22 games this spring.Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

    A recent MLB farm-systems ranking by FanGraphs' Tony Blengino placed the Yankees at No. 20 and listed Gary Sanchez as the only "impact" prospect.

    If it weren't for the "glut of interesting talent" in rookie ball—like infielders Abiatal Avelino (whom I called the Yankees' best shortstop prospect) and Miguel Andujar (whom I called the most underrated Yankee prospect)—Blengino says he would have ranked them even lower.

    Here are my three—in addition to Sanchez, of course—to keep an eye on in 2014.

     

    Yangervis Solarte, 2B

    More interesting than Solarte's spring will be his first month of baseball if he doesn't make the 25-man roster. He's a career .286 hitter in eight minor league seasons and hasn't surpassed .288 or 12 homers at the Triple-A level (two seasons). But he has two homers in just 21 games this spring.

    He deserves a shot, but on the outside looking in because of Anna's 40-man spot, how does Solarte rebound in Scranton?

    One final thought: Upon a call-up, could he be the first Yankee to receive a rousing ovation prior to his first MLB at-bat? He's become spring training folklore.

     

    Adonis Garcia, CF

    Garcia, despite his 28 years of age, is technically a prospect, having bounced around several levels of the Yankees system since 2012. The 5'9", 190-pound center fielder owns a career .261/.309/.395 line with nine home runs and 41 RBI in 113 games. He reached Scranton for 50 games last season and posted a less-than-compelling .256/.312/.357 line, three homers and 10 RBI.

    But in 21 spring games, he's 12-for-30 (.419) with two doubles, six RBI and two stolen bases. If he outplays Zoilo Almonte, he could emerge as the next man up from Scranton to trek the Bronx outfield.

     

    Slade Heathcott, CF

    Recovering from a knee surgery last year, the speedy 2009 first-rounder hasn't appeared in a game in 2014. Chad Jennings of The LoHud Yankees Blog writes: "Heathcott said when he was in big league camp that he did not expect to be active on Opening Day, but he expects to be activated soon after."

    Jennings spoke with Mark Newman, the Yankees' vice president of baseball operations, who said: "He's getting closer. He's taking full BP. He's running. He's getting there."

    While we'll have to be patient with his return, I'm excited for the potential of a September call-up. While his Double-A teammate Mason Williams has taken a further step back after a poor spring (.167, 1 caught stealing, 4 K), Heathcott could be the most exciting call-up in 2014.

    He possesses an all-out, one-speed-only mentality defending the biggest part of the ballpark. He has incredible speed and quickness, and he's shown a consistent ability to shoot the gaps (22 2B in 2013). If he recovers fully from his knee injury and raises his average to that high-.280 level, he could be a force in the Bronx once the current All-Star logjam opens up.

Breakout Candidates

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    2014 could be the year of Michael Pineda's emergence.
    2014 could be the year of Michael Pineda's emergence.Associated Press

    On a 25-man roster primarily comprised of All-Stars, there was little room to begin with for outside competition to break camp.

    With so much high-caliber talent up and down, finding candidates for "breakout" performances is difficult. Consider that even a non-All-Star like Brett Gardner has already "broken out" and become a major factor in the Bronx (see: four-year, $52 million contract). 

    Here are three candidates who could break out in 2014.

     

    Dean Anna, 2B

    It would be a feel-good story on its own to see the 27-year-old veteran minor leaguer break camp with the big league club. It would be an entirely better one if he put together a breakout performance and became the go-to utility infielder in 2014. In six seasons, he's slashed a .286/.386/.428 line with 40 homers, 114 doubles and 248 RBI.

    He absolutely tore up the Pacific Coast League in Triple-A Tucson last season, batting .331/.410/.482 with nine home runs, 38 doubles and 73 RBI. This spring, he's been solid under the pressure of the backup-infield situation, going 11-for-37 (.297) with four RBI, six walks and a stolen base.

    He's hit .300 or better in three of his minor league stops, and if he can pull it off at the big league level, he could become the trustworthy solution the Yankees may have envisioned when they acquired him this offseason.

     

    Dellin Betances, RHP

    As mentioned, the imposing right-hander has closer-quality stuff with a mid- to high-90s fastball and sharp curve. He's had two call-ups (2011 and 2013), and in the most recent one, he was knocked around in just five innings (9 H, 6 ER, 1 HR, 2 BB), though he did strike out 10 (18.0 K/9).

    He's gradually improved each year in the minors, transitioning from a starter to a reliever in the process. He had a phenomenal 2013 at Scranton, where he pitched 84 innings to a 2.68 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 11.6 K/9 while picking up five saves.

    What's most interesting about Betances is that his breakout could begin to happen in the first month of baseball if he continues his progression from the Grapefruit League.

     

    Michael Pineda, RHP

    I'm including Pineda because his All-Star rookie season in 2011 obscures his still-existing room for growth in 2014. Consider he finished with a 3.74 ERA (9-10 record), 101 ERA+ and 9.1 K/9. 

    There's the concern over his innings, but if he reaches the 170 range of 2011, he has the potential for a monster year—and, again, this is the No. 5 starter. His 9.6 K/9 and 1.00 WHIP from this spring are especially tantalizing ahead of a full season in which his strength will continue to return and with it, his velocity.

    He has Sabathia as a mentor, Rothschild as a pitching coach, McCann as his catcher—and rather than the hopes of management and fans on his shoulders, he simply has a vote of confidence and little pressure at the back end.

Keys to Success

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    The Yankees could give the waiver wire more than a quick glance, they might shop one of their optioned catchers and they could conceivably eat part of Ichiro's salary in a trade. But none of those moves necessarily upgrades them. The overall key to success is trusting what they have.

    "We’re always looking at released players," Cashman said, per ESPNNewYork.com's Wallace Matthews. "We’re always looking at who's available. Last year, we were living off that. This year, we really have some people we can look at right in front of us at least. We’re not desperate right now, like we were last year, and I hope it stays that way." 

    After a good all-around spring, the best route to success is the simple patience and optimism that it carries over to April—and that no major injuries set them back. "I think so far we’ve had a really collective, healthy camp, and almost everybody that’s come in has performed well," Cashman noted. 

    The starting rotation appears incapable of allowing a five-game losing streak this season; better put, Sabathia, Kuroda, Nova, Tanaka and Pineda seem unlikely to cause a five-game losing streak.

    A major key to success, then, depends on the mostly young bullpen shutting the door for the next six months. While there isn't certainty that the projected seven will be dominant and efficient all season, there isn't a pressing need to search for more insurance.

    It's imperative, however, that the relievers prove themselves out of the gate.The first four starters are all prototypical workhorses, and it only benefits them to learn early on that they can trust handing the ball over in a tight, late-inning scenario.

    Rivera blew his first save as Yankees closer, so it'd be unfair to call for Robertson's head if did something similar. But as the new closer—the role that remains the biggest security blanket for a ballclub—a prolonged ineffectiveness during the opening weeks would not only be unacceptable, it could be detrimental to the confidence of the team.

    The other key depends on the ability of the stockpiled lineup to get early leads, to buoy the staff in high-scoring games and to bail them out of lackluster outings. With full health, and with so many prolific names from top to bottom, this is the type of lineup with the potential to put up 2009-like numbers. 

    But it's also necessary that the Yankees see steady production (and full health) from both Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira: The Nos. 2 and 4 hitters; the team's primary shortstop and premier first baseman; the Captain with more than 3,000 hits and the switch-hitter who averaged 37 homers and 114 RBI in his last three full seasons in pinstripes (2009-11); the two sorely missing from the 2013 picture.

    But again, on both sides of the ball, the pieces are already present, so the Yanks should be content for the time being. "We’re not in any position where we have to do anything, but if something made sense, we’d consider it. But right now, we’re happy with what we’ve got," Cashman says.   

Opening Series Preview

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    Minute Maid Park, Houston, Texas
    Minute Maid Park, Houston, TexasBrett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

    Matchups

    GameTime (ET)Houston StarterNew York Starter
    1.7:10 p.m.S. FeldmanC. Sabathia
    2.8:10 p.m.J. CosartH. Kuroda
    3.8:10 p.m.B. OberholtzerI. Nova

     

    Houston's Pitching

    Scott Feldman, the Astros' Opening Day starter, signed a three-year, $30 million contract this offseason. The 6'7" 31-year-old right-hander went 12-12 last year with a 3.86 ERA between the Cubs and the Orioles after spending his first eight seasons in Texas. This spring he's 0-2 with a 5.73 ERA in 11 innings, and he's allowed three homers while striking out eight. 

    Feldman, whom manager Bo Porter called "a strike-thrower, a competitor," spoke about his start in the home opener, per the Associated Press (via ESPN.com): "It's pretty cool, something my family can enjoy hopefully. It'll be a lot of fun, something that I'll always remember. There's always nerves. First game of the year. You just try to stay calm, go out there and try to have a good game."

    Jarred Cosart is a 23-year-old who started 10 games for Houston in 2013, going 1-1 with a 1.95. This spring he's pitched 12 innings and allowed six earned, five walks and seven hits, but he struck out an impressive 16. In one outing, he retired all 15 Nationals batters he faced, going perfect for five innings, while striking out nine—including six in a row—while using just 62 pitches. 

    According to MLB.com's Brian McTaggart, "One scout said it's the best he's seen Cosart look in terms of his mound presence, poise and pace," and catcher Jason Castro had never seen Cosart's off-speed offerings as effective.

    Brett Oberholtzer's a 24-year-old left-hander who also started 10 games for the Astros a season ago. He went 4-5 with a 2.76 ERA, but he's had a rough go of the spring, allowing 11 earned runs, three homers and 16 hits in nine innings. 

     

    Houston Overview

    The Astros went 51-111 in 2013, finishing last in their new AL West digs by 45 games. Among all MLB teams, they had the fourth-worst team batting average, second-lowest OBP, third-worst slugging, fourth fewest runs and second fewest hits. Their lone All-Star last year, Castro, hit a mild .276/.350/.485 with 18 homers, only 56 RBI and an ugly 130 strikeouts. 

    And they're unable to buy new talent. Per the Associated Press (via KHOU.com), the Dodgers may have dethroned the Yankees' run of dominance of maintaining the league's highest payroll (projected $235 million for '14), but the Astros ranked dead last at $45 million.

    Their manager returns for his second season, and they've brought in the aforementioned Feldman, as well as Jesse Crain, Chad Qualls and Matt Albers. They also signed leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler, formerly of the Rockies, and two other familiar names, Jose Altuve and Matt Dominguez, will still man second and third in 2014. Neither of the two top prospects, Carlos Correa or George Springer, will begin the year with the big league club.

     

    Prediction

    Yankees take series, 2-1

    Feldman certainly poses a threat on Tuesday, but if CC keeps his stuff down in the zone—especially to force hitters away from that left-field short porch—I like him to get the Yanks off to a strong start that eventually brings David Robertson in to seal the deal in Game 1.

    Cosart could prove to be one of the biggest sleepers of the season, and he and Kuroda had very different springs. If there's one game the Yankees let slip because the offense is silenced and their starter isn't sharp, it's Game 2, and it's in a frustrating, low-scoring loss.

    I see the Yankees rebounding in the final game before heading up to Toronto for Tanaka's debut. Nova dominates, Oberholtzer is knocked around Minute Maid and the Yankees cruise in Game 3. 

Season Outlook

10 of 10

    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Predictions

    2014 Record

    93-69

     

    Finish in AL East

    2nd

     

    Postseason

    Wild Card No. 1

     

    Peter F. Richman is a Featured Columnist for the New York Yankees and a lifelong fan. Join him for more discussion on Twitter: