Complete New York Yankees' 2015 Season Preview

Tyler Duma@@TylerDuma_BRFeatured ColumnistMarch 27, 2015

Complete New York Yankees' 2015 Season Preview

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    With Opening Day rapidly approaching, the New York Yankees find themselves looking to win their 28th World Series—by far the most of any MLB franchise.

    How realistic a goal is that? Well, that's what I'm here to help you figure out.

    Over the course of this article I'll give you everything you need to know about the Bronx Bombers in 2015, including previews of the lineup, rotation and bullpen, as well as prospects to watch, predictions for the season's opening series and more.

    The Yankees are projected to win 80 games this season, according to the latest PECOTA win projections posted by Baseball Prospectus, but there's room for them to fall short, and also to exceed those rather modest projections.

    I guess that's to say that this season of Yankee baseball is going to be very interesting, so allow me to break it all down for you.

    All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and MLB.com unless otherwise noted.

Spring Training Recap

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    Brian Blanco/Getty Images

    Surprises: Nathan Eovaldi, Alex Rodriguez

    Overall, spring training went about as well as the Yankees could have hoped. That said, a few players stood out above the rest.

    Nathan Eovaldi came from the Miami Marlins in the David Phelps/Martin Prado deal and the 25-year-old made an instant impression upon his new team and their fans. Over nine innings pitched, Eovaldi has allowed just one earned run on seven hits and no walks, while striking out seven.

    Eovaldi was an under-the-radar acquisition this offseason, but he could be a valuable piece to the Yankees rotation moving forward.

    Raise your hand if you had Alex Rodriguez slashing .290/.389/.516 over 31 spring at-bats. Anyone? Didn't think so.

    The 39-year-old hadn't played in over a year prior to spring training, but he's been solid over his 30-plus at-bats. To go with his impressive batting line, Rodriguez has hit two home runs with three RBI, three runs scored and a 5-5 K/BB ratio.

    Busts: Stephen Drew, Garrett Jones

    Raise your hand if you had Stephen Drew batting .167/.250/.278 through 36 at-bats this spring. That's more like it.

    The 32-year-old has been entirely underwhelming this spring, and although he's been pegged by manager Joe Girardi as the team's starting second baseman, there's a legitimate question as to how long he can hold that job given his production with the team both last year and this spring.

    Garrett Jones was the second of three pieces in the return package received by the Yankees in exchange for David Phelps and Martin Prado going to the Marlins. The first big piece in that deal, Eovaldi, has been outstanding; Jones, not so much.

    In 37 spring at-bats, Jones has managed just a .189/.244/.243 triple slash with two doubles, two RBI, four runs scored and an 8-3 K/BB ratio. Not exactly the best way to start for a player looking to work as the team's DH.

    Surprise Cut: None

    To this point, there hasn't really been a "surprise" cut from the roster. Theoretically, you could look at the production of Jake Cave, Mason Williams, Aaron Judge and Greg Bird (all of whom were among the first and second round of cuts) and say, "Wow, I can't believe they were cut." But truth be told, there wasn't really a spot on the roster for many of those players to begin with.

    Maybe the final round of cuts will offer a more surprising outcome.

Injury Updates Entering Opening Day

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Jose Pirela

    Jose Pirela is dealing with the aftereffects of a concussion. The 25-year-old went crashing into the outfield wall during a spring game spring game on Sunday and was taken to the hospital for testing. 

    Billy Witz of The New York Times noted that while Pirela feels fine—he did note some "soreness" in his "neck and back"—the Yankees will take things carefully and slowly with Pirela. There is no timetable for his return. 

    Most recently, Bryan Hoch of MLB.com stated that the Yankees don't know when Pirela will return but Joe Girardi told him that he "hopes to get him back in some spring games."

    Brendan Ryan

    Yankees backup infielder Brendan Ryan was noted for having suffered a "mid-back strain" while lifting prior to the start of spring training, per NJ.com's Brendan Kuty.

    On March 20, Ryan returned to the lineup, but his condition merits a watchful eye moving forward, as the 32-year-old spent 45 days on the disabled list last season with a nerve injury in his back.

    Ivan Nova

    Right-handed starter Ivan Nova went under the knife last April to repair a torn UCL in his pitching elbow. Nova is back throwing, and on Monday he took an important step in his return to game action.

    On Monday, Nova threw his first breaking balls since his Tommy John surgery. Per Brendan Kuty, the 28-year-old "was scared" going in, but was "relieved" following his bullpen session.

    According to that same report, Nova expects to rejoin the rotation "around June 1."

    Jacoby Ellsbury

    Jacoby Ellsbury suffered an oblique strain on March 15, but the hope is that he'll be ready for Opening Day. Every step of the way, Ellsbury has stated that he felt fine (you can see that here, here and here).

    Of course, the way Ellsbury says he feels and the reality of the situation can be slightly different. According to MLB.com's Bryan Hoch, "Ellsbury took dry swings, played catch" and ran on Wednesday, so the hope is that he will in fact be ready for Opening Day.

    Ellsbury continued to progress and according to Joe Girardi, via Hoch, the 31-year-old is "progressing great." So, as of Friday it appears as though Ellsbury is indeed on track to be in the Opening Day lineup.

Starting Lineup Preview

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Projected Go-To Starting Lineup

    Player2014 Stats
    LF Brett Gardner (L) 148 G, .256/.327/.422, 25 2B, 17 HR, 58 RBI, 87 R, 21-26 SB 
    3B Chase Headley (S)135 G, .243/.328/.372, 20 2B, 13 HR, 49 RBI, 55 R
    CF Jacoby Ellsbury (L)149 G, .271/.328/.419, 27 2B, 16 HR, 70 RBI, 71 R, 39-44 SB 
    1B Mark Teixeira (S)123 G, .216/.313/.398, 14 2B, 22 HR, 62 RBI, 56 R
    C Brian McCann (L) 140 G, .232/.286/.406, 15 2B, 23 HR, 75 RBI, 57 R 
    RF Carlos Beltran (S) 109 G, .233/.301/.402, 23 2B, 15 HR, 49 RBI, 46 R 
    DH Alex Rodriguez (R) DNPSuspended 
    2B Stephen Drew (L) 85 G, .162/.237/.288, 14 2B, 7 HR, 26 RBI, 18 R
    SS Didi Gregorius (L) 80 G, .226/.290/.363, 9 2B, 6 HR, 27 RBI, 35 R 

    Projected Bench

    Player2014 Stats
    1B/RF Garrett Jones (L)146 G, .246/.309/.411, 33 2B, 15 HR, 53 RBI, 59 R 
    C Austin Romine (R)*81 G, .242/.300/.365, 17 2B, 6 HR, 33 RBI, 33 R 
    IF Brendan Ryan (R)49 G, .167/.211/.202, 4 2B, 0 HR, 8 RBI, 5 R, 0-2 
    OF Chris Young (R)111 G, .222/.299/.385, 20 2B, 11 HR, 38 RBI, 40 R 

    *Denotes minor league statistics

    Analysis

    There's potential for the Yankees offense to be both very good and very bad. I highlighted this conundrum in a piece just two weeks ago, but we'll take a quick look here as well.

    The offense will be headed up by mainstay Brett Gardner, who will act as the team's table-setter for the 2015 season. Last year, the 31-year-old managed a .327 on-base percentage to go along with a career-best .422 slugging percentage.

    The Yankees will need the veteran outfielder on base early and often in 2015, as he'll be relied on heavily as the team's leadoff hitter.

    Chase Headley, Jacoby Ellsbury and Mark Teixeira will take up the two, three and four spots in the Yankee lineup, and all three will need to stay healthy and productive if the team hopes to make the playoffs this season.

    Headley seemed to regain a bit of his pre-2013 form after moving to New York at the 2014 trade deadline, slashing .262/.371/.398 over 58 games with the team. If his spring numbers are any indication, he's ready for a solid first full season with the Yankees.

    Ellsbury and Teixeria (Teixeira more so than Ellsbury) have their own unique injury concerns, but to this point Teixeira is healthy and Ellsbury is expected to be ready for Opening Day. Providing they both remain in good health, the team should have an impact No. 3 hitter, and at least an average, if not above-average, No. 4 hitter.

    Brian McCann is a prime bounce-back candidate for 2015 after having suffered through a year of bad luck. The 31-year-old managed only a .231 BABIP (his career average is .283) despite a drop in his strikeout rate and modest improvements in his line-drive and contact rates.

    Carlos Beltran and Alex Rodriguez are the two biggest question marks in the entire offense.

    Beltran is a big injury risk at this point in his career, and that proved true last year as well when he was only able to appear in 109 games for the Bronx Bombers. If he stays healthy, he'll probably be more productive than he was in 2014, but how much more productive is still a matter for debate.

    Alex Rodriguez has looked great this spring after spending over a year away from professional baseball, and the 39-year-old could play a big role in the success of the group. Like Beltran, Rodriguez's health is also a cause for concern though, as the veteran third baseman has dealt with a rash of lower-body injuries in the past few seasons.

    Stephen Drew and Didi Gregorius will round out the offensive attack as they take up the eight and nine spots in the lineup.

    Drew can't possibly play any worse than he did in 2014. I mean, he really can't. Among players with at least 250 plate appearances in 2015, Drew was the least productive player in baseball, as measured by wRC+.

    Gregorius, on the other hand, is 25 years old and ready to take a crack at life as a starting shortstop. In an interview with Bleacher Report's Mike Rosenbaum, the former Cincinnati Reds top prospect came across as a player willing to do whatever was necessary to the team to succeed.

    Whether he's able to do that has yet to be seen, but I like his chances more than Drew's at this point.

Starting Rotation Preview

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Projected Starting Rotation

    Player2014 Stats
    Masahiro Tanaka20 GS, 13-5, 2.77 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 141 K, 136.1 IP
    CC Sabathia8 GS, 3-4, 5.28 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 48 K, 46 IP
    Michael Pineda13 GS, 5-5, 1.89 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 59 K, 76.1 IP
    Nathan Eovaldi33 GS, 6-14, 4.37 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 142 K, 199.2 IP 
    Adam Warren69 G, 3 SV, 3-6, 2.97 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 76 K, 78.2 IP 

    Analysis

    The New York Yankees starting rotation, like their offense, has some boom and bust potential. However, unlike the lineup, it feels as though there is a middle ground where the rotation could settle in and be at least an average group.

    In short, it's not quite as black and white when looking at the rotation.

    The group is headlined by Masahiro Tanaka, who, although there are some concerns with his right elbow, is expected to be a front-line starter in 2015. 

    In his rookie campaign, the then 25-year-old proved up to the task by posting a 2.51 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP over his first 18 starts. Tanaka then missed a significant amount of time with a partial tear in his UCL. The young righty returned in late September to make two starts, totaling a 7.71 ERA over just seven innings.

    In camp, reports have shown Tanaka to be healthy. The Yankees seem to have validated those reports by naming him the Opening Day starter, per MLB.com's Bryan Hoch. Tanaka's play this spring has also shown a rather clean bill of health, as the 26-year-old has allowed just two earned runs on six hits and one walk, while striking out 12 over 10.1 innings pitched.

    CC Sabathia is set to begin the year as the team's No. 2 starter, and he looks ready to rebound from a dreadful 2014 campaign. The 34-year-old lefty has displayed increased velocity and, according to a recent report by George A. King III of the New York Post, is encouraged by his recent starts.

    Sabathia, according to NJ.com's Brendan Kuty, has reached a maintainable weight where he and his personal chef feel the veteran lefty can be a successful pitcher once again. If that's the case, expect a near-full-scale rebound in 2015.

    Fresh off his best performance as a big leaguer, Michael Pineda is set up to be the Yankees' third option in the starting rotation. The 26-year-old allowed just a 1.82 ERA over 15 starts between Triple-A and the big leagues, and it looks as though we should expect continued success from the big right-hander moving forward.

    Pineda racked up an impressive 2.7 WAR in under a half-season's worth of work. He did so by decreasing his walk rate significantly (2.4 percent, down from 7.9 percent in his 2011 rookie season) and by throwing more strikes in general, bumping his strikes-thrown percentage up to 70.9 percent in 2015.

    Opposing hitters put the ball in play less often and generated fewer line drives against Pineda in comparison to the league average over his career, and those trends have carried over into spring training, where the Dominican Republic native has allowed only two earned runs over 8.2 innings pitched. In those same eight-plus innings, Pineda has also struck out 12 batters, while walking just one.

    Nathan Eovaldi is the final confirmed member of the starting rotation, and the 25-year-old has already made a big impression with his new team, allowing just one earned run over nine spring innings. In that time, Eovaldi has hallowed just seven hits and no walks, while striking out nine.

    Eovaldi has been on the verge of a breakout for a few seasons now, and the improvements he showed in his FIP, walk rate and strikes-thrown percentage attest to that. The Texas prep product allowed a league-high 223 hits in 2014, but should he continue to improve upon his swing-and-miss and walk rates, we could see Eovaldi develop into a mid-rotation option by the end of 2015.

    Adam Warren is the tentative fifth starter in the Yankees rotation. According to GM Brian Cashman, via NJ.com's Ryan Hatch, Warren is the leader in the race for the team's fifth and final rotation spot.

    Based on the way the 27-year-old has performed in the team's spring camp, Warren is an easy choice to round out the rotation. Over 13 innings, the University of North Carolina product has allowed two earned runs on 13 hits, while striking out six.

    Warren has shown steady improvement across the board over his three professional seasons, but the transition from the bullpen to the starting rotation should prove a difficult task. If he's up to the task, he could take over the role permanently, despite the eventual return of Ivan Nova and Chris Capuano.

Bullpen Preview

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Projected Bullpen

    RoleName2014 Stats
    CLDellin Betances 70 G, 1 SV, 5-0, 1.40 ERA, 0.78 WHIP, 135 K, 90 IP 
    SUAndrew Miller73 G, 1 SV, 5-5, 2.02 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 103 K, 62.1 IP 
    SUDavid Carpenter65 G, 3 SV, 6-4, 3.54 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 67 K, 61 IP
    MIDChasen Shreve15 G, 0 SV, 0-0, 0.73 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 15 K, 12.1 IP 
    MIDJustin Wilson70 G, 0 SV, 3-4, 4.20 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 61 K, 60 IP 
    MIDAndrew BaileyDNPInjured 
    LREsmil Rogers34 G, 0 SV, 2-0, 5.72 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 44 K, 45.2 IP 

    Analysis

    The Yankees have a potentially great bullpen.

    Between the late-inning combo of Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, the Yankees have an eighth and ninth inning duo capable of rivaling any in the American League, including the Kansas City Royals, whose bullpen was the envy of nearly every major league team in 2014.

    It's still unclear as to which of the two will be the full-time closer, but both have the capabilities to shut down opposing offenses, as displayed by Betances' rookie season and Miller's past three seasons of work as a reliever.

    Betances has struggled in spring training, and it could open the door for Miller to take on the early bulk of closing opportunities. Beyond that, Betances is experiencing some difficulty with decreased velocity, lending to the idea that he's still more of a thrower than a pitcher. But according to Joe Girardi, via George A. King III of the New York Post, the 27-year-old is still throwing harder than he was at this time last season.

    So with the eighth and ninth innings relatively sewn up, that leaves David Carpenter and Justin Wilson as the two other definite options in the bullpen.

    Carpenter and Wilson are new to the Bronx, having made their way to New York through the Manny Banuelos and Francisco Cervelli deals, respectively.

    The two have had very different experiences to this point in the spring, with Wilson having yet to allow a run over seven innings, while Carpenter has allowed four through 6.2 innings.

    That said, Carpenter is the one with a more established big league career, citing two very successful seasons in 2013 and 2014 as reason to believe he'll pitch quite well in pinstripes.

    Wilson is less of a sure thing, but his play this spring suggests that he's continuing to improve on what has been a rather solid start to his big league career.

    Esmil Rogers is the pick for the long-relief role, as he's all but a sure thing to lose out on the fifth spot in the team's starting rotation. Rogers has been shaky through most of his professional career, but in a less-utilized long-relief role, he may experience less pressure to perform.

    That final spot in the bullpen is a middle-relief spot, and I'm going to go out on a limb and drop it in Andrew Bailey's lap. The 30-year-old righty was a stud in Oakland before injuries derailed both his 2012 and 2013 campaigns.

    Now, finally healthy, Bailey is fighting for a spot in the bullpen. If his words hold value, then the Wagner College product looks primed to take over that final spot, despite concerns about his limited workload this spring.

    Moving forward, this group of relievers looks to be the biggest bright spot on the Yankee roster.

Prospects to Watch

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Luis Severino

    Luis Severino ranked as MLB.com's No. 1 prospect for the 2015 season, and for good reason. The 21-year-old has flown through the Yankees' minor league system on the back of a fastball that grades out as a potential plus-plus pitch, as well as a solidly above-average changeup that flashes plus at times.

    Severino's ability to work his fastball and changeup to both sides of the plate is another hallmark of his game. The Dominican Republic native put that skill on full display against the Philadelphia Phillies in his first spring training start with two impressive strikeouts, and followed that up with three more over 1.1 innings in his second and final start.

    The development of Severino's slider is what will determine his ultimate fate with the team. As long as it becomes an average pitch (don't worry, it's getting there), then Severino should be an effective top-of-the-rotation starter for quite some time.

    Aaron Judge

    Luis Severino might rank as MLB.com's top prospect, but I side with Bleacher Report's lead prospect writer Mike Rosenbaum in his evaluation of Aaron Judge as the team's best prospect.

    Judge has impressive power potential in his 6'7", 255-pound frame, and his on-base skills should transition well as he looks to make the jump to the big leagues. Beyond that, Judge has outstanding arm strength and surprising range for a player his size, making him a good bet to stick in the outfield.

    Judge has 30-home run potential with the on-base skills to hit in the middle of a contending team's roster, and his defensive abilities could give the Yankees a major threat in the outfield to help shut down baserunners looking to take an extra base on a ball to right field.

    He, like the rest of the prospects in this slide, will spend some time in the minors, but Judge is just an injury or two away from the Bronx.

    Greg Bird

    Greg Bird is a big, power-hitting first baseman who profiles as a player with little to offer outside of his bat. That's not a huge knock against Bird though, as the Yankees can easily hide him at first base once Mark Teixeira fades out of his role as the team's starter at the position.

    In any event, Bird earns high praise for his power potential (34 home runs over his last 232 minor league games), which will help carry him to the big league level.

    There is the question of whether Bird will hit for enough average to consistently actualize his power as a major leaguer, and it's a legitimate concern given the tendency for his swing to get a little long and slow. Even so, this is common of many young power hitters, and given his propensity for drawing walks and making hard contact, he should be able to overcome this seemingly minor flaw.

    Jose Pirela

    If not for the fact that he suffered a concussion as a result of a collision with an outfield wall, Jose Pirela would have been a dark horse to win a spot on the Yankees bench out of spring training. The 25-year-old made a lasting impression this spring, totaling a .370/.433/.630 batting line with three doubles, two triples, five RBI, four runs scored, a stolen base and a 6-3 K/BB ratio. 

    Pirela is a versatile player who, in his eight minor league seasons, has spent at least some time at every position aside from catcher and pitcher. Though his hit and fielding tools are the only that grade out as "average" tools, per MLB.com, Pirela has a chance to be the starting second baseman at some point this season, what with Stephen Drew rapidly wearing out his welcome and all.

    The young infielder may have to bide his time in the minors for a little while to start the 2015 season, but Pirela could get first crack at the starting second base job should Drew continue to disappoint.

    Robert Refsnyder

    Sticking with that second base/utility theme, Robert Refsnyder is the final of five prospects to watch over the course of the 2015 season. The 24-year-old has been overwhelmingly impressive this spring, posting a gaudy .321/.406/.500 triple slash with a home run, two doubles, four RBI, six runs scored and a 6-4 K/BB ratio.

    Refsnyder owns a better all-around skill set than Pirela, and holds the potential for seasons with a .270-plus batting average and 15-20 home runs.

    The only thing holding Refsnyder back from becoming the team's everyday second baseman when Drew eventually falls out of favor (whether that be during or after the 2015 season) is his glove. According to Vince Lara-Cinisomo of Baseball America, rival talent evaluators—and even some in-house ones—think Refsnyder needs to show improvement in his defense before being handed the starting job.

    If he's able to make strides with his footwork around the bag, as well as his anticipation and routes to ground balls, Refsnyder should prove to be an outstanding option at the position. If his defense continues to lag behind, the University of Arizona product is destined for life as a left fielder, or a utility player.

Breakout Candidates

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Nathan Eovaldi

    As I mentioned back in the rotation slide, Nathan Eovaldi has been on the verge of a full-blown breakout season for the last few years.

    The 25-year-old has a serious power arm, with a fastball that averaged a whopping 96.77 mph in the 2015 season and a slider that averaged an impressive whiff rate of 16.84 percent, per BrooksBaseball.net. These two pitches give Eovaldi a big pitch to lean on (his fastball) and a solid out pitch that should lead to an uptick in his strikeout numbers for 2015.

    Beyond the tabular data for specific pitches in Eovaldi's arsenal, certain statistics scattered across his Baseball-Reference profile tell the story of a player looking to have an outstanding year.

    Eovaldi's 2014 FIP of 3.37 tells us that he was seriously unlucky when placed in comparison with his 4.37 ERA. In fact, the Texas prep product's yearly FIP values suggest that he's out-pitched his ERA in every season since his debut back in 2011.

    Beyond that, the big right-hander has shown improvements in his walk rate (5 percent in 2014), GB/FB ratio (0.83 in 2014), strikes-thrown percentage (66.5 percent in 2014) and 0-2 count percentage (27.3 percent in 2014). These percentages will be important to track in Eovaldi's transition to Yankee Stadium, but what we've seen over the past few seasons, as well as this spring, suggests that Eovaldi is up to the task.

    Didi Gregorius

    I've been a big Didi Gregorius fan since his time with the Cincinnati Reds. The 25-year-old is energetic and flashy, but possesses the skill set necessary to be a quality starting shortstop for years to come.

    A native of the Netherlands, Gregorius made his debut back in 2012, but hasn't always had the backing of his franchise (traded by both the Reds and Diamondbacks). This year, Gregorius has a firm hold on the starting shortstop gig entering Opening Day, and although he has some enormous shoes to fill, the young shortstop should prove that he is indeed ready for the bright lights of New York.

    A few things to keep in mind with Gregorius and his breakout potential for 2015.

    First, his glove will keep him in the lineup.

    Gregorius may struggle a little to start the year, but with no viable replacement behind him, he should be able to relax and focus on righting the ship. Beyond that, his plus-plus defensive game will provide the Yankees with another reason to keep him in the lineup for the long haul.

    With ample opportunity to succeed, Gregorius has the ability to impress with his bat as well.

    In 724 career plate appearances, Gregorius boasts a strong in-play percentage of 71 percent, while his line-drive rate (26 percent) is four percentage points above the league average for his career, per Baseball-Reference.com.

    Gregorius' ability to put the ball in play with extreme consistency, coupled with his propensity to square the ball up, has led to a whopping 29.3 percent of his hits going for extra bases. Should he improve on his ability to draw a walk, Gregorius could end up being a dynamic offensive player.

    Based on his play this spring—.286/.333/.486, three doubles, two triples, five RBI and four runs scored—it seems as though the slick-fielding infielder is handling the increased attention quite well. Look for him to shine as a Yankee in 2015.

Top Keys to Success

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Good Health

    It starts to sound like a broken record, hearing about how each team needs a clean bill of health for their upcoming season. But this couldn't be more important for the Yankees in 2015.

    Last year, the team went through various stretches of the 2014 season without CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, Carlos Beltran and Ivan Nova, among others. Factor in the high-profile players the Yankees spent time without due to injury last year, and it's no wonder they finished a whopping 12 games behind the AL East champion Baltimore Orioles.

    This year, Sabathia is at a a maintainable weight, Tanaka's elbow appears to have healed well, Nova is on his way back from Tommy John and Carlos Beltran is as healthy as a 37-year-old with 2,173 games under his belt could be.

    The team did lose Chris Capuano for an undetermined length of time due to a quad strain, but aside from that the rest of the projected 25-man roster is in relatively good health. If it stays that way, a clean bill of health will go a long way toward ensuring a more successful 2015 campaign for the Yankees.

    A Distraction-Free Season

    The Yankees had a lot on their plate last year. Between Derek Jeter's farewell tour, the media circus we affectionately refer to as Alex Rodriguez and everything that comes with playing under the humongous microscope of the New York media, the Yankees had a rough year in the PR department.

    This year, the Yankees are likely hoping to skate through distraction-free.

    Michael Pineda is a year older, hopefully a year wiser and free of pine tar incidents. And with any luck, the Yankees won't be linked to each and every pitcher on the trading block.

    If all this comes true and the Yankees have a distraction-free season, the team may very well improve on that 83-79 record they posted in 2014.

Opening Series Preview

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

     Matchups

    Game DateTime (ET)Toronto StarterNew York Starter
    14/61:05 p.m. Drew Hutchison Masahiro Tanaka 
    24/87:05 p.m.R.A. DickeyMichael Pineda
    34/97:05 p.m.Mark BuehrleCC Sabathia

    Toronto Analysis

    According to PECOTA projections for the 2015 season, via BaseballProspectus.com, the Toronto Blue Jays are slated to finish third in the AL East, one game ahead of the Yankees.

    Essentially, the projection system believes that the Yankees and Blue Jays are two very evenly matched teams. That appears to be the case when you compare the two teams and their projected rosters.

    The Blue Jays have an extremely potent lineup and a less-encouraging starting rotation.

    The success of the rotation will be predicated on the success of its two youngest members, Aaron Sanchez and Daniel Norris. Fortunately—maybe for both teams—those two will not factor into this opening series. 

    The Toronto offense is set to be one of the best in the American League though, and with Jose Reyes, Russell Martin, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Josh Donaldson making up the likely 1-5 in the lineup, the Jays have a group that could give opposing pitchers a whole lot of trouble.

    Last year, among the 15 teams that make up the American League, the Blue Jays ranked fourth in runs scored, fourth in hits, second in home runs, third in total bases, second in OPS and third in OPS+, per Baseball-Reference.com. It might sound like I'm setting the bar too high, but this year's group could easily eclipse the marks set by last year's group.

    The bullpen is not as strong as the lineup, but if the rotation is able to hold down a lead into the seventh inning, you don't want to run into the possibility of facing Brett Cecil in the ninth. Cecil was once a shaky rotational option, but since moving to the bullpen full time, Cecil has been a stud.

    Analysis

    If Masahiro Tanaka can pin down what should be a very formidable offense, then the Yankees will take Game 1. Based on the way he's pitched this spring, my best guess is that he will indeed be able to.

    Tanaka has been nearly untouchable in his 5.2 innings of work, and the 26-year-old should have little difficulty carrying that over into the regular season. 

    His opposite number, Drew Hutchison, has been equally, if not more impressive than Tanaka this spring, having allowed just two earned runs over 10 innings pitched. That said, he's slated to make his first Opening Day start, and the bright lights of New York, the prospects of facing Tanaka and the Yankee offense might prove a bit too daunting of a task.

    Game 2 starter R.A. Dickey has flourished in his 16 appearances against the Yankees. The 40-year-old has logged 78.1 innings against the team, and has allowed just a 2.64 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP against Yankee offenses of similar quality to the one he'll face on April 8.

    A hiccup in Game 2, combined with a dazzling performance by Dickey, will ultimately do in the Yankees.

    Mark Buehrle takes the hill for Game 3, and the 36-year-old has won at least 12 games in all but one of his last 14 seasons (he's only played in 15). One thing Buehrle hasn't done well in that time is pitch against the Yankees, as the veteran lefty owns a god-awful 1-14 record against the Yankees with a 6.21 ERA, a 1.57 WHIP and 21 home runs allowed over 120.1 innings pitched.

    Expect the Yankees to take it to Buehrle early and often as they wrap up their first series victory of the season.

    Prediction: Yankees take series 2-1

2015 Season Outlook

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Predictions

    2014 Record: 82-80

    Finish in AL East: Third

    Postseason: N/A

    Analysis

    The Yankees are close, really close, and it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if they surpassed my 82-win projection and made a run at a spot in the postseason.

    All in all though, this just doesn't look like their year. There's a lot of "ifs" on this team, including the physical well-being of multiple important players (Masahrio Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, etc.) and the ensuing question marks surrounding the production they'll receive from a number of injury-prone pieces to their offense and rotation.

    Ultimately, I think this season comes down to whether the Yankees can steer clear of major injuries.

    If they can, well then you could probably pencil them in for a spot in this year's Wild Card Round. The bullpen is a major strength, as is the offense when it's healthy.

    Behind that you have a starting rotation that features a few members who are either primed to take steps forward or to rebound from disappointing campaigns in the previous season.

    If they succumb to the injury bug yet again in 2015, then you might see them finish with a sub-.500 record.

    The lineup and rotation are short on depth, and having to resort to young, unproven commodities like Aaron Judge and Robert Refsnyder early on could result in a disaster of a season down on East 161st Street.

    The likely scenario has them falling somewhere in between those two projections though, and that's right where I've got them, at 82-80.

    Tyler Duma is a Featured Columnist covering the New York Yankees for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @TylerDuma.

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