Yanks eye healthy production from stars

Heading into camp, rebounds needed from key players

Yanks eye healthy production from stars

TAMPA, Fla. -- With the Yankees almost set to begin their Spring Training camp, MLB.com is preparing by previewing some of the most important storylines that the players, executives and fans will be following at George M. Steinbrenner Field.

In this sixth installment, we prepare for Friday's official report date for pitchers and catchers by examining the three biggest questions that must be answered before the Yankees get to New York and open the regular season on April 6 against Toronto.

The storylines promise to be rich and on full display as the Yankees attempt to improve upon their 84-win, second-place finish in the American League East, turning the page to a new era that no longer features Derek Jeter on the diamond. Even the organization cannot be sure how it will all play out.

It's telling that the competition of naming a fourth closer in four years didn't even make our list; whether the Yankees ultimately go with Dellin Betances or Andrew Miller, it's hardly their toughest question of the year. They will be counting on bounce-back seasons from several major contributors and crossing their fingers for better health than they have experienced in the last two years, when they set and then shattered club records for players used in a single season.

"I think when you look at our club, I feel pretty good about the defense that we're going to run out there every day," manager Joe Girardi said. "I feel good about the bullpen we're going to run out there every day. ... I think the combination of the health of the pitchers and the middle of our order, and if that allows them to be the players they're capable of being, is going to have a lot to do with our season."

1. Can Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia stay healthy and help?
The Yankees are cautiously optimistic that Tanaka will be able to come back and reclaim the form that he showed through those first 17 dominant starts of 2014. Following the rehab of a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, Tanaka is viewed as a healthy player in the Yanks' eyes, and they believe he can go through a normal spring workload without any restrictions. Still, they are aware that any one pitch could be his last for 12 to 18 months, and it remains to be seen if Tanaka will be as comfortable unleashing his devastating splitter following the injury -- a pitch that he threw 25 percent of the time last year. It's not a stretch to say that a healthy Tanaka could be the difference between the Yankees making the playoffs or not in what projects to be an evenly-matched AL East. Sabathia's days as an ace are probably over and his degenerative knee condition is a major concern, but the Yankees would still like to be able to think of him as a workhorse capable of eating innings, filling out a rotation that projects to be rounded out by Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi and Chris Capuano.

Hoch on Sabathia, Tanaka

2. Will players like Brian McCann, Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran produce better seasons?
We could have talked about Didi Gregorius here, but it's no secret that the Yankees did not get much bang for their buck from these three stars in 2014, a major reason that they produced just 633 runs, the third-fewest in the AL. They could have an even greater impact on the season. McCann seemed to play better in the second half, slugging eight homers in September, and they believe that his growing familiarity with Junior Circuit pitchers will pay dividends in 2015. Teixeira's numbers have been declining since 2009 and faded terribly in the second half, likely due to fatigue. There are historical precedents (David Ortiz, Jose Bautista) of players coming back stronger the second year after similar wrist procedures, a group Teixeira hopes to join. The Yanks feel they never saw the "real" Beltran last year because of his right elbow injury, and now that it has been cleaned up, they expect him to be closer to his 2013 performance for the Cardinals, when he served as an everyday right fielder with an impact bat. He is taking this as a challenge to reprove himself.

Outlook: McCann, C, NYY

3. How much does Alex Rodriguez have left in the tank, and what will his role be?
Even the Yankees have no idea how this will turn out, a sentiment telegraphed by their moves to re-sign third baseman Chase Headley and trade for designated hitter Garrett Jones. The suspension has been served and A-Rod is a player in good standing, as far as Major League Baseball is concerned, so now it is up to Rodriguez to show that he can still catch up to big league pitching on a couple of bad hips and after playing just 44 games in the last two seasons. He'll need to get as many at-bats as possible during the spring and figures to compete with Jones for those. One possible scenario is that Jones would DH against righties and Rodriguez DHs against lefties, or his role could be greater. In fairness, the Yanks may not be able to realistically evaluate what they have in Rodriguez until the third week of exhibition games. During that time, the Yanks will see if Rodriguez can still move at third base, where he'd help back up Headley, and have toyed with the idea of having him take ground balls at first base, too.

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.