Yankees quick hits

Yankees quick hits

TAMPA, Fla. -- Most of the faces have remained the same for the Yankees in 2007, as the Major Leagues' most productive lineup appears primed to again create nightmares for opposing pitchers on a nightly basis.

With one big name from the glory years -- Andy Pettitte -- re-appearing, plus a mix of new pieces filtering in, New York's latest bid to secure that elusive 27th World Series championship is progressing toward the challenge. Under a business structure and fan base where winning is everything, nothing less will suffice.

Team strength: Offense. The Yankees led the Major Leagues with 930 runs scored in 2006, and are readying for more of the same. Top to bottom, New York could have the most feared lineup in baseball -- second baseman Robinson Cano projects as a bottom-of-the-order hitter for the Yankees, despite the fact that he finished third in the American League with a .342 batting average last season and Johnny Damon calls him the "best hitter on the team."

Damon sets the table once again for the Yankees' parade of sluggers, but he's no slouch himself, having hit a career-high 24 home runs last year and already boasting about adding muscle in his home gym over the winter.

With Derek Jeter in the No. 2 hole, followed by a healthy Jason Giambi and Hideki Matsui, not to mention a clearer-minded Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees don't even have to worry about what kind of production they get from newcomer Doug Mientkiewicz. Simply catch the ball at first base, it's said, and the big bats can handle the rest.

Achilles heel: The state of the Yankees' starting rotation will be a concern until the members can prove otherwise. Chien-Ming Wang tied for the American League lead with 19 victories last season and proved that he can be a legitimate Cy Young Award candidate, and the Yankees will lean upon him as their ace.

Behind Wang, however, the Yankees are forced to be cautiously optimistic. Pettitte is returning a more complete and polished pitcher compared to when he left after the 2003 season, but two consecutive years of 200-plus innings he compiled for the Houston Astros can be viewed as both a positive and a negative.

Pettitte's troubled left elbow has proven reliable, but it has also tolled more mileage since he least wore pinstripes. Mike Mussina is 38 and coming off a superb 15-victory season, but no one can predict how long Mussina will be able to remain at that same level.

The final two spots in New York's rotation are perhaps the biggest questions on the team. Japanese newcomer Kei Igawa has alternated between showing tantalizing strikeout ability and marked inconsistency in the first few weeks of Spring Training, and there is a sense that Carl Pavano's early success and vowed health could just be a temporary deal.

If Igawa adjusts to the Majors and Pavano makes a full slate of starts, the Yankees would feel a whole lot better about their situation.

Top newcomer: The Yankees have done their best to temper expectations for Igawa, despite the fact that he led Japan's Central League in strikeouts three times and garnered a five-year, $20 million contract on top of New York's $26 million posting bid.

They've cautioned that he shouldn't be considered in the same echelon as Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka, and as the Yankees' fourth or fifth starter, they're not looking for him to be an ace.

General manager Brian Cashman said that they view Igawa as a long-term acquisition, and as such, they'll reserve their highest demands for later in the contract. For 2007, the Yankees would settle for Igawa to be a reliable, competent big-league hurler, which certainly appears possible.

Ready to make the leap: If right-hander Phil Hughes isn't Major League ready, he's doing a very good imitation. The Yankees' top pitching prospect, Hughes has impressed just about everybody this spring with his maturity, poise and stuff.

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The Yankees don't want to rush Hughes to the Majors and want him to garner some seasoning at the Triple-A level, but at age 20, Hughes possesses a world of talent and promise. Scouts see him as a Major League ace for years to come.

On the hot seat: Yankees manager Joe Torre is entering the final year of his contract, but that hardly sets him apart from some other recognizable names from the franchise's dynasty -- Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada are also in walk years.

Torre, 66, recognizes the thirst for a World Series title and has been frustrated by the team's inability to win one since 2000. Still, Torre's calming influence and considerable cachet continue to make him an ideal fit to manage this club, even with potential successor Don Mattingly moving up to bench coach this year.

You can bank on: Controversy surrounding Rodriguez. If it's not one thing, it's another with A-Rod, who has already busied himself plenty this spring by announcing that he and Jeter are no longer as close as they used to be.

For whatever reason, Rodriguez seems to deal with more than his fair share of off-the-field issues, and his contract status -- Rodriguez can opt out of his deal and become a free agent after 2007 -- will be a constant point of intrigue until it is settled, one way or the other.

But the Yankees are also banking on Rodriguez challenging his usual MVP-caliber numbers. If he does that, the other buzz becomes that much quieter.

Litmus test: At what point should you believe Pavano is for real? Torre feels that Pavano is in great shape during Spring Training and should have no problem rounding into the same form that prompted the Yankees to sign him to a four-year, $39.95 million deal after the 2004 season. It's difficult to forget Pavano's injury-plagued last 1 1/2 seasons, but some of his teammates are willing to chalk it up to ancient history if the right-hander competes through 30 or so starts for New York.

The Yankees could still try to trade Pavano if they find an interested club and a workable offer, but for now, they're counting on him to fulfill that promise and create some kind of return on their sizable investment.

Games you don't want to miss: April 20-22 at Boston, April 27-29 vs. Boston: The best rivalry in the Major Leagues gets an early start. Every Yankees-Red Sox game takes on a certain importance, but for Japanese fans and media, it will be even more fanatical the first time Matsuzaka faces Matsui. If Igawa somehow starts against Matsuzaka, by some bizarre twist of the rotation, all bets are off. They'll be swelling out onto the streets.

May 18-20 at Mets, June 15-17 vs. Mets: The two New York clubs tied for the Major League lead with 97 victories last season. You could argue that the Subway Series no longer holds the same luster as it did in the past -- these two clubs have come a long way since Dave Mlicki faced off against Pettitte on June 16, 1997. You still don't want to tune out of the crosstown rivalry, based on pure star power.

June 19-21 at Rockies, June 22-24 at Giants: The Yankees' Interleague schedule takes them on a tour of the National League West this year, with a visit to Coors Field preceding a trip to AT&T Park. Seats in the outfield will be in high demand for souvenir hunters, and even more so depending on Barry Bonds' career home run total by that point.

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.