Yankees excited to face big league competition

Yankees excited to face big league competition

TAMPA, Fla. -- Abundant Florida sunshine and the always-present crack of the bat has lured the Yankees out of their winter hibernation, and the club's Grapefruit League journey is set to begin on Saturday.

The Yankees will open their 33-game spring schedule against big league competition with a 1:05 p.m. ET exhibition against the Philadelphia Phillies at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla., a contest that can be seen on MLB.TV.

"We've been through our work and I think we're ready to start playing games," manager Joe Girardi said. "We can start getting guys in shape and start evaluating some guys. Hopefully all goes smoothly as could be."

Right-hander Ivan Nova gets the opening nod for New York, coming off a 16-win campaign that rocketed him to the No. 2 spot in the rotation behind ace CC Sabathia. The Yankees are hopeful that Nova will be able to reprise, or improve upon, his breakout performance.

"It's different [this spring]," Nova said. "It's not the pressure I have like I had last year. I don't pressure myself. I'm pretty sure I'm going to be on the team this year; that's something different. Now, you take the time to prepare yourself and do everything to get ready for Opening Day."

Girardi plans to bring his starting outfield of Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher across Florida's Courtney Campbell Causeway for the short trip to Clearwater. Catcher Russell Martin is also listed on the travel squad.

"You walk in this locker room and see these new faces, Yankees fans should start getting excited," Swisher said. "This seems like a good group of guys.'

Cole Hamels is listed as Philadelphia's scheduled starter on Saturday. Girardi said that he plans to use Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, Cesar Cabral, Mike O'Connor and David Phelps out of the bullpen for the Grapefruit League opener.

One day later, the Yankees open their 17th spring at George M. Steinbrenner Field, formerly known as Legends Field, at 1:05 p.m. against the Phillies. Yankees captain Derek Jeter said that his club's early departure in last year's American League Division Series was "shocking," but he's primed to avenge that exit.

"We always have an opportunity to win," Jeter said. "We have a lot of great players that are on our team, we've made some great acquisitions, we have a lot of guys coming back. ... You've got to get through Spring Training and see what happens, and hopefully you can stay away from injuries. But I like who's on our team."

Veteran Freddy Garcia is slated to start on Sunday against the Phillies opposite Roy Halladay, while new acquisition Michael Pineda will make his Yankees debut on Monday at Clearwater against right-hander Joe Blanton. Those games can also be seen on MLB.TV.

"Pineda is very exciting," third baseman Alex Rodriguez said. "We faced him once in the summer, and he had unbelievable stuff. We're definitely looking forward to having him on our pitching staff."

Assuming health, the Yankees have the luxury of heading into the spring with many of their decisions already set. Sabathia will start on Opening Day, to be followed in some order by Nova, Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda. On paper, the final rotation spot figures to be a battle between Garcia and Phil Hughes, but general manager Brian Cashman doesn't want to think about it that way.

"I don't necessarily look at it as a competition for the fifth spot," Cashman said. "Unfortunately I've been around long enough to realize what appears to be a surplus can turn into a deficit rather quickly, based on health and freaky stuff. ... Baseball is always the great unknown."

As of right now, the Yankees are entertaining the idea of carrying a second left-handed reliever in the bullpen behind Boone Logan, a role that was largely vacant last year.

A group of candidates has been assembled in Cesar Cabral, Juan Cedeno, O'Connor and Clay Rapada, but Girardi said he doesn't have to take a second southpaw, because he trusts David Robertson and Rafael Soriano against lefties.

"I don't think it's a necessity, but if you find a lefty that can give you a little distance or you're not afraid to use against right-handers, I think it'd be valuable," Girardi said.

The February additions of designated hitter Raul Ibanez and corner infielder Eric Chavez seems to have extinguished some of the battles for bench jobs, with Andruw Jones, Eduardo Nunez and Francisco Cervelli also projected as reserves.

That creates an uphill climb for non-roster invitees like Russell Branyan, Bill Hall and Jayson Nix, but Girardi cautions that plenty can still change between now and Opening Day.

"They're going to get a fair shake to try to make this club," Girardi said. "We'll have to make some decisions, but I don't see why someone couldn't play their way on. I don't want anyone ever coming in our camp like they don't have a chance."

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.