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MLB.com Columnist

Matthew Leach

Now more than ever, pitching will be key for Yanks

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MLB.com Columnist

Matthew Leach

JUPITER, Fla. -- There's a very good reason that so many people are so worried about the deluge of injuries that has befallen the Yankees this spring. And it's not just that it's the Yankees.

This Yankee team doesn't have nearly the margin for error of its recent editions. A fully healthy New York team was going to be in for tough sledding in the American League East in 2013. Take away chunks of the season from Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, and the prospects are even more daunting.

This much is entirely clear: whether Granderson and Teixeira beat their timetables or miss them, this year's team is going to have a harder time scoring runs than any Yankee club in quite a long time. An awful lot is going to rest on the shoulders of the pitching staff -- and even that unit has its questions.

"Pitching and defense -- that's what we've got to do," said third baseman Kevin Youkilis. "We've got to really pitch well. We've got a good staff and a good bullpen, and if we pitch and play the field real well, I think we can do some good things still."

They have to, though. That's the thing. If they don't pitch well and catch the ball, it's going to be a long year. New York has one star-level hitter who can legitimately be expected to deliver big numbers this year. He's a great one, Robinson Cano, but he's the only one. Beyond that, it's a mass of questions -- even once everyone is healthy.

Derek Jeter has yet to take an at-bat since his injury last October, and he's 38. Maybe he repeats his 2012 resurgence, but it's far from a guarantee. Teixeira and Granderson showed worrisome signs of decline in 2012, long before their injuries this spring. Ichiro Suzuki's numbers had been in serious decline before coming to the Yankees, and it's an open question whether his spike after being traded was real. Francisco Cervelli, with a lifetime .692 OPS, is the better hitter of the team's two catchers.

It's going to be on CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Phil Hughes and Co. in the rotation, and the Mariano Rivera-led bullpen. If Sabathia comes up big again, if Kuroda can manage one more great year, if Hughes can step forward, if Andy Pettitte can defy age for one more year, then yes. The Yankees could well be playing playoff baseball again in the Bronx.

"We have to pitch well," said manager Joe Girardi. "That's the case when you have all your guys. But you have to pitch well, first and foremost."

That's truer than it's been in a very long time for the Yankees. Over the past nine years, they've finished first or second in runs in the AL eight times. The one year that they didn't was the one year in that span that they missed the playoffs. The last Yankees team not to finish in the top half of the league in runs was the '96 club, one that was the second best in the AL at run-prevention.

Sabathia is up to the task. He should again be one of the AL's best pitchers. Kuroda and Pettitte have the capacity, but at some point they have to start showing their age, it would seem. Hughes may be the team's most pivotal player, a pitcher with All-Star ability -- but results that haven't always matched.

It says it all, though, that this is the shape of the conversation. The story of the 2013 Yankees is a story of ifs and maybes. If everything works out, they could well be very good. If it doesn't, it could be the sort of season rarely seen in the Bronx over the past two decades.

Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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