Commentary

Yankees' top 5 questions for 2011

It's all about the starting pitching. And of course The Captain. Oh, and don't forget ...

Updated: March 31, 2011, 9:11 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

The Yankees enter the 2011 season with plenty of attributes but more than a few nagging questions coming off their disappointing 2010 season and, some would say, almost equally disappointing offseason.

They bolstered their bullpen with Rafael Soriano but could add nothing of substance to their starting rotation. They seem to have tried to turn back the clock this spring, bringing in Andruw Jones, Eric Chavez, Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon and Mark Prior, players whose primes pretty much passed with the turn of the millennium. And for the first time in recent memory, their biggest free-agent signing involved one of their own players, Derek Jeter.

The questions are many, the answers not easy to find. Here are five that seem to loom largest over the upcoming Yankees season:

1. Is there enough pitching?

This question, of course, can be asked of every team at the start of every season, but it is especially relevant to this team, this season, considering who is not here -- Cliff Lee, Andy Pettitte -- and who is -- A.J. Burnett, Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon.

CC Sabathia will be solid; that is a given. But can he repeat his 21-win output from last season, the first time in his career he won 20 games? Probably not. The big fellow has been among the league leaders in innings pitched for the past four years, throwing nearly 1,000 innings and a whopping 15,000 pitches. Plus, he's coming off knee surgery.

[+] EnlargeFreddy Garcia
Noah K. Murray/THE STAR-LEDGER/US PresswireThis offseason, it was goodbye Andy Pettitte and free-agent target Cliff Lee, hello Freddy Garcia (above) and Bartolo Colon.

Even if Sabathia wins, say, 19 games, who makes up the other two? Burnett? Certainly, he should improve on his horrendous 10-15 season, but you get the feeling he is always going to be the kind of pitcher to tantalize you one outing, torment you the next. Will he win 15 games? He's done it only once in his career, 2008, when his 18 wins for the Blue Jays convinced the Yankees to invest five years and $82.5 million in him.

But even if he gets to pitch the day after Sabathia on opening week, there's no doubt Burnett has been supplanted as the No. 2 starter in most minds by Phil Hughes, who won 18 games last year in his first full season as a starter. That also is probably too much to expect again, especially with scouts staring into their radar guns and scratching their heads this spring over his diminished velocity.

So, on a team that got 70 wins out of its starters last year -- 11 from Pettitte -- where will the wins come from?

Some will come from Nova, who showed signs this spring of overcoming his habit of faltering when an inning turned bad on him, and a few, but not many, will come from Garcia, who will find it a lot tougher to get away with his slop-ball repertoire against the Red Sox, Rays, Blue Jays and Orioles than he did in the American League Central last year.

So the answer is no, the Yankees probably don't have enough good starters right now -- but you know that by June, they will have a pretty good handle on which teams will be sellers at the trade deadline and will be ready and willing to do what is necessary to bring the best available starter to the Bronx.

Which brings us to:

2. Trade the kids to win now, or wait for them to develop?

If there's one thing spring training always seems to remind us, it is that there are no sure things. Over the winter, the Yankees were convinced Jesus Montero would be ready to play a key role for them this season, especially with Jorge Posada being moved to DH. Some even thought the 21-year-old Montero would win the starting job. But by December, cooler heads had prevailed and Russell Martin was brought in to be the everyday catcher.

And a good thing, too, since Montero had what can be kindly described as a "rough" spring. His defense, always suspect, didn't seem to show the "improvement" Joe Girardi constantly talked about. Even more surprising, he hardly hit a lick. Even in batting practice, Montero looked sluggish and off his timing at the plate, a condition Girardi put down to anxiety over trying to impress in his first big league camp.

Meanwhile, Francisco Cervelli, pretty much written off as a goner, came to camp in the best shape of his life and was hitting and fielding well when he broke his foot March 2. Now, that injury can't heal fast enough for the Yankees, who will use Gustavo Molina as their backup catcher while Montero and Austin Romine, their other catching prospect, get some more minor league seasoning.

It might be time to remove that "untouchable" tag from Montero's back, especially if acquiring a top-flight starting pitcher becomes a necessity at the deadline. Romine could be dealt, also, as might Eduardo Nunez and any of the pitching prospects not named Manny Banuelos.

This is a win-now organization. And there's always Gary Sanchez, the Next Great Catcher in the Yankees' farm system, for later.

The question on everyone's mind all winter, of course, is:

3. Can Derek Jeter bounce back?

The answer is of course he can and probably will. But how far? It's safe to say a .334 season like the one he put up in 2009 is never going to happen. But Jeter's determination -- some would say stubbornness -- practically ensures he will be better in 2011 than he was in 2010. That's why he's Jeter.

His willingness to work with hitting coach Kevin Long on shortening his stride seems to have paid off in the spring. Of course, he still grounds out -- every hitter does -- but he also put the ball in the air frequently in March and, most encouragingly, has been lining the ball into right-center field, a sure sign that his timing is coming back and he no longer is trying to cheat on the fastball, which resulted in so many rollovers to the shortstop last season.

Jeter's ability to hit the other way is essential, especially if Girardi continues to bat him second, behind Brett Gardner, as he did for much of spring training. At 36 (37 on June 26), Jeter's days of challenging for the MVP are behind him, but a .290-.300 season and .380 OBP should be well within his reach. Offense was not the problem last year, but ...

4. Can Cano and Swisher repeat/improve upon their career seasons?

This winter, Kevin Long told me he had seven hitters in his lineup who could improve off 2010. The two he said couldn't improve were Robinson Cano (.319-29 HRs-109 RBIs) and Nick Swisher (.288-29-89). In fact, he said it would be difficult for them to even duplicate what they did last year.

In Cano's case, Long could be wrong. At 27, Cano is still improving and his potential still seems short of its ceiling, although an offseason of weight-lifting in the Dominican Republic with Cervelli left him looking a bit bulkier than he did last year. Still, .319 seems well within his capabilities, as does 30-35 home runs, although when he was told Long had predicted he could hit 40 this year, Cano just laughed it off. "No chance," he said.

Swisher, on the other hand, could be due to return to earth. After he posted career highs in every offensive category other than OBP and home runs --- he had 35 for Oakland in 2006 -- it's not hard to see some decline in Swisher's numbers this season, especially if he starts pressing with the thought of trying to force the Yankees to pick up the $10.25 million club option for 2012.

Swisher walked less than he had in five seasons and struck out way too often (139) in 2010. Pitchers can exploit his difficulty with the curveball, especially hitting left-handed, and the short porch in Yankee Stadium's right field might be a little too tempting for him. This is one project Long -- who rebuilt Swisher's swing in the 2009 offseason -- might have to keep his eye on all season.

Which brings us to the only question that really matters:

5. Is this team a World Series contender?

Of course it is. History tells us the New York Yankees will do everything in their power, which is considerable, to put a serious championship-caliber team on the field every season. Not only is it in their DNA, but it is imperative in order to keep their outrageously priced beast of a ballpark as close to full as possible.

Don't believe everything you've heard and read about the Red Sox running away with the AL East; their starting pitching, in its own way, is as overrated, injury-prone and filled with question marks as the Yankees'.

And while they improved their offense with the additions of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, run scoring wasn't their problem in 2010. They scored the second-highest number of runs (behind the Yankees) but were still no better than third in the division.

So the AL East is very much in play, and once again, whoever comes out of the East has got to be considered, if not the favorite to represent the AL in the World Series, at least quite formidable.

Even with their $200 million payroll, the Yankees have flaws, as does every team in the league. The difference between the Yankees and most others is that no matter how much they spend in the offseason, they always seem to scratch up a little more when, despite their best efforts, there are problems yet to be solved and questions yet to be answered.

The 2011 Yankees might not find the answers to all their problems, but it won't be for lack of searching. Or spending.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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