Five questions for 2013

With the new year upon us and (most) of the offseason in the rear view mirror, it’s time to begin looking ahead to 2013 and a new season of Yankees baseball. The Bombers still have a few holes to fill on their big league roster, mostly related to the bench and maybe a role player or two, but for the most part the 2013 roster is in place, and with the exception of the 2011 team (after Andy Pettitte abruptly retired and Cliff Lee decided he’d prefer to be a Phillie), the current group may have inspired more questions than any recent iteration of the team. Here are five such questions that will loom large for months to come.

1. Will the Ichiro bounce continue?

Let’s be totally fair at the outset: Ichiro Suzuki looked like a new man after being traded to the Yankees, and his game definitely plays up in Yankee Stadium. After agreeing to hit in the bottom third of the lineup and perhaps even ride the bench against left-handed starters, Ichiro hit .322/.340/.454 (.338/.363/.531 at Yankee Stadium) and forced his way into both the everyday lineup and the top of the batting order by the end of the season. That said, you simply can’t ignore the fact that he hit just .261/.288/.353 for Seattle before the trade and has looked like a shell of his former self at the plate since 2010. Maybe the change of scenery really did rejuvenate him, but the Yankees are betting quite a bit on that, both in making a two year commitment to Ichiro and in letting Nick Swisher take his talents to Cleveland. If it turns out that the last two months of 2012 were merely a dead cat bounce, the Yankees are going to come out on the wrong end of the gamble in a pretty big way.

2. Can Curtis get his groove back?

It was downright painful to watch Curtis Granderson attempt to put the bat on the ball at times down the stretch last year. After posting a 7 fWAR season and contending for the MVP award in 2011, Cranderson posted career worsts in batting average, on base percentage, and strikeout rate in 2012, and continued to see his defensive numbers decline. Added together, Granderson posted an fWAR of just 2.6, a pretty striking drop for just one season, especially considering that he still hit 43 home runs over the course of the season. The Yankees probably have enough talent in the lineup that they don’t need Granderson to return to the 146 wRC+ (a career best) he played to two seasons ago, but a few more hits and a few dozen fewer strikeouts would probably help quite a bit. More importantly, they need him to not decline any further, especially as it appears he may be a solidly below average centerfielder now.

3. What about Hughes and Nova?

Talk about two young pitchers taking divergent paths. At the end of 2011, Ivan Nova was serving as C.C. Sabathia’s wingman in the ALDS while Phil Hughes was just trying to finish out a mostly wasted season. Hughes’ struggles continued into the first month of 2012, but after that he remade his approach as a solid and reliable fourth starter for the Yankees. Nova, meanwhile, was terrible pretty much all season as he tried a new approach of his own, trading more extra base hits for some additional strikeouts. Far from starting Game Two of any playoff series, Nova ended the season on the disabled list with shoulder tendinitis, and approximately no one missed his presence on the active roster.

This year, the Yankees will likely count on both of these young hurlers to round out their rotation. Sure, David Phelps will likely be part of a fifth starter competition in Spring Training, but he has more versatility of usage than Nova does, so the final starting spot is likely Nova’s to lose. If Hughes can repeat his post-April performance and Nova can find a happy medium that allows him to pitch like a respectable fifth starter, the Yankees should have a rotation that rivals that of anyone in the American League. But if Nova continues to get lit up and Hughes has another let-down season akin to 2011, the Yankees may find themselves needing a level of offensive production their aging and somewhat depleted lineup won’t be able to deliver.

4, What can Jeter do?

This is, what, the third straight season we’ve asked this question? Funny how the more things change, the more they stay the same. Two years ago an aging Jeter was coming off of his worst season as a professional just as he was also becoming a free agent for the first time, and we were all wondering what level of production we should expect out of the Captain over the duration of his new contract. This past season, Jeter parlayed his post injury bounce back into a .316/.362/.429 slash line (117 wRC+) over a whopping 740 plate appearances before the year ended in disaster, with Jeter breaking his ankle in the final innings of Game One of the ALCS. Most reports have Jeter being ready for Opening Day, which is certainly a good thing, but until he actually gets on the field and plays, questions about his ability to produce will remain, and a repeat of those 2012 numbers is unlikely even if he’s fully healthy and suffering no lingering effects of the injury. What’s more, the injury could ignite the long dreaded argument over moving Jeter to another position if it affects his defensive abilities too much. The Yankees have long been willing to put up with well below average defense from Jeter at shortstop, but there has to be a limit somewhere, even for Derek Jeter. That, however, does not mean that such a decision will be a pleasant one when the time comes.

5. Are the Yankees still the big dog in the neighborhood?

People have been lining up to write the Yankees’ epitaph for years now (too old!, too many homers!, not enough grit!), and yet they just keep winning. Since 2009, the Yankees have won three out of four A.L. East division crowns (and won 95 games in that fourth season), advanced to the ALCS three times as well (the only team from the East to do so in that period of time), and earned the top seed in the A.L. playoffs in, you guessed it, three out of four seasons. That includes the 2011 season, when the Red Sox were the toast of the offseason while the Yankees hitched their wagon to Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon, by the way. But will that continue to be the case in 2013? You can’t go wrong betting on the Yankees to find a way to win big, but this may be their toughest task to date. The once also-ran Orioles are coming off of a 93 win season, the Rays remain tough, the Red Sox have all of the resources to do pretty much whatever they want to do, and of course the Blue Jays have completely remade their team, including acquiring a couple of legitimate frontline starting pitchers in R.A. Dickey and Josh Johnson.

But the biggest difference is that, unlike in previous years, the Yankees are voluntarily parting ways with their own productive, in-their-prime players like Swisher and Russell Martin, and are starting the season with significant concerns about the health of Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, as well as the ability of Granderson and Mark Teixeira to be productive hitters. Even with all of that, the situation probably isn’t as bleak at this point as it was in 2011, but at some point the Yankees good fortune has to run out., right?