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Five things that must go right for the Yankees

02/06/2013 12:56 PM ET
By Jon Lane

CC Sabathia will again be counted on to lead -- and stay healthy.(AP)
The core of the New York Yankees is a year older, which depending on your point of view is a bad thing or a good thing. Derek Jeter prefers to use the word "experienced," but even though the Yankees are off a 95-win regular season and an ALCS appearance, much of the winter news surrounding the Bronx Bombers was about what they didn't do and who defected via free agency.

Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Eric Chavez and Raul Ibanez are gone, but Kevin Youkilis and Travis Hafner are new faces, and the Yankees re-signed three pretty important names, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Hiroki Kuroda, to new, one-year contracts. On paper the Yankees remain big-time, but as the competition in the AL East has grown stronger, the amount of mileage on these "experienced" legs will determine whether the veterans have at least one more standout season in them, or if Father Time's hand will remove the Yankees from their accustomed place atop the division.

For the Yankees to remain serious contenders, and hold off the charging Baltimore Orioles, the revamped Toronto Blue Jays, the energetic Tampa Bay Rays and a Boston Red Sox team motivated for a new beginning, these are five things that must go right in 2013:

Starting pitching: CC Sabathia won 15 games in 2012 and is 100 percent healthy off elbow surgery to remove bone spurs, but he turns 33 in July, has pitched at least 200 innings each season since 2007 and twice landed on the DL last year. The real Sabathia showed up for Game 5 of the ALDS to lead the Yankees past the feisty Orioles and into the ALCS, but then he was lit up by the Tigers in Game 3. It goes without saying the Yankees need him to continue to pitch at an elite level.

If Kuroda, 37, can do what he did last season and Pettitte, 40, shows he's plenty effective – and healthy – over a full season, the Yankees will have a strong rotation. Phil Hughes won 16 games in 2012, is secure as the Yankees' fourth starter, and it's up to him to take his game to what's been an elusive next level. And if Ivan Nova beats out David Phelps, and pitches like he did his rookie campaign and the first half of '12, a viable starting three becomes a complete starting five.

A wild card in this equation is Michael Pineda. He just started throwing off a half mound. If his shoulder responds to rehab and he can progress to where he's close to his first-half-of-2011 form, the Yankees' rotation will receive a significant boost after the All-Star break. Also keep an eye on Adam Warren. If he impresses in camp will push Nova and Phelps for the fifth spot and could get a phone call to the Majors in the event of an injury.

The manufacturing of runs: As a team, the Yankees belted 245 home runs in 2012. At times the long ball was the only source of offense, which prompted complaints of "too many home runs" in Twitter land. A 2013 lineup without Swisher, Martin or Ibanez will now have to play more of a brand of small ball. Speedy, slap-hitters Brett Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki will play every day, and a big factor will be whether the 39-year old Ichiro – locked up for the next two years – can come close to replicating his.322/.340/.454 line since his July trade to New York. Granderson belted a career-high 43 homers, but also struck out a career-high 195 times. If he can keep his power numbers up and strikeouts down, if a rejuvenated Ichiro shows up for most of the year, and if a healthy Gardner can create havoc from the bottom (or top?) of the lineup, there's potential for balanced production in the outfield.

Jeter Meter: Jeter will continue to play baseball after 2012, but he's entering the final season of a three-year contract and coming off major ankle surgery. Don't expect a repeat of 2012 when Jeter batted .316 and led the Majors with 216 hits, but don't count him out either. The captain is capable of returning healthy enough to be a steady presence atop the order, play good defense and deliver the big hits. Like most of the Yankees, the big question is how often will he get it done? Jeter turns 39 in June and ample rest will be critical, which is why it's crucial Eduardo Nunez figures out how to play the field at the big-league level.

The closer: Mariano Rivera returns as the Yankees' undisputed closer. He's also 43 years old and off surgery to repair a torn ACL suffered last May. Rivera has set standards so high that when he blows a save or two, many begin to worry if he's on a career decline. Even if Rivera isn't "Rivera," he needs to perhaps ride into the sunset as one of the best closers in the game to stabilize the Yankees' bullpen. Depth is present with David Robertson, David Aardsma and Joba Chamberlain, but absent is Rafael Soriano, who saved 42 games in Rivera's absence last season. If Rivera goes down again, will Robertson do a better job than last season's brief audition?

The catcher: Entering camp, Francisco Cervelli, who spent most of 2012 in Triple-A, is the leading candidate to replace Martin as the Yankees' starting catcher. Manager Joe Girardi believes a catcher's value goes beyond the numbers in terms of playing defense and handling a pitching staff. That's where Cervelli (.246/.341/.316 for Scranton) must prove himself as a player if he is to win the job outright. Because Cervelli has never been a full-time starter, and Chris Stewart is a career reserve, the best-case scenario is Austin Romine stealing the job. Romine's 2012 season was compromised by a back injury, but if he can play the defense he's displayed in the past while hitting a little, the Yankees could have the catcher's spot secured for the immediate future.

Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNYC

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