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New year, new competitions for the Yankees

As camp opens, the changes from 2012 are minimized but significant
02/12/2013 8:54 AM ET
By Lou DiPietro

For the second straight year, Francisco Cervelli appears to be the Yankees' reserve catcher.(AP)
A new year has officially dawned for the New York Yankees with the reporting of pitchers and catchers to camp, and despite all the flux on the field and non-movement off of it, this spring may be a case of “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Last year, the Yankees made a handful of moves in the final week of the offseason, officially signing Raul Ibanez and Eric Chavez and trading A.J. Burnett to the Pittsburgh Pirates on the eve of camp. Once that was done, however, the team began its Grapefruit League schedule seemingly with all but a few roster spots and positions apparently set, the only real competitions being the battle for fifth starter/long relief spot, the lefty specialist role, and maybe one other bullpen job.

Flash forward 350-some days, and once again, it seems on the edge of camp that most of the starting lineup, rotation and bullpen are set, with the fifth starter/long relief battle and lefty specialist competition again the lone battles on the mound – but this time, there’s a little bit more competition, at least on the bench.

As we prep to officially set the clock to 2013, here’s a look at where the team is now in comparison to where the Yankees were at the onset of 2012.

The Rotation
2012: As camp opened, the Yankees were ready to roll with a “Big 3” of CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda, leaving Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia to battle for the fourth and fifth spots. The loser of that three-way battle was almost certainly ticketed to the bullpen, while the prospect triad of D.J. Mitchell, David Phelps and Adam Warren were competing among themselves to see who would end up as the “No. 7” starter, aka the first guy up to the Majors if needed.

2013: As camp opens, Sabathia, Kuroda, and Pettitte are locked in as the “Big 3,” with Hughes entrenched in the No. 4 spot. So, once again, the fifth starter job is the one up for grabs, with Nova this time battling Phelps to see who rounds out the rotation and who ends up in the bullpen. With Mitchell gone, Warren will head the Triple-A rotation and seems locked in as the “No. 7,” but could face a push in camp from a number of young arms – including Brett Marshall, who has no experience above Double-A but did lead the Eastern League in wins in 2012 and was added to the 40-man roster this offseason.

The Bullpen
2012: The “SoRoMo” triad of Rafael Soriano, David Robertson and Mariano Rivera had the back end locked up and the odd man out of the starters battle had the long role, so at best, three spots were open. Boone Logan and Cory Wade all but had two locked up after strong showings in 2011, although the Yankees had righty Manny Delcarmen and lefty Mike O’Connor in camp as non-roster invitees to push them, and the “lefty specialist” role was up for grabs between NRIs Clay Rapada, Hideki Okajima, and Juan Cedeno, and Rule 5 pick Cesar Cabral.

2013: This year, the back end is “JoRoMo,” with Joba Chamberlain replacing Soriano in the back-end triad. Logan is back in his final pre-free agency year, and with Phelps or Nova likely headed to the long relief role, that leaves two spots seemingly open at best. As of now, Cody Eppley, who had a 3.33 ERA in 59 appearances last year, seemingly has the inside track on the open middle relief slot, but he will face potential challenges from David Herndon and Chase Whitley among others. Meanwhile, Rapada will look to hold off Cedeno, who had an All-Star year in Triple-A, and newcomer Josh Spence to keep his job as lefty specialist.

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The Lineup
2012: This was never in doubt at any point during camp; Mark Teixeira/Robinson Cano/Derek Jeter/Alex Rodriguez were set around the horn, Brett Gardner/Curtis Granderson/Nick Swisher were entrenched in the outfield, and Russell Martin was back behind the plate.

2013: On the diamond, five spots are the same, with Kevin Youkilis replacing A-Rod (at least to start) at third base and Ichiro Suzuki in place of Swisher in right field. Behind the plate, however, lies anywhere from a two-way to four-way competition, depending on who you ask. General manager Brian Cashman has said that Austin Romine will likely start in Triple-A, so it seems as if Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart may or may not be battling to see who gets the lion’s share of the time – but Cashman hasn’t ruled out Romine making the team with a strong spring, and if Bobby Wilson impresses while Cervelli is playing in the World Baseball Classic, it could be more of a competition later on.

The Bench/Designated Hitter
2012: Much like the lineup, this was all but set; Ibanez and Andruw Jones were the backup outfielders and usual lefty/righty DH platoon, Chavez and Eduardo Nunez were the backup infielders, and Cervelli was all but entrenched as backup catcher.

2013: Here, at least, is where “what a difference a year makes” is a more apt cliché. Travis Hafner is signed to be a lefty DH and one of the top four catchers in camp will be the nominal backup, but beyond that is anyone’s guess.

On the infield, Nunez is back but will likely be on a much shorter leash after last year’s defensive woes and will be pushed by the man who replaced him in 2012, Jayson Nix, and maybe others for the utility infielder job. Meanwhile, with Swisher and Chavez gone and Nunez struggling last year at third, it will be incumbent on them to find someone who can at least capably play both corner infield spots; Dan Johnson, who was hit 28 homers in Triple-A in 2012, is a lefty who plays primarily first but has experience at third, so he could be that man.

As for the outfield, with three lefties in the starting lineup, at least one right-handed hitter will make the team. Juan Rivera and Matt Diaz are in camp on Minor League deals and seem to have the inside track, but one potential wild card could be Ronnier Mustelier, who hit .315 between Double-A and Triple-A and has played enough third base to be considered for a utility role there.

No matter how it breaks down, up to four of the five spots on the bench could be determined this spring, a stark change from the 2012 unit that was all but set when Chavez and Ibanez signed on the eve of camp.

Follow Lou DiPietro on Twitter: @LouDiPietroYES

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