Masahiro Tanaka makes his first spring start on Thursday. Credit: Getty Images
After missing the playoffs for just the second time since 1995, the Yankees reloaded with three big-time free agent signings.
The last time they missed the playoffs they did the same thing — and won the World Series in the resulting season.
Expectations won’t be any different in 2014. But all those expectations start with a spring training ripe with storylines for the AL East’s third-place finisher in 2013. (Did we mention the Red Sox won the World Series?)
The biggest story comes from across the Pacific, but whether the team can make it back to the postseason in 2014 may rely on the smallest player on the entire roster.
1. Welcome to America
Nice of you to join the Yankees, Masahiro Tanaka. Now, you will be winning 20 games, right?
Tanaka is story No. 1, 2 and 3 this spring. The Japanese ace signed a seven-year, $155 million contract — on top of a $20 million posting fee — and needs to show he can compete against MLB talent this spring. He makes his first start Thursday, but showed a nasty splitter in a relief debut Saturday. It’s a good first step.
2. No Cano
Robinson Cano turned his back on New York this offseason and left a gaping hole in the infield.
Instead of making a big splash in the trade market — there was no big-time free agent second baseman — the Yankees brought in veteran retread Brian Roberts. Fans who watched him cause chaos on the basepaths for years with Baltimore should know they are not getting the same player as the mid-2000s.
The 5-foot-9 speedster has lost a few miles per hour after four consecutive years of injury. In fact, Roberts has yet to play this spring. Derek Jeter warned him to come back from injury (including a concussion and torn hamstring) slowly. He’s taking heed, but will need to show he’s healthy before April.
3. Slimmed down
CC Sabathia is coming off the worst season of his 13-year career. And yet he’s still the team’s No. 1 this March.
The 6-foot-7 starter came into camp at 275 pounds after being listed at a likely generous 290 pounds recently. Now he has to shave something off his 2013 career-worst 4.78 ERA, too.
He pitched two sterling innings in his Saturday debut, but was overshadowed by that Tanaka fellow in his debut.
4. Is Derek Jeter healthy?
We know Derek Jeter is retiring, but is he healthy enough to play 140 games? I don’t think anyone, even Jeter, will know until after spring.
5. Replacing Rodriguez
If Yankees camp is conspicuously quiet in terms of gossip headlines, it might be because Alex Rodriguez isn’t around.
After threatening to show up, he accepted his suspension and will miss 2014. But can Eduardo Nunez be the everyday third baseman? The other option is Kelly Johnson. They’ll battle it out for the Opening Day start.
6. Hall of Fame benchwarmer
Ichiro Suzuki seems like a man without a position this spring. Either he wins a spot on the bench this spring — or gets traded by April.
7. Battle for the fifth spot
All things being equal, the Yankees would probably love to have Michael Pineda prove he is healthy and win the No. 5 starter role.
But he hasn’t pitched in two years and is coming off major shoulder surgery. He’s yet to get on the mound this spring. David Phelps is a conservative choice, with lefty Vidal Nuno the dark horse.
8. Closing time
The closer role has been officially passed from Mariano Rivera to David Robertson. Now he just needs to show he can do it.
The 28-year-old former All-Star setup man has been shaky in temporary duty filling in for Rivera. And remember, it was Rafael Soriano who closed during 2012 partly for that reason. He has tremendously huge shoes to fill.
9. Murphy or Cervelli?
The backup catcher position is never a sexy one, but it can be more important than any other backup.
The newly named John Robert Murphy has looked good in a week of spring games, but the job is Francisco Cervelli’s to lose — despite a 50-game ban in 2013 due to the Biogenesis scandal.
10. Future prospects
The Yankees aren’t going to bring any real prospects north with them, but there are still a few worth watching.
Mason Williams is getting some early play, but in a crowded outfield he’s likely trade material. Pitcher Jose Campos, catcher Gary Sanchez, outfielder Slade Heathcott and outfielder Tyler Austin are all worth watching.
Follow Metro New York Sports Editor Mark Osborne on Twitter@MetroNYSports.