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Keefe To The City: Yankee Question Marks

By Neil Keefe
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The day is finally here! Pitchers and catchers! Baseball! Wooooooo!

OK, so maybe this isn't real baseball. Really it's just a tease and a checkpoint date that makes it feel like Opening Day is closer (45 days) than it really is. I think of pitchers and catchers like the dream scene in Dumb and Dumber when the camera pans down Mary Swanson's body and you think you're going to see something, but it ends up being headlights of the truck driving at Lloyd and Harry. Every time I watch the movie I think that maybe one time it won't be headlights, but it is. And every year I get tricked into thinking pitchers and catchers is a big deal, but it isn't. But still it's an important date in the baseball season and a date that I have been looking for since A-Rod struck out looking to end the season 115 days ago in Texas. But hey, who's counting?

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Going into spring training this year feels a lot like going into spring training in 2008, and no, that can't be good. When I hear 2008, I don't think, "Oh, that's the year I graduated college." I think, "That's the year the Yankees didn't make the playoffs." And it's not just 2008 that I do this with, it's every year. I'm not sure if it's worse that this year feels a lot like 2008 or that I associate time with how the Yankees did in a specific year. Either way, neither thing can be good.

2008 was the darkest summer of my life as a baseball fan. Since I was seven years old, the Yankees have made the playoffs every year except for 2008. Spoiled? Yes. Am I sorry? No. But I understand why Mets fans hate me.

For the next few weeks I will have to read countless blogs and tweets talking about who looks like they lost weight, who showed up early or late to camp, what groups of pitchers are taking fielding practice, how some under-the-radar pitcher is impressing the coaching staff and some new drill that Kevin Long has created for Robinson Cano. Most people would find this repetitive, annoying and unnecessary, but not me. I'm craving any and all baseball action like Ben Roethlisberger craves a night out at an on-campus bar. I don't care what information is unimportant or unnecessary. As long as there aren't any Nick Johnson sightings at Steinbrenner Field and as long as Brian Cashman isn't fielding any calls from Scott Boras regarding Jeff Weaver's availability, I'm happy.

As much as pitchers and catchers is a checkpoint in the baseball season, July 31 is the most significant checkpoint after Opening Day, and this season, July 31 is more meaningful than even before. It's not just the trade deadline, it's Yankees' deadline. October right now is not the second season for the Yankees, but the second half is. July 31 is when Yankees fans are supposed to believe the Yankees will get drastically better in the pitching department if they can stay afloat until then. You know, the same way we were supposed to believe that Cliff Lee would be starting the second game of the season in pinstripes. All I can do right now is hope. Hope the Yankees can make it to July 31. But, "Let me telling you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane."

Let's be honest, even though I will pick the Yankees to win the World Series in my preseason piece because that's how I do things, the Yankees aren't winning the World Series as currently constructed. I'm not breaking any new ground by saying that, but I'm not trying to. I'm just stating facts, and the fact is the team with the highest payroll in the game only is without 40 percent of a rotation RIGHT NOW!  And unless Ivan Nova pitches well above expectations and Freddy Garcia takes a hot tub time machine back to 2001, Yankees fans are going to need a couple miracles along the way. I look at the 2011 season right now as one massive parlay. And everyone knows parlays are never the way to go.

Sweeny Murti has told me not to worry time and time again, but I'm worried. I'm petrified. I don't want 2011 to end up like 2008. I don't want the fourth and fifth days in the rotation to be the way it was when Darrell Rasner and Sidney Ponson rounded out the rotation and there was no hope winning at all.

The Yankees have their questions entering spring training like every team in baseball, but it just seems they have a few more. Here are the five most important questions surrounding the Yankees with the start of spring training.

Is Derek Jeter Still The Man?

The answer to this question from me is obviously yes. But I don't think that's the general consensus. Before last year's "horrible" season, no one could deny Jeter's abilities and his value to the Yankees. But one sub-par season since 1996 and you would think that the first 14 full seasons of his career never happened. Sure it doesn't help that Jeter's worst statistical season came at the age of 36, an age when no one plays shortstop unless it's once or twice a week for a beer league team. But that's why he's Derek Jeter and no one else is.

I still believe that Jeter was hurt last year. There's no way that he dropped off from his incredible 2009 season to what he did in 2010 other than injury. It won't help if Jeter follows up 2010 with another poor 2011 because then we will have a situation. Even though I will still blame it on injury and remain in complete denial the way A.J. Burnett remained in denial about thinking he deserved a postseason start last fall.

I think Jeter still belongs at the top of the lineup. Should he be leading off? I'm not sure. Part of me wants him to remain in that spot, but the other part of me wants Brett Gardner running the pitch count to eight or nine before another Yankee even sees a pitch, and Jeter's first-pitch groundouts to short have already cost me enough in new cell phones. So, maybe he should got back to hitting second full-time. I'm OK with either one.

I think Jeter's on a mission this year to prove the doubters wrong, to be able to stick his middle finger in Brian Cashman's face and to win his sixth ring. Though everyone in Boston and everyone that hates what Jeter and the Yankees represent are waiting for the demise of No. 2, I don't think we will see it in 2011.

Who Is Joba Chamberlain?

True or false: I own the Chumbawamba CD with "Tubthumping" on it. True. But I was in sixth grade when I bought it and "Tubthumping" and Smash Mouth's "Walkin' on the Sun" were the biggest songs in the world for my age group. I should have known that Chumbawamba would never have another hit song, and I should have known that wasting $14 or $15 on them was a mistake, but "Tubthumping" was such a success that I had figured there would be more success after that. I was stupid.

Maybe I'm still stupid now thinking that somewhere a flicker of 2007 Joba Chamberlain still exists and that his one year of success in the majors can be duplicated.

Joba's career is at a crossroads though I don't think he needs anyone to tell him that. Brian Cashman even said that he Joba isn't a lock to make the team out of spring training. I can't believe where we're at with Joba Chamberlain from where we were during the 2007 season. Sure the shoulder injury in 2008 didn't help matters and maybe it has had more of a lingering effect than we have known (at least Cashman eluded to that at his now famous breakfast at the Hard Rock Cafe in January). It used to be amazing, that's right amazing, if someone got a hit off Joba. Now it's amazing if he puts up a zero for an inning. And it's mind numbing if he has a 1-2-3 inning.

But somewhere between Jobamania in '07 and the Joba Rules and twirling around the mound and fighting the air with fist pumps, Joba Chamberlain became more mortal than Henry Rowengartner.

Cashman doesn't believe the Yankees ruined Chamberlain. He said that he has had enough opportunities to prove himself and he just hasn't. Maybe that's true. Maybe it's not. But I was part of the "Joba Should Be A Starter" campaign all along, and I'm not sure you can fully convince me that stretching out an early-20s arm over and over again isn't a problem.

Sixth inning? Seventh inning? Mop-up man? Where does Joba Chamberlain fit in? I don't know and I'm at the point where I'm beginning to not care anymore. I have lost all the trust I used to have in him. I just want 2007 Joba back. Please come back.

Can A.J. Burnett And I Just Be Friends?

I made two New Year's resolutions. The first was to get better at making and sticking to plans – one my friends have desperately been asking me to do since about fifth grade. The other was to not say anything negative about A.J. Burnett and give him a clean slate. So far I'm Randy Winn-esque with my resolutions: 0-for-2.

I don't think anything I have written about Burnett has been unwarranted or unfair. If you make $16.5 million a year and go 10-15 and are as bad as Saturday Night Live has been now for nearly a decade, you have to take whatever is said. I will gladly let Burnett say whatever he wants about me for $16.5 million.

I had an argument with a friend recently about why I have been so hard on Burnett and I told him, "All I care about is winning and I'm against anyone that gets in the way of my teams winning."

Before Burnett's start in Game 4 of the ALCS, a lot of people on Twitter started a "Believe in Burnett" campaign. It seemed kind of weird that people needed to pretend they liked Burnett and that they had to talk themselves into believing in the team's Opening Day No. 2 starter and a guy who makes $500,000. But now I'm about to start a similar campaign because I'm at the point where believe in Burnett because there is no other option. The season actually hinges on the success of him. And now that I have to believe in him it's as awkward as Janelle Monae's crowd surf at the Grammy's on Sunday night.

I'm giving Burnett a clean slate (I think), and a chance to win back my trust. Well, actually he can just win my trust since he never had it to begin with.

Is The 2010 Rafael Soriano The Real Rafael Soriano?

Let's forget for a minute that Rafael Soriano holds all the power in his contract. If he matches his 2010 season, he can opt out and make the Yankees or another team pay him more than $12 million. If he's awful, he can just milk his money from the Yankees. He is in a perfect situation and there is NO PRESSURE at all for him to perform. Unlike last year with the Rays when he was in a contract year and HAD to perform. So, even though I think he will be good under Mariano, I'm fully aware that if he isn't, he might just pack it in.

But what scares me is last week, Mike Francesa talked with Don Zimmer and said to Zimmer, "How do you think Soriano will do in New York?" And Zimmer responded with a blank look on his face and said, "I don't know."

Unless you're Milton Bradley or Manny Ramirez or anyone that used to play for Ozzie Guillen, your former employer almost always has good things to say about you. I expected Zimmer to say how stacked the Yankees bullpen is going to be and how incredible a 1-2 punch Mariano and Soriano will be. Instead he said, "I don't know." That's reassuring.

Now do I think Zimmer's opinion is all that matters? No. I mean he couldn't remember Matt Garza's name when talking about which pitcher the Rays traded to the Cubs. But I'm not holding that against Zimmer either just like I'm not holding on to his opinion like it's all that matters. But I respect Zimmer's baseball mind and if he is that unsure about Soriano, there is a reason for others to be too.

There have been more than enough stories saying the Yankees have their own version of the Nasty Boys now and how their 'pen is far and away the best in baseball. That might be true and maybe we will see what we saw out of the Yankees bullpen in 1996, but the Yankees had starting pitching in 1996. They had leads to protect in 1996. Right now the Yankees have a three-man rotation and that's pushing it. They really have a two-man rotation and a possible third man  depending on which A.J. Burnett shows up. It's hard to protect a lead you don't have, but no one is talking about that.

Who Will Make Up The Rest Of The Rotation?

I'm so scared about what happens in series in which Burnett and the fourth and fifth starter are scheduled to pitch. I have already tried to figure out the rotation with that first off-day after Opening Day and how the rotation will shake out for the first trip to Fenway during the second week of the season. Is April 8 too early for Joe Girardi to start lining up the rotation for a series against the Red Sox? Not to me it isn't.

At the Cashman breakfast, Cashman talked about how his contract runs through the end of the 2011 season with the Yankees, and that he is the one who implemented the rule to let contracts play out and not extend them. He made it clear that he would not ask for an extension because it would make him a hypocrite. I have this vision of him going back on his word and wanting an extension and sitting at a conference table with Hal Steinbrenner like Ari Gold and Terrance McQuewick before Ari is fired, and Ari saying he wants to be taken care of now with a contract extension. And Terrance says, "This is what I'm prepared to offer you," and he writes "NOTHING" on a piece of paper and slides it across the table to Ari. Nothing would make me happier than to have that scene play out in real life. I guess getting to be there for it or seeing footage of it would make me happier.

Back to the current problem...

Maybe it's just me, but I think the team with the highest payroll in the game should have a full rotation entering spring training. OK, maybe the fifth spot could be a competition among a few options like it was last year, but there's no way that two spots should be that way. And there's no way that so many bad options should be competing against each other for these two spots.

I have spent nearly every day since Cliff Lee chose the Phillies waking up and hoping that Brian Cashman would make a move for a real starter like I hoped Bob Dylan would start singing "Hurricane" at the Grammys for the first performance of the song since 1976.

I have talked about the Yankees projected rotation with everyone and anyone that might have an opinion or some insight on the matter. I'm willing to listen to anyone's suggestion on what the Yankees should do and will do. I understand that it's all just predictions since no one knows what they will really do, but I can't wait any longer to find out who will be part of The Rotation To Be Determined.

Luckily pitchers and catchers report today. I don't have to wait anymore.

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