2006-02-24 / Sports

Yankees Seek Answers In Return To The World Series

By Michael Avallone Sports Columnist

Alex Rodriguez, left, and second baseman Derek Jeter are all smiles as they leave the field after a morning practice. Can they continue to smile all the way to the postseason and the World Series? (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)Alex Rodriguez, left, and second baseman Derek Jeter are all smiles as they leave the field after a morning practice. Can they continue to smile all the way to the postseason and the World Series? (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) It’s been five seasons since the Yankees last won a World Series...a certifiable drought in the Bronx. While the Bombers enter 2006 as the favorites in the American League East, it remains to be seen how far they can actually go. Here are five questions the Yanks will have to answer before they can lay claim to their 27th World Championship:

1. Can the pitchers stay healthy?

This always seems to be the biggest question for the Bombers, who have relatively durable position players but a much more fragile staff. Randy Johnson is coming off a 17-win debut season in New York and was the only member of the rotation to avoid serious injury. But now 42 years old, when does the inevitable drop-off begin? The bigger concerns are Carl Pavano (back), Chien-Ming Wang (rotator cuff) and Jaret Wright (shoulder). Throw in Mike Mussina’s late-season elbow problems and there’s plenty of reason to keep a close eye on who is going in and out of the trainer’s room this year.

One asset the Yanks possess is depth; with Shawn Chacon and Aaron Small both capable of filling rotation spots, there is a cushion should the need arise.

2. Is Johnny Damon the answer in center field?

The Yankees paid him like he will be, laying out $52 million over four years to lure the former pride of Red Sox Nation away from Beantown. Replacing Bernie Williams won’t be easy, but the pressure on Damon is ratcheted up even more because of where he comes from. If he flourishes, Yankee fans will no doubt embrace the self-proclaimed “idiot;” all the while rubbing it in the faces of their rivals to the north. If he struggles, the Stadium faithful will remember just where he came from.

A fun-loving and carefree player, his attitude won’t be an issue. The key is whether his success at Fenway Park will translate to New York and Yankee Stadium.

His weak throwing arm is well-documented but Damon’s excellent range should significantly improve the Yanks’ defense up the middle, and he gives them a legitimate leadoff hitter, allowing Derek Jeter to slide back to the No. 2 spot in the lineup.

3. How strong is the bullpen in front of Mariano Rivera?

The Bombers offense should provide plenty of leads heading into the late innings, but how their bullpen performs could be the most important factor in their success. Tom Gordon moved down the turnpike to become the Phillies’ new closer and the Yanks replaced him with flamethrower Kyle Farnsworth.

The Farnsworth signing is intriguing. The former Braves closer has a 100-mph fastball, but scouts wonder about his consistency. When he’s on, he’s virtually unhittable, but when he’s off his pitches stay up in the zone and then end up in the stands. Since moving into the bullpen full-time in 2001, he has alternated good years with bad. Last year he posted a combined 2.19 ERA in stints with the Braves and Tigers. The Yankees better hope he doesn’t follow his usual pattern.

The wildcard in the bullpen is former Met Octavio Dotel. Coming off Tommy John surgery, the ex-Astro and Athletic does not figure to pitch in the Bronx until late spring. His comeback could go a long way in determining the ease of the Yankees summer. Lefty Ron Villone is also a new addition to the pen while Tanyon Sturtze is back for a third season in the Bronx.

Look for one (or more) of the Yanks’ extra starters to play a key role in the relief corps, too. Small was a pleasant surprise as a starter last season (10-0) but he’ll likely have to get used to being a long man; Wright or Chacon could face the same situation.

4. Which Jason Giambi will the Yanks get in 2006?

The Yanks’ first baseman showed up in New York last week looking healthy so now the Bombers are wondering if he’ll be able to repeat his strong second half of 2005.

Going into this season, at least, Giambi figures to play most of his games at first base. That’s his preferred spot – he hit .209 with eight homers as DH last year compared to .319 with 24 homers when manning first base.

Whether his body will hold up to playing in the field most of the season is another story, however, and the steroid-related jeers will surely continue. He’s probably the Bombers’ weakest defender but no one will care that much if he’s able to provide the Yanks with the power they expect from him.

5. Is there a third team in the mix in the AL East?

The American League East hasn’t exactly been a competitive division in recent years. The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry has provided the only real excitement since the late ‘90s.

This year might be different. The Blue Jays were busy all winter and their overhaul has many analysts predicting the Yanks and Sox might not finish 1-2 in the division. Toronto has a strong rotation with Roy Halladay, newcomer A.J. Burnett, Ted Lilly and Gustavo Chacin and they picked up a premier closer in B.J. Ryan and one of the best catchers at handling a staff in Bengie Molina.

Add solid hitters like Troy Glaus and Molina to a lineup that already has Vernon Wells and Shea Hillenbrand and the Jays could be in the mix for second place or even…the top spot.

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