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Offense, Health, Catching Three Giant Question Marks for New York Yankees in 2013

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Offense, Health, Catching Three Giant Question Marks for New York Yankees in 2013
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Whether or not Francisco Cervelli can handle the demands of making the jump from reserve to regular behind …

COMMENTARY | The last time the New York Yankees failed to finish in the top half of the American League in runs scored, Bill Clinton was seeking a second term in the White House, NBC still dominated prime-time television with its quartet of viewership giants led by "ER" and "Seinfeld," and this song was all the rage.

It was 1996. The Yankees finished ninth in the 14-team American League with 871 runs but got hot in October, winning 11 of 15 postseason games en route to the franchise's first World Series title since 1978.

Heck, the last time New York didn't finish in the top two in the AL in runs was 2008 -- not coincidentally the only year since 1995 that the Yankees failed to reach the postseason -- when they finished seventh in the circuit.

Hey, they haven't been called the "Bronx Bombers" for nothing.

Last year's club won the American League East for the second straight season and reached the playoffs for the 17th time in 18 years, in part because it bashed a franchise-record 245 home runs to lead the majors.

What a difference a year makes.

The offense -- and where it will come from -- is the biggest of three large questions facing the Yankees as the 2013 season approaches.

Here's a deeper look at those questions:

1. Where will the runs come from?

Through free agency, the Yankees lost 85 home runs: Nick Swisher (24 homers) joined the Cleveland Indians, Russell Martin (21) signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Raul Ibanez (19) returned for a third stint with the Seattle Mariners, Eric Chavez (16) went to the Arizona Diamondbacks, and Andruw Jones (14) will play in Japan this season.

That's roughly 35 percent of the club's 2012 production that will be wearing different uniforms or, at least in the one case, playing on a different continent in 2013.

If only the extent of the problem ended there.

However, spring training has been brutal for the Yankees. Center fielder Curtis Granderson, who led the Yankees last season and finished second in the American League with 43 home runs, suffered a broken arm in the second Grapefruit League game on Feb. 24 and will be out until at least early May.

First baseman Mark Teixeira injured his wrist while working out for Team USA prior to the World Baseball Classic. Originally diagnosed as a strain, Teixeira was expected to be out eight to 10 weeks. But late last week, Teixeira said he has partially torn the tendon sheath in his right wrist. He said he could miss the first two months of the season.

Third baseman Alex Rodriguez isn't expected back until the All-Star break, at the earliest, and he's embroiled in another controversy involving the alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Between the three injured starters, that's another 85 home runs from 2012 that will be watching from the dugout.

So, yeah, the Yankee offense won't be centered on waiting for the long bomb ... at least it better not be.

2. Can team walk fine line between experience and infirmity?

New York is the oldest team in baseball and already had a small galaxy of stars -- Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and CC Sabathia -- coming back from injuries/surgeries this spring.

Jeter has returned to his familiar shortstop post after breaking his ankle during the American League Championship Series last October. Rivera is pitching in games after ACL surgery, and Sabathia made his first Grapefruit League start on Friday, March 15.

But for every piece of good health news, there has been the falling of the proverbial other shoe. Granderson's broken arm, Teixeira's shredded wrist and Rodriguez's hip counterbalance the progress made by Jeter, Rivera and Sabathia.

But there are other worries, simply because of the age of so many key contributors. Catcher Francisco Cervelli -- who is winning the starting catching job this spring -- is the only regular still on the south side of 30. Right fielder Ichiro Suzuki is 39. Jeter is 38. New infielder Kevin Youkilis is 34 and two seasons removed from his last year as an effective hitter. On the starting staff, Andy Pettitte is 40 and Hiroki Kuroda is 38. Closer Rivera is the team's elder statesman -- quite the claim on this team -- at 43.

How old are the Yankees? There are some coaching staffs out there that might be younger.

And with that age comes wisdom and experience, sure, but it also brings with it a higher degree of fragility than a contending team would like to worry about.

3. Can Francisco Cervelli hold up behind the dish?

Francisco Cervelli has never been more than a backup catcher during his tenure with the Yankees and last year got buried in Triple-A because at the end of spring training, he had a minor-league option left and Chris Stewart did not.

Cervelli is hitting just .200 this spring in 34 plate appearances, but has impressed with his defensive work this spring. Manager Joe Girardi told the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger last week that it was "fair to say" Cervelli will be behind the plate for the opener on April 1.

Stewart came into spring training with the gaudier defensive reputation, but Cervelli has thrown the ball extremely well this spring and in working with Girardi and scout Don Wakamatsu -- a pair of former major-league catchers -- has broken some of the bad habits he had formed over the last few seasons.

The Yankees have said they are willing to live with an anemic bat, even within the confines of an offense that will be much less potent than in recent years, provided they get good defensive work from their catcher.

The question is whether Cervelli can continue his strong defensive showing when the games count.

Phil Watson is a freelance journalist and commentator currently based in upper Michigan.

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