5 big Yankees storylines to watch as 2024 MLB season begins

The aura surrounding this year's Yankees has changed in just a few short weeks.

Entering March, the Yanks were primed to make a run at their first World Series appearance since 2009 after the additions of Juan Soto, Alex Verdugo and others, to go along with a healthy Aaron Judge and the reigning AL Cy Young winner in Gerrit Cole.

Of course, the injury bug that has plagued the Yankees over the last few seasons reared its ugly head once again.

Cole is expected to miss roughly 10-to-12 weeks due to an elbow issue that won't need surgery -- for now -- and Judge and DJ LeMahieu are banged up just days before New York starts season in Houston on March 28.

With so many unknowns, should expectations around the Bombers be as high as they were just weeks ago? To be honest, they still should be.

If the moves Brian Cashman pulled off this offseason are any indication, then the team is all-in this year and these injuries should not stop them from fielding a team that can make the postseason -- if not win the vaunted AL East -- and make a deep run in the playoffs.

Those dreams will hinge on a few factors, including health -- especially to the top stars -- and how Cashman handles the trade deadline.

With just one year of Soto in pinstripes guaranteed, the time is now.

As we all wait to see how it all plays out, here are five big Yankees storylines to watch as the 2024 season begins...

Aug 2, 2023; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) reacts during the first inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Yankee Stadium.

Can Yanks survive without Cole?

Cole was not just the Cy Young winner, but he was the steady hand in 2023.

Throughout the disappointing 82-win season, the Yankees and their fans could count on Cole to pitch the team to victory -- or at least give them a chance to win -- every fifth day.

Need to start a series on the right foot? Cole did it.

Need to stop a losing streak? Cole did it.

With other starters like Nestor Cortes, Carlos Rodon falling to injury, Cole was the one the team could depend on. He made games easier to manage, gave the bullpen a rest and so much more.

But can this iteration of the Yanks rotation tread water until Cole returns? It'll take bounce-back seasons from Cortes and Rodon -- more on him later -- as well as Marcus Stroman keeping his All-Star form in his first season in pinstripes. It would also help if Clarke Schmidt took the next step in his development.

This is the ultimate test for this year's team.

Can the real Rodon stand up?

Rodon's performance in 2023 was far from what the Yanks expected when they gave him a huge six-year, $162 million deal last offseason.

A 6.85 ERA with injuries sandwiching his first year in the Bronx was not the start the 31-year-old was hoping to have. But the southpaw came into camp early this year noticeably slimmer.

With Cole out for months, Rodon will have to step up as the No. 2 pitcher he was signed to be.

If he can recapture the 2021-22 seasons when he combined to have a sub-3.00 ERA it would go a long way to keeping the Yankees afloat without their ace, and give Rodon some confidence in an important sophomore season in pinstripes.

Rodon will start the second game of the season (Mar. 29) against the Astros, and getting off to a good start will be pivotal.

Opportunity calls for young prospects

The injury to Cole has left a hole in the rotation.

The question of who will be the fifth starter to start the season gave manager Aaron Boone a tough decision to make before it went to Luis Gil.

Gil will have a massive opportunity to stamp his place on the roster. But the opportunity isn't just for the pitching staff.

LeMahieu and Oswald Peraza's injuries have also opened the door for other potential youngsters to make an impact. While prospects like Jorbit Vivas won't make the Opening Day roster, if presumed bench piece Oswaldo Cabrera doesn't produce, another option could receive the call.

And then there's Austin Wells. The backstop will look to provide offense from the catcher's spot this season as he platoons with Jose Trevino. If Wells can continue to produce at the plate like he did this spring then the Yankees' lineup will be even more dangerous.

Staving off the injury bug

Yankees players lost tons of games due to injuries in 2023, but it wasn't just the number of injuries but who got hurt that mattered.

Here are just a few notable names with how many games they played last season:

While every team suffers injuries throughout a grueling 162-game season, it seems those injuries just hit the Bombers the hardest and at the worst moments in recent seasons.

A big story to keep an eye on is whether the Yanks can limit the number of injuries to their biggest names so the team won't have to ask players like Jack Bauers, Billy McKinney and Franchy Cordero to help drive in runs. 

Mar 10, 2024; Tampa, Florida, USA; New York Yankees left fielder Juan Soto (22) hits a 3-run home run during the fourth inning against the Atlanta Braves at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

Courting Soto

Soto is the biggest Yankees acquisition in recent memory. The perennial All-Star fits right in as the left-handed outfield bat the team has needed over the past three seasons.

The catch is Soto will be a free agent at the end of the season, so the Yankees are pushing all of their chips to the center of the table for a World Series this year. But aside from seeing how Soto gets acclimated to the Bronx and how he transforms this lineup, the Yanks will also be courting him to stay.

Judge has already said that he's going to help Soto as much as he can, which he believes is the best way to convince him to stay.  An admirable quest, but once Soto -- who is still just 25 years old -- hits the market, he's going to claim one of the most lucrative contracts in MLB history.

That number can only go higher if he performs up to the back of his baseball card this season, but would a full season in Pinstripes give the Yankees an edge? Well, showing a winning culture and potentially going far -- if not all the way -- should go a long way to convincing Soto to return to the Bronx if the money's right.

Hey, it worked for Judge when he tested free agency after the 2022 season. Why not again?