Yanks close to resolving major camp issues

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New York Yankees starting pitcher Phil Hughes (65)

New York Yankees starting pitcher Phil Hughes (65) throws in the first inning of the Yankees baseball spring training game against the Tampa Bay Rays. (Mar. 5, 2010) Photo Credit: AP

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Erik Boland Newsday columnist Erik Boland

Boland has been at Newsday since 2002. Boland started at Newsday covering girls soccer, basketball and lacrosse, and

TAMPA, Fla. - Spring training began with questions rather than concerns for the Yankees.

The defending champs had many of the key pieces returning from 2009 and, at least on paper, looked better in some spots.

Monday, an off day, marked the start of the fourth full week of camp since pitchers and catchers reported, and here's where the Yankees stand with some of the "Florida Keys" they had when camp began:


Settling the lineup


In the offseason and again in his camp kickoff news conference, manager Joe Girardi said the most important issue for him was figuring out the Nos. 2 and 5 spots in the batting order. On Sunday, Girardi announced he had all but settled on them, with Nick Johnson in the two-hole and Robinson Cano hitting fifth.

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Curtis Granderson was a possibility for both - for No. 2 because of his speed and No. 5 because of his power. But Girardi made it clear that on-base percentage, Johnson's strength, is his most important criteria for the two-hole, and not striking out, a Cano trait, is more important than power for batting fifth.

With Granderson and Nick Swisher hitting seventh and eighth, there is the possibility that the Yankees will have 30-homer potential from the bottom of the order. And with Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Cano and Jorge Posada preceding them, there is the possibility of as many as six players reaching that level.

"I think our lineup really has a chance to be a complete lineup," Girardi said in an understatement.


Drive for five

The most analyzed story has been the race for the fifth starter's spot, and though pitching coach Dave Eiland said over the weekend that the "sample size" wasn't big enough to declare anyone in the lead, Joba Chamberlain clearly hasn't been good, with a 27.00 ERA (in 32/3 innings spanning two appearances). A positive for Chamberlain was hitting 94 mph in his second outing, but he tired quickly. Phil Hughes, attempting to master his changeup, has been solid and Alfredo Aceves is emerging as a dark horse.

The prospect of having both Hughes and Chamberlain in the bullpen intrigues some in the organization and the clubhouse. "Yeah, we saw it in the World Series," Posada said earlier in camp when asked if he's thought about how good the bullpen could be with both in it. "If one guys threw a lot, we had the other."

As of now, though, Hughes appears the safe bet to win the No. 5 spot.



Bullpen shakeout

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Girardi has said he'll take 12 pitchers north. It's not a stretch to say there's little drama left in who goes to Boston for the opener, except for maybe the final spot. Assuming Hughes is the fifth starter, Chamberlain joins Mariano Rivera, Damaso Marte, David Robertson, Aceves and Chan Ho Park as bullpen locks.

That leaves Chad Gaudin and Sergio Mitre, pitchers with similar profiles, fighting for the last spot along with lefthanded long shots Boone Logan and Royce Ring, who have been performing well. Also keep an eye on Mark Melancon, who quietly has been superb.


Keeping quiet

In response to a question about Camp Quiet - zero controversy at the start of Yankees camp for the first time in what seemed like a while - Andy Pettitte said early in camp that "there's always something." Pettitte was right, as Rodriguez soon thereafter was contacted by the authorities investigating the Canadian doctor under investigation for the distribution of HGH.

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A distraction for A-Rod? Possibly, but not likely. As for the rest of the team, it's a far bigger issue for the media than for players. Besides, last year's circus surrounding Rodriguez and his admitted use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs dwarfs this year's, and things ended pretty well for all involved in 2009.

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