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Joe Girardi says 2016 Yankees are better, but staying healthy is key

New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi speaks to

New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi speaks to the media during the first day of spring training at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida, on Feb. 18, 2016. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

TAMPA, Fla. — It is, Joe Girardi said, a better Yankees roster than the one he had at the end of the 2015 season. But, he cautioned, that’s only “on paper.”

“I think on paper we are better,” Girardi said Thursday morning during his spring training kickoff news conference at Steinbrenner Field. “Paper doesn’t really mean anything until you go out and compete.”

The Yankees went 87-75 last season before losing to the Astros in the American League wild-card game. Given the health issues surrounding the rotation and some aging position players, it was a group that in many ways overachieved.

“Our goal is to win the World Series, bottom line,” Girardi said. “I appreciate how hard our guys played all year, how they never gave up last year, but you know, we didn’t get to where we wanted.”

Can this year’s club achieve that ultimate end, or at least win the AL East title so the one-game playoff can be avoided? Perhaps, but a lot has to go right.

General manager Brian Cashman continued his charge, begun several years ago, to make the roster younger, most significantly bringing in second baseman Starlin Castro, 25. The former Cub also could get some time at third base in spring training because the Yankees need a capable backup for Chase Headley.

Cashman also acquired Aaron Hicks, an athletic 26-year-old reserve outfielder, and traded for 27-year-old closer Aroldis Chapman, who, combined with Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, could give the Yankees an all-time back end of the bullpen.

Still, plenty of questions remain, led by the ability of a fragile rotation to stay healthy. That’s also true of position players such as Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira, Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury, who have experienced their share of injuries in recent years.

And can 40-year-old DH Alex Rodriguez, who surprised just about everyone with 33 home runs, come close to duplicating that output?

“We expect him to be productive,” Girardi said.

Entering spring training, the rotation seems set with Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, Luis Severino, CC Sabathia and Nathan Eovaldi. That leaves Ivan Nova as the odd man out, but Girardi said that isn’t necessarily the case.

“We’ll take the five best starters,” he said.

For the second straight season, no Yankees starter reached 200 innings last year — Sabathia, who pitched well down the stretch with a 2.17 ERA in his final five starts, led the way with 167 1⁄3 innings — and there’s no guarantee any will this year.

Severino, the only one of the expected rotation members without health questions in his past, will not have any innings restrictions. “I think he’s a guy that can handle 200 innings,” Girardi said of Severino, who posted a 2.89 ERA in 11 starts late last season and who turns 22 Saturday.

All of it starts to get sorted out Friday during the first on-field workout (position players report next Wednesday).

“You try to avoid that one-game playoff,” Girardi said. “Our first goal is to win the division this year, but I’m sure every club that’s starting today and tomorrow is.”

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