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Yankees have lots of questions despite influx of talent

Brian Roberts works out at the team's minor

Brian Roberts works out at the team's minor league facility in Tampa on Feb. 17, 2014. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

TAMPA, Fla. - It will be a farewell tour unlike any other.

For a second year in a row.

In 2013 it was Mariano Rivera, honored throughout the year after announcing during spring training that he would be retiring after the season.

This year it's the face of the Yankees for the better part of a generation, Derek Jeter.

But during his Feb. 19 news conference in Tampa in which he announced his retirement after this season, the shortstop established some ground rules, first and foremost this one: While opposing teams and their fans, and certainly Yankees fans, will fete him all season with thanks and tributes, Jeter has little interest in thinking about and being distracted by a season-long goodbye tour.

There is, he made clear, work to be done.

"I can't reiterate enough that I've still got a season to play," Jeter said that day.

That statement, made several times, no doubt came as music to the ears of the Yankees' hierarchy, who, with managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner's blessing, committed nearly $500 million in contracts during the offseason to make sure the club doesn't suffer a repeat of 2013: missing the playoffs.

Jeter said his expectations remain as high as they've ever been, for himself and the club, which added outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury (seven years, $153 million) and Carlos Beltran (three years, $45 million), catcher Brian McCann (five years, $85 million) and Japanese righthander Masahiro Tanaka (seven years, $155 million).

But general manager Brian Cashman, his eyes on a suspect infield and questionable bullpen with the departure of Rivera, wasn't taking any victory laps when spring training opened.

"We have a lot of talent," Cashman said. "But we still have a lot of questions despite that talent."

They are most pressing in the infield, starting with how they're going to replace second baseman Robinson Cano, who took a 10-year, $240-million deal from the Mariners.

The Yankees signed injury-prone Brian Roberts to play second, but there's no telling how long he'll stay in one piece. Kelly Johnson will get first crack at replacing Alex Rodriguez -- remember him? -- at third, and the club hopes to squeeze 120 games or so out of Jeter at short. Additionally, there's Mark Teixeira coming off surgery on his right wrist.

The news is more promising in the rotation, though the No. 1 question mark occupies the No. 1 slot in it. CC Sabathia spent last season trying to adjust to a significant drop in his fastball velocity and it never clicked; he finished 14-13 with a 4.78 ERA. The 33-year-old worked throughout spring training on adding a cutter to his arsenal, tutored by close friend Andy Pettitte, and it didn't take him long to grow tired of velocity questions.

"My fastball is what it is," he said early in spring training. "If it gets better, it will; if not, it won't. I can pitch. I'm fine. As long as I'm healthy, I'll be good."

Behind Sabathia the Yankees look to be OK, with the reliable Hiroki Kuroda (27-24, 3.31 ERA in his first two seasons with the team), Ivan Nova and Tanaka. The early returns on Tanaka were positive, though questions about his transition to the majors won't be answered until the regular season.

Perhaps the most promising aspect of spring training was the performance of Michael Pineda, who ended up in the fifth starter's spot after showing flashes of the pitcher the Yankees thought they were getting from the Mariners more than two years ago in the Jesus Montero trade.

David Robertson inherits, in the words of one team official, the "unfillable shoes" left by Rivera, but most scouts think the righthander will hold his own as the closer. The more difficult task could be filling Robertson's shoes as the lockdown setup man.

A lights-out arm for that role did not emerge during spring training, and the Yankees did not add anyone to address their infield needs.

But make no mistake: This is a far better team than the one with which the Yankees ended 2013, a team that will contend for the AL East title -- if it can stay relatively healthy.

Jeter wouldn't have it any other way in his final season, though he's taken issue with a narrative that emerged from his teammates almost as soon as he announced his decision to retire: sending the shortstop out with a title.

"I'll correct them on one thing," Jeter said. "It's to send us all out on top. It's not just me going out on top."

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