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Shaky rotation and lineup make Yankees hard to trust for 2015

A return to the playoffs? A crash-and-burn season with a last-place finish? Anything is possible with this year's hard-to-predict yet ultimately uninspiring Yankees team.

This week, is previewing all 30 MLB teams, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 20: the New York Yankees.

2014 Record and Finish: 84–78 (.518), second place in AL East (13th overall)

2015 Projected Record and Finish: 77–85 (.475), fourth place in AL East (20th overall)

The Case For

It was a strange winter for the Yankees, and not just because this was the beginning of life without Derek Jeter. After missing the playoffs for a second straight season—the first time New York has been shut out of the postseason in back-to-back years since 1992 and '93—general manager Brian Cashman retooled the roster not with splashy free-agent signings (as he did after '13) but with smaller trades and re-signings that didn’t clearly make what was an obviously flawed club in '14 any better for '15.

Give Cashman this: He has assembled a heck of a bullpen since the end of last season. If we learned anything from the Royals' crazy run last October, it’s that a great bullpen can take you a long way, and the Yankees may have that. It’s hard to predict reliever performance year to year, but on paper the relief corps looks like it could be better—perhaps even one of the best in baseball—despite losing closer David Robertson to free agency.

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Manager Joe Girardi hasn’t officially chosen a replacement, but he has two excellent choices in Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, the best right-left bullpen duo in the game. Lefty Chasen Shreve is an intriguing addition to the staff; he reinvented himself last season in the minors, posting 87 strikeouts and 12 walks in 64 innings between Double and Triple A for the Braves. New York also has some other high upside power arms that will start the year at Triple A, including 2014 second-round pick Jacob Lindgren (48 strikeouts in 24 2/3 innings last year) and former All-Star closer Andrew Bailey. The Yankees could have a sputtering offense and mediocre starting pitching, but if they have a lead after five innings, they could be tough with all the weapons at Girardi’s disposal.

Then again, the starting pitching could be better than mediocre. No rotation in baseball is a bigger wild card than New York's, given the unpredictability of Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia. Tanaka, who missed most of the second half last year with an elbow injury, has shown that when healthy, he’s one of the best pitchers on the planet; Pineda, who had a 1.89 ERA but made only 13 starts because of a teres major muscle strain, clearly has the stuff to be an ace; and Sabathia was an All-Star pitcher just three years ago but took the mound a mere eight times in 2014 because of a knee injury.

If Tanaka and Pineda can stay healthy and Sabathia can find a way to get hitters out with his lost velocity, and if Nathan Eovaldi has the breakout season some expect, the Yankees—with what should be an improved defense and perhaps a Royals-esque bullpen—could be excellent in the run-prevention department. Remember, as disappointing and sometimes unwatchable as New York was in 2014, it still finished second in the division. It’s not crazy to think that if everything breaks right, the Yankees could win a mediocre AL East.

The Case Against

Of course, when it comes to New York, it’s just as easy envisioning a crash-and-burn, last-place finish as it is a return to the postseason. You could argue that the Yankees overachieved each of the last two seasons to finish with 84 and 85 wins, respectively, and here they are with a club that on paper isn’t much improved from a team that was -31 in run differential last year. Injuries were to blame for the Yankees falling short of the playoffs the previous two seasons, but given this team’s age, is there any reason to think this movie will turn out any differently? It wouldn’t surprise anyone if New York got close to nothing from Tanaka, Pineda and Sabathia. The offense, meanwhile, is counting on miracle comeback seasons from Carlos BeltranMark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez. The lineup is just as hard to figure as the rotation—and there’s far less upside in the former than in the latter.

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On paper, the Yankees look like they could have some decent power, but their offense is filled with considerable risks. New York hopes Beltran can rediscover some of the power he had flashed not long ago—he hit 32 home runs in 2012 and 24 in '13 but just 15 last year—but the veteran rightfielder turns 38 in April. The Yankees have an elite glove at third base in Chase Headley, but they’ll also need A-Rod and his righthanded production in a lefty-heavy lineup. Didi Gregorius will be a significant upgrade for New York defensively, but a shortstop who hit .226/.290/.363 last year will be a liability in a lineup that already has a number of question marks. Add it all up, and you have a wide range of possible outcomes for this club.

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X-Factor: Nathan Eovaldi

The Yankees will need some surprise breakout players if they’re going to make a run in the AL East. In the rotation, the most obvious candidate is Eovaldi, the 25-year-old righthander acquired in a five-player trade with the Marlins last December. Eovaldi is far from a finished product: He was 15-35 with a 4.07 ERA over four seasons with the Marlins and Dodgers, but he has a fastball that can touch 100 mph and a good mid-80s slider. He is a curious case, though: He allowed the fifth-fewest walks among any pitcher in the league with at least 190 innings but also gave up a league high 223 hits in his 33 starts last season. Eovaldi added a splitter toward the end of last year, and that pitch will be a big part of his development this season in the Bronx. The upside is there for him to emerge as one of New York’s most valuable hurlers.

Number To Know: 88.8

That was CC Sabathia’s average fastball velocity in 2014, according to—the lowest of his career, and the third straight year his velocity declined. Sabathia is back after knee surgery last summer, and the Yankees are encouraged with what they’ve seen this spring: In his first start, he touched 93 mph with his fastball. You’ve probably heard that Sabathia reported to camp at 305 pounds, about 30 pounds heavier than a year ago, but maybe the weight gain is what it’ll take for him to channel his All-Star form of previous years.

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Scout's Takes

Most Overrated: Mark Teixeira

“It's time to stop waiting for him to have that bounce back year; it ain’t going to happen. But I actually think it’s even worse than that—he’s a serious liability at this point. He has not looked good with the bat at all, [and] his bat speed has slowed down so much that he has to really cheat to get to fastballs. He’s been a shell of himself since 2012, and it just keeps getting worse and worse.”

Most Underrated: Brian McCann

“There aren’t many guys you’d call underrated on this team, but if there’s one guy people are kind of writing off too soon, I think it’s McCann. It was clear he was trying to justify the money they spent on him over the winter, and he was pressing at the plate. He’s a good hitter and a good fit in the ballpark, and the value that he brings with the way he handles the staff and his receiving behind the plate still make him one of the best catchers out there. He looks much more relaxed this spring, and that’s a huge sign. I think he makes that staff a lot better, and as they try to bring in some young pitchers into the fold, he’ll play a big role in helping them along.”