Tonight, the 2013 Major League Baseball season begins, with the Texas Rangers playing the Houston Astros. The most beautiful thing about the baseball season is that it changes how I spend my leisure time. Nothing on TV tonight? They always play baseball. Can't think of something to do after work? Call a buddy and watch some baseball. Don't know how to spend time on a sunny afternoon? Upper deck tickets are cheap on Stub Hub and the 4 train moves fast. 162 games plus the playoffs means something to do, something to watch and something to talk about for half the year, and in terms of weather it's the better half of the year. After the gift of always having something entertaining to do, my second favorite thing about the baseball season is following story lines. Most Yankee fans are upset because the team enters 2013 in the weakest state that it has been in since 2008. Not only is the team not favored to win the AL East, but many believe the team will miss the playoffs. Win or lose, challenging seasons at least give fans like me more story lines to follow. When the Yankees put a juggernaut on the field and it demolishes its opponents every success was essentially scripted and only the failures make headlines. When the team is predicted to struggle, as it is this year, then new story lines will emerge, not only about failure but also about unexpected success. If the Yankees are going to make the playoffs they're going to need to get strong performances from a number of players who are not household names, especially while household names Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson are on the DL. Here are some of the story lines I'll be following during the first month of the season:
Mariano Rivera - It has become far too easy for Yankee fans to pencil Mo in for a 2.00 ERA and 40 saves every year. Last season was the first in a decade that didn't go according to script, but the Bombers had Rafael Soriano to fall back on. This year the Yankees are more dependent on Mo than they've been in a while. Sure, he's superhuman, but he's also 43 years old and pitching on a surgically repaired knee. Will he struggle?
David Robertson - Mo may be the main story line in the bullpen, but now that Soriano is gone Robertson will probably be the guy the Yankees lean on more. The past couple of seasons Robertson has been called upon more often then not to get the Yankees out of jams, and to pitch more than one inning. He hasn't disappointed. He's averaged 12.03 strikeouts per nine innings in his career, and averaged 12.02 last season. Numerically, his 2011 looks like it was the outlier. His strikeout rate jumped up to 13.50 per nine, while his homer rate plunged to 0.14 per nine. In 2012 his averages of 12.02 and 0.74, respectively, were a lot closer to his career norms and what he did in 2010. If that's what D-Rob figures to give the Yankees then I'll take it, but he'll be under more pressure than ever this season. How will he respond, especially if the Yankees try to make him close some games?
Kevin Youkilis/Travis Hafner - Four years ago these were great guys to have on your team. Now, not so much. But with so much of the Yankee offense starting the season on the DL, the Yankees will need to find veteran leadership wherever they can to start the season. The Bombers won't need either of these guys to find his old form for the entire season (but it won't hurt). They just need one of them to get hot early. Will it happen?
Brett Gardner/Ichiro Suzuki - The Yankees have been stubbornly dependent on the home run to score the past several seasons. Right or wrong, the conventional wisdom last year was that this reliance became a liability in the playoffs. One way to break the reliance on the homer for scoring output is with speed. Brett and Suzuki figure to give the Yankees just that. Can Gardner come back from his injuries? Will Ichiro turn back into the fossil who was manning the outfield in Seattle? Can the Yankees capitalize?
Phil Hughes/Ivan Nova - More than anything else, I'll be watching these two. So much has been made of the injuries to the Yankee offense that the media has overlooked how strong the Yankee rotation figures to be. The 1-2-3 is CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte. Assuming no one is injured that's a solid top of the rotation. The difference between a good rotation and a great rotation is the back end starters. Over the past several seasons the Yankees have seen both Hughes and Nova flirt with establishing themselves as reliable blocks in the Yankee rotation. Given that each has had several seasons now to develop as a starter, this year figures not only to be adequate time for them to come into form but also the season the Yankees will need them both to realize their potential. Can they?