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Yankees Opening Day outlook

Yankees Opening Day outlook

Six years.

That's how long it has been since the Yankees have felt the rush of being the last team standing, hoisting the Commissioner's Trophy over their heads while the rest of the baseball world watches with envy.

If the Yankees have anything to say about it, that drought will come to an end roughly seven months from now.

New York heads into the 2006 season with a lineup for the ages, a rotation led by an ageless wonder and a bullpen anchored by the best closer of all-time. Will it be enough to capture a ninth consecutive American League East title?

Toronto has improved itself, Boston is always a tough competitor and even Tampa Bay and Baltimore have reason to be optimistic. The Yankees feel they're still the team to beat.

Let the games begin.

BATTING ORDER
1. Johnny Damon, CF:
Damon gives the Yankees their first true leadoff hitter since Chuck Knoblauch left after the 2001 season, allowing Derek Jeter to move back to his customary No. 2 slot.

2. Derek Jeter, SS:
Considered the best No. 2 hitter in the game, Jeter's ability to hit to the opposite field makes him ideal for this position. He and Damon should combine for about 250 runs.

3. Gary Sheffield, RF:
Sheff will be looking to show the Yankees why they should pick up his 2007 option.

4. Alex Rodriguez, 3B:
A-Rod is clearly comfortable in New York now, having captured his second MVP award last year. Another monster season is expected from the third baseman.

5. Jason Giambi, 1B:
After winning American League Comeback Player of the Year honors, Giambi is out to show he can produce over a full season.

6. Hideki Matsui, LF:
Matsui has been Mr. Consistency in his first three years in the Majors. A fat new contract shouldn't do anything to change that.

7. Jorge Posada, C:
Posada may not be a 30-homer, 100-RBI guy anymore, but he remains one of the more productive catchers in the American League.

8. Bernie Williams, DH:
No longer the everyday center fielder, Williams has enough life left in his bat to help the Yankees in his new role.

9. Robinson Cano, 2B:
Sophomore slump or sensation? Based on his finish to 2005 (.381 in September) and ability to hit on the road (his .335 average led the Majors), the guess here is the latter.

ROTATION
1. Randy Johnson, LHP:
The Big Unit wasn't happy with his 17-win season in 2005. With a year under his belt in New York, a 20-win season wouldn't be a surprise.

2. Mike Mussina, RHP:
Mussina has battled elbow problems in each of the last two years, but he has no health issues entering the season. At 37, Mussina is playing for his final contract.

3. Chien-Ming Wang, RHP:
Wang was the Yankees' most consistent pitcher in the first half last year before being sidelined by a shoulder injury. If he can stay healthy, Wang could have a breakout season.

4. Shawn Chacon, RHP:
Chacon was one of the Yankees' saviors in 2005 after an unlikely second-half run. The Yankees need the right-hander to do it for a full year now.

5. Jaret Wright, RHP:
Wright will step in for Carl Pavano, who will start the year on the disabled list. Wright will likely move to a long-relief role by May.

BULLPEN
Mariano Rivera remains the gold standard among closers, even at the age of 36. Rivera posted one of the finest seasons of his Hall of Fame career in 2005, posting 43 saves, a 1.38 ERA and allowing just 50 hits and 18 walks in 78 1/3 innings, striking out 80 in the process.

New York brought in Kyle Farnsworth to replace Tom Gordon as Rivera's primary setup man, signing the hard-throwing right-hander to a three-year deal. Tanyon Sturtze will help Farnsworth bridge the late-inning gap to Rivera, as the tired arm Sturtze dealt with in the second half appears to be healthy again. Octavio Dotel was also signed to help in the seventh and eighth innings, though he won't return from 2005 Tommy John surgery until May or June.

Mike Myers and Ron Villone give the Yanks a pair of reliable left-handers to go to, with Myers serving as the left-handed specialist. Villone's role will be a wide-ranging one, as he could pitch short or long relief.

With seven starters on the roster, New York will have two of them in the bullpen for much of the year, making Aaron Small and Wright the long relievers. Scott Proctor will likely open the year with the club while Small is on the DL.

OPENING DELAYED
Pavano (back) won't be ready to rejoin the rotation until the end of April or even May, but the team has said that he will be slotted back in the rotation as soon as he returns. ... Small will open on the disabled list with a hamstring injury, but he should be ready to return about a week into the season. ... Dotel is finishing his rehab, and he could join the bullpen in late May or early June.

BURNING QUESTION
Can the Yankees avoid the injury bug? Last season, the Bombers were forced to use 14 starting pitchers, as Pavano, Wright, Mussina, Wang and Kevin Brown each missed significant time with health issues. Yes, that helped the club discover Wang, Small and Chacon, but the Yankees would be more than happy to get through 2006 without any major injuries.

The concerns aren't just on the pitching staff, where Johnson, Mussina and Rivera are in their late-30s and early-40s. The lineup features just one player under 30 (Robinson Cano), and Sheffield, Giambi and Posada aren't getting any younger.

ON THE RECORD
"Anything is possible. You can't predict a game that is so unpredictable, but if we all stay healthy and produce the way we can, we should score a ton of runs." -- A-Rod, on the possibility of the Yankees scoring 1,000 runs this season

Mark Feinsand is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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