NEW YORK -- The last several seasons have seen the Yankees attempt to pull off a delicate balance of restocking with younger, more athletic players for the future while continuing to battle with the American League East's powerhouse competition.
The process was accelerated in July, when a series of trades created opportunities for some of that touted talent to make a big league impact sooner than anticipated -- no one more than Gary Sanchez, whose incredible 20-homer performance kept the Yankees in the race until the finish and has everyone eager to see what he can do for an encore.
"The fact that they came up not as September callups -- they came up in a real pennant race where things were tight and close the entire time," Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner said. "It was the real deal. You can't have a better test than that. The pressure was on, and they responded."
The Yankees completed 2016 with 84 victories, good for their 24th consecutive winning record (1993-2016), and they have their focus set upon achieving more in 2017. Here are five questions that, when answered, could determine if the Yankees will head back to the playoffs:
Sanchez was on a 60-homer pace during his torrid late-season stretch, and while those numbers will taper off over a full campaign, he should be a force for years to come. Bird showed encouraging signs in the Arizona Fall League as he returns from right shoulder surgery, and Holliday is a proven commodity whose all-fields approach should translate nicely to Yankee Stadium.
"I'm excited," Holliday said. "I think the left-center-field gap being big is something that is good for me, as far as some doubles and some opportunities to hit the ball in the left-center-field gap. I think it's a good fit."
4. Are the kids ready to answer the call?
Cashman said that the Yankees plan to hold spring battles between young players at two positions, with Bird and Tyler Austin competing for reps at first base while Aaron Hicks and Aaron Judge will get fair shakes to lock down the right-field job.
In particular, Steinbrenner has said that he wants Judge to grab hold of the chance, coming back after a debut campaign in which the power-hitting outfielder struck out 42 times in 84 at-bats while batting just .179.
"He's got some work to do. He knows that," Steinbrenner said. "We're going to figure out exactly what we think is wrong. My expectations are, he's going to be my starting right fielder this year. That's a big deal and a big opportunity. I know he's going to make the most of it."
Another bit of spring intrigue should revolve around top prospectClint Frazier, who is slated to open the year in Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre but could force his way up to the Majors.
3. Who will round out the rotation?
After gauging the thin market at the Winter Meetings, Cashman said that it is more likely than not that the Yankees will proceed with just three guaranteed spots in the rotation, lining up Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia as their sure bets.
Barring another acquisition, the Yankees would then have five potential starters -- Luis Cessa, Chad Green, Bryan Mitchell, Luis Severino and Adam Warren -- fighting for the final two spots, with some of those names winding up in the bullpen. Sabathia said that watching the upcoming spring battle should reinforce how bright the Yanks' future is.
"Those guys have great stuff," Sabathia said. "Green is unreal. I think he's got a good chance to be really good in the big leagues. Obviously Sevvy had some struggles, but we've all seen the talent and seen what he can do. I know I've been checking on him -- he's been working hard in the offseason, and I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do for us."
2. Is this 'pen mightier?
The Yankees made re-signing Aroldis Chapman their top offseason priority, restoring two-thirds of the vaunted "No Runs DMC" combo by returning Dellin Betances to a setup role. They'll miss Andrew Miller, but the Betances-Chapman one-two punch seems to ensure that most of the leads that make their way to the eighth inning will end with the Yankees shaking hands.
Behind Betances and Chapman, the Yankees project to iron out a bullpen mix that will include Tyler Clippard and Tommy Layne, both of whom performed well down the stretch. The Yanks remain open to adding more help -- free agent Boone Logan, a former Yankee, has received some interest -- but Cashman said they don't necessarily need to add another left-hander.
1. Is there a trade in the works?
Unless the Yankees are able to clear a significant chunk of payroll in the next few months, their club is likely set for 2017. The two prime candidates for a trade would be outfielder Brett Gardner and third baseman Chase Headley, though Cashman has already said he intends to keep Headley after testing the trade market at the Winter Meetings.
In what now seems like an annual event, a Gardner trade remains in play, as clubs are interested in his Gold Glove Award-winning defense, relatively affordable contract and top-of-the-order capabilities. If an interested club dangled a solid rotation piece, the Yanks might jump, but they'd be just as happy to keep Gardner in pinstripes.
"He's a hard player to move, because he's on an exceptional contract, he's extremely consistent, he's as tough as they come and he's a great clubhouse guy," Cashman said. "I've been asked about him for a number of years now, in the wintertime and in the summertime."
Bryan Hoch has covered the Yankees for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and on Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.