The bullpen represents the strongest opportunity for players to force their way to the final Opening Day in the current Yankee Stadium, taking spots along the first-base line opposite the Toronto Blue Jays on March 31.
Though the Yankees feature 25 pitchers on their 40-man roster and have invited nine more to Spring Training, general manager Brian Cashman insists that only three relievers are locked in for jobs this year: closer Mariano Rivera is a given, of course, and veterans LaTroy Hawkins and Kyle Farnsworth will be asked to fill duty mostly in the seventh and eighth innings.
It wasn't necessarily part of the Yankees' blueprint to try to fill the remaining holes from within, but market conditions forced the scenario. For example, the Yankees had some interest in bringing free agent Octavio Dotel back to New York on a one-year contract this offseason, but there was no chance the Yankees would have outbid the Chicago White Sox on their two-year, $11 million offer.
Could the likes of Brian Bruney, Jeff Marquez or Ross Ohlendorf fill a relief role as effectively -- and far less expensively -- than a player like Dotel would have? The Yankees are ready to find out.
"There's going to be some young players -- young pitchers, especially -- to get a chance to perform, whether it's in the rotation or the bullpen," Girardi said recently. "And you're going to look at guys like Jeffrey Marquez and Ross Ohlendorf, and there's more guys coming. We are expecting them as an organization to step up."
But which ones? From Feb. 14 on, it's anyone's guess which names will be left standing after what can only be described as a free-for-all. Chris Britton, Bruney, Sean Henn, Ohlendorf, Edwar Ramirez and Jose Veras all received tastes of the Yankees' bullpen in '07 and could be primed to return.
Kei Igawa and Chase Wright are returning starting pitchers who don't appear to fit into an already-crowded starting rotation highlighted by the "Big Three" of Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy.
Jeff Karstens and Darrell Rasner also started in New York and served various roles before injuries cut their runs short; now they're hoping for more.
It's all a very confusing scenario when you try to plot it out on paper. For pitching coach Dave Eiland, the state of affairs represents a refreshing change.
"Going into this thing with our bullpen, I don't think we're ruling anything out," Eiland said. "There's a few spots that are wide open. When guys start competing, that should bring out the best in guys. Competition is good."
The fight, while more furious amongst pitchers, spills over onto the Yankees' bench. Since Wilson Betemit figures into New York's plans at first base, competing with Jason Giambi, Shelley Duncan and Morgan Ensberg to play on Opening Day, a true utility player could be in demand.
One early favorite appears to be Nick Green, a non-roster invitee who homered twice for the Yankees in 2006. But Jason Lane, two seasons removed from a 26-homer campaign for the Houston Astros, and one-time Yankees product Bernie Castro are in line to showcase their wares, as well as young infield prospect Alberto Gonzalez, who notched his first big league hit with New York last September.
It's not exactly like past seasons, when you could fill out an Opening Day lineup card before intrasquad games began -- the only stress being the wish that injuries wouldn't take their toll. But who's saying change is a bad thing?
"There's a lot of interesting guys coming in and competing for spots," Eiland said. "It should be a very competitive Spring Training. We're all anxious to see how it's going to play out."