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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Yankees need to find a way to land Tanaka

After improving offense this offseason, next step for club is to upgrade rotation

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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

The Yankees have had a very nice offseason. Are they better than they were at the end of the 2013 season? Yes, they are.

There's little question about that. The Yankees could be better at seven of nine everyday positions, and that includes third base. If they land Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka to the rotation, they will have positioned themselves to return to the postseason. Or at least be in the conversation.

Regardless, the Yanks are going to have questions that can only be answered as the season plays out. Can Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira still perform at anywhere near the level they have for most of their careers? Can Michael Pineda put his career back on track? Finally, is David Robertson capable of filling the void left by Mariano Rivera's retirement?

For those of you screaming that replacing Rivera should be general manager Brian Cashman's top priority, he has a long to-do list. First, there was the offense. Now, there's the rotation.

The Yankees already have quality arms in the bullpen, and middle relievers sometimes are the last to come off the free-agent board. But Cashman's focus has to be elsewhere.

Also, simply being better at seven everyday positions isn't enough. The Yanks were decimated by injuries last year, and while they stayed in contention longer than almost anyone thought possible -- take a bow, manager Joe Girardi -- in the end, they simply weren't good enough.

They were last in the American League in OPS at four spots -- first base, right field, designated hitter and, yes, third base. They were next to last at shortstop and in left field, and 12th at catcher.

Overall, they were 10th in the AL in runs, this after being first or second the previous four years. So, yes, the signings of right fielder Carlos Beltran, center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and catcher Brian McCann were big steps in the right direction.

If Jeter and Teixeira are healthy and productive and if Alfonso Soriano adjusts to life as a DH, the Yankees may have enough offense. They may have been stung by the loss of second baseman Robinson Cano because they typically get what they want in free agency. And they could have re-signed Cano.

They simply decided that Seattle's 10-year, $240 million deal was more than the Yanks were comfortable spending. That's not how they once operated. But it's what the good clubs frequently do.

Now about Alex Rodriguez. While he still may have been the best option for the Yankees at third base before his season-long suspension, there are significant questions about how good he can still be, because he has averaged just 88 games and 14 home runs the last three seasons.

Likewise, there aren't impact options available. The Yanks once had an interest in Padres third baseman Chase Headley, but for a variety of reasons, no deal seems likely. So Cashman has shored up other spots as he sorts through his options at third.

New York could open the season with Brian Roberts at second and Kelly Johnson at third. If that's the case, the batting order looks pretty good:

Ellsbury, CF
Jeter, SS
Beltran, RF
McCann, C
Teixeira, 1B
Soriano, DH
Johnson, 3B
Roberts, 2B
Brett Gardner, LF

That lineup could work if the rotation is good, and for that to happen, Ivan Nova and Hiroki Kuroda have to be healthy and productive. CC Sabathia must make the adjustment to pitching with less velocity. Almost every pitcher has to make the same transition at some point in his career, and given Sabathia's pitching aptitude and ability to locate pitches and change speeds, there's no reason to think he can't do it.

Unless Pineda can still pitch at a high level, that rotation probably isn't good enough to move past the Red Sox and Rays in the AL East. That's why signing Tanaka is so important.

The Yankees have been all-in on him and so far have shown little interest in Ervin Santana, Matt Garza or any of the other free-agent pitchers on this market. If Tanaka lands elsewhere, Cashman almost certainly will sign at least one more starter.

And if Cashman uses a little of the A-Rod money that was freed up to strengthen the bullpen with, say, Grant Balfour, the Yanks will have the makings of a competitive team. The bullpen won't have the depth of previous years, but it could still be good enough.

Almost no one could have seen how this offseason would play out, but after all the comings and goings, it would be a mistake to overlook the Yankees in a division that appears to be as unpredictable as ever.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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