Pitching questions front and center

Their inability to sign Cliff Lee leaves the New York Yankees with limited options in the rotation. Find out who else enters spring training with big questions.

The Yankees had their sights set on free-agent pitcher Cliff Lee, and when he pulled a surprise and wound up returning to Philadelphia, the Yankees turned their attention to acquiring right-hander Zack Greinke, who Kansas City instead shipped to Milwaukee.

So here the Yankees are, a month away from the start of spring training, still on hold in their attempt to get an answer from Andy Pettitte on whether he will retire or return, and left to ponder what life in the AL East might be like with a rotation that is filled out by the uncertainty of Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre.

A winter to plan, and the Yankees, like so many other major-league teams, are packing for spring training with major questions that they were unable to answer during the winter.

A starting nine questions to ponder this spring:

Can the Yankees find a fourth, much less a fifth in the rotation?

Despite all the money the Yankees are willing to spend, they were rejected by a big-time free agent for the first time since Greg Maddux shunned them for the Atlanta Braves. As a result, the one sure thing is CC Sabathia in the No. 1 slot in the rotation, and he’s coming off knee surgery. Phil Hughes, who assumed the biggest workload in his life last year, and the disappointing A.J. Burnett are the only other certainties.

Pettitte could return for another year, although he may wait a month or two into the season before taking the mound, similar to what his former buddy Roger Clemens did his final year in Houston. But remember Pettitte will turn 39 on June 15, and while he was 11-3 with a 3.28 ERA last year, he was sidelined with injuries for two months.

The Yankees have made it clear that they won’t mess with Joba Chamberlain this year. He is going to stay in the bullpen. So the rotation depth chart, as of today, has the fourth and fifth spots filled by Nova, who was 1-2 with a 4.50 ERA in 10 appearances (seven starts) last year, and Mitre, who at the age of 30 has a big-league resume of 13-29 with a 5.27 ERA.

Will the real Zack Greinke please stand up?

Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin has bet his job that the additions of starters Shawn Marcum and Zack Greinke will deliver the Brewers an NL Central title.

After spending the 2009 season recovering from reconstructive right elbow surgery, Marcum did return to go 13-8 with a 3.64 ERA in 31 starts with Toronto, giving hope he is back from the injury.

Greinke followed up his Cy Young season in Kansas City with a 10-14 record and 4.17 ERA, which was 2.01 higher than 2009. He did put together back-to-back seasons of 29-18 in 2008-09, but he is 31-49 in the rest of his career, and those were his only winning records in six full big-league seasons.

Word from those who know Greinke is that he can pitch to the level of the challenge he feels he is facing. If that’s the case it should be good news in Milwaukee.

What’s right about the Phillies lineup?

Outfielder Jayson Werth never has driven in 100 runs in a season and has had 500 at-bats only twice. So what is the fuss about Washington’s lavish spending that lured him from the Phillies as an offseason free agent? Well, Werth, at least, was a right-handed power threat.

The only right-handed bats returning to the Phillies lineup are catcher Carlos Ruiz and third baseman Placido Polanco. The Phillies are high on outfield prospect Domonic Brown, but he is a left-handed hitter, just like first baseman Ryan Howard, second baseman Chase Utley, and left fielder Raul Ibanez.

Having not addressed that issue in the offseason, the Phillies have to cross their fingers that Ben Francisco can turn potential into consistent production, finally.

Is anybody home in Anaheim?

A year ago, the Angels, who had become the dominant force in the AL West, were hit by the defections of third baseman Chone Figgins, DH Vladimir Guerrero and right-handed pitcher John Lackey. Instead of making an impact move to try to fill the voids in terms of production and leadership, the Angels were left to piece things together.

It didn’t work. After five division titles in six years, the Angels stumbled to their first losing record in seven years. And so what did they do this offseason? Nothing of significance. Are there internal answers to the questions the Angels face?

Do the Twins have relief in sight?

The Twins are counting on closer Joe Nathan to return after missing 2010 recovering from reconstructive right elbow surgery, but is that enough for another title run?

The offseason saw the free-agent defections of right-handers Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch and Clay Condrey, and left-handers Brian Fuentes and Ron Mahay, but no established relief additions.

Can the Rockies provide the spark for the young bats that have been silent?

Two years ago, San Francisco fired hitting coach Carney Lansford for being too intense. This winter the Rockies hired Lansford, replacing Don Baylor, because he is so intense. The potential has yet to turn into results for third baseman Ian Stewart, catcher Chris Iannetta and right fielder Seth Smith.

All three had success in the minors when Lansford was the hitting coach at Triple-A Colorado Springs so they know his personality and have had success with his methods. Can that be translated to the big-league level? The Rockies better hope so because they opted to ignore chances to make changes at all three positions, and remain committed to the home-grown hopes.

Can Clint Hurdle change a Pittsburgh state of mind?

Hurdle worked magic in helping turn Colorado into a contender. Does he have any special potion he can apply in Pittsburgh, where the Pirates have suffered through a professional sports-record 18 consecutive losing seasons? That includes nine season of 90-plus losses, including 105 losses last year, the most for a Pirates team since the 1952 Bucs stumbled to 112 losses.

What’s more, the struggle came on the heels of three consecutive division titles built on three consecutive 90-win seasons. The downfall started under Jim Leyland, who had guided Pittsburgh in those three title seasons, and has continued with managers Gene Lamont, Lloyd McClendon, Jim Tracy and John Russell.

How will Don Mattingly adapt to the expanded focus of a manager?

Mattingly is one of the better-liked men to have ever worn a big-league uniform, and he was a top-of-the-line player. He, however, has done little except spend time as a hitting coach for Joe Torre to prepare himself for the broad aspects of managing a team.

And he’s not sneaking onto the big-league managerial scene in assuming the job for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who still have a reputation among the game’s elite teams. The ongoing divorce of the McCourts, however, has turned the franchise into a sickening, real-life soap opera and limited general manager Ned Colletti’s financial freedom to improve the team.

One-time wonders in Texas or the start of something good?

In their 50th year of existence — the team was born as the expansion Washington Senators in 1961 — the Rangers made their World Series debut. And to advance in the postseason they even knocked off the Yankees in the ALCS, against whom the Rangers had been 1-9 in previous postseason games.

Is there an encore in store? The most likely AL West challenge, the Angels, haven’t done anything to improve. But then neither did the Rangers, whose primary offseason efforts resulted in losing left-hander Cliff Lee to Philadelphia as a free agent, and the signing of Adrian Beltre, who provides a defensive upgrade over Michael Young at third base but will be challenged to show he won’t get lax given his new-found security.

The Rangers did back off an effort to trade Michael Young, a key clubhouse factor on the team, to Colorado, using concerns about the leg stress fracture Eric Young Jr., suffered last August as the excuse to calm a growing discontent among Rangers fans about dealing Young, who figures to move from third to the DH duties.

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