By Sweeny Murti
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If you thought the Yankees had a quiet winter, then wait till you see what happens the rest of this spring.

The Yankees are set to open the season six weeks from Friday, and (barring injury) the only spot open on this team is the 12th man on the pitching staff, a spot that could very well come down to a non-roster invitee or a Rule 5 pick you’ve never heard of. Exciting, huh?

When the Yankees signed Raul Ibanez and Eric Chavez this week, it took away any suspense regarding the 13 position players they will carry when the season starts. The starting infield is set—Russell Martin, Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez. So is the starting outfield—Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson, and Nick Swisher.

The backup catcher will be Francisco Cervelli. There was some thought that Austin Romine could push Cervelli for the job, but he is likely headed to Triple-A to play every day at that level for the first time. Andruw Jones, Eduardo Nunez, and Chavez all return for roles similar to last year, and Ibanez will get at-bats as a lefty DH and extra outfielder.

Veterans Bill Hall and Russell Branyan signed minor league deals hoping to compete for roster spots, but they will only make this team in the event of injury now. Even a guy like Ramiro Pena, who has played in the big leagues for this team many times the last few years, has little chance of opening the season with the Yankees in six weeks.

The pitching staff is nearly complete as well—six starters (CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, Ivan Nova, Hiroki Kuroda, Phil Hughes, and Freddy Garcia) vying for five spots. The odd man out is likely to be a long reliever, while David Robertson, Rafael Soriano, Cory Wade, Boone Logan, and the one and only Mariano Rivera fill the back end of the bullpen. Only one spot left on that 12-man staff, and that could be a second lefty or simply another arm to fill some low leverage innings (keep in mind Joba Chamberlain starts the year on the DL, back perhaps by June from Tommy John surgery).

It seems the only real question then is who will win the fifth starter derby. It should come down to Hughes and Garcia, and frankly I don’t’ see any way its not Phil Hughes.

The Yankees have invested too much time and protected Hughes too much over the years to make him an extra part. Its odd that Hughes is this far along in his Yankee career and still has no solid hold on a role. Injuries have leveled him twice in the last four years, and the Yankees have had to adjust along the way. But the plain and simple truth is the Yankees have been developing Phil Hughes to be a rotation fixture, and at age 25 the time is now.

We will spend much of the next six weeks analyzing every meaningless pitch that Hughes and Garcia throw. And Girardi even sent out the message Thursday that Hughes would indeed have to outpitch Garcia to win the spot, not necessarily by numbers but by performance nonetheless. Still, it would seem to me that the Yankees are not doing any justice to all the time they’ve invested in Hughes to make him a long reliever at this point.

Think about it this way—the Yankees could either finally put Hughes into the position they’ve hoped for since 2008, or they could squeeze another year out of the aging nomad Garcia. It might be easier to predict what you’re getting from Garcia, but the Yankees are not doing themselves any favors by playing it safe.

Six weeks from now we’ll have our answer. But, frankly, I don’t think we need to wait that long to know what the right answer is.

Sweeny Murti

Who do you think should be the No. 5 starter? Let Sweeny know in the comments below…

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