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Positive vibe surrounding world champs

TAMPA, Fla. -- The manager of the 27-time champions stationed himself Wednesday under the world-famous Steinbrenner Field big top. It wasn't hard to remember he'd been there before.

This, of course, was the very same press tent where, just 12 months earlier, Alex Rodriguez had squirmed through a very different kind of meeting with a very different crowd of media.

Who knew that 12 months could feel like that long ago?

A year later, on the first day of another Yankees spring training, there were, amazingly, no more questions about hip labrums or knuckleheaded cousins. No more questions more suitable for Dr. Phil than a baseball lifer. No more questions about the mounting heat on the manager and his franchise to rediscover the joys of tickertape.

Funny how that happens when you just win a World Series. Changes the world. Works every time.

Even if the manager didn't quite see it that way.

"To me," said Joe Girardi, "the only thing different is that it [was] a much more enjoyable winter. The winter is much more enjoyable when you're a champion than when you're not."

But the manager is wrong about that. The next seven weeks are going to be different, too. Couldn't possibly be more different than spring training the last time he was here.

Oh, the Yankees still will face their share of issues these next seven weeks. The difference is, this time around, they're actually baseball issues. What a concept.

So what are the champs' big issues as another spring training dawns? Let's take a look:

1. Repeat After Me

Repeating may not be a phenomenon that the Astros or the Rangers or (sorry) even the Cubs are real familiar with. But it's a phenomenon that has appeared on the Yankees' menu before. Perhaps you've noticed that.

The Yankees have won back-to-back World Series 12 times. No other franchise has done it more than three times. So they understand this drill, even if not many names on the current roster have experienced it.

But there's another reason that the challenge of repeating feels different in this spring-training camp than it felt in Clearwater last spring or Fort Myers the spring before or Jupiter the spring before that.

This, remember, is a team that isn't just built to win. It's a team on which winning is something that's demanded, not dreamed about.

"The expectation here is the same every year," Girardi said. "In a sense, you're supposed to repeat every year."

Because this manager, and many of these players, have spent their entire Yankees careers faced with a never-ending urgency to win, this is a team that feels better equipped to repeat than most teams that find themselves in this spot. And if not, well, they're the Yankees. They can always trade for a whole new team five months from now.

2. Life After Damon And Matsui

Of the 25 players who showed up on the Yankees' World Series roster last fall, 17 of them can still be found hanging out in pinstripes. But replacing two of the eight who exited will rank high on the list of the 2010 team's biggest challenges.

Hideki Matsui

Matsui

Johnny Damon

Damon

One of those two is Johnny Damon. You might have read about his saga someplace. Last year, with Damon occupying the No. 2 hole in their order, Yankees No. 2 hitters led the league in runs scored, OPS, extra-base hits and walks. We can envision the Yankees missing that sort of thing.

The other shadow hanging over this camp belongs to Hideki Matsui. He's an Angel now. All he did last year was lead all American League DHs in homers (27) and win a World Series MVP award. We can envision the Yankees missing a guy like that, too.

So no wonder that, when Girardi was asked Wednesday what he considered his No. 1 concern this spring, his answer was: "Ironing out our lineup."

The Yankees will essentially replace Damon and Matsui with Curtis Granderson and Nick Johnson. But Johnson's messy health history and Granderson's ominous left-right splits mean that the manager can't just pencil them into some preordained spot in his lineup and move on to other stuff.

Johnson has prototype No. 2-hitter plate discipline. But he sure doesn't have No. 2 hitter wheels. And he barely hit more homers all year (eight) than Damon hit in August (seven). Plus, he has made at least one visit to the disabled list in eight of his nine seasons in the big leagues. So even though he'll be mostly DH-ing now for the first time in his career, Nick Johnson is one tough guy to project.

Granderson, meanwhile, has hit everywhere but third and sixth in his career. And in this lineup, he figures to show up anywhere from second to ninth. But if he hits .183 and slugs .239 against left-handers again, he could also show up as "none of the above." Girardi did refer to him Wednesday as an everyday player, though, for what that's worth in February.

"I really like the players we've assembled in camp," Girardi said. "We just have to figure out how all the parts fit."

3. The Phil-vs.-Joba Steel-Cage Match

Theoretically, assuming no MRI tubes enter their lives any time soon, the first four spots in this rotation are all set, with CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte and Javy Vazquez.

But the rules of spring-training journalism require that there has to be some kind of dramatic battle for some kind of pitching spot every spring, just to keep the local press corps off the golf courses. And luckily, this spring, the Yankees are providing us a rotation mano a mano that's as fun as these fracases ever get:

Joba Chamberlain

Chamberlain

Phil Hughes

Hughes

Phil Hughes versus Joba Chamberlain, for a No. 5 spot to be named later.

Both men reported Wednesday that they've been told by Girardi and pitching coach Dave Eiland that the Yankees consider them starters. But since there's only one spot, assuming everyone else stays out of the trainer's room, that won't be possible.

So this oughta be fun.

"It's gonna be a battle," Chamberlain said. "I wouldn't want it any other way."

Chamberlain said he geared up all winter for this combat. So he's come in stronger, tougher, more ready than he's ever been.

"Right now," he said, "it's just one of those things where, as a pitcher, you can tell. Your arm's there playing catch. There's no cobwebs. There's no aches here and there. So I would say I'm probably ahead of where I was last year."

And if he is, that's a good thing, since it would be tough to argue that last year was a step forward. Chamberlain had a 4.75 ERA, and allowed an opponent OPS of more than .800 (.802) last year. So if he's ever going to turn into the next Josh Beckett the Yankees once envisioned him to be -- as opposed to, say, the next Jeff Nelson -- it's time for him to show he can still be that guy.

An increasing number of people in this sport -- both inside and outside the Yankees -- seem to be concluding that Chamberlain probably profiles best as a late-inning bullpen monster. But he doesn't talk like a guy who has reached that same conclusion.

Asked if, when he looks in the mirror, he sees a starter, not a reliever, he replied: "I see a pitcher now. You know, I used to be one of those guys, I used to throw. … I've still got a lot of work to do, and a lot of things to work on. But I think I'm finally prepared to pitch to these guys you face up here. And sometimes I didn't do that enough last year."

Joe Girardi The expectation here is the same every year. In a sense, you're supposed to repeat every year.

-- Joe Girardi

But to get the chance to show that, he's going to have to outpitch Hughes, who ended up in this bullpen by accident last year -- and then ripped off a 1.42 ERA in 44 relief appearances, much to his own surprise. He's a guy who has been groomed his whole career to be a top-of-the-rotation starter. So even he wasn't quite sure how he turned himself into the next Flash Gordon.

"I think it was just a mindset that helped out a lot," Hughes said Wednesday. "I was able to go out there and just let it go, and not really get too worked up about it. You know, when you're a starter, you tend to let some things get in your head. And I really think it helped my confidence that I was able to go out there every day and get a chance to throw the ball, and string some good outings together, and just kind of let it go."

Hughes said he believes he can translate the fire he breathed in the bullpen back into an approach that will serve him well as a starter. But one scout we surveyed this week said he thinks the Yankees would be better off handing that fifth starter's job to Chad Gaudin or Alfredo Aceves -- because Chamberlain and Hughes "are both better in the bullpen."

"Chamberlain has always been a bull in a china shop," the scout said. "I don't think he has a real good feel for pitching. And I think Hughes is a lot better out of the bullpen, too. I just think his stuff translates better. Neither one of them is overpowering as a starter. But they're both overpowering out of the bullpen."

That doesn't seem to be the way the Yankees are thinking, though -- at least not at the moment. But you never know how they'll be thinking after watching this duel close up for the next month and a half.

4. The Rest Of The Story

Now it's not as if these are the Yankees' only issues, of course. They're the Yankees. There's always a 300-ring circus following this outfit around.

So you have about 2 billion stories ahead about the impending free agency of Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter, both in the last year of their contract -- even though it's more likely that Babe Ruth will get 500 at-bats this year than that either Jeter or Rivera will finish his career elsewhere.

And there are big questions about the makeup of the outfield, too. Is Granderson going to be the everyday center fielder or the everyday left fielder? Or, if he can't make headway against left-handers, is he going to be an everyday anything?

Brett Gardner

Gardner

Curtis Granderson

Granderson

Is Brett Gardner going to wind up as the primary center fielder, forcing Granderson to left? Or is Gardner going to be so offensively challenged, he winds up sharing playing time with Randy Winn and/or Marcus Thames?

Back on the pitching beat, is Vazquez really a different guy now than he was the last time he wore this uniform, in 2004? This team is clearly counting on that.

And, incredibly, we haven't even mentioned A-Rod -- a human storyline waiting to happen every minute of every day.

So this team won't lack for plot lines this spring. You can bet the vacation account on that. But they sure beat the kind of plotlines the Yankees were dodging in this very stadium a mere 12 months ago.

Funny. It feels more like 12 centuries ago.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.