Yankees confident as they construct roster for '13
Health of Jeter, Rivera, A-Rod among issues New York faces entering new year
NEW YORK -- There is less of an emphasis on winning the winter these days for the Yankees, as they have appeared content at times to allow other teams to make the splashiest moves of the offseason.
In retooling for next season, general manager Brian Cashman doesn't care much about newspaper back pages. He prefers to point to the noise the team made on the field, having won 95 games and the American League East despite having its roster repeatedly hit by injuries.
Thus, with many key pieces of the ballclub falling into place, the Yankees will watch the calendar flip toward another Spring Training in Tampa, Fla., and believe they still have what it takes to contend in a division that seems to be getting more challenging every year.
"The bottom line is tomorrow is not Opening Day, and so we've got a lot of time on the clock here to methodically continue putting a roster together," Cashman said. "We're putting something together that really has a chance to put us back where we were last year, which was winning the division and competing for the title."
The Yanks weren't players for the biggest free agents this offseason, standing on the sidelines as outfielder Josh Hamilton secured a five-year, $125 million deal from the Angels and watching pitcher Zack Greinke land a six-year, $147 million pact with the Dodgers.
Working with managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner's directive to reduce payroll beneath $189 million for 2014, digging deep for massive multiyear contracts wasn't a move that appeared in the Yankees' playbook this time around.
Instead, the club focused on retaining its talent from within: Cashman prioritized pitching and was able to secure Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera for a combined $37 million in one-year deals before turning his attention to pacts for third baseman Kevin Youkilis (one year, $12 million) and outfielder Ichiro Suzuki (two years, $13 million).
The Yankees will be one of the older clubs in the Majors, but as long as the production level stays high, they won't have a problem fielding a lineup that's a little long in the tooth. Between now and Opening Day, they'll also continue to look for options to plug in just in case Plan A doesn't work out.
"I'm very satisfied and comfortable with the approach we're taking and how we're conducting our business," Cashman said. "We've been the big-game players and done the big contracts and had success doing that, and we've had failure doing that. We've also had success on the short-term stuff too, but every year is different. I'm comfortable with what we're doing."
Like the other 29 teams in Major League Baseball, the Yanks enter a new year with their share of questions. Here are 10 of theirs:
1. How will Derek Jeter bounce back?
At the moment Jeter crumpled with a fractured left ankle in Game 1 of the AL Championship Series against the Tigers, you couldn't help but sense that the Yankees weren't going to advance much further without their shortstop and team captain. Jeter is expected to be rehabbing into the spring, but the Yanks continue to believe Jeter will be in place as their Opening Day shortstop. You can be sure that his defensive range, always a popular topic even before the injury, will be watched closely during the Grapefruit League games.
2. How will Youkilis look in pinstripes?
With Alex Rodriguez potentially lost until June or July following left hip surgery, the Yankees are counting on Youkilis to hold the fort at third base. They're very familiar with just how much Youkilis can wear down opposing pitchers from his time with the Red Sox, but Youkilis has also battled injuries and is trying to prove he can still be counted on as an everyday player. It might be jarring at first to see Youkilis wearing the interlocking "NY" on his chest, but his work ethic should help him fit in quickly.
3. Who will be the Opening Day catcher?
After being unable to match the Pirates' two-year, $17 million offer to Russell Martin, the Yankees are emphasizing defense behind the plate. Cashman has said that it is likely the Yanks already have their Opening Day catcher in the group of Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart, Austin Romine and perhaps Bobby Wilson, so it's apparent they won't be expecting someone to match Martin's 21 homers from last year. Whoever the catcher is, they'll need him to work well with the staff and save runs on the other side of the ball.
4. Will CC Sabathia stand tall as the ace?
It wasn't all that surprising to learn Sabathia needed to have his elbow cleaned up after the season; after all, there was a point where he was unable to lift his left arm above his head, forcing him to the disabled list. The Yankees don't believe there will be other lingering injuries, but it's no stretch to say that they need Sabathia to make a complete recovery for their blueprint to succeed. It's important that they be able to count on him for his usual 200 innings and 30-plus starts.
5. Can Mark Teixeira return to form?
Teixeira believes that if he hadn't been slowed by a lingering cough and a strained calf, his streak of seasons with 30 homers and 100 RBIs would still be intact. He might be right, as the calf alone cost him most of September, but Teixeira's other numbers have been sliding since his terrific '09 season. He said that he's no longer concerned with trying to bring up his batting average, embracing the power side of his game, and no one is waiting for him to bunt to beat the shift. The Yankees would still love to see his average inch closer to the .292 he hit in '09.
6. What will A-Rod be able to contribute?
At least the Yankees have a solid explanation of why Rodriguez struggled so much in the postseason, which probably defuses a lot of the controversy that could have carried over between Rodriguez and manager Joe Girardi. The Yanks believe Rodriguez will play in 2013, even though he'll probably be out until June or July. If he returns from hip surgery as a force like in '09, they'll be thrilled, but that might be wishful thinking. There's so much mileage on A-Rod's tires, so the Yankees just need to hope he can be an above-average option at third base and as a designated hitter -- not just in '13, but also with the next five years in mind as well.
7. How much magic does Rivera have left?
Why are the Yankees so confident Rivera can return from a torn anterior cruciate ligament at age 43 and be the same dominant closer? Well, as Cashman put it, Rivera has never failed, so there's no reason to believe he'll start now. There's always a chance that Rivera could wobble, but people have been forecasting that for years. As the Yanks say, even if Rivera is only 80 to 85 percent of what he showed in his prime, they'll take that over most of the other options out there. There's a solid chance that this could be the end of Rivera's fantastic career, and you can be certain he intends to go out on a high note.
8. What does the future hold for Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson?
The Yankees picked up the options on both Cano and Granderson for '13, and it's possible we could be seeing the last seasons in pinstripes for both players. Agent Scott Boras seems intent on bringing Cano to free agency, and with talk of a 10-year contract possible, the Yanks need to swallow hard at the thought of a team like the Dodgers getting a free crack at Cano. The Yankees quietly showed a willingness to discuss trading Granderson, but they'd need a big return to advance those talks -- his power would be tough to replace. It is possible that Granderson's only move of '13 will be to a new position, as the Yanks have talked about shifting Brett Gardner to center field and installing Granderson in a corner-outfield spot.
9. Can Pettitte and Kuroda still keep up in the AL East?
The Yankees' rotation looked much more appealing on paper once they officially slotted Pettitte and Kuroda back in for the '13 season, but there's no getting around that both of these veteran pitchers are a year older and some decline could be possible. The Yanks need both pitchers to eat innings, using their wisdom and guile to work with Yankee Stadium's dimensions and keep opponents off balance. Health is vital; Pettitte's broken ankle was unavoidable, but he had just seemed to find his groove. The Yankees must wonder what Pettitte's two lost months would have looked like.
10. How will next year's $189 million budgetary restrictions impact 2013?
We've already seen that the Yankees seemed allergic to multiyear contracts this offseason because of Hal Steinbrenner's directive to avoid paying the luxury tax in '14, which certainly impacted the construction of the '13 roster. It still could have a domino effect down the road: as Girardi has suggested, we might see a Yanks club that is reluctant to add certain pieces in season, such as near the Trade Deadline, if it threatens to throw their budgetary planning off course. That makes it all the more important that the pieces they have in place can succeed.