Every offseason, the New York Yankees are players for all of the biggest free agents. Even if they never get to the point at which they actually offer a player a contract, they always do their due diligence and are, at the very least, among the interested teams. That is, until this year, when the Los Angeles Dodgers and LA Angels became the big spenders chasing after everyone. The Yankees are nowhere to be found.
It’s a departure from the norm in Major League Baseball, when the Yankees are almost an afterthought of potential landing spots for marquee players. They are, instead, establishing a new philosophy—getting under the $189-million luxury tax threshold by the 2014 season. The team has paid that penalty each of the last ten years. So, in building their roster for the 2013 season, they’re focusing on short-term signings of aging veterans.
General Manager Brian Cashman made nary a peep at the MLB Winter Meetings earlier this month. His work has been mainly confined to bringing back the players who helped get the Yankees to the American League Championship Series last year. Those include Mariano Rivera (though he missed most of the season due to an ACL tear), Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda, and, most recently, Ichiro Suzuki. The only outside help coming in, so far, will be third baseman Kevin Youkilis, whose signing was necessitated by Alex Rodriguez’s hip surgery.
The result of all of this will be a very familiar, but aged, Yankees roster for 2013. Their starting lineup will consist of most of the same players from 2012, outside of Youkilis. Joining him in the infield will be Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, and Mark Teixeira—a threesome which has spent the last four seasons playing together.
Jeter is coming off of surgery on the ankle he broke in Game 1 of the ALCS. He says he still plans to be ready for Opening Day, but, at the age of 38, there’s no guarantee his body will hold up like it used to. He did have a couple of down years before bouncing back by hitting .316 last season. Cano and Teixeira continue to be steady power bats in the middle of the Yankees’ order, combining for 62.5 homeruns a season each of the last four years. Youkilis is looking to rebound following the worst season of his career.
In the outfield, the Yankees have an interesting alignment the way it currently stands. With the return of Ichiro, they will have three speedy left-handed hitters in him, Curtis Granderson, and Brett Gardner. The 39-year-old Ichiro isn’t the 200-hit machine he once was, but he seemed to regain his stroke after he was traded to the Bronx, hitting .322 in 67 games with the Yankees. In order to bring him back, though, Cashman had to offer him a 2-year deal because of the interest he had received from other teams. He is the only player signed by the Yankees this offseason to receive a multi-year contract.
Gardner, who has become very popular in New York, is coming off of, what was essentially, a lost year. He played in just 16 games because of an elbow injury he suffered while diving for a ball in April. When healthy, he has a propensity for getting on base, finishing eighth in the AL in on base percentage in 2010, and is a threat on the basepaths as one of the fastest players in the league.
Granderson has become one of the Yankees’ best power hitters over the past couple of seasons, topping 40 homeruns and 100 RBIs each year. His batting average has regressed, though, bottoming out at just .232 last year. Entering his contract year, there is some speculation the Yankees may try to trade him before the season, rather than potentially just letting him walk as a free agent prior to 2014. Regardless of whether Granderson is in center field or not, the Yankees will probably add another outfielder before the season begins, most likely a right-handed hitter.
The two biggest question marks for the team at this point are at designated hitter and catcher. At DH, they could bring back a 40-year-old Raul Ibanez on a one-year deal. Then, when, and if, Rodriguez returns, he and Youkilis could share third base duties and both get at bats as a DH against left-handed pitching. After losing Russell Martin, Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart, and Austin Romine are the three catchers currently on the team’s roster. None has ever been more than a backup and Romine only has 19 Major League at bats. With few full-time catchers left on the free agent market, the Yankees catcher(s) will probably be some combination of those three.
On the mound, the Yankees have kept together a starting staff that finished sixth in the AL last year with a 4.05 ERA. They will again be anchored by CC Sabathia who is coming off his third straight all-star season. Kuroda and Pettitte, 37 and 40, respectively, will follow the ace. Kuroda adjusted very well to his first year in the AL, finishing fourth in innings pitched and eighth in ERA. Pettitte, hampered by an ankle injury, managed just 12 starts but still turned in a 5-4 record with a 2.87 ERA. He also made two quality starts in the playoffs.
The four-spot will be filled by Phil Hughes who put together a solid 2012 campaign with 191.1 innings pitched and picking up 16 wins. The fifth starter will either be Ivan Nova or David Phelps. After a very encouraging 2011 and first half of 2012, Nova regressed in the second half of last year. Opponents hit .309 against him and his ERA ballooned to above 7.00. Phelps, meanwhile, split time between the rotation and bullpen, compiling a 4-4 record with a 3.34 ERA. Whomever doesn’t end up as a starter, could very well serve a long-relief role. Additionally, Michael Pineda, who turned in a very impressive rookie season in 2011 with the Seattle Mariners, could be back by mid-season after recovering from shoulder surgery.
In the bullpen, a familiar face will also be back for another go-round following his own surgery. Mariano Rivera, with a reconstructed ACL, will be the team’s closer for at least one more season. He will reclaim the role filled by Rafael Soriano for the majority of last year. Even at 43, he’s given no reason to doubt his ability to still be one of the game’s premier closers. David Robertson, Rivera’s potential successor, will be back as the primary setup man–a role in which he has been very good. Joba Chamberlain, David Aardsma, and Boone Logan give the Yankees more quality options in relief.
Heading into 2013, the Yankees should no doubt be in the conversation of the league’s best teams. They still have largely the same roster that got them to the ALCS last season. The major issue is whether the players’ ages catch up with them either in terms of injuries, performance, or both. So there is every possibility this team could be playing deep into October again, one last time before a makeover heading into 2014.