UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
More Sports

Assessing the very few ills of baseball's very best team

TAMPA -- This is a new, more frugal Yankees team, one that kept their payroll to only $200 million, that declined to keep Johnny Damon and that spent more than $400 million less this year than last on new free agents.

But let's not confuse them with a team in transition. Sure, they saved a few bucks. But they have plenty left over after winning the World Series in their inaugural year in their palatial new ballpark that can be used this summer if necessary. The Yankees likely only took the winter off for free agents because they didn't love the free-agent field and are merely saving up for next winter, which is a strong class that includes certain outfield target Carl Crawford and three of their own big-time free agents -- Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Joe Girardi.

Not too many conclusions should be drawn on Day One. But C.C. Sabathia appears even readier to take over leadership reins his second year in the Bronx. Jorge Posada appears fitter in his 38th year, as does Andy Pettitte in his 37th. And overpublicized starter-reliever Joba Chamberlain looks like he's added some ink, as in tattoos (though it probably isn't possible for him to get any more ink from media attention). And Girardi, who added a managerial ring to the three he won as a player, seems unusually relaxed for a Yankees manager heading into the final year of his contract.

He has good reason to be. This is still the best team in baseball. The Yankees enter spring training with concerns that are still relatively few, flaws that are not readily obvious and weaknesses that are not exactly overwhelming.

Of course, that doesn't make them perfect. There are still a few things that can derail them -- not many, but a few. Here is a rundown of the concerns for the team with the least number of concerns:

1. The lineup

Since Girardi called forming a lineup from a group as almost impressive as last year's as foremost in his mind when asked about concerns, we'll start there. With Hideki Matsui gone to Los Angeles of Anaheim and and Johnny Damon gone somewhere (Detroit appears to be leading at the moment, followed by the Chicago's South Side and Atlanta), there are going to be some adjustments needed. "We're going to miss those two guys,'' Posada said, flat out. "Those two guys played the game right, they never made excuses and are professional hitters.''

No one would suggest that Curtis Granderson and Nick Johnson aren't proficient hitters. But they are somewhat less accomplished, and certainly less accomplished in the Bronx. "We hope Curtis Granderson and Nick Johnson can provide what Damon and Matsui provided,'' GM Brian Cashman said. Girardi mentioned the efforts it took to keep Damon and Matsui playing through physical issues -- though both are extremely tough, and it remains to be seen how tough Johnson is (he's missed an average of 58 games a year).

Girardi named Johnson and Granderson as the primary candidates to replace Damon in that coveted No. 2 hole between high MVP finishers Jeter and Teixeira (word is the Yankees absolutely love Johnson, he of the .426 on-base percentage last year, batting second). Posada and Robinson Cano look like the main candidates to bat behind cleanup man Alex Rodriguez with Nick Swisher behind them, with Granderson sometimes at No. 8 and Brett Gardner at No. 9.

But it's a work that isn't even in progress yet. Newcomers Randy Winn and Marcus Thames (assuming he makes the team) are candidates to wrest playing time from Gardner, who was named the starter last year but lost the job within weeks to the now departed Melky Cabrera.

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

2. The No. 5 starters' job

The staff is much stronger this year with Javier Vazquez having been imported to be the game's best No. 4 pitcher and lengthen a very talented rotation.

"Certainly, we're deeper in the starting rotation, which was a necessity,'' Cashman said.

Some New Yorkers questioned the choice of Vazquez. But he's looked upon in their room as a welcome addition and new man following his fourth-place finish in NL Cy Young voting.

"Right now he's at the peak of his career,'' Posada said. "He's learned a lot about himself. He enjoyed it here last time, and he wants to be here.''

The No. 5 starters' job almost surely will go to either Phil Hughes or Chamberlain, two talented right-handers who've both pitched better in relief than the rotation. Both have been told to prepare as if they will start, and both said on Wednesday that they are assuming that they will start. But of course, you don't have to be a numbers expert to see that only one of them will (and in the off chance Chad Gaudin takes the fifth spot, neither of them will). "It's a healthy competition for the fifth spot, and I love it,'' Girardi said.

The guess here is that Hughes has a slight edge for the starting job going in, partly because Chamberlain was so much better in the bullpen than as a starter and partly because there are no Hughes Rules. Either way, they have two talented young candidates for the No. 5 job, and more importantly for a team that'll very likely be playing into October, they have a chance to be as good as anyone one through four in the rotation.

3. Set-Up Man

There is no set set-up man for now. But the loser of the Hughes-Chamberlain competition will give the Yankees a very viable option. Both pitchers have performed much better in that role to date. Girardi also mentioned Damaso Marte, who resurrected himself with a brilliant World Series, plus gutty strikeout specialist David Robertson as set-up possibilities.

4. Defense

It should be better in the outfield this year with Granderson taking over for Damon even if Granderson's rep took a hit or two last year. Some Tigers people privately questioned Granderson's defense at the end of last year, when there were a few uncharacteristic misplays late in the year. As to whether Granderson is still a top defensive player, Cashman said, "We're about to find out.''

But the Yankees must have some opinion to have made the trade, no?

"We still have him as a plus defender,'' Cashman asserted. "Also, he's an upgrade over what we had previously.'' (That presumably meant Damon.)

The Yankees are calling it an open competition to see who plays left and who plays center, though Granderson is surely an everyday player at one of those two positions while Gardner likely will be one. "We'll see what we see,'' Cashman said. "But we have two center fielders, which we think is a good thing.'' The guess here is that Gardner winds up in center if only because he's rarely played left

Gardner for Melky Cabrera is probably a push defensively, and the other players around the field remain the same. There was a lot of chatter last year about some of the pitchers preferring to throw to a more defensive-oriented backup than Posada. But they've now won our World Series titles with Posada. The defensively adept Francisco Cervelli takes over the main backup spot for Jose Molina. My suggestion to A.J. Burnett in particular is to try to be like Sabathia: get over it and accept Posada's minor quirks (which allegedly are that he doesn't frame pitches as well as some and isn't quite as fast in adjusting to game-calling changes when there are runners at second).

5. Complacency

They are not being complacent about the issue of complacency. No topic was more prominent at Girardi's press conference, and it will continue to be a main theme. It's no surprise that will be the main message for the players. Here's the way Girardi previewed the words in his coming clubhouse speeches: "It all starts over. Everyone is 0-0 going into April 4.''

Girardi said he isn't too worried that that message will get lost. "I don't view [complacency] as a huge problem,'' Girardi said. "But in saying that, we'll keep an eye on it.''

The manager added, "I love the people in the room. We have great leadership in that room.''

Girardi also loved a question about whether newcomers Granderson and Vazquez might be hungrier due to past postseason disappointments. Granderson's Tigers lost the 2006 World Series to the Cardinals in an upset, and Vazquez had setbacks in October with the White Sox, and memorably, with the 2004 Yankees.

The answer won't be known until games are played, but while they lost two great people (Damon and Matsui, who were both very clutch), they gained a few, as well. Granderson and Vazquez are considered two of the better guys in the sport, and as a side benefit, Granderson, that rare major leaguer who's already earned his college degree, brings intellectual qualities and can be counted on to fix anyone's computer problem.

Posada said, "We've got two great guys, three actually. Randy Winn's awesome, too.''

6. Contractual questions

The contracts of Jeter, Rivera and Girardi are up at season's end. But unlike past cases of of Damon, Alex Rodriguez or even Joe Torre, it'd be a surprise if anything got too messy here. This is just standard operating procedure for the Yankees, whose policy is to let contracts expire before dealing with extensions. In the case of Jeter, too, he's coming off an MVP-like season, so there's some bit of strategy in waiting until the last minute.

The last time they talked about a multiyear deal for Jeter, George Steinbrenner gave him $189 million for 10 years, an unheard-of figure at the time for a non-slugger following A-Rod's famous $252 million deal and also several months after Steinbrenner decided against a deal for about $115 million. This time the parameters seem much more predictable. Unless his estimable agent Casey Close pulls out another rabbit, Jeter should get three or four years for between $20 million and $25 million. Rivera should continue to set relief records, with a two-year deal north of $15 million a year seeming logical.

Girardi has proved to be a tough negotiator (it doesn't help that he's popular among other teams). But really, how does a manager who likes to change his number every year based on championships leave the Yankees?

Girardi also has an advantage in that the Steinbrenner family absolutely loves him. By the end, the feeling obviously was something less than that for Torre.

7. Age

The amazing quartet of Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Posada and Rivera is back to try to duplicate the exploits of a year ago. They are, in order, 35, 37, 38 and 40 (yes, Rivera quietly hit that magic number the month of the Yankees' 27th World Series championship). There was not one iota of a hint of slippage from any of them last year, and Jeter in fact had one of his best years ever, especially defensively. And while aging is inevitable, it's such a non-issue now that no one even brings it up.

• Damon is weighing offers from the Tigers, White Sox and Braves with Detroit's offer believed to be the best one financially. By text message, Damon shot down rumors his wife Michelle will convince him to go to Chicago over Detroit, texting, "....but it's up to me. She's going wherever I go.'' The Tigers are still thought to be the frontrunner, though White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf has gotten involved within the past few days.

• The Indians are looking to add a first baseman and have reached out to Russell Branyan as well as Hank Blalock and Jermaine Dye. Indians GM Mark Shapiro had Branyan before and likes him.

• The Rays also are looking at Branyan, plus reliever Chan Ho Park and a couple others and may have enough money for one more signing. But not two, a Rays person said.

• The Cubs and Yankees are two more possibilities for Park.

• As one AL scout said of the Mets and their catching situation, "They have four backups.'' Rod Barajas has received offers from the Mets and Rangers, with the Mets offer believed to be a minor-league deal with a spring invite for about $1 million. Barajas will probably choose the Mets because he has a better chance to start there than in Texas.

• The Rangers think Barajas is priced too high and are looking at Jose Molina.

Eric Gagne may sign back with the Dodgers after all these years. The Rockies also have looked at him.

• Both sides in the Tim Lincecum arbitration case thought they would win, and the hearing would have been a landmark case. But both sides also had a lot to lose, so it's no surprise they settled. And like anyone who'd made $650,000 in the last year, the $23-million compromise looked fair to Lincecum himself, especially since he'd been requesting $24 million. The Giants' three-year offer, which was actually for $36 million (and not quite the previously reported $37 million), wouldn't have made sense because Lincecum might get to close to $20 million in his third year of arbitration eligibility, which is a lot more than the $13 million extra this deal would have paid. The Giants never broached a longer deal.

Mark McGwire's explanation on Wednesday regarding his previous laughable contention that performance enhancing drugs didn't enhance his performance was that he was speaking "from the heart.'' Which only tells me he's probably been lying to himself, too.

SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.