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Alex Rodriguez not biggest or only question for Yankees in offseason

The Yankees have a ton of work to do this offseason to rebuild their team in the wake of their dismal performance in the American League Championship Series. That work, however, has very little to do with the team's poor showing at the plate this postseason and should have nothing at all to do with Alex Rodriguez.

Rather, the Yankees will be busy because two of their top three starting pitchers this postseason, their catcher, four of their corner outfielders, Rodriguez's postseason platoon partner and the greatest closer in major league history are all due to become free agents in a couple of weeks, and their playoff closer and centerfielder could join them via option clauses in their contracts.

Further complicating matters, New York can't just throw money at the problem this winter because ownership has tasked general manager Brian Cashman with bringing the team's payroll under the luxury tax threshold by 2014, when it increases to $189 million (the Yankees' Opening Day payroll this year was more than $209 million).

Here, then, is a look at the what the Yankees need to do this offseason.

1. Work toward Hal Steinbrenner's Competitive Balance Tax goal

If the Competitive Balance Tax had passed a note to a pair of Australian models during the ALCS, maybe people would be paying more attention to the thing that will have the greatest impact on the Yankees offseason. No such luck. Heck, I'm guessing half the people reading this article have already skipped ahead to number two on this list. Their loss.

Steinbrenner, the franchise's managing general partner, is serious about getting his team under the threshold in 2014, and for good reason. The Yankees put more than $206 million into the Competitive Balance Tax coffers from 2003 to 2011 and will pay a 50 percent tax on the final amount by which they exceed the 2012 threshold of $178 million. That sets them up for a bill in the area of $15 million, or roughly the price of Curtis Granderson's 2013 option.

The Yankees pay the highest tax rate because they have exceeded the threshold every year that the tax has been in place, and the rate increases with each successive violation of that threshold. However, getting below the threshold for just one year resets the tax rate. If the Yankees can get below the threshold in 2014, they could exceed it in 2015 and pay a mere 17.5 percent tax on their excess. To put that another way, New York could exceed the threshold by $85 million at that rate and play less tax than it would this year on an excess of $30 million.

The Yankees are actually surprisingly well set up to get below the threshold. They only have three players under guaranteed contract past 2013. True, those three -- Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia -- will count for a combined $73.5 million toward the threshold (calculated by using the average annual values of each contract) in 2014, but that's still just 39 percent of the threshold.

It's the middle infield where things get tricky. The multi-year deal the Yankees gave Robinson Cano in February 2008 expires after his $15 million option for next season (the exercising of which will be the easiest decision Cashman will make this offseason). That means the Yankees have to start talking extension with Cano, who hired Scott Boras as his agent before the 2011 season and turns 30 on Monday, in order to know what kind of flexibility they're going to have elsewhere on the roster, or whether or not they're going to need a new second baseman in 2014.

Then there's the ailing captain. Next year is the final guaranteed year on Derek Jeter's contract, and while he owns an $8 million player option for 2014, it represents a $9 million paycut from his 2013 salary, barring various awards-based performance bonuses, none of which have been triggered yet. The surgery Jeter just had on his fractured left ankle could cause him to miss Opening Day next year, and he'll turn 39 next June, so the Yankees likely won't talk contract with their captain until next November. A likely scenario could find Jeter declining his option but demanding a new multi-year deal from the team, at which point Cashman may have to chose between a bad fiscal and baseball decision or a public relations disaster.

Elsewhere, the Yankees are unlikely to make any big free agent splashes that could compromise their 2014 tax status, and will likely try to fill their emerging holes with short-term, mid-priced contracts, which could continue their recent focus on older role players looking to hook on for one last chance at the postseason.

2. Get everyone to shut up about A-Rod.

Okay, so that's not going to happen, but neither is a Rodriguez trade. That's not just because Rodriguez said after the Yankees were eliminated on Thursday that he wouldn't waive his no-trade clause ("I will be back. I have a lot to prove, and I will come back on a mission."), or because the $118 million he's owed over the next five years is untradeable. It's because the Yankees have too many other holes to plug to create one that doesn't already exist at third base.

Look, the Yankees were second in the majors in runs scored in 2012 with 804, just four behind the Rangers. Despite its performance in a small sample of nine postseason games, New York's lineup was not a problem this season, it was a strength. Furthermore, the two positions Rodriguez played this year -- third base (81 starts) and designated hitter (38 starts) -- were among the strongest on the team. Here's a list of the Yankees positional split OPS+ (sOPS+) figures, which shows how their OPS at each position compared to league average at that position with 100 being average:

2B: 158DH: 127CF: 1203B: 117SS: 1161B: 112RF: 100C: 94LF: 92

The Yankees' catcher and corner outfielders are free agents this winter, which conveniently allows the team to address the few underperforming parts of its lineup. Third base is not one of them.

Nor will it become one, given myriad factors, such as:

• the other work that needs to be done;

• the effort that would be required to find a taker for Rodriguez;

• the fact that any trade would likely offer little to no salary relief;

• the fact that Rodriguez's post-game comments suggest that, at minimum, he would require additional compensation to waive his no-trade clause;

• the lack of viable alternative third basemen on the market this winter.

The one caveat to all of that is that third base and designated hitter were strengths for the Yankees in part because of the players who shared time with Rodriguez at those spots. Eric Chavez started 50 games at third base and 19 at designated hitter, Derek Jeter started 25 games at DH and Raul Ibañez started 28 there.

Postseason heroics aside, the Yankees can live without a 41-year-old Ibañez, particularly with Chris Dickerson, who is out of minor league options, on hand as a lefthanded alternative who offers speed, defense and a career .269/.354/.424 line in 505 major league plate appearances against right-handed pitching. New York might want to bring back Chavez, however, as the 34-year-old rediscovered his power stroke this season and hit .298/.365/.543 against righties with 16 homers in 274 plate appearances for a total salary of less than $2 million. Chavez, who nearly retired last winter, likely won't require a significantly larger deal for next season.

3. The outfield

Ibañez, Ichiro Suzuki, who turns 39 on Monday, and Andruw Jones, who was left off the postseason roster and will turn 36 in April, should all have played their last game for the Yankees. The same might be true of Nick Swisher, who will be 32 in November and is likely looking to land a major contract this winter. Take another look at that list of sOPS+ figures above. Does that suggest to you that this team should invest heavily in its current rightfielder?

Given the work they have to do elsewhere and the lack of compelling candidates, the Yankees should pick up Curtis Granderson's $15 million option for next year and hope that Kevin Long, whom Cashman called "one of the best hitting coaches in the game" after the Yankees' season-ending loss on Wednesday, can get Granderson back to the form that was the result of Long's work on his hitting mechanics in the first place.

They should also have a healthy Brett Gardner to put in the mix in leftfield. A quick deal for a righty to replace Jones and complement Dickerson on the bench -- say Jonny Gomes, Reed Johnson or Scott Hairston -- would give the Yankees a good negotiating position from which to approach the more compelling free agent outfielders.

Don't expect New York to flirt with Josh Hamilton, but armed with Granderson, Gardner, Dickerson, a righty and Chavez, they can wait to see how the free-agent market develops for the likes of Swisher, Shane Victorino, Angel Pagan, Michael Bourn, B.J. Upton and Torii Hunter and try to find a bargain from among that group. On the trade market, they could inquire about Arizona's Justin Upton, who is coming off a down year and will see his salary jump above $14 million in 2014, or Cleveland's Shin-Soo Choo, who is entering his walk year, but both are long shots at best.

4. The rotation

With Huroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte both free agents, New York's rotation is currently CC Sabathia, whose balky elbow the Yankees will have thoroughly examined, Phil Hughes, whose bad back bounced him from his last playoff start, Ivan Nova, who was terrible in his final eight starts this season and was left off the postseason roster, Michael Pineda, who is coming off labrum surgery in his pitching shoulder, and David Phelps.

The Yankees are largely subject to the whims of their two free agents here. If either decides to return, the Yankees will take them. Pettitte will turn 41 next year, but he was excellent in his 14 starts this season, including two in the postseason, and the injury that cost him much of the second half was a fluke broken bone via a comebacker. Kuroda, who will be 38 in February, was one of the best starting pitchers in the American League this year, and impressed further by taking the ball on short rest in the ALCS and turning in a historically significant performance.

His preference to work on short contracts is ideal for the Yankees' new-found frugality, and if he wants to return to New York, the Yankees should jump at the chance. Assuming the Yankees won't be in on free agent Zack Greinke, Kuroda and Pettitte are among the best available options, though it might be interesting to see how the market develops for Anibal Sanchez, who will be 29 in February and made a successful transition to the American League with the Tigers over the last two and a half months.

5. A catcher

Again referring to that sOPS+ chart, Yankees catchers were below league average at the plate this year, but outside of Mike Napoli, who made $9.4 million this season and could get a nice payday from the Rangers, there aren't a lot of alternatives to re-signing Russell Martin. The Yankees could do a lot worse.

Martin, who won't turn 30 until Februrary, will be the youngest free agent catcher this winter. He has hit 39 home runs in his two seasons with the Yankees, is a good all-around athlete, popular with his pitchers and teammates, and graded out as one of the best pitch-framers in the game in this revolutionary study by Pitchf/x expert Mike Fast, who was hired by the Houston Astros in January. According to Fast, Martin saves 10 runs or more annually, which is equivalent to a team win, just by getting more strike calls for his pitchers than the average catcher. Add that win to his 2012 Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) total and Martin jumps from 19th among catchers to eighth.

6. A closer

This should be easy. Mariano Rivera has vowed to return from the torn anterior cruciate ligament that ended his season at the start of May. While he's technically a free agent, it's a given that he'll sign a one-year contract with the Yankees, likely worth $15 million, his salary every year since 2008. That's a steep price to pay for a 43-year-old closer coming off a major knee injury, but when Mariano Rivera says he wants to pitch for your team, you say yes.

Given Rivera's impending return, there's a common perception that Rafael Soriano, having once again proven himself an ace closer, will decline his $14 million player option and find a place that he can continue to rack up saves. Consider, though, that Soriano's $14 million is more than Jonathan Papelbon, last winter's top available free-agent closer, will make in any of the next four years and would make Soriano the second-best paid reliever in baseball behind Rivera. He won't get that money anywhere else because most teams have learned it's better to develop a closer than to buy one.

If Soriano remains, the Yankees have a backup for the superannuated Rivera and/or the same deep bullpen they've featured in recent years, with Rivera being set up by Soriano, David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain, who should be sharper further removed from Tommy John surgery. Then in 2014 they can shed $29 million worth of salary by letting Rivera retire, as many suspected he intended to do this winter had he not torn his ACL, and Soriano walk, which will go a long way toward getting them below the luxury tax threshold.

The Yankees should worry no more about their bullpen this winter than they should worry about Alex Rodriguez. Their priorities are in the outfield, starting rotation, at catcher and in avoiding the sort of big-splash contracts that would make their stated goal of resetting their luxury tax rate impossible.

That may not result in a better team for 2013, but the Yankees won more games than any other American League club in 2012, were second in runs scored and fourth in fewest runs allowed. That last could be improved upon by full seasons from Pettitte and Rivera, the continued maturation of the young starters in the back of their rotation, and the departure of free agent Freddy Garcia, who posted a 5.20 ERA in 107 1/3 innings.

It's also worth remembering that the Yankees got deeper into the postseason this year than they did in 2011. That they were so badly beaten in the ALCS was largely a fluke, the product of an ill-timed cluster of hitting slumps exacerbated by some excellent Tigers pitching. Any decisions made this offseason based on that handful of games would be bad ones.

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