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baseball '09

NEW YORK YANKEES

After missing the 2008 postseason, the Bombers spared no expense (Sabathia, Burnett, Teixeira) in the offseason

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / April 5, 2009
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You start off with your $275 million third baseman, Alex Rodriguez, being exposed as a steroid user, then undergoing hip surgery. This is after you've spent the GNP of a small country ($423.5 million) on free agents CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira. And all before you open a $1.3 billion Yankee Stadium.

Just another ho-hum preseason in the life of the New York Yankees.

Eight years removed from their last championship, and having missed the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, the Yankees went for the jugular this offseason. They assembled, on paper, one of the best starting rotations in recent times: Sabathia, Burnett, Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte, and Joba Chamberlain.

Old reliable, closer Mariano Rivera, was still throwing bullets in spring training. Teixeira, 28, adds defensive stability at first and is in the prime of his career as a run producer.

The big issue weighing on this wannabe juggernaut is: Can the old guys hold up?

According to general manager Brian Cashman, age and diminishing returns are not what keeps him up at night.

"The Red Sox, Rays, and a lot of other things," said Cashman. "No, I think we're much younger now than we have been, so we got younger at certain positions and I understand there are certain positions we've gotten older at, too, but overall our roster is younger now than it was a year ago or two years ago. That's a good thing."

There are many reasons the Yankees should win it all and many reasons they could be a $200 million bust.

The distraction of A-Rod was lessened when he opted to have hip surgery in March to repair the tear; he will also have surgery after the season to shave the bone. One doctor familiar with the procedure thought it was an unorthodox way to handle the surgery and questioned whether A-Rod would hold up without experiencing further pain.

As it stands, A-Rod is expected back in mid-May. Until then, journeyman Cody Ransom plays the role of Matt Cassel to A-Rod's Tom Brady.

"We need Alex," said Cashman. "Unfortunately, we have to start off without him. The only good thing that might come from it is that it's drowned out the steroid story and it's turned into a health story, but we need him, and unfortunately, we'll miss him for at least a month."

Posada is a key piece
It's also a big year for manager Joe Girardi, who is trying to build his own Yankee legacy and put Joe Torre's four world championships somewhere in the distance.

"When you put on this uniform, the goal is a world championship," said Girardi. "That's the only goal."

Toward that end, Girardi needs catcher Jorge Posada to return to full-time duty after right shoulder surgery last July. The Posada watch is similar to the Jason Varitek watch in Boston, although the aging catchers have opposite issues - Varitek's is offense, Posada's defense. Although Jose Molina is considered a better defensive catcher, there's no denying Posada is one of the Yankee leaders.

"I've felt good the entire camp," said Posada. "I feel my shoulder is getting better. I feel good health-wise, as good as I've felt in a long time. I have to go out and show I can do it all year."

There's no doubt the Yankees missed him.

"He's been the rock of this team for a long, long time," said Pettitte. "He's a natural leader. He gets the pitching staff going from a mental and psychological point of view.

"It's not something you can explain, but as a team we feel the most confident when Jorge is in our lineup because he's such a great hitter and he handles our staff."

Two years ago, Posada hit .338 with 20 homers and 90 RBIs. Because of the shoulder injury, he was limited to 168 at-bats in 51 games last season and hit .268 with three homers and 22 RBIs. And the Yankees felt it.

Hideki Matsui, another rehabbing player, will likely bat cleanup in A-Rod's absence. In 2008, Matsui suffered from knee problems, which limited him to 93 games and 337 at-bats. He is penciled in as the full-time DH, which should help his knee.

The Yankees open the season with an unproven center fielder in Brett Gardner, a fast runner and good outfielder who beat out Melky Cabrera for the job. Like the other outfielders - Johnny Damon and Xavier Nady, who beat out Nick Swisher - he has an average to below average arm.

Overall, the Yankees defense can be described as slow.

Derek Jeter will be 35 in June and lacks range (especially to his left). There already has been speculation about Jeter's future position, likely the outfield. Robinson Cano is a decent second baseman, but the real gem in the infield is Teixeira, a Gold Glover. When A-Rod returns, the Yankees should be solid at the corners.

Heap of talent on mound
Clearly, the strength of this team is starting pitching. Sabathia, who won the American League Cy Young Award in 2007, got off to a slow start last season in Cleveland (6-8, 3.83 ERA) before being traded to Milwaukee, where he excelled with an 11-2 mark and 1.65 ERA. Sabathia returns to the AL subject to all the pressure of his massive contract (seven years, $161 million).

"I just go out and pitch," Sabathia said. "I was warned plenty about New York and all the pressures and the media and the fans and everything else. I'm ready for it. I think it's going to be a lot of fun."

Burnett, an impressive 18-10 with Toronto last season, has been up and down in an injury-prone career. Most suitors believed five years at $82.5 million was a risk for a pitcher with Burnett's history. But if healthy, a Sabathia-Burnett combination could be devastating. That would take the pressure off Wang, a two-time 19-game winner who was 8-2 with a 4.07 ERA after being diagnosed with a sprained foot ligament last June 15 and shut down for the season.

Burnett left Toronto not only for more riches but the chance to win a World Series. Though he was a member of the 2003 Florida Marlins championship team, he spent most of that season on the disabled list.

"That's the one reason I came here - to win a championship," Burnett said.

Pettitte, who has had shoulder and elbow ailments, said, "I can go out and win 15-20 games if I stay healthy."

That leaves Chamberlain, a big talent in the fifth spot who has to show he can pitch deep into games. The Yankees also have Phillip Hughes, 22, who had an impressive camp, at Triple A.

"We should have a lot of games where our pitchers are expected to get to the seventh inning," said Cashman.

If not, the bullpen leading to Rivera must produce holds. Brian Bruney, Damaso Marte, Phil Coke, Edwar Ramirez, and Jose Veras are the bridge to Rivera - a potentially vulnerable connection.

With high-priced players, there can be a tendency for egos to get in the way, but that is not the case here, according to Cashman.

"The team itself is good," he said. "We've got a lot of talent, a lot of chemistry with a bunch of guys who really care about one another, which is great. In terms of the team itself, it's about getting healthy and getting the rehabs back to health."

Cashman is ready for a three-horse race in the AL East and is eager to see how the Tampa Bay Rays perform after winning the division and the pennant last season.

"I think the Rays are going to have to deal with the extra scrutiny that they haven't dealt with before, the kind the Red Sox and Yankees have always been under," Cashman said. "They won't sneak up on the country. That won't be possible anymore.

"Now the local fans here [in Tampa] expect them to defend the title. That translates into pressure. That's the pressure the Red Sox and Yankees have been forced to deal with."

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