Yankees determined to defy age questions

Production of youth, veteran savvy can keep Bombers in contention
02/11/2013 11:42 AM ET
By Jon Lane

Derek Jeter is one Yankee determined to defy the perception of 'old.'(AP)
For the first time in a long time, the New York Yankees enter Spring Training not riding the wave of a big, splashy move that shook the foundation of Major League Baseball. In lieu of last January's Friday the 13th deal that sent Jesus Montero to the Seattle Mariners for Michael Pineda, the Yankees' biggest transactions this winter were staying in house. Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda were all re-signed to one-year deals, while Ichiro Suzuki, last summer's big-name acquisition, was inked to a two-year pact.

In fact, the Yankees made more news by who they lost than who they brought on board. Rafael Soriano, Russell Martin, Nick Swisher, Eric Chavez, Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones are gone. Only Kevin Youkilis and Travis Hafner were imported from the outside via one-year, Major League contracts. Juan Rivera and Matt Diaz were invited to camp on Minor League deals to – barring a late-spring acquisition – vie for the fourth outfielder's spot. Bobby Wilson was brought on board to compete for the Yankees' starting catching job.

Ah, catcher, the position that's been discussed based on who the Yankees don't have in camp. An organizational goal of trimming payroll to $189 million by 2014 prevented the team from making aggressive moves to re-sign Martin, so Martin took a two-year, $17 million deal to play for the Pittsburgh Pirates. In Martin's place, the Yankees will chose from the group of Wilson, Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart and prospect Austin Romine.

Openings behind the plate, the bridge to Rivera – Soriano, who saved 42 games after assuming the closer's role from an injured Rivera in May, is now closing for the Washington Nationals – and exactly who will provide right-handed pop off the bench and at designated hitter (Eduardo Nunez?) leave the Yankees with more questions than answers. But if you ask Jeter, the answers reside inside the clubhouse via a core group that last season won 95 games and the AL East, and advanced to the American League Championship Series. Jeter, Rivera, Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, Curtis Granderson, etc., are still in the Bronx, confident in their belief that being a year older doesn't mean the Yankees will suddenly dry up and blow away.

"I've heard it before," Jeter told reporters last week in Tampa, Fla. "It just depends on where you're angling a story. If you want to make it a positive, you say how experienced we are. And if someone wants to make it sound another way, it's, 'Oh, we're old.' I'd like to think we're experienced."

The Yankees' pedigree is unquestioned, but whether the heart and will of Jeter (coming off major ankle surgery) and Rivera (torn ACL), and the savvy of Andy Pettitte and Kuroda can defy Father Time for at least one more year are one of many questions that will have to be answered if the Yankees are to defend their AL East title against a motivated and hungry pack of competition. If Sabathia's elbow is recalibrated after the removal of bone chips, he leads a rotation of three reliable starters with two the Yankees sorely need to take it to the next level.

Ivan Nova and David Phelps will compete for the fifth starter's spot, with pitching coach Larry Rothschild intimating that it's Nova's job to lose based on his 16 wins two seasons ago. And at 27 years old and in his walk year, Phil Hughes will have to erase the red flags that have plagued him since coming on board in 2007. There's been hamstring injuries, a dead arm that caused a steep dip in velocity in 2011 and the penchant for allowing the gopher ball (35 homers in 2012) despite winning 16 games.

"Every year presents a challenge and it's no different this year," Hughes said over the weekend. "I feel like I have a lot of pressure on myself to go out and have a positive year."

Hughes also worked out with Kuroda, 38, during the offseason and became a believer that in the case of last season's fellow 16-game winner, age isn't necessarily defined in years.

"He's an animal," Hughes said of Kuroda. "Watching him work, you know why he's been able to do this for so long. It was a positive experience and I think it's going to pay off."

The Yankees are hoping that their conservative plan will pay off with another season of contention. It's not that they sat back and did nothing. Important players are back into the fold, Youkilis will fill the void at third base left by a rehabbing Alex Rodriguez and Hafner (if healthy) provides pop as a DH from the left side. Greater emphasis will be placed this season on speed and moving runners over in lieu of the big bang. And despite the loss of Soriano, Rivera remains Rivera, and David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain will help shorten games if both pitch to their potential.

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In other words, the Yankees' season will be a test of endurance. It begins Tuesday when pitchers and catchers report to George M. Steinbrenner Field with the goal that reality trumps perception.

"I think we have some good signings, and I think we did our fair share in the offseason," said Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner. "Similar payroll to last year. Shows we want to win.

"We've got a lot of good veterans on the team, and we've got some good young players as well. That's always the mix that I want to shoot for. I like our team, but where we end up in October, anybody's guess.

"All I can assure the fans is, we're always going to field a championship-caliber team every single year. Is that our goal next year? Yes, to be at that number, that's our goal. But as I've said from the beginning, it depends on some of our young players stepping up and getting the job done. That has to happen, or it's going to be difficult."

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