12/23/12 11:47 PM ET
Yanks may be in transition but don't count them out
By Richard Justice / MLB.com
The Yankees still might be pretty good. Maybe even a contender. Maybe even a champion. Yes, even with all the departures. Yes, even with all the age.
Look at what they'll be running out there. They'll have CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes at the front of the rotation. They'll have David Robertson and Mariano Rivera at the back of the bullpen. Offensively, they'll have Ichiro Suzuki and Derek Jeter at the top of the order, and Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson in the middle.
Is that a lousy team? Again, it's not nearly as deep as it has been in previous seasons. The Yankees probably will have an unproven catcher (Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart or Austin Romine) and a young designated hitter (Eduardo Nunez). They're unlikely to come close to matching last season's franchise-record 245 home runs.
They badly need a right-handed-hitting outfielder to balance those three left-handed-hitting outfielders. They also need Kevin Youkilis, who was signed to replace Alex Rodriguez while he recovers from hip surgery, to stay healthy.
Youkilis is 33 years old, but if his body holds up -- and it didn't in 2012 -- he'll probably return to something resembling his career norm: 70 walks, 20 home runs, .893 OPS.
There's also a respect factor. During Jeter's 18 seasons, the Yanks have come to define professionalism. Any manager or general manager will tell you that professionalism -- effort, preparation, teamwork, chemistry -- are vital.
It's impossible to walk in the Yankees' clubhouse and see Rivera, Pettitte, Jeter, Teixeira, etc., and think they're not going to be a factor. Despite all that the Yanks have lost, they still have a great general manager in Brian Cashman and a proven manager in Joe Girardi.
The Yankees also have the greatest winning tradition in the history of professional sports in this country. To wear the pinstripes is to believe. Because Pettitte, Kuroda, Ichiro, Rivera and Jeter are all at least 37, there's a point where they're going to break down. But that may not happen in 2013.
Remember that Cashman told us this is how the offseason was going to go. The Yanks are committed to being under baseball's $189 million luxury-tax threshold by Opening Day 2014, so this would be an offseason of modest spending.
Cashman has also pointed out again and again that he still felt good about his core players and believed his team had a chance to be as good as ever. His top priority was to keep that core together, and he did that by re-signing Rivera, Pettitte, Kuroda and Ichiro.
Yes, the Yankees are going to be old in some important areas. For instance, the starting rotation. Yes, the Yanks are going to have a smaller margin of error. On the other hand, their run differential was the largest in the American League in 2012, so they have some wiggle room.
Again, it's easy to see the glass as half empty. The Blue Jays have made dramatic improvements. The Red Sox have gotten better, too, and the Rays still have the best starting rotation in the AL East.
The Yankees? They said goodbye to Russell Martin, Nick Swisher, Raul Ibanez, Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones. Those five players accounted for 94 of New York's 245 home runs, and when a team is built around starting pitching and home runs, well, you get the picture.
Few people took Cashman at his word when he promised that the Yanks were going to make every effort to be under the luxury-tax threshold in 2012. In recent years, he has also talked about how organizations must be willing to give their young guys a chance.
That's why the Yankees could be pushing kids from their Minor League system. Right-handers Adam Warren and Mark Montgomery are being fast-tracked to the big leagues. So is outfielder Zoilo Almonte. And when Cashman traded catcher Jesus Montero for right-hander Michael Pineda last winter, he said catching -- Romine has been highly regarded -- was an organizational strength.
So Cashman is steering the Yanks toward being a franchise driven by player development. He's not going to apologize for a $200 million payroll, but he has poured resources into the Draft and international signings.
The 2013 season could be an important transition year in that regard, but that doesn't mean the Yankees are incapable of winning. Only a fool would count them out 98 days before Opening Day.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.