NEW YORK (WFAN/AP) — A strange thing happened to the Yankees this winter: They lost.
Sure, the billion-dollar franchise occasionally loses in the postseason. What the Yankees never do is fail in the offseason.
That is until now.
After being beaten by Cliff Lee and the younger, more hungry-looking Texas Rangers in the American League championship series, the Yankees lost out on Lee, this year’s most coveted free agent. They lost in the public eye during Derek Jeter’s contract negotiations and, most importantly, the Yankees lost to the rival Red Sox in offseason moves.
Then, right before training camp opened, rotation stalwart Andy Pettitte retired — leaving the Core Four a tiring trio.
“Every year’s separate, every year’s a challenge,” Jeter said. “There’s nothing more this year as opposed to any other year.”
Despite the Captain’s ever-positive outlook, the Yankees have sounded more like a bickering franchise on the decline than the powerhouse of the AL East.
What should be a feel-good season celebrating Jeter as he becomes the first player in a Yankees uniform to reach 3,000 hits — he’s 74 away — got off to a rough start when General Manager Brian Cashman took several shots in the tabloids at the shortstop during surprisingly contentious contract negotiations.
Cashman also uncharacteristically exclaimed publicly he was against giving AL saves leader Rafael Soriano a $35 million, three-year contract — and forfeiting a first-round draft pick to the right-hander’s former team, the Tampa bay Rays — to be Mariano Rivera’s setup man in the one big free-agent move by the Yankees.
And heading into New York’s first full season without George Steinbrenner looming over every aspect of the organization, Hank Steinbrenner proved he has the same bluster as his dad but little of the bite. Jeter laughed off Hank’s comments in the first week of spring training about unnamed players building mansions instead of focusing on winning last year. Jeter just completed a 30,000 square foot house in Tampa, Fla., called “St. Jetersburg” by the locals.
“There’s always things said around here, there’s always stories,” Jeter said.
The negativity could carry over to the regular season if the Yankees don’t perform on the field where there are significant questions for the ball club that accepts nothing less than a World Series championship.
The most glaring problems lie in the shaky pitching staff.
Coming off a season in which A.J. Burnett and Javier Vazquez were dreadful, the Yankees went hard after Lee, who has dominated them the past two postseasons. He chose the Phillies.
The last time such a high profile player spurned New York’s very public pitch was before the 1993 season, when Greg Maddux chose the Braves over Broadway.
With Pettitte announcing his retirement two weeks before training camp opened, the Yankees — and new pitching coach Larry Rothschild — were left with a three-man rotation and only one sure thing heading into camp: CC Sabathia (21-7, 3.18 ERA).
Burnett, the No. 2 starter, bombed last season, going 10-15 with a 5.26 ERA and a league-leading 19 hit batters, 16 wild pitches, two cut hands thanks to an angry clubhouse outburst after a poor start and one mysterious black eye. The $82.5 million pitcher was skipped over in the AL division playoffs.
Phil Hughes was a bright spot winning 18 games and an All-Star selection in his first full season as a starter. But the 24-year-old faded after the break: 7-6 with one victory in relief.
One side effect from not winning the Lee sweepstakes and Pettitte’s departure: New York will open the season with a payroll less than $200 million for the first time since 2007.
Too late to secure another topflight free agent, Cashman went cheap, bringing in aging All-Stars Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon to compete with youngster Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre for the final two spots in the rotation.
Nova, who was impressive in a short stint down the stretch last season (1-2, 4.50 in 10 games, seven starts), won the No. 4 job.
“We didn’t know what Nova was going to do,” manager Joe Girardi said. “Obviously, we had expectations.”
Garcia, who won 12 games last year and 17 overall since 2006 because of injuries, edged Colon, out of baseball since the end of July 2009, for the final spot. Colon, the 2005 AL CY Young winner, will begin the season as the long man out of a solid bullpen.
“Bartolo is a guy that we think can do a lot of things in our bullpen, or if needed, a spot start,” Girardi said. “Not asking him to throw 200 innings might be easier on him physically.”
The starters may have the luxury of only needing to give six solid innings, though. The Yankees have a formidable bullpen.
New York added lefty specialist Pedro Feliciano (92 appearances with the Mets in ’10) but he will miss the first two weeks because of upper arm soreness. Boone Logan is the other lefty.
Right-handers Dave Robertson and Joba Chamberlain, who increased his velocity this spring by adjusting his hand placement at the start of his delivery, will get the ball to Soriano (45 saves last season) in the eighth inning before the 41-year-old Rivera jogs in to “Enter Sandman” in the ninth. Rivera signed on for two more years and needs 43 saves to surpass recently retired Trevor Hoffman’s total of 601 as the all-time save leader.
“A lot of times in the season you’re going to have to battle, you don’t have your best stuff.” Hughes said, “You have a bullpen like we do and the losses you normally get turn to wins.”
With Boston beefing up an already potent offense and the Yankees’ pitching woes, New York will need increased production out of an offense that led the majors in runs and on-base percentage last year and remains virtually unchanged.
They might get it based on the springs that Jeter and Alex Rodriguez had.
The 36-year-old Jeter appears to finally be adapting to his new strideless swing, and A-Rod, with a clean bill of health from his hip surgeon, came into camp trimmer and moving better than he had since having surgery in 2009.
“The one thing I have noticed with (hitting coach Kevin Long) is I am a lot more consistent in the cage, more fluid and crisp,” said Rodriguez, who hopes to play 150 games this year.
Jorge Posada is adjusting to his new job as the full-time designated hitter, and newcomer Russell Martin takes over behind the plate. Two former Gold Glovers, infielder Eric Chavez and outfielder Andruw Jones will have primary bench roles if they can stay healthy.
“We’re not conceding anything. We look forward to going up against everybody, Cashman said. Just because (Boston’s) the hunted, doesn’t mean they can’t be taken down.”
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