Perhaps you've heard that these Yankees are different from their forebears. There's now an emphasis on roster and payroll flexibility, and a renewed interest in player development has given the franchise a burst of youthful energy that's been missing since the late '90s -- not coincidentally, the era that yielded four championships in five years. After six ringless seasons the changes are being embraced, even by the old guard. "You have to have the right mix of youth and experience, high-salaried and low-salaried guys," says 38-year-old righthander Mike Mussina. "It seems like [G.M.] Brian [Cashman] is getting that balance more than we've ever had. You can't buy the best players every year, no matter how hard you try."
"We're not reinventing the wheel," says Cashman. "We're just going back to the basics, back to what did it for us before."
The payroll is, of course, still a league-high $190 million, and from time to time spring training had that familiar soap-operatic feel, some of which was just the usual tabloid excess. (Surely righty Carl Pavano set a record for most consecutive New York Post back covers -- four -- by a fifth starter.) But there were also subplots that the Yankees' brass cannot dismiss so easily, most notably that four of the team's pillars are heading into their walk years and could be gone by next spring: closer Mariano Rivera, manager Joe Torre, catcher Jorge Posada and third baseman Alex Rodriguez.
During the winter Cashman nimbly pulled off the trick of adding youth without putting a dent in the club's annual World Series expectations. The acquisition of five minor league pitching prospects in deals that sent starter Randy Johnson to the Diamondbacks and slugger Gary Sheffield to the Tigers not only fortified what has become a top 10 farm system but also provided minor league depth to make possible a major, in-season trade that won't strip the farm bare. With no certainty in the rotation beyond the trio of Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte and Mussina -- $46 million Japanese import Kei Igawa has drawn mixed reviews this spring at best -- that's no small luxury. (Of course, New York is the favorite to fill out its staff with 44-year-old retiree Roger Clemens, who, while not exactly advancing the youth movement, would cost only an eight-figure salary and not talent.)
Among the every-day players only second baseman Robinson Cano is younger than 30, but that shouldn't prevent New York's lineup from wearing down opposing pitching. Yankees hitters had a league-best .363 on-base percentage, and that number figures to increase with Bobby Abreu in the lineup for an entire season. Acquired from the Phillies last July, the 33-year-old rightfielder reached triple digits in bases on balls for the eighth straight year, matching Frank Thomas for the longest streak in major league history.
While the production should be spread evenly, the headlines are likely to tilt toward a single player: Rodriguez, who after shedding a dozen pounds over the winter further unburdened himself last month by acknowledging his frayed relationship with shortstop Derek Jeter. Consider that A-Rod had 35 homers, 121 RBIs, an OBP of .392 and a .523 slugging percentage in 2006, the worst season of his career. This year he has the added incentive of a contract drive. Rodriguez says he wants to remain a Yankee after '07, but if he exercises his opt-out clause at season's end, he could probably double the $72 million remaining on the $252 million megadeal he signed in 2000.
"We're certainly more secure on the offensive side," Cashman says. "Pitching-wise, we're still a work in progress." Even if they don't unload prospects for pitching during the season, these Yankees -- like the 12 versions before them -- have enough to reach October. -- Jon Heyman
Issue date: March 26, 2007