State of the Yankees: Not done yet

01/02/2013 12:34 PM ET
By Jon Lane

While the Yankees' offseason has been quiet, there's plenty of time for Cashman to make more moves.(AP)
A bit more than six weeks – 39 days to be exact – remain until New York Yankees pitchers and catchers report to George M. Steinbrenner Field for Spring Training 2013. As 2012 came to a close, the Yankees remained an unfinished product. Most of a 95-win team is back, but without a full-time catcher or DH, the core a year older and two major players coming off serious injuries (Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter).

Since Jayson Nix popped out to right field to conclude a four-game ALCS sweep to the Detroit Tigers, the Yankees’ biggest moves have been re-signing Andy Pettitte, Rivera, Hiroki Kuroda and Ichiro Suzuki – with Kuroda (38 in February) the youngest of the group. Kevin Youkilis, 34 in March, is the only new face to date and he’ll be at third base until if and when Alex Rodriguez comes back from a second hip surgery – and A-Rod turns 38 in July.

Yankees fans have been preconditioned for the “big bang.” It happened as recently as 11 months ago when general manager Brian Cashman pulled a rabbit out of the hat to not only sign Kuroda, but send top prospect Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi to the Seattle Mariners for Michael Pineda and Jose Campos. This year, under ownership’s orders to pare payroll to $189 million by 2014, Cashman had to convince his free agents to agree to stick around on one-year deals while paying Youkilis $12 million for a one-year pact of his own. (The exception was Ichiro for two years and $13 million.)

It’s those constraints – $323 million are invested in long-term deals to A-Rod, Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia through 2017 – that have the Yankees virtually standing pat while “big names” in Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke signed elsewhere for bigger dollars and more years. And as Sweeny Murti writes, the Yankee fan’s rallying cry has become WWGD (What Would George Do?).

This was Cashman in response last month:

“Historically we get aggressive when there’s a vacancy” he said. “We’re not aggressive when there is no vacancy. That’s really the true story. Not ‘The Boss would have done this’ or ‘The Boss would have done that.’ Well I was operating with The Boss under those previous circumstances, and I can tell you that that’s the way it was.

“I don’t feel like it’s all that different now, either. I think we might be a little bit more methodical, but I think that we are aggressive and big-game hunters when the timing is right and the circumstances are right. I don’t think we do it just to do it. Even though we had done that maybe in the 1980s and in years past, I don’t think that’s been a part of our culture for quite a while.”

Cashman’s track record suggests something is percolating, though also per his track record exactly what will happen remains a mystery. Whatever happens, in addition to the hopes that the older players don’t regress or buckle down due to age, 2013 will be a critical season for the youngsters. Ivan Nova regressed last season and he’ll be competing for a rotation spot with David Phelps, who flourished in a swing role. Pineda is recovering from torn labrum surgery and fingers are crossed that at his young age (24 on January 18) he’ll be back stronger than ever by the summer with his prime truly beginning in 2014.

Sabathia, Kuroda and Pettitte – health permitting – will anchor the Yankees’ starting five. But the X-factor will be Phil Hughes’ performance in what will be his free-agent season. For what seems like the umpteenth time, Hughes (16-13, 4.23 ERA) will be under the microscope to prove once and for all if he’ll ever live up to the full potential of the 23rd overall pick in the 2004 MLB Draft – a selection the Yankees were awarded after Pettitte signed with the Houston Astros – and who two years later Baseball America billed as arguably the best pitching prospect in the Minor Leagues.

Hughes’ career record (52-36, 4.39 ERA in 152 games and 103 starts) and various health issues has suggested he’s a mid-to-back end starting pitcher, and there may be those who still look back to his brilliant 2009 season as Rivera’s setup man and believe he’s best suited for that role. More than any other campaign, Hughes has more at stake with much to gain or a lot to lose. If he’s rock-solid, he forces the Yankees’ hand to invest part of a limited budget into a long-term deal to provide rotation stability while competing with high demand for a guy who turns 27 years old in June. If he’s inconsistent, it’s a knock on the team’s development system and who knows where Hughes lands next.

Like the rest of the Yankees, 2013 shapes up to be a proving ground for Hughes to show once and for all he’s consistent and durable. It may turn out Hughes’s best days are ahead of him, and despite the sounds of silence, Cashman’s finest moments this winter may come first.

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