MLB: BASEBALL 2010: Yankees revamp, try for repeat
By HOWIE RUMBERG
AP Sports Writer
NEW YORK — By the time Alex Rodriguez tries on his first flashy World Series championship ring, the New York Yankees' focus will have long been on a new goal: Title No. 28.
They are never content in the Bronx.
After wrapping up the first season in the $1.5 billion homer-happy ballpark with their first crown in nine years, the suddenly cost-conscious — by their standards, at least — Yankees parted ways with the popular and productive Johnny Damon and World Series MVP Hideki Matsui, revamped the outfield and brought back a right-hander who tossed one of the most forgettable pitches in franchise history to bulk up the rotation.
Now that's a celebratory pie in the face.
"Obviously we're going to miss some of the guys," Rodriguez said, "but it's our job to navigate this to the same place."
For Rodriguez, it all worked out in 2009. His year started with an admission that he used steroids and then hip surgery that kept him out until May. He finished with 30 homers and 100 RBIs, a huge hit in the World Series against Philadelphia and that elusive ring — he'll put on that piece of hardware April 13 at the home opener.
These days, the Yankees rely less on the bluster of the Boss and more on the statistical analysis that manager Joe Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman are so enamored with, but New York expects one thing — to win it all, every year.
"It has to be the same whether you won or didn't win and that's to win a championship," Derek Jeter said. "Absolutely nothing changes."
And this offseason, with trying to become the first team to repeat as champions since they won three straight from 1998-2000 in mind, the Yankees took a new approach.
Co-chairman Hal Steinbrenner set a budget of about $200 million and Cashman — his second season fully in charge of baseball operations — made several crafty moves to upgrade a squad that won 103 ballgames and the AL East by eight games over the Boston Red Sox.
He made the team quicker and younger by acquiring All-Star center fielder Curtis Granderson, signed former Yankees first baseman Nick Johnson and dealt his starting center fielder, Melky Cabrera, for pitcher Javier Vazquez. Cashman also brought in Randy Winn and Marcus Thames, and let go Jose Molina, a defensive specialist who was A.J. Burnett's personal catcher.
Then when talk turned to the expiring contracts of Jeter, closer Mariano Rivera and Girardi, Hal Steinbrenner decisively ended any debate that might've rumbled when his dad, George Steinbrenner, was in control.
"I just don't believe in contract extensions, and that's throughout the organization, no matter who it is," Hal Steinbrenner said. "Hopefully nobody takes that personally. It's just business."
As the East-rival Red Sox upgraded their pitching and defense, the Yankees tinkered with a clubhouse that for the first time in years seemed loose and unified, led by the personable Damon and newcomer Nick Swisher. Burnett made "pieing" a verb, greeting each teammate to come through in New York's last at-bat — the Yankees led the majors with 51 comeback victories and 15 walkoff wins — with a whipped-cream pie in the face.
"Obviously losing Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, who are great players, will be missed," he said.
Winning breeds camaraderie, and as Jeter likes to say, it starts with pitching.
The Yankees lost Chien-Ming Wang early and used only three starters in the postseason. To give CC Sabathia, Burnett and Andy Pettitte some support, New York brought back the workhorse Vazquez, who was 15-10 with a 2.87 ERA and struck out 238 in 219 1-3 innings for the Atlanta Braves last season.
What fans in New York remember most about Vazquez, though, is the grand slam he gave up to Boston's Damon on the first pitch he threw in Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS. Vazquez was an All-Star that season but faded in the second half.
Braves manager Bobby Cox knows a different pitcher.
"You got the whole package with the guy — he can pinch-run, he'll do it all," Cox said. "He was dynamite. He's outstanding."
Phil Hughes beat out Joba Chamberlain for the fifth starter role, and he'll be on an innings limit — around 170 — this year as Chamberlain was last season.
The Yankees were determined to make Chamberlain a starter even though he excelled as Rivera's setup man when he came up in 2007. Now Girardi wouldn't even commit him to the eighth-inning role to start the season. He'll also have left-hander Damaso Marte and righty Dave Robertson to choose for that job.
The loss of Damon and Matsui leave big holes in the Yankees' lineup. Johnson, who's been on the DL nine times, will bat in Damon's second spot. Johnson had the third-best on-base percentage in baseball last year at .426 but he could slow the Yankees' attack that scored 915 runs — he's had only four stolen bases since 2006. Robinson Cano will take over in the 5-hole for the clutch Matsui, providing protection for Rodriguez, who says his hip is fully healed.
"In this lineup anywhere you hit, anyone can hit," said Cano, who hit .320 last season.
For the Yankees to repeat, though, the biggest factor might be the health of their aging core.
Jeter is 35. Catcher Jorge Posada is 38. Rivera is 40 and Pettitte is 37. They were all relatively injury free for their run to a fifth championship together.