MLB: Yankees’ quest to repeat begins this week
By Pete Caldera
The Record (Hackensack N.J.)
NEW YORK — Our last glimpse of the 2009 world champions was through a crazy blizzard of confetti.
The Yankees’ long-awaited return up the Canyon of Heroes was a cheery celebration for all that manager Joe Girardi’s club had achieved. And yet for some players, it also was a fond farewell.
No club ever remains wholly intact from year to year, and the business of repeating as champions — which was last accomplished by the Yankees from 1998-2000 — is tougher than it was 10 years ago.
“I think clubs are smarter in terms of their abilities to assess talent, and I think there’s a lot more parity now,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. But as the pinstriped bottom line goes, “We’re expected to win every year.”
As the Yankees assemble for spring training this week — pitchers and catchers will report Wednesday — they’ll work toward their 28th world title without two notable contributors to No. 27 — Johnny Damon and World Series MVP Hideki Matsui.
In their place, Cashman traded for a 30-homer outfielder in Curtis Granderson, and signed a high on-base player in Nick Johnson, who returns to the Yankees as their primary designated hitter.
But first, Cashman re-signed Andy Pettitte to a one-year deal.
A champion staff led by last year’s big-ticket starters CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett was upgraded when Cashman acquired right-hander Javier Vazquez from the Braves. Though with Melky Cabrera headed to Atlanta, it only extended the “Why part with Damon?” debate.
The initial plan was to retain Damon, but not beyond the parameters of two years at $14 million. That didn’t fly with Damon and agent Scott Boras.
“Johnny left us, as far as I’m concerned,” said Cashman, whose subsequent moves expended the bulk of his fixed winter budget.
The last time Cashman presided over a club that repeated as world champ, he was moved (after a relatively quiet winter heading into 2000) to make two significant in-season trades: David Justice provided essential offense, and Denny Neagle went 7-7.
Adding free agent Mike Mussina a year later, the 2001 Yankees were two outs away from winning a fourth-straight world championship — until the Diamondbacks’ comeback in Game 7.
As for this current group, “I think last year taught us how hard it is to win, and we know how hard it is to repeat,” said Girardi, who played on the 1996, 1998, and 1999 Yankees title teams. “People expect that of us every year. You’re supposed to win.”
Before the Yankees’ three-peat, the 1992-93 Blue Jays were the last club to win consecutive World Series.
There hasn’t been a repeat NL champ since the 1975-76 Reds, and the Yankees saw to that last fall — beating the defending world champion Phillies in six games.
“Last year, I felt we had a very good team coming out of spring training,” Girardi said. “And we’re going to be a very good team again, but it’s going to take a lot of work to get back.”
Without Damon and Matsui, the Yankees have to replace 52 home runs, 172 RBI and an aggregate .366 on-base percentage. They also lost the presence of two key clubhouse personalities, and Cashman was moved to find players who had quality beyond mere statistics.
“I don’t think there’s a bad apple in the bunch,” Cashman said, having already made purposeful strides to improve the team’s atmosphere (along with its record) in his pre-2009 deals for Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher.
But Granderson’s “Marvin Miller Man of the Year” award won’t aid his struggles against the lefties that Matsui thrived on. And Johnson’s likability doesn’t automatically replace Damon’s Stadium swing, or his perfect fit in the No. 2 spot behind Derek Jeter.
Still, the lineup remains potent with Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada and Robinson Cano. Brett Gardner figures to bat ninth against right-handers, behind Granderson and Swisher, with Randy Winn or Marcus Thames playing versus lefties.
Cashman had to part with blue-chip outfield prospect Austin Jackson to land Granderson, though the Yankees’ 25-man roster will be younger. At 40, Mariano Rivera has defied age, and Phil Hughes or Joba Chamberlain (who are battling for the No. 5 spot) could be his primary setup man.
Meanwhile, are their chief rivals stronger?
Boston lost slugger Jason Bay, but signed Adrian Beltre and Mike Cameron, and added John Lackey to form an excellent starting staff.
For now, the Yankees seem to be better positioned than the ’09 club, which dealt with uncertainty over A-Rod’s hip surgery, and lost starting right fielder Xavier Nady and No. 3 starter Chien-Ming Wang to season-ending injuries.
“You put a roster together in the wintertime, and see how it plays in the summer,” Cashman said. “The game always tells you if you’re good enough or not.”