In the post-George Steinbrenner era, Yanks evolve

Associated Press  |  Last updated March 21, 2012
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Even in the parking lot of their spring training complex, the changes around the New York Yankees since the death of George Steinbrenner are evident. Power-washers that kept the area as clean as a hospital no longer are out at 8 a.m. every single morning at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla. Garbage cans are not emptied obsessively. Many workers report on time, not early. Will the deviations filter down to the dugout, where Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are back, Jorge Posada is gone and Andy Pettitte has returned? The Yankees have gone two straight years without a World Series title - an eternity in Bronx years - but fiscal restraint seems to be the theme of Hal Steinbrenner, the chief decision maker among the late owner's four children. New York has led the majors in player payroll in 13 straight seasons and paid the luxury tax in all nine years since it began. That hasn't changed - but Hal Steinbrenner hinted it could as baseball's new labor contract phases in benefits for big-market teams that slow spending. ''I'm just not convinced we need to be as high as we've been in the past to field a championship-caliber team,'' he said as spring training began. ''We'll see who comes off in the next couple years.'' Nick Swisher and Russell Martin are eligible for free agency at the end of the season and Mariano Rivera might retire, all of which could free up nearly $33 million. But the most important number for the Yankees is 28 - as in the search for their 28th World Series title. After dethroning Philadelphia in 2009, the Yankees lost to Texas in the 2010 AL championship series and to Detroit in the 2011 division series. Good for most teams, but unacceptable in New York. ''For us, going to the World Series is not enough,'' Rodriguez said. While the Yankees won the AL East to reach the postseason for the 16th time in 17 years, some of their regulars experienced drops in production last season. Hobbled by knee and thumb injuries, Rodriguez fell from 30 homers and 125 RBIs to 16 and 62; Mark Teixeira's batting average dipped to .248, down from .292 in the championship season. Only with a strong second half did Jeter raise his batting average to .297. Curtis Granderson made up for some of the falloff with career bests of 41 homers and 119 RBIs. Robinson Cano had another strong year with 28 homers and 118 RBIs. ''We've got most of the guys back. The key is always to stay healthy,'' Jeter said. In the regular batting order, the only change is the addition of Raul Ibanez as the designated hitter against right-handed starters. He takes over from Jorge Posada, who retired after a shaky, tempestuous season that left Jeter and Rivera as the last remaining members of the core four. But then Pettitte decided to end his retirement after one season. He won't be ready for the April 6 opener at Tampa Bay but hopes to be with the major league team sometime during the month in the hopes of getting World Series ring No. 6. He turns 40 in June. ''It's weird to say it. I feel like I never left,'' Pettitte explained. ''I don't know how to explain it.'' He adds another old body to a clubhouse that already includes Rivera (whose age matches his uniform No. 42), Jeter (38 in June) and A-Rod (37 in July). Pettitte also creates a surplus in starting pitching - seven arms for five slots, even after the dumping of A.J. Burnett to Pittsburgh. With two weeks left in spring training, only CC Sabathia (19-8) and Hiroki Kuroda (13-16 for the Los Angeles Dodgers) were assured of berths. Freddy Garcia (12-8), Ivan Nova (16-4), Michael Pineda (9-10 for Seattle) and Phil Hughes (5-5) were competing for the other three spots, even before Pettitte returned. ''It's a good problem to have from a GM and team standpoint,'' Hughes said. Rivera, the best closer ever, is the key to the bullpen. He had a typical season for him, a 1.91 ERA and 44 saves in 49 chances. David Robertson joined him as an All-Star with a 1.08 ERA and 66 2-3 innings. Rafael Soriano (2-3, 4.12) still looks shaky, while Boone Logan (5-3, 3.46) remains the lone lefty in the bullpen. Joba Chamberlain hopes to return by midseason from elbow-ligament replacement surgery. Competing in the AL East with Boston and Tampa Bay, the slightest losing streak will be cause for concern, if not panic. While George Steinbrenner is gone, the mindset he created has not dissipated among the fan base. ''As tough as ever. The bottom line is, the division is going to be extremely tough,'' said Joe Girardi, back for his fourth season as manager. ''Each game is going to mean something, that's for sure.'' --- AP freelance writer Mark Didtler contributed to this report.
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