Yanks not taking October for granted
Offseason spending spree set stage for return to playoff glory
NEW YORK -- The Yankees appreciate their place in the postseason now more than ever, arguably. A pervading sense of entitlement was shattered some 12 months ago, when Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera cleaned out their lockers at the old Yankee Stadium for the final time.
Annual World Series appearances can't be considered a given, that much was for sure, but the Yankees are never eliminated after 162 games. Is that even allowed to happen? The "Old Guard" didn't know any differently, and not having any October baseball on the schedule was a shock.
Absent for the first time in 14 seasons, the Yankees did exactly what one would expect from a team that has George M. Steinbrenner's name on the masthead. And now, after writing bigger checks than anyone, the Yankees are marching back toward a flag, daring any of the other seven clubs to get in their way.
"It's the pinstripes -- it's the Yankees," outfielder Johnny Damon said. "The bull's-eye is always on us, especially with what we did this past free-agency year. We spent a lot of money to get back to the playoffs. Everybody knows that, and everyone is always going to be gunning for us."
Closing the old Stadium with 89 wins in Joe Girardi's maiden voyage as manager, the Yankees knew they had flexibility heading into 2009. Big contracts were coming off the payroll, and with the new Cathedral rising across 161st Street, untold revenue streams would back ownership's decision to whip out the checkbooks aggressively.
So the Yankees went after the best they could, prioritizing pitching and sending general manager Brian Cashman to woo CC Sabathia with a seven-year, $161 million contract. A.J. Burnett loved the idea of slotting in behind the big man and hammered out the terms of a five-year, $82.5 million deal soon after.
With Sabathia and Burnett becoming fast friends, even sharing their introductory news conference, Cashman convinced ownership that first baseman Mark Teixeira would be a perfect fit. The Yankees swooped in right before Christmas, diverting Teixeira from the Red Sox with an eight-year, $180 million deal.
The spree was stunning, quick and effective. Yet it was not surprising, given the shock of closing out the hallowed ballpark with a whisper.
"I sense that there was a determination after what we went through last year, where we didn't make the playoffs," Girardi said. "You don't play this game and put all that hard work in just to make the playoffs. The goal was set when we went to work last winter, so I think our guys are very determined."
All three additions, along with November acquisition Nick Swisher, have fit in almost perfectly, and the frenzied spending came as no surprise to at least one observer outside the organization.
"I think I actually made the comment that they probably got aggravated and that they'd spend a billion," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "I was half-right. They've got a good team. It's [been] an unbelievable regular season."
With Sabathia proving to be the definition of an ace and Burnett emerging from a second-half swoon, the offense was led in part by Teixeira, who rebounded from a slow start to lead the American League with 122 RBIs while tying for the circuit's homer crown with 39.
"This lineup is so deep," Teixeira said. "I might take a few more hacks, might be a little more aggressive. If I don't get the job done, we have one through nine that can get it done. It made it fun. It made it a lot of fun playing with that lineup this year."
The exuberant Swisher jumped into a complementary role in place of injured Opening Day right fielder Xavier Nady and became an instant fan favorite. All things considered, the Yankees' offseason spending assault could not have gone much better.
That isn't always the case in New York, where the name "Ed Whitson" still makes a Bleacher Creature's blood boil, and -- more recently -- the Yankees have been burned by giving big-money deals to such ill-suited free agents as Jaret Wright, Carl Pavano and Tony Womack. This time, they got it right.
"It's a different group this year than last year," Girardi said. "This group is a little bit louder and outwardly expresses their enjoyment of the game differently than last year. It's all real. It's having fun, and that's what you want. I think by doing that, they're able to play relaxed."
In the past, the Yankees have had powerful lineups that slug the ball in the regular season and fall short in October, which is why inserting more than 400 innings of Sabathia and Burnett -- plus bringing back veteran lefty Andy Pettitte to oversee the staff -- may be so important.
"Like I've said before, we've never really had problems scoring runs," Jeter said. "Pitching is what gives you the opportunity to win over the course of a long season and also over the course of a short series."
Added Posada: "It's all about pitching, getting the job done on the mound, and really, these guys have stepped up. You've seen a lot with our team, the way we played later on and the way we play here in New York. Hopefully, we can finish what we started."
In his second season under the spotlight, Girardi also appeared more at ease with the demands of managing in New York. The drill-sergeant mentality was relaxed somewhat, as he put more trust in his veterans to assume roles and carry the load.
"Joe did a tremendous job since Spring Training," Rivera said. "He pulled us together, and we stuck together. That's the only reason why we accomplished all this. The front office did a tremendous job recruiting a bunch of great guys. That, plus what we had, made it come as natural as this."
Love the Yankees or hate them, there was something lacking from last year's postseason mix, with Jeter, Posada and Rivera left to wonder how they should occupy their time in the season's most pivotal month. Maybe this year's slate will go a bit longer for the Bombers, who haven't escaped the first round since 2004.
"I think everybody is hungry," Pettitte said. "You see it in the guys that have been here, in Derek -- the way he's been playing -- and Mo. We're all trying to push each other and grind through. We want to bring another championship to New York. There's no better place to win than here."
It may have taken hundreds of millions of dollars, but the Yankees have punched their ticket in convincing fashion. For them, it is just stage one, as they lord over the playoffs for a fan base that accepts nothing less than victory and against a contingent of haters who can't wait to see if they stumble. What's not to love about that dynamic?
"I think the way last year ended left a bad taste in all of our mouths," Girardi said. "This organization is used to going to the playoffs and playing deep into the postseason. Last year was hard for all of us, and it gave us all a chance to self-reflect and evaluate what we do. It's paid off."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.