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01/19/10 9:02 PM EST

Bauman: Yankees appear stronger

Impressive offseason makes Bombers team to beat in AL

One item that must be monitored each winter is essentially: How did the big guys do?

That is big as in "the big winners," and/or "the big spenders." Now that the New York Yankees are once again World Series champions, one franchise conveniently covers both categories.

The bad news for the other 29 clubs is that in the offseason of 2009-'10 the Yankees have not exactly become worse. In fact, the evidence suggests that they have become better. They are not without questions, but their questions are fewer and smaller than those of the vast majority of the competition.

The things that strike you about the Yankees' work this winter is that they moved without sentiment, but also without spending $423.5 million. They made some necessary moves, but these moves did not include overwhelming free agents with offers that could not be refused.

The Yankees did not retain two staples of their recent operation; designated hitter Hideki Matsui and outfielder Johnny Damon. Matsui was the MVP of the 2009 World Series championship team, but his knees were past the point of regular outfield usage. His replacement at this point is Nick Johnson, whose own injury history does not make this change an automatic upgrade.

Damon turned around the pivotal Game 4 of the Series with a brilliant at-bat, followed by stealing two bases in one play. There is still a chance that Damon could return to the Yanks, although that chance dims with each passing day. The Yankees have said that they cannot afford him at his current contract demands. That is a very un-Yankee-like thing to say, but the wisdom here in both cases revolves around the notion that neither of these careers is in an ascendant phase. Better in these circumstances to let a player go one year too soon than one year too late.

The Yankees are not done with their offseason maneuvering, but they have made two significant acquisitions, both in trades. There is center fielder Curtis Granderson, a genuinely exciting player who brings speed, extra-base pop, and a generous, genial nature. Granderson is an upgrade in center and that is how these things must be measured.

Then there is starting pitcher Javier Vazquez, not a complete newcomer to the Bronx. Vazquez pitched for the Yankees in 2004, during which time he was generally fine in the first half and generally inadequate in the second.

But nobody ever doubted his stuff, and he hasn't lost any of it. He put up some of the best numbers of his career last season with the Atlanta Braves (15-10, 2.87 ERA, 44 walks, 238 strikeouts). Again, he is an upgrade. The Yankees went with a three-man rotation in their 2009 postseason triumph. They could go to four now and feel very good about the change.

The Yankees have a few remaining questions. One of them would be the identity of the fifth starter. This also goes to a question that seems eternal in nature, but has actually been in effect only since late 2007: What will Joba Chamberlain's permanent role be? The same question might well be asked on behalf of another talented young pitcher, Phil Hughes. At least the Yankees have options. They may not yet know where all the options fit, but they are working with significantly talented pitchers.

Left field is also a work in progress. Brett Gardner is there, but he may eventually be in the company of a platoon partner whose identity has not yet been revealed. Among a certain segment of Yankees fans there is frustration that the team did not do the usual thing and toss mega-millions at a free agent, in this case Jason Bay or Matt Holliday.

The Yankees should not be faulted for having a bout of something resembling fiscal conservatism, especially in difficult economic times for much of America. The way things worked out, they're off the hook in the cases of the two outfielders in question, because both were signed by National League clubs.

Yes, Bay went to the Mets and the Mets are competitors. But the Subway Series, barring a return to the 2000 World Series, is just six games each summer. If the Mets were in the AL East, this would be something else. The even better news for the Yankees is that Bay leaves both Boston and the AL East. Thus, without spending a nickel on either of these expensive outfielders, it could very easily be argued that the Yankees came out ahead.

The Red Sox added an expensive pitcher, John Lackey, to their rotation. On paper, they have remarkable pitching depth and should not be easily dismissed. They have also added center fielder Mike Cameron. He will be a better defender than Bay, but a lesser hitter.

Still, the Yankees have not noticeably come back to the pack. The rosters are hardly set in stone, but they have made significant improvements in two areas. That is especially promising because one of those two areas was starting pitching.

No, the losses of Matsui and Damon are not inconsequential. Melky Cabrera didn't keep the Yankees from winning, either. But the additions of Granderson and Vazquez make all kinds of sense. This is not an operation that is following success with complacency.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.