02/14/11 3:20 PM EST
Yankees' push for title No. 28 begins anew
By Bryan Hoch / MLB.com
Yet even on a day when the biggest challenge is to show up on time and be weighed by the medical staff, CC Sabathia couldn't resist. The ace picked up his glove and fired a nod four lockers down to rotation hopeful Ivan Nova.
"You want to throw?" Sabathia asked. "Let's go."
As the hurlers played catch across the crisp outfield grass, it finally felt like baseball season again, a little more than four months after the Yankees' push for championship No. 28 ended with a bat on Alex Rodriguez's shoulder in Arlington, Texas.
The offseason may not have gone exactly as they'd expected following their elimination in the American League Championship Series, but the Yankees hold high hopes for 2011, boasting a potent offense and a bullpen that could be the best in the game.
"We wouldn't come to Spring Training if we didn't expect to win the division," said manager Joe Girardi. "I'd have a hard time with our ballclub if we didn't expect to win the division. That's the mindset that everyone needs to have."
Of course, the Yankees' original plan after their 95-win season was to upgrade their starting pitching, and they had a clear target in mind: Cliff Lee, last seen wearing the blue and red of the Rangers.
General manager Brian Cashman used all of the expected pages from the organization's playbook, promising to write the biggest check Lee could cash, but the left-hander will instead spend his spring across the Courtney Campbell Causeway with the Phillies.
That put the Yankees in a tight spot, with question marks surrounding the rotation and no apparent easy solutions. Ownership decided that if the club couldn't have that dominant starter, the game could be shortened at the back end.
Over Cashman's objections, the Yankees inked right-hander Rafael Soriano to a three-year, $35 million contract, plucking last year's AL saves leader from the Rays and installing him as the setup man -- and possible heir apparent, assuming he doesn't opt out of his deal -- to closer Mariano Rivera.
"I know Rafael looks up to Mariano, and he talks about how he watches what he does, so I'm sure that will be a joy," Girardi said.
In a winter that also saw the reluctant retirement of Andy Pettitte, Soriano's acquisition would be the biggest addition during a time period that the Yankees entered needing to take care of their internal business.
Some of their decisions were expected, such as telling Jorge Posada that he would not be the starting catcher this season, instead yielding those duties to newcomer Russell Martin.
Though Posada's move to designated hitter may prove to be the best thing for his offensive numbers, the veteran isn't completely ready to give up his gear to Martin and a crop of younger backstops that includes Francisco Cervelli, Jesus Montero and Austin Romine.
"Our plan is for him to be our DH and Russell Martin to be our everyday catcher," Girardi said. "But sometimes things don't go according to plan, due to a lot of reasons."
The Bombers' negotiations with Rivera on a new two-year, $30 million deal went off without a hitch, just as the understated 41-year-old closer would have preferred it. They weren't so fortunate with Derek Jeter.
The captain came away displeased with the process leading to his three-year, $51 million agreement, feeling he'd been portrayed as "greedy," even though he told the Yankees he had no intention of playing elsewhere.
No reasonable person expected that Jeter would wear a different uniform, and that storm passed. Jeter will be installed at shortstop -- not center field, mind you -- when the Yankees get on the diamond for the first time as a full squad on Feb. 20.
"I think he'll come in prepared to play," Girardi said. "He'll come in prepared to have a good season and help us to win a championship, and I don't think it will really affect him."
There will be many story lines, ranging from Jeter's ability to bounce back from a career-low .270 average, to Robinson Cano's chances for the MVP season he approached last year, to Alex Rodriguez's health and Curtis Granderson's evolving swing.
Maybe even one of the celebrity guest instructors will create a few headlines. It was certainly that way when first-timer David Wells was wearing the pinstripes as a player.
"Gene Michael always said that he could pitch until that arm fell off," Cashman said. "Obviously he has a lot of history here and sometimes camp can get long. I think Boomer will keep it lively for us. He's pumped to be here, he loves the Yankees."
Yet pitching is where the focus will be as camp progresses, as the Yankees wield a rotation that Cashman himself evaluated as "incomplete."
Sabathia lost 25 pounds during his offseason training to take pressure off a right knee that required surgery after the season, and Phil Hughes will look to continue his progress after winning a career-high 18 games last season, his first All-Star campaign.
One key to the Yankees' success this year will reside in A.J. Burnett, who lost 15 games last season and will be counted on to turn around his fortunes.
"He has all those things. I've seen it in him," Girardi said. "He was frustrated last year, but we can put that behind us and we can move forward."
That would take pressure off the last two rotation slots -- to be filled by some arrangement of candidates that includes Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, Sergio Mitre and Nova, in what figures to be an open competition all the way to the end of camp.
"A.J. and Phil are definitely going to be there, Nova pitched well last year, and we'll have to see for the fifth spot," Sabathia said. "Everybody is making a big deal about it, but I think we have the arms in here to get it done. Our first goal is to win the East, and I think we have the arms in here to do that."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.