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10/29/11 9:00 PM ET

CC the priority as Yankees balance needs

Free-agent market not the only option for retooling this offseason

You already know what the Yankees' expectations are for 2012: win the World Series or the whole year will be dismissed as a disappointment. Now the question is, how do they get there?

The Yankees have never been afraid to utilize free agency to fill their needs, and in some situations, it has been their most potent fuel for getting where they need to be.

Look no further than 2009, when the Bombers doled out $423.5 million in contracts to three free-agent players -- CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira -- and were hoisting the World Series trophy by November.

Yet general manager Brian Cashman has emphasized other talent pipelines in recent years, stressing that while the big-market Yankees can still belly up and write huge checks, it need not be their only course of action.

"You attack your areas of weaknesses over the winter, and hope your strengths remain your strengths," Cashman said.

And the Yankees know what area they'd most like to upgrade, though their desire to import starting pitching is shared by 29 other clubs.

In a marketplace where Rangers left-hander C.J. Wilson and Japan's Yu Darvish are among the most appealing free-agent options, expect to see the Yankees holding a high level of interest until those names are off the board.

New York's first priority is taking care of its own, as it did last winter with Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. Now, with Sabathia eligible to opt out of the remaining four years and $92 million on his contract, it's possible they'll be dealing with the left-hander as a free agent.

Sabathia has until 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday to opt out. The five-year, $120 million deal that Cliff Lee signed with the Phillies could be a benchmark for where Sabathia and the Yankees are headed, with a sixth year not completely out of the realm of possibility.

"You hope he thinks long and hard about coming back and why he likes it here so much," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.

The Yankees' biggest moves last winter were to retain Jeter and Rivera, and after striking out on adding Lee to their rotation, New York upgraded the bullpen by inking Rafael Soriano to a three-year contract. The club also picked up low-risk but important pieces in Russell Martin, Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones.

In plotting the course of their winter shopping, Cashman's crew will have the benefit of some salary commitments coming off the books for 2012, permitting them to splash some in the free-agent pool.

Designated hitter Jorge Posada ($13.1 million) is not expected to return, and the Yankees have already declined their option on left-hander Damaso Marte ($4 million). Additionally, left-hander Kei Igawa ($4 million) will be moving on, his disappointing five-year stay in the organization complete.

But some of that is going to raises, with Robinson Cano's $14 million option and Nick Swisher's $10.25 million option exercised by the club on Saturday. Other players, like Martin, Brett Gardner and David Robertson, will be pegged to score raises in arbitration.

Contract Issues

Free agents: Luis Ayala RHP, Chavez 1B/3B, Colon RHP, Garcia RHP, Jones OF; Sergio Mitre, RHP; Posada DH/1B, Sabathia LHP (opt-out clause), Soriano RHP (opt-out clause).

Eligible for arbitration: Joba Chamberlain RHP, Gardner OF, Phil Hughes RHP, Boone Logan LHP, Martin C, Robertson RHP.

Club options: Cano 2B, $14 million (option exercised); Marte LHP, $4 million (declined, $250,000 buyout); Swisher OF, $10.25 million (option exercised).

Areas of need

Starting pitching: Retaining Sabathia is priority No. 1, but there are questions to be answered beyond him. Would anyone bite on a trade for Burnett? Hughes endured a frustrating followup to an 18-win campaign, but luckily, Ivan Nova had a breakout campaign. Colon and Garcia were great patchwork fixes, but expect to hear plenty about Wilson and Darvish in the weeks to come.

Relief pitching: The Yankees will probably tinker, though obviously the likes of Rivera, Robertson and Soriano are more than secure. They'd love another lefty to supplement or challenge Logan.

Catcher: Martin should return as the starter, but Francisco Cervelli's repeated concussion issues may prompt the Yankees to give a fair shake to Jesus Montero and Austin Romine for a backup role. They could also look elsewhere if Montero looks headed for DH duty and they want to give Romine more time in the Minors.

Infield: The starting infield is set, though they may look for help backing up Alex Rodriguez and Jeter. That could fall to Eduardo Nunez, though they really must work on his defensive issues. Chavez was a nice pickup at the corners but is reportedly considering retirement. Obviously, he'd need to be replaced.

Outfield: If Jones heads elsewhere in search of more regular at-bats, the Yankees will have a backup role to fill; preferably someone who mashes left-handed pitching like Jones and, before him, Marcus Thames.

2012 Payroll: The Yankees entered 2011 with the game's highest payroll at $202.7 million, and managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner has held firm about keeping the number in that arena. The Yankees have approximately $150 million already tied up in guaranteed contracts and options that are likely to be picked up to Cano and Swisher. Their six arbitration-eligible players could add $15 to $20 million.

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.