COMMENTARY | The last time the New York Yankees entered a season with this many questions, Bill Clinton was still in the White House.
The four-time defending champions of the American League East are in the midst of a sea change heading into spring training for the 2013 season. Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday, Feb. 12, and begin workouts the following day, with the position players slated to be in camp on Sunday, Feb. 17, with full-squad workouts beginning on Monday, Feb. 18.
The Yankees open their 33-game Grapefruit League schedule on Feb. 23 against the Atlanta Braves in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
It's been a different sort of offseason for the Yankees, the second in a row during which the Bronx Bombers chose to be mere spectators as the biggest and brightest free agents went on the auction block.
That resembled the offseason of 2011-12, when the Angels signed the premier free-agent of that class as well, first baseman Albert Pujols.
That came after flirtations with the two top free agents following the 2010 season, but outfielder Carl Crawford wound up with the Boston Red Sox and pitcher Cliff Lee opted to return to the Philadelphia Phillies.
For a franchise renowned for its free-spending ways, the Yankees haven't done a heck of a lot in free agency since signing pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett and first baseman Mark Teixeira before the 2009 campaign.
Part of that is the team's newfound fiscal restraint. Managing partner Hal Steinbrenner wants the team to bring payroll under the luxury-tax threshold of $189 million by the 2014 season in order to avoid the stiffer tax penalties that will take effect that year under baseball's collective-bargaining agreement.
So it's been a quiet offseason on the free-agent front. New York did bring back several of its own free agents, including pitchers Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda and closer Mariano Rivera, along with outfielder Ichiro Suzuki.
But catcher Russell Martin was not extended an offer and signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Outfielder Nick Swisher was allowed to go to the Cleveland Indians and playoff hero Raul Ibanez ended up back with the Seattle Mariners.
On the other hand, it's worth pointing out that just having a gigantic payroll does not, by itself, guarantee success or even a playoff berth. Just ask the Boston Red Sox, circa 2010-12.
So here are some of the major story lines with spring training just a week or so away:
The baseball world was rocked when the Miami New Times released an explosive expose that linked several major leaguers, including Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez, to Biogenesis, a Miami-based anti-aging clinic.
According to records obtained by the New Times, Rodriguez received performance-enhancing drugs from Biogenesis. The story claims Rodriguez is referenced 16 times in those records.
More recently, Yahoo Sports reported that catcher Francisco Cervelli was linked to the clinic. Cervelli claims that he "consulted a number of experts" while attempting to rehabilitate an injured foot in 2011.
For a franchise that has been at the epicenter of baseball's ongoing entanglement with PEDs, this was not welcome news. Instead of talking about pitchers and catchers and the upcoming season, the team will now be attempting to do more damage control on the Rodriguez-and to a lesser extent, Cervelli-situation.
Will Robinson Cano respond in his walk year?
Second baseman Robinson Cano is in the last year of his contract and, as is the case with almost every client of superagent Scott Boras, Cano is extremely likely to re-sign with the Yankees before exploring the open market next fall.
Cano hit .313/.379/.550 last season with 33 homers and 94 RBI, but his .268 mark with runners in scoring position caused some consternation among fans. Added to the perceived lack of clutch hitting last season was Cano's 12-for-58 mark (.207) with runners in scoring position and two outs.
Indeed, 17 of his 33 home runs came with the bases empty. So it's a big year for Cano, who is looking to strike it rich in free agency.
Can the ancient pitchers hold up?
To call the New York pitching staff old would be akin to declaring that many NBA players are kind of tall.
Ace CC Sabathia will be coming back after having surgery on his left elbow last fall.
Andy Pettitte resigned for one more year, but the 40-year-old missed much of last season with a broken bone in his leg.
Mariano Rivera is back for another year after the 43-year-old was out for most of the 2012 campaign after ripping up his knee in a freak incident while shagging fly balls during batting practice in Kansas City last May.
The only position battle in the starting rotation appears to be for the No. 5 slot, where incumbent Ivan Nova was inconsistent at best before going on the disabled list with shoulder fatigue in August. David Phelps is the other candidate for the slot.
David Robertson will return to the eighth-inning role he filled after Rivera went down and Rafael Soriano took over the closer spot. Soriano signed with the Washington Nationals after the Yanks settled on bringing back Rivera.
Who's behind the plate?
One has to go back to the early 1980s, after the death of former captain Thurman Munson in 1979, to find the last time the Yankee catching situation was this unsettled.
The team is hoping that someone from the group of last year's backup Chris Stewart, former backup Cervelli, rookie Austin Romine and non-roster invitee Bobby Wilson can emerge as a front-runner this spring to replace Martin, the Yanks' regular catcher for the last two seasons.
Stewart and Wilson are similar; strong defensive catchers who are liabilities offensively. Cervelli is average at best on defense, but offers a bit more offensively even if it doesn't include much in the way of power. Romine is raw, with just 19 career big-league at-bats, and he missed much of 2012 with a back injury.
Where do the runs come from?
The departures of Martin, Swisher and Ibanez and utility infielder Eric Chavez (who signed with the Arizona Diamondback) represent 80 home runs and 245 RBI from the offense that led the American League in 2012 with 245 homers and was second to the Texas Rangers with 804 runs.
Throw in the fact that Rodriguez will be out for at least half of the season after having hip surgery and runs could be much harder to come by in 2013.
Kevin Youkilis, who split last season between the Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox, is expected to fill in for Rodriguez at third base to open the season. But he has hit just .258 and .235 the last two seasons.
The club is gambling that Suzuki, re-signed to a two-year deal after being acquired from the Seattle Mariners in late July, is the hitter who posted a .322/.340/.454 line with five homers and 27 RBI in 67 games with New York after hitting just .261/.288/.353 with four home runs and 28 RBI in 95 games for the M's.
It's also not certain how well Derek Jeter will bounce back after breaking his ankle during last year's playoffs.
New York faces an uphill fight to win a fifth straight AL East crown, particularly given the improvements made this winter by the Toronto Blue Jays.
Throw in the uncertain status of Cano beyond this season, the looming edict to get payroll beneath the luxury-tax threshold, the muddled catching situation and the general aging of the club, and what's left is a ballclub that is far from being a lock to reach the postseason for the 18th time in 19 seasons.
Phil Watson is a freelance sports journalist with more than 20 years of daily newspaper experience. He is currently based in northern Michigan.
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