But Williams, who has spent more than a dozen years as the Yankees' starting center fielder, will return for a 16th season in pinstripes in a different role. Williams will take over Ruben Sierra's position as a part-time designated hitter/backup outfielder/bench player, giving Joe Torre several options.
"There are no promises in terms of playing time or a role," Cashman said. "The clear definition was, going into this, like any role player, that it would not be an everyday situation. But he's a competitive player with athletic ability, and the game itself will dictate how much playing time becomes available."
Williams, 37, batted .249 with 12 home runs and 64 RBIs in 141 games last season, starting 99 games in center field.
But the Yankees signed Johnny Damon this week -- he will be officially introduced at a Friday news conference -- giving them a new center fielder and leadoff hitter. Despite the addition of Damon, the Yankees felt that there was a place for Williams on the 2006 roster.
"For 2006, we felt that Bernie Williams could be a contributor in a different way for us," Cashman said. "We think he can be an important piece for us, and if it works, that would be wonderful for us."
Williams is the senior Yankee in continuous service time with the club, having played 15 consecutive seasons. By returning next season, he will become only the seventh player in franchise history to wear pinstripes for as many as 16 seasons, joining Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, Frank Crosetti, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford.
He ranks fifth on the Yankees' all-time list with 1,945 games played, behind only Mantle, Gehrig, Berra and Babe Ruth. Williams also ranks fourth in team history in hits (2,218), at-bats (7,449), grand slams (11), walks (1,036); fifth in runs (1,301); sixth in home runs (275) and seventh in RBIs (1,196).
"To be one of those rare guys in this era that stay with one team, that's extremely special," Cashman said. "He can continue to write his own personal history as he climbs ladders in the organization, whether it's games or various hitting areas where he ranks right there with the Berras, Gehrigs, Ruths and Mantles."
Williams did not participate in the conference call announcing his return, as Cashman has not spoken with him since the Winter Meetings.
"He's not an easy guy to track down in the winter," joked Cashman.
Williams will likely see time at all three outfield positions and possibly even first base in Spring Training, as the Yankees figure out where he could get some time on the field during the regular season.
With Williams signed through 2006, it is unclear whether he plans to hang up his spikes after the season. Whatever he decides to do, the chants of "One more year!" will likely be back on Oct. 1, when the Yankees wrap up the regular season in the Bronx.
"It was never discussed," Cashman said of Williams' plans beyond 2006. "I just know that the desire was very strong for him to keep playing. He believes, without question, that he's got a lot to offer. We're not bringing him back just because he wants to come back; we feel he can be a contributor as well."