Yankees general manager Brian Cashman knows better than to mention Lee by name, even though he very nearly acquired the left-hander himself in early July, before negotiations crumbled and the Mariners shipped Lee to Texas instead. But Cashman isn't shy about allowing a sneak peek at where his winter blueprints lead.
"The bottom line is that pitching is the key to the kingdom," Cashman said. "That's why you've got to collect as much as you possibly can, and we've tried to do that."
CC Sabathia has proven a solid investment at the top of the rotation, and Andy Pettitte still seems to have enough left in the tank to be a reliable contributor, should he decide to return for one more go-round at age 38.
Phil Hughes seized a fifth starter's job and exceeded expectations with 18 wins, but A.J. Burnett and Javier Vazquez were both unreliable. With Vazquez not expected to return and Pettitte less than certain, there's definitely room to splash in the free agency pool.
"I'm sure we'll definitely look at the free agent market pitchers," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "We'll make some evaluations and see what happens. I have to be careful about what I say about free agents at this point."
The Yankees' first order of winter business is retaining Girardi. Talks began on Monday and both sides agree there is no benefit to a drawn-out negotiation process.
There may be a thornier issue with a pair of legacy Yankees, in Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. Again, Cashman believes that both belong in pinstripes and there should be no reason either player won't be in Tampa, Fla. when the team reports in February. But hammering out those deals may take time.
"Like Joe Girardi, the intent for the organization is to have them back," Cashman said. "We want them back. The intent of the players is to stay; they don't want to be anywhere else. That creates a great atmosphere of getting something done.
"If a player wants to be here and we want to keep him, and the discussions are fair and legitimate, it gets done. If things don't work out that way, it means one side sees it differently than another, and then it can drag out. That's also possible, too. At the end of the day, I think the recipe is all there for positive relationships to continue."
There has been scuttlebutt that the Yankees might chase another bat in free agency, like the Rays' Carl Crawford or the Phillies' Jayson Werth. But Cashman offers a reminder that the Yankees do operate with a budget, even though he said, "I know people scoff at it and laugh at it."
But these Yankees scored a Major League-leading 859 runs with the group they have now, leading Cashman to reiterate that the focus is on adding pitching and keeping their core talent.
"Notwithstanding what took place in Texas, I don't think it can get lost that we had a great team," Cashman said. "We did have a championship-caliber team. We led the Majors in scoring. We led the Majors in run differential. That usually adds up to something special."
Free agents: Lance Berkman, 1B/DH; Derek Jeter, SS; Nick Johnson, 1B/DH; Austin Kearns, OF; Andy Pettitte, LHP; Mariano Rivera, RHP; Marcus Thames, OF; Javier Vazquez, RHP.
Eligible for arbitration: Joba Chamberlain, RHP; Chad Gaudin, RHP; Phil Hughes, RHP; Boone Logan, LHP; Sergio Mitre, RHP; Dustin Moseley, RHP.
Club options: Kerry Wood, RHP, $11 million.
Non-tender possibilities: Gaudin, Mitre, Moseley.
A position-by-position look at where the 2010 roster stands going into 2011. The arrows represent how the player's 2010 season compared to 2009.
Jorge Posada: Veteran backstop showing signs of aging
Francisco Cervelli: Defensive understudy exposed at plate in second half
At age 39, Posada is no spring chicken, and the Yankees had to take measures to keep their veteran healthy by offering him more rest than in previous years. Posada was banged up for portions of the season, serving time on the disabled list with a right foot fracture, and there is concern about the number of foul tips he has taken of late. The Yankees were 49-29 in his starts but he caught just 10 of 78 potential basestealers. Cervelli is an eager understudy and has the trust of the pitching staff, but his bat went cold in June (.180) and July (.214).
Mark Teixeira: Just look at the back of his baseball card
Teixeira repeatedly told reporters questioning his early-season slump that his numbers would be right where they needed to be come the end of the season, and he was right. Teixeira is one of only three Major Leaguers to reach 30 home runs and 100 RBIs in each of the last seven seasons, joining Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez. His stellar Gold Glove-caliber defense continued to wow observers on a regular basis, although the Yankees wish he could heat up earlier. Teixeira hit just .211 with eight homers in his first 34 games, and .283 with 25 homers in his last 101 contests.
Robinson Cano: Has arrived as legitimate MVP candidate
Girardi's choice for the American League MVP because of his consistent offensive performance and smooth play in the field that has many thinking Gold Glove, Cano turned in a stellar season that shouldn't have been much of a surprise. The 28-year-old is in the prime of his career and accepted the challenge of batting fifth head-on. He has had back-to-back 200-hit seasons and reached new career highs in homers (29) and RBIs (109), tying a career high with 103 runs scored.
Derek Jeter: Captain keeps fighting inevitable decline
Ramiro Pena: Light hitting backup offers good glove
No one actually believes that Jeter will chase his 3,000th hit -- he has 2,926 -- in any other uniform. As Cashman said, the Yankees are where Jeter belongs, and they'll figure out the terms of his new contract eventually. The thorn is that Jeter is no $21 million shortstop. After a renaissance 2009, Jeter appeared a step slower in '10 and is beginning to look more mortal. The Yankees want Jeter as much as he wants to play for them. But they are limited in the number of avenues where he could move if he is not a shortstop, so the length of the new deal will be important. Pena, 25, has proven capable in the field but his offensive potential is limited.
Alex Rodriguez: It's still hip to be A-Rod
Still one of the league's most dangerous hitters, a left calf strain cost Rodriguez a chance at being mentioned in the MVP discussion, but he had plenty to be happy about in his first full season after career-threatening right hip surgery. Rodriguez ranked second in the Majors with 125 RBIs in 137 games and had a big league-leading 48 RBIs in the seventh inning or later, 20 of which tied the game or put the Yankees ahead. A-Rod still gets the job done at third base, a testament to his work ethic. He also continues to be more comfortable in the clubhouse, having found contentedness in trying to be "just one of the guys," even laughing off the strange flap with A's pitcher Dallas Braden in April.
Brett Gardner: The Yankees' favorite pest
Curtis Granderson: A different player after August batting cage sessions
Nick Swisher: Fan favorite must keep same winter focus
There was a meeting after last year when the Yankees had to decide who would be the better big league player -- Gardner or Melky Cabrera. Girardi and hitting coach Kevin Long both spoke up in Gardner's favor, and they were rewarded -- Gardner had an impact season, while Cabrera was just released by the Braves. Granderson's first year in New York turned sunny after Long found some mid-August tweaks in his swing, helping to power his September and October performance -- even his struggles against left-handed pitching seemed to be erased, as Girardi said Granderson was a new player after August. Swisher keeps on saluting the Bleacher Creatures in right field, one of the better acquisitions in recent history when you consider he cost the Yankees only Wilson Betemit and two pitchers. His struggles in '09 inspired a workout program that saw Swisher lose 20 pounds before setting career highs in batting average (.283), hits (163) and triples (three).
Lance Berkman: He can still play, but probably not in New York
Marcus Thames: Mashes left-handed pitching
Berkman was pressed into service for the last two games of the season after Teixeira blew his hamstring, the end of Berkman's bonus chance to try and win a World Series. Berkman hit .299 after coming back from the DL in September, a sign he figured out how to live in the DH role, but he would love to play more first base. Since Teixeira is in the way, a new team might hold appeal, perhaps even a return to the Astros. A second-time Yankee, Thames narrowly made the team after an awful spring but had several big hits, batting .300 (39-for-130) with five homers and 14 RBIs off lefties.
CC Sabathia: The big man becomes a 20-game winner, plus one
A.J. Burnett: Needs bounce-back after admitting his season was "rubbish"
Andy Pettitte: Once again balancing Yankees vs. family
Phil Hughes: All-Star loved the run support
Javier Vazquez: Second chance in New York didn't work out
Ivan Nova: Impressive rookie could see more duty
The priority this winter? "It's always pitching," Cashman said after ALCS Game 6 in Arlington, while just down the hallway Cliff Lee was spraying bubbly with his Rangers teammates. It's thought no one will outbid the Yankees for Lee, but there's no guarantee he'll sign. So for now, the rotation shapes up with Sabathia capably standing tall as their trusted ace. "Good A.J." was hard to find this year -- even Burnett called his season "rubbish," and he should be motivated not to repeat his disappointing '10. Pettitte will once again dance between playing and staying home, and he can expect to hear from Sabathia, who said he'll be begging the veteran to play one more year. Hughes bumped up against an innings limit at the end of his longest season to date and took losses in ALCS Games 2 and 6, but those setbacks don't spoil a year when he gave the Yankees 18 wins. The Yankees helped, giving Hughes a Major League-leading 7.45 runs per nine innings. Vazquez was a flop in his second tour of duty with the Yankees and should look to leave the AL East, where his diminished velocity makes for -- as Kevin Millar once said of Edwar Ramirez -- "good hittin'." One possibility to be considered for the rotation this spring is Nova, who was 1-2 with a 4.50 ERA in 10 games (seven starts) and showed aggressive poise.
Mariano Rivera: Still the greatest of all time
Kerry Wood: Eighth-inning force may look to close elsewhere
Dave Robertson: Reliable season gave way to awful playoffs
Boone Logan: The lone lefty may have found his role
Joba Chamberlain: Lost his setup role due to inconsistency
Sergio Mitre: Long reliever was a Girardi favorite
Chad Gaudin: Was left off postseason rosters
Dustin Moseley: Filled in admirably when needed
The Yankees' bridge to Rivera was built with Wood, who was stellar after coming over in a July 31 trade from the Indians. But Wood proved he has the stuff to be a capable closer, and with the Yankees likely to decline his $11 million option, he may seek a new uniform for '11. That'll put the Yankees back in position to mix and match leading up to Rivera, a free agent who is expected to return without messy negotiations. Robertson had a 3.82 ERA in 64 appearances before the Rangers punished him in the ALCS, and Logan will get a chance to keep the lefty specialist job with Damaso Marte out until after the All-Star break. Girardi liked to say that people only noticed Chamberlain's bad outings, but when he was off, teams made him pay. People who still expect Joba '07 to magically re-appear should probably stop waiting. The mix-and-match of Mitre, Gaudin and Moseley gave Girardi more options late in the season, but none of the three seem indispensable from the bullpen mix.