Yankees have freedom to improve now

The New York Yankees act like they’re in jail. They’re not.

They could sign free-agent right-hander Kyle Lohse and then trade either right-hander Ivan Nova or right-hander David Phelps for the offense they so desperately need.

General manager Brian Cashman, however, wants no part of Lohse.

“I don’t think it would make any sense whatsoever,” Cashman said. “We have all of our pitching intact. Our problem is not our pitching. Pitching is our strength.”

The Yankees have six starters: Lefties CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte and righties Hiroki Kuroda, Phil Hughes, Nova and Phelps. A seventh possibility, righty Michael Pineda, is recovering well from shoulder surgery, Cashman said.

Lohse, though, could be a solution — not a perfect solution, but one that would help the Yankees escape their current predicament more than the Ben Franciscos and Brennan Boesches of the world ever will.

Of course, signing Lohse would require two leaps of faith — one, that he could be better than an overpriced No. 4 starter in the American League and, two, that Nova or Phelps could help bring the Yankees a quality hitter.

That Cashman isn’t ready to take such a leap is understandable. But how the heck is he going to get out of this box?

First baseman Mark Teixeira faces possible wrist surgery. Center fielder Curtis Granderson is out until early May with a broken forearm. And third baseman Alex Rodriguez, coming off hip surgery, will return sometime between the All-Star break and the Twelfth of Never.

Not to mention, the Yankees’ production at catcher, following the team’s curious failure to re-sign free agent Russell Martin, could be among the worst in the majors.

Third baseman Kevin Youkilis, signed as a free agent, won’t patch all of that. Neither will Francisco, Boesch or any other waiver-wire refuse. The trade market, meanwhile, offers little encouragement, in part because few quality hitters are available, in part because the Yankees have few upper-level prospects to offer.

Add Lohse — add to a strength — and the Yankees at least would increase their options. Neither alone would bring a quality hitter, but package one of them with a prospect and you might have something. (Hughes, a potential free agent, has less trade value.)

Cashman, though, views Nova and Phelps, both 26, as part of the team’s future. The Yankees are determined to keep such cost-effective players, and not simply because they want to get under the $189 million luxury-tax threshold in 2014.

Principal owner Hal Steinbrenner, in a recent interview with the New York Times, related how former Yankees great Don Mattingly became frustrated by the early 1990s with the team’s win-now approach.

“There were years when we certainly traded a lot of young talent to try and get the big talent now and we did throw money at a lot of free agents,” Steinbrenner said, adding of the 1980s, “and a lot of those years didn’t amount to anything.”

OK, but let’s look at more recent history. Remember how Hughes and righty Joba Chamberlain were the Yankees’ next big things? How about lefty Manuel Banuelos and righty Dellin Betances?

The Yankees, like all teams, overvalue their prospects. They also overvalue draft picks. Lohse would cost them only a low first-rounder — the 27th choice overall — and accompanying pool money. The Yankees still would pick at No. 33 and No. 34 for losing free agents Nick Swisher and Rafael Soriano.

The luxury-tax threshold also is something of a red herring. The Yankees’ commitments for ’14 stand at $81.625 million, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. With more than $100 million to spend next offseason, they should figure out how build a contender, no?

Actually, the Yankees’ position is almost too flexible.

Three-fifths of the rotation — Hughes, Pettitte, Kuroda — is eligible for free agency. And the team can’t even be sure of re-signing second baseman Robinson Cano, who has "Dodgers" written all over him.

Lohse’s price is dropping; the Yankees probably could get him for say, three years, $33 million. Their ’14 rotation, meanwhile, currently consists of CC and the Uncertains — Nova, Phelps, Pineda, maybe Banuelos coming off Tommy John surgery.

The farm system, short on upper-level pitching, will not provide immediate help. The top free-agent pitchers next offseason — Josh Johnson, Tim Lincecum and Matt Garza — represent the kinds of risks that the Yankees have run from in recent years.

So, tell me: Who is going to start for the Yankees in ’14? For that matter, should Cashman even be confident about his rotation getting through ’13?

Hughes, 26, is dealing with a bulging disk in his back. Pettitte, 40, might not last a full season. And Kuroda, 38, also could hit his expiration date at some point, though he has averaged more than 200 innings the past three seasons.

Lohse, of course, comes with his own questions.

Cashman has been burned repeatedly by the acquisitions of pitchers whose greatest success came in the National League. That Lohse achieved his breakthrough with help from two Cardinals masters, pitching coach Dave Duncan and catcher Yadier Molina, makes him perhaps even more of a gamble.

The Yankees can’t offer Lohse the same type of support. Catcher Chris Stewart is a strong receiver but not a good enough hitter to play every day, and Francisco Cervelli spent nearly all of last season in the minors and led the International League in passed balls. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild is highly regarded, but it’s more difficult to devise game plans against American League lineups than it is against weaker NL versions.

Lohse has become a smart, savvy pitcher — he had the third-highest first-pitch strike rate in the majors last season and fifth-lowest walk rate, according to Baseball Prospectus. His strikeout rate, however, remains troubling. And as BP notes, his low batting averages on balls in play the past two seasons hint at likely regression.

OK, fine, teams can talk themselves out of anything. The Yankees seem to do a lot of that these days.

Cashman might be absolutely right to steer clear of Lohse.

But, under the current circumstances, tell me a better solution.