Yankees head into season underdogs in AL East

An unusual thing happened to the New York Yankees this winter:

They lost.

Sure, the billion-dollar franchise occasionally loses in the

postseason. What the Yankees never do is fail in the offseason.

That is until now.

After being beaten by Cliff Lee and the younger, more

hungry-looking Texas Rangers in the American League championship

series, the Yankees lost out on Lee, this year’s most coveted free

agent. They lost in the public eye during Derek Jeter’s contract

negotiations and, most importantly, the Yankees lost to the rival

Boston Red Sox in offseason moves.

Then, right before training camp opened, rotation stalwart Andy

Pettitte retired – leaving the Core Four a tiring trio.

”Every year’s separate, every year’s a challenge,” Jeter said.

”There’s nothing more this year as opposed to any other

year.”

Despite the Captain’s ever-positive outlook, the Yankees have

sounded more like a bickering franchise on the decline than the

powerhouse of the AL East.

What should be a feel-good season celebrating Jeter as he

becomes the first player in a Yankees uniform to reach 3,000 hits –

he’s 74 away – got off to a rough start when General Manager Brian

Cashman took several shots in the tabloids at the shortstop during

surprisingly contentious contract negotiations.

Cashman also uncharacteristically exclaimed publicly he was

against giving AL saves leader Rafael Soriano a $35 million,

three-year contract – and forfeiting a first-round draft pick to

the right-hander’s former team, the Tampa bay Rays – to be Mariano

Rivera’s setup man in the one big free-agent move by the

Yankees.

And heading into New York’s first full season without George

Steinbrenner looming over every aspect of the organization, Hank

Steinbrenner proved he has the same bluster as his dad but little

of the bite. Jeter laughed off Hank’s comments in the first week of

spring training about unnamed players building mansions instead of

focusing on winning last year. Jeter just completed a 30,000 square

foot house in Tampa, Fla., called ”St. Jetersburg” by the

locals.

”There’s always things said around here, there’s always

stories,” Jeter said.

The negativity could carry over to the regular season if the

Yankees don’t perform on the field where there are significant

questions for the ballclub that accepts nothing less than a World

Series championship.

The most glaring problems lie in the shaky pitching staff.

Coming off a season in which A.J. Burnett and Javier Vazquez

were dreadful, the Yankees went hard after Lee, who has dominated

them the past two postseasons. He chose the Phillies.

The last time such a high profile player spurned New York’s very

public pitch was before the 1993 season, when Greg Maddux chose the

Braves over Broadway.

With Pettitte announcing his retirement two weeks before

training camp opened, the Yankees – and new pitching coach Larry

Rothschild – were left with a three-man rotation and only one sure

thing heading into camp: CC Sabathia (21-7, 3.18 ERA).

Burnett, the No. 2 starter, bombed last season, going 10-15 with

a 5.26 ERA and a league-leading 19 hit batters, 16 wild pitches,

two cut hands thanks to an angry clubhouse outburst after a poor

start and one mysterious black eye. The $82.5 million pitcher was

skipped over in the AL division playoffs.

Phil Hughes was a bright spot winning 18 games and an All-Star

selection in his first full season as a starter. But the

24-year-old faded after the break: 7-6 with one victory in

relief.

One side effect from not winning the Lee sweepstakes and

Pettitte’s departure: New York will open the season with a payroll

less than $200 million for the first time since 2007.

Too late to secure another topflight free agent, Cashman went

cheap, bringing in aging All-Stars Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon

to compete with youngster Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre for the final

two spots in the rotation.

Nova, who was impressive in a short stint down the stretch last

season (1-2, 4.50 in 10 games, seven starts), won the No. 4

job.

”We didn’t know what Nova was going to do,” manager Joe

Girardi said. ”Obviously, we had expectations.”

Garcia, who won 12 games last year and 17 overall since 2006

because of injuries, edged Colon, out of baseball since the end of

July 2009, for the final spot. Colon, the 2005 AL CY Young winner,

will begin the season as the long man out of a solid bullpen.

”Bartolo is a guy that we think can do a lot of things in our

bullpen, or if needed, a spot start,” Girardi said. ”Not asking

him to throw 200 innings might be easier on him physically.”

The starters may have the luxury of only needing to give six

solid innings, though. The Yankees have a formidable bullpen.

New York added lefty specialist Pedro Feliciano (92 appearances

with the Mets in ’10) but he will miss the first two weeks because

of upper arm soreness. Boone Logan is the other lefty.

Right-handers Dave Robertson and Joba Chamberlain, who increased

his velocity this spring by adjusting his hand placement at the

start of his delivery, will get the ball to Soriano (45 saves last

season) in the eighth inning before the 41-year-old Rivera jogs in

to ”Enter Sandman” in the ninth. Rivera signed on for two more

years and needs 43 saves to surpass recently retired Trevor

Hoffman’s total of 601 as the all-time save leader.

”A lot of times in the season you’re going to have to battle,

you don’t have your best stuff.” Hughes said, ”You have a bullpen

like we do and the losses you normally get turn to wins.”

With Boston beefing up an already potent offense and the

Yankees’ pitching woes, New York will need increased production out

of an offense that led the majors in runs and on-base percentage

last year and remains virtually unchanged.

They might get it based on the springs that Jeter and Alex

Rodriguez had.

The 36-year-old Jeter appears to finally be adapting to his new

strideless swing, and A-Rod, with a clean bill of health from his

hip surgeon, came into camp trimmer and moving better than he had

since having surgery in 2009.

”The one thing I have noticed with (hitting coach Kevin Long)

is I am a lot more consistent in the cage, more fluid and crisp,”

said Rodriguez, who hopes to play 150 games this year.

Jorge Posada is adjusting to his new job as the full-time

designated hitter, and newcomer Russell Martin takes over behind

the plate. Two former Gold Glovers, infielder Eric Chavez and

outfielder Andruw Jones will have primary bench roles if they can

stay healthy.

”We’re not conceding anything. We look forward to going up

against everybody, Cashman said. Just because (Boston’s) the

hunted, doesn’t mean they can’t be taken down.”

AP freelancer Mark Didtler contributed from Tampa, Fla.