- Tim Kurkjian, MLB reporter
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The home clubhouse at the new Yankee Stadium is enormous, significantly bigger than the one at the old Yankee Stadium. That's good. It needs to be as large as possible to accommodate all the talent, the egos, the money and the pressure that will be in that room.
The Yankees have been, by far, the most interesting story of the offseason, and they will be the most interesting story of the 2009 season. They have spent $423 million on free-agent contracts this winter, and now we'll find out whether they can indeed buy a pennant.
"It will be fun to watch," one baseball executive said. "All the Yankee lovers will love them even more because they're really good. The Yankee haters will hate them even more for just buying all the best players. I'd have done the same thing if I were them. We'll see if it works."
Yankees co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner warned us of this, claiming the Yankees would do "whatever it takes" to return to greatness in 2009 after winning 89 games, and not making the playoffs for the first time since 1994, in 2008. We should not be surprised that the Yankees signed the best free-agent pitcher available, CC Sabathia, for $161 million; the best free-agent player, first baseman Mark Teixeira, for $180 million; and pitcher A.J. Burnett for $82.5 million. They cleared $88.5 million off the books with the departures of Mike Mussina, Jason Giambi, Bobby Abreu, Carl Pavano and others. Those players were replaced by better, younger players, and now we'll see if all the money spent is enough to bring the Yankees their first trip to the World Series since 2003, and first world championship since 2000.
"I still don't have a good feel about their club," one former Yankees player said. "They'll have a great statistical club, but I still think they're so away from what made them great. They don't have enough down-and-dirty guys like (Scott) Brosius, Tino (Martinez) and (Paul) O'Neill."
It is easy to slam the Yankees for spending the kind of money they have this winter when a number of teams -- Arizona, San Diego and Toronto, among others -- have little money in these trying economic times, but the Yankees have, in the Steinbrenner era, always operated independently of all other teams. They didn't have much of a choice in this offseason. They're opening the opulent new Yankee Stadium, which has seats behind home plate selling at $2,500 per game. They can't put out an inferior product -- they have to get back to the World Series.
The moves they made had to be made. Teixeira is a major upgrade at first base over Giambi, who was one of 12 guys to play the position for the Yankees last season; Cody Ransom, a middle infielder, played 19 games at first base last season. Yankees first basemen batted .246 -- 25 points below the major league average. The slugging percentage and on-base percentage by Yankees first basemen were also below the major league average.
The Yankees ranked 10th in the major leagues in runs scored last year; the Twins scored 40 more runs than the Bronx Bombers. They scored three runs or fewer in 70 games, an extremely high total for a team that was supposed to be so destructive offensively. Teixeira will fix some of that.
"He was so good with us," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said of Teixeira, who drove in 56 runs in 54 games after being acquired by Atlanta from Texas during the 2007 season. "Every time he came to the plate, he seemed to drive in a couple runs."
Teixeira was just as productive after being acquired by the Angels last year: in 54 games, he slugged .632 (172 points higher than the Yankees' first basemen last year) and had an on-base percentage of .449 (100 points higher than the Yankees' first basemen).
"And he is so much better defensively than any first baseman the Yankees threw out there last year," one scout said. "The Yankees weren't a good defensive team last year, especially in the infield."
Teixeira likely will fit in well in the clubhouse because he always plays, he always plays hard and he always works at improving his game. The players with the Braves and Angels loved having him, but his new contract has changed things. Now he's one of the highest-paid players in the history of the game and is under pressure he never felt in Texas or Atlanta or with the Angels. He has some clubhouse lawyer in him; he knows how to get what he wants, and he loves being the player representative and all things about the union. Plus, he's smart: There's no way he'll let the New York experience get the best of him.
The same goes for Sabathia, whom the Yankees needed as much as Teixeira. The Yankees teams that went to the playoffs for 13 straight seasons were built mostly on pitching, but last season, partly because of injuries, the team did not pitch well, especially out of the rotation. The Yankees used 27 pitchers; 13 started at least one game, including Kei Igawa and Brian Bruney. It is remarkable that the Yankees won as many games as they did with such a patchwork pitching staff, which included Sidney Ponson, who started 15 games.
Sabathia arguably has been the game's best pitcher the past two years. He won the American League Cy Young in 2007, and, after April, he was equally good last year -- when he pitched the Brewers to the playoffs for the first time since 1982. He is strong, durable and talented. Plenty of pitchers have flopped in New York because they couldn't handle the heat, but most of them weren't nearly as good or as young as Sabathia.
"If he doesn't win 20 games for them, I would be very surprised," one GM said. "He is the real deal. He is, by far, the biggest move that they made in this offseason."
Sabathia has no clubhouse issues to worry about. He is a fun, affable guy, who loved playing in Cleveland and loved playing in Milwaukee. He volunteered to pitch on short rest four times down the stretch to get the Brewers to the playoffs, even though it was clear he would not be playing for them in 2009. He, like Teixeira, has never played under the stress of New York, or under the stress of that contract, but all indications are that he can handle it.
Burnett won 17 games last year in what was viewed by some as a breakthrough season in Toronto. He, unlike Sabathia, has had injury issues, making him much more of a risky signing. But his stuff is sensational, better than it has ever been. Over the past 35 years, the Yankees have acquired 12 pitchers who had won 15 or more games the year before -- no other team has signed more than six such pitchers. With Sabathia, Chien-Ming Wang, Burnett, Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes, the Yankees' rotation should be very good.
And so should the Yankees. But they have other work to do before spring training. They have to figure out their center-field situation from Melky Cabrera, Brett Gardner, Nick Swisher, or a combination of the three. Are the corner outfield spots set with Johnny Damon and Xavier Nady? Will second baseman Robinson Cano play better and harder than last year? Can Jorge Posada's repaired right shoulder allow him to catch full time in 2009? Will all that talent mesh? With the opening of the new stadium, will the pressure to win be greater?
There are even questions about the aforementioned home clubhouse in the new stadium. One Yankee recently whispered that it's too big, each locker is like a little apartment, with too many amenities; he worried the players won't ever talk to each other. Even that dynamic will be interesting to watch. Every part of the Yankees will be fascinating.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback on May 27. Click here to order a copy.
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