Yankees ready to reel in marquee free agents

A Hot Stove season without the Yankees driving the news coverage is like a day without a new bailout request. Something about it seems odd and vaguely incomplete.

Yet that's the way events played out last winter. The Yankees dabbled in the Johan Santana trade sweepstakes, but not enough to prevent the two-time Cy Young Award winner from landing with the Mets. They retained Alex Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada with multiyear contracts, but kept their distance from the other top free agents in a nondescript class.

New York's "outside" haul last winter consisted of LaTroy Hawkins, Morgan Ensberg and Jason Lane signings, and a trade for reliever Jonathan Albaladejo -- who provided 10 consonants, eight vowels and 13 2/3 innings before hurting his elbow in May.

General manager Brian Cashman was committed to giving young starters Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy a chance, and they endured their share of injuries and growing pains. The offense was spotty as well, and the Yankees finished with 89 wins and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993.

Stagnation doesn't play well in the Bronx, so the dynamic will be different this winter. The free-agent crop is loaded, and the 400-pound pinstriped gorilla is back in the room.

Major League Baseball's 15-day filing period has ended, and the Yankees, flush with cash as they shed several big salaries and prepare to move into a new $1.3 billion Bronx palace, are expected to set the tone. Even in this brutal economic climate, executives throughout the game look for the Yankees to be relentless in their pursuit of marquee names and difference-makers.

The Yankees have been successful thus far at muzzling general partner Hank Steinbrenner, whose off-the-cuff observations are great for spawning tabloid mania. But he emerged from his Tampa-based cocoon recently to tell the Associated Press that the club will be very active this offseason. "There's nothing we're not looking at," he said, while mentioning CC Sabathia and Manny Ramirez by name.

Hal, the quiet Steinbrenner brother, sounded a similar theme at a new stadium press conference Tuesday.

"We're going to do what we do every year, and that's try to field a championship team," he said. "If that means spending money, it obviously means spending money."

As Cashman points out, the Yankees weren't exactly hoarding their resources last winter just because they passed on Torii Hunter, Carlos Silva et al. They spent $382 million on long-term deals for A-Rod, Rivera and Posada, signed Robinson Cano for four years and $30 million and shelled out $32 million more on Andy Pettitte and Bobby Abreu's one-year option.

"Even if everything that we hope and dream for happens, we'll spend less money this free-agent market than we did last free-agent market," Cashman said.

The Yankees haven't wasted any time dispensing with the appetizers. They fortified the bullpen this week with a three-year deal for Damaso Marte, and placed a bet on a Nick Swisher comeback by acquiring him from the White Sox on Thursday. To Scott Boras' dismay, the Swisher acquisition might have eliminated the Yankees as a prime suitor and salary-driver-upper for free-agent stud Mark Teixeira.

Now that the Yankees have addressed first base and the bullpen, the focus will turn to starting pitching. Chien-Ming Wang and Chamberlain are the only sure things in the New York rotation, and Chamberlain pitched 100 1/3 innings this year, so how certain is he? To no one's surprise, the Yankees are taking direct aim at the big kahuna on this winter's market.

When ESPN.com surveyed 15 executives last week, 12 predicted that Sabathia will land with the Yankees, even though he has expressed a desire to return to his native California, and would love to put that .229 career batting average to work in the DH-less National League.

The reason, obviously, is money.

Greg Genske, Sabathia's agent, didn't return calls seeking comment, but the overwhelming consensus is that New York will make it difficult for Sabathia to say no by offering him a Johan Santana-caliber contract. That probably means something in the area of six years, $150 million out of the gate.

"I don't see how the Yankees don't blow every other team out of the water financially," said a National League executive.

Even if the Yankees land Sabathia, they'll have one and possibly two more starters on their agenda. The in-house options come first. Mike Mussina, fresh off his first 20-win season, told the New York Daily News that he will decide by next week whether to retire or pitch in 2009. His agent, Arn Tellem, reiterated those sentiments in an e-mail to ESPN.com.

Then there's Pettitte. The Yankees would love to have him back, but not for $16 million. Heartwarming as it might be to have Pettitte help christen the new ballpark, he had shoulder issues and tailed off markedly after the All-Star break.

Once the holdover options are resolved, the Yankees will leave no rosin bag unturned. They've discussed Derek Lowe, A.J. Burnett, Ben Sheets and Oliver Perez, among others, in their internal meetings.

Amid all the talk about pitching, the offense still needs to improve. New York scored 789 runs last season after putting up 968 in 2007, and there's a chance the team will have to replace its principal No. 3 and No. 5 hitters.

Jason Giambi is history after New York declined his $22 million option, and the Yankees have so many outfielders on the roster (Johnny Damon, Swisher, Xavier Nady, Melky Cabrera, Brett Gardner and Hideki Matsui, to name six), it's tough to see where Bobby Abreu fits in the equation unless somebody else is moved.

Questions abound. Swisher, who averaged a whopping 4.51 pitches per plate appearance last year, is a perfect fit for the Yankees' grind-it-out offensive mindset. But is he better than the guy who hit .219 and reportedly was not a favorite of White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen?

Can Posada, 36, recover from the shoulder problems that limited him to 51 games? And can Matsui return to form with surgically repaired right and left knees? The artist formerly known as Godzilla will make $13 million this year, so he gets first crack at the bulk of the DH at-bats.

"He should be rip-raring to go," Cashman said of Matsui. "He's always been a significant run producer. But it's tough to hit on one leg."

Perhaps no Yankee is more motivated than Cano, who dug himself a hole with a .151 average in 106 at-bats in April and eventually came under fire for everything from his defensive shortcomings to a lackadaisical attitude and a lack of focus.

Just because the Yankees are back in spending mode doesn't mean they've forsaken the notion of growing their own. Consider Hughes. Of the 116 pitchers on Arizona Fall League rosters this year, he's the 14th-youngest at age 22. Matt Garza, Gavin Floyd and John Danks are among the young starters who made big strides in the American League last season, and Hughes has the talent to join them, provided he can stay healthy.

Center fielder Austin Jackson, rated the organization's top prospect by Baseball America, could be ready to have an impact by 2010. "He's come a long way," said a scout who has seen Jackson in the fall league. "He's one of those guys you sign as a fast, athletic, five-tool guy. But to his credit, he's really become a baseball player."

Speed and athleticism were in vogue in Tampa Bay, where the Rays stole 142 bases and led the majors in defensive efficiency -- which measures a team's ability to turn batted balls into outs. The Yankees, by contrast, were 25th in that category, a ranking that doesn't bode well for the pitching staff.

While Swisher is no Teixeira at first base, he's still an upgrade over Giambi defensively. The Yankees have discussed free-agent second baseman Orlando Hudson as a possibility, but a pursuit of the O-Dog would have to coincide with moving Cano to a different position or trading him when his value has ebbed. That seems like a reach.

What will the Yankees do if Posada can't handle the load behind the plate? Good question. And are they really willing to commit to a Gardner-Cabrera combination in center field? That's an even better question.

Cashman says his approach to free-agent spending will be "aggressively patient." That's the baseball equivalent of President-elect Barack Obama's professed desire to move with "deliberate haste" on the economy.

"You don't rush into it," Cashman said. "You make sure it works. If we execute any signings, it will be because they made sense and were structured and sound for us. Aggressive doesn't necessarily mean stupid."

But it does make life more interesting for the agents, bloggers and all those restless Yankees fans who didn't find much entertainment value in a Boston-Tampa Bay American League Championship Series.

Strap yourselves in, Hot Stove enthusiasts. It's ready, set, spend time in the Bronx.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.