Absent aces looming large in Tampa

TAMPA, Fla. -- Pitchers and catchers arrive at Yankees spring training camp on Monday, a day all baseball fans begin awaiting as soon as the last pitch of the previous season is thrown.

But when the clubhouse at George M. Steinbrenner Field opens Monday morning, Cliff Lee won't be walking through that door.

Neither will Andy Pettitte.

For the first time in recent memory, a Yankees training camp is being defined more by the players who are not here than the players who are, and a Yankees season may very well hang in the balance.

The regulars don't have to be here until the weekend; the first full-squad workout is scheduled for Feb. 20. And besides, we know who those guys are and what they can do.

It's some of the guys who walk through that door on Monday who are the most unknown of unknown quantities.

Incredible as it may seem, the Yankees' biggest offseason acquisition, in terms of money and years, was free-agent shortstop Derek Jeter. It was supposed to be Lee, but the lefty who has killed the Yankees in several different uniforms opted instead to wear the colors of the Philadelphia Phillies, the team for whom he beat the Yankees twice in the 2009 World Series.

Asked to assess his offseason, GM Brian Cashman replied with one word: "Dissatisfied."

Still, Cashman says: "We have a great team. We have one of the better teams in baseball, period. This is a team that can contend for a championship and it will get improved and reinforced over time. As it always does."

Only this year, you're just going to have to wait for it. Plan B was patience, remember?

"When we didn't get Lee, I sent out a firm message: 'I don't like what's out there, so we'll have to wait. Sorry.'" Cashman said. "I know New York is not the most patient city. But I'm from Kentucky."

As a result, this year's team is virtually the same as last year's, minus one very important starter and with the addition of one very talented reliever.

Plus, Cashman has stockpiled a group of well-worn arms -- and bats -- and signed them to low-risk minor league deals and brought them into camp as non-roster invites, presumably in the hope that one or two will have enough left to help the Yankees stay in contention through the trade deadline.

The Yankees have brought in Russell Martin to handle the catching, freeing Jorge Posada to DH and Jesus Montero to develop on his own schedule, not the ballclub's.

They've brought in Andruw Jones to fill the Marcus Thames role of backup outfielder/DH, and Eric Chavez and Ronnie Belliard to compete with Ramiro Pena, Eduardo Nunez and Brandon Laird for two backup infield spots.

But most importantly, they have also brought in re-treads Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon and Luis Ayala in the fervent wish one of them -- most likely Garcia, who went 12-6 with the White Sox last year -- can shore up the back of the rotation. Kevin Millwood might still be on the way, and Mark Prior, another reclamation project, is a dark horse candidate for a bullpen role.

Will it be enough?

There are legitimate doubts that it will.

Because, also for the first time in recent memory, the Yankees come to camp as neither the favorites to win their division -- the Red Sox seem to have grabbed that ultimately meaningless distinction with a garish offseason of the type that would have done The Boss proud -- but also, in some minds, as maybe even a team scuffling just to make the playoffs.

And all because one pitcher decided to take someone else's money and another decided it was time to stay home with the family.

Which leaves us where we are today, at the beginning of a (minimum) eight-month journey with CC Sabathia as the only reliable guide.

How long this journey lasts, and where it will end, depends in large part on the quality of support the Yankees can drum up for Sabathia.

Not at the plate -- the major league leader in runs scored last year hasn't gotten any worse at the plate, only a year older, and yet may even be a bit better -- but behind him in the rotation, where right now, things go from stable (Sabathia) to decidedly unstable (A.J. Burnett), from partially tested (Phil Hughes) to virtually untested (Ivan Nova) and, finally, to currently unknown (Colon, Garcia and who knows who else?).

If you believe, as Cashman does, that a baseball team goes only as far as its pitching will carry it, then the prospect of a long, happy journey for the 2011 Yankees might seem like a long shot indeed.

And it puts the spotlight firmly on another unlikely position, that of pitching coach, where new addition Larry Rothschild takes on an assignment that has stymied just about every one of his predecessors -- straightening out the talented, volatile, maddening Burnett.

"The talent's still there, he's healthy and his heart is in the right place," Rothschild said last week, having spent several days talking and working with Burnett at his home in Maryland this winter. "So there's no reason why he shouldn't have a bounce-back year."

And even though Hughes won 18 games last year in his first full season as a starter, he's no lock, either, his effectiveness having significantly dropped as his innings total mounted in the second half of last season. The Yankees' hope is that as Hughes approaches his 25th birthday and his body develops, so too will his arm strength and stamina.

But it all comes down to numbers, and last season, 70 of the Yankees' 95 victories were earned by the five main starting pitchers. Even if Sabathia and Hughes, who combined for 39 of those wins, return to form, can anyone be sure the remaining three -- Burnett, Nova and the as-yet-undetermined No. 5 -- will combine to win 31 more?

Asked if he thought his club had enough starting pitching to compete, manager Joe Girardi said: "I do, just because of the track record of what guys have done. Obviously, you need a guy like Nova to develop. Same goes for Phil Hughes. He has to continue to get better. Things are not as etched in stone as it would have been if Andy Pettitte were here. But I believe there's enough talent in that room to get it done."

This year, the bullpen should not be a problem. The addition of Rafael Soriano -- which, incidentally, also counts as a big subtraction from the Tampa Bay Rays, last year's AL East champions -- shortens the game and takes some of the load off the setup men to the setup man, the aggregation of David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan as well as new addition Pedro Feliciano, who now in a best-case scenario may be asked to combine to get just three outs.

But the real dilemma is whether the Yankees will be able to get a winnable ballgame into their hands often enough to make the AL East a horse race instead of what a lot of people, especially those living north of the Tappan Zee Bridge, seem to think will be a runaway.

"I've heard people talk about other clubs being favorites," Girardi said. "But being the favorite for 162 games doesn't guarantee you anything."

After all, the Yankees were the offseason favorite to land Cliff Lee.

But he's not walking through that clubhouse door on Monday. Instead, whether they like it or not, the Yankees will have to rely on the guys who do.