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Sunday Baseball Notes

Aging Yankees still look tough in AL East

Mark Teixeira

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

“This is a very good team, and every player in here thinks we can have a great year,” said Mark Teixeira (above).

The color of the New York Yankees is gray.

The temples of Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Ichiro Suzuki, Derek Jeter, and Hiroki Kuroda have begun to change. Pettitte has a son who is a senior in high school. Ichiro has more white flecks in his hair than black. Jeter walks with a limp as the result of a broken ankle.

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Even Phil Hughes, one of the younger Yankees at 26, discovered last week that he has a bulging disk in his back.

Old team for sure. But a doomed team?

That’s where the Yankees will fight you.

It seems we’ve been calling them old for a few years now. Maybe one of these times we’ll be right and can say, “See, I told ya so,” but there’s a sense in the Yankees clubhouse that we’re all wet again.

“This is a very good team, and every player in here thinks we can have a great year,” said Mark Teixeira.

And that pretty much sums it up.

The Yankees had a change in philosophy this offseason. They decided that they didn’t want to give up draft picks, they wanted to limit long-term contracts, and they wanted to get under the luxury tax threshold.

So they did not bid for Josh Hamilton or Zack Greinke. They allowed Nick Swisher to leave. One move they may regret is allowing Russell Martin to sign with Pittsburgh for two years, because now their options at catcher are Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart, Bobby Wilson, and Austin Romine.

“Defensively, no problem,” said general manager Brian Cashman. “We’re not looking for catching. We just know our offensive production at that position isn’t going to be as good as in the past.”

They are loading up for a mega-contract for second baseman Robinson Cano. They are dealing with more Alex Rodriguez steroid fallout and the chance that the third baseman may miss most of the season after hip surgery.

Cashman is trying to find the kind of bench that has been so important to the team’s success the past few years. Eric Chavez, Raul Ibanez, and Andruw Jones, all capable role players, are gone. Cashman has brought in reasonable facsimilies in Kevin Youkilis and Travis Hafner. He’s searching for a righthanded-hitting outfielder and feels Matt Diaz or Juan Rivera could handle the job.

He is trying to add a little more pitching depth, especially if the two-week layoff for Hughes, an instrumental part of this team, sets him back.

“It’s a very tough division with a lot of tough teams,” said Cashman. “I don’t see any last-place team here. Boston would have avoided it last year if they didn’t have the injuries. I don’t see them in last place at all. They were very capable until they hit the injuries.

“I think the division is wide open. Toronto did a great job. Boston did a great job. Tampa Bay always does a great job. Baltimore had a great season.”

How far could the Yankees fall? Or will they simply be a 90-win team year in and year out, no matter how much they age?

“The biggest mistake they made was losing Martin, and not that he had a great offensive season, but he handled that staff pretty well,” said an American League scout. “They can absorb the Swisher loss, especially if Youkilis and Hafner come through and Brett Gardner can get back to the things he did so well.

“I don’t think they have to worry about Mariano, but now without [Rafael] Soriano, they don’t really have that safety net.”

Soriano opted out of his contract and signed a two-year deal with Washington, but they hope a comebacking Dave Aardsma can fill his role. Aardsma, a former Red Sox pitcher, had successful years as a closer in Seattle. He had hip surgery for a torn labrum two years ago, and while he was coming back from that, he blew out his elbow.

Hip surgery and Tommy John surgery. But Aardsma says he is back, throwing as well as ever.

And the Yankees still have a pretty formidable lineup.

With Ichiro, Jeter, Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, and Cano in the middle of the order, there’s still a great deal of firepower.

Teixeira looks to be in an outstanding shape. Sure, his OPS has declined the past four years from .948 to .846 to .835 to .807, but he’s still a force, still the guy the opposing pitcher hates to face.

In addition to catcher, Cashman predicts that offensive production at third base and right field also will decline. But enough to cause the Yankees problems scoring runs?

Ichiro is still a very good player, both offensively and defensively. He can still run. He has one of the most accurate arms in baseball.

Youkilis has lost his extra weight, feels better than he has for a while, and if he’s the old Youkilis, what a shot in the arm for the lineup. And Hafner is one of the strongest men in baseball, now looking up at that short porch in right field.

The Yankees still have a strong rotation of pitchers who are capable of 15-20 wins. The Hughes injury could be big, but if indeed his problem can be resolved with rest, then you’re talking about CC Sabathia, Pettitte, Kuroda, Hughes, and Ivan Nova.

You also have David Phelps with a year’s worth of experience, and Adam Warren, the next young Yankee pitcher who could make an impact.

Color them gray. But too old?

“At some point, they [the critics] will be right,” said Cashman. “We’re going to keep trying to defy them. If we stay healthy, we’ll be very competitive.”

Apropos of something

Down the road from the Red Sox, the Twins are trying to piece together a respectable team, like the ones they had when they were always a threat to make the playoffs. Manager Ron Gardenhire, who once seemed to have a lifetime contract, enters the final year of his deal.

Justin Morneau, a former MVP and a centerpiece player for years in Minnesota, is also in the final year of his deal and subject to trade rumors involving Toronto. Morneau has battled injuries the past two seasons, including postconcussion syndrome, and hasn’t come close to being the MVP player he once was. Yet he and Joe Mauer fuel the Twins.

“We build around them,” Gardenhire said. “We ask them to do a lot here. They’re two MVPs, they’ve done so much in their careers and for this organization.

“I lean on them when someone has to step up in a meeting. I’m always looking to them to do it and say something. They know what we do, they know how we work, they know what I ask of players.”

Morneau was the 2006 AL MVP, hitting .321 with 34 homers and 130 RBIs. In 2008, he finished second in MVP voting with a .300 season, 23 homers, and 129 RBIs. At age 31, he still has a lot of years left, but will he ever be what he once was?

“I think he’s still getting there,” said Gardenhire. “Last season was a step in the right direction. He had a good winter. He still has things he’s trying to get through. The concussion part is pretty much gone. There’s still little nicks that he played through and he has to get through.

“But I think he has a chance here in spring training to get through some of those things and that by the time the season starts he’ll be over those things and we’ll get a chance to see what he can do.”

As for Mauer, 29, he hit .319 in 2012, 4 points below his career average, but led the league with a whopping .416 on-base percentage. He caught 74 games, was DH for 42, and played first base for 30. Gardenhire said he is making a plea to catch more.

“He wants to catch more,” Gardenhire said. “My goal is that I want him on the field and healthy, whatever that entails. We have to do what’s best to keep him in our lineup.

“I thought what we did last year worked out well. We had a unique situation but it worked out. I don’t mind moving guys around and giving them a break.

“I’ll sit down with Joe and we’ll talk about it during the season and go over what to do if there’s a night game and then a day game, who’s pitching and those types of things. If it ends up being 100 games, then it’s 100 games.”

Apropos of nothing

1. Call it American ingenuity, or a great business model for start-ups, but it has been incredible to watch the growth of mlbtraderumors.com — to the point where it’s now the go-to site for major league executives, reporters, and fans.

2. I’m often asked how the Red Sox baseball operations department escapes blame from the media for the downturn in the team the past few years. Short answer: Don’t think they do. Their decisions have been scrutinized by the more objective media. While managers, coaches, players, medical staff, trainers, and strength coaches have been replaced, the decision-makers on player personnel have been kept and sometimes promoted. The owners don’t seem to think baseball ops is the problem, at least not for now. I will say this, the people in that department work incredibly hard trying to make the right decisions.

3. Twins skipper Ron Gardenhire had some fun with St. Paul Pioneer-Press columnist Tom Powers. Powers asked what the projected lineup was, and Gardenhire asked Powers to submit his “and then I’m telling Billy Beane’s assistant and he’s going to put it in a computer and send me one, too.”

4. Who will win more games: Cleveland’s Terry Francona or Boston’s John Farrell? Tough one, eh?

5. Get the feeling the Veterans Committee will take another long look at Luis Tiant’s career and find him Hall of Fame-worthy. That would be music to the ears of filmmakers Bobby and Peter Farrelly, who produced a fine documentary on Tiant, “The Lost Son of Havana,” which detailed his plight as a Cuban defector.

6. David Ortiz said he is at 260 pounds, same weight he ended last season at.

7. The Yankee outfield switch, Brett Gardner to center and Curtis Granderson to left, makes sense from a UZR point of view.

8. Teams are having more and more problems trying to find the “complete” catcher. The fact that the Rays are going with Jose Molina again is proof of that.

9. Baseball Prospectus comes out with the 18th edition of its preseason publication this week. Among the projections: 1. the Red Sox going 84-78, third place; 2. Jon Lester, 3.51 ERA, 1.24 WHIP; 3. PECOTA prediction for Clay Buchholz of 4.07 ERA. 1.32 WHIP; 4. Mike Napoli, .260, 27 home runs; 5. Shane Victorino, .273, 13 homers, 30 doubles, 29 steals; 6. Jonny Gomes, .239, 13 homers, 43 RBIs in 321 plate appearances.

ETC.

Updates on 9

1. Joe Beimel, LHP, free agent — The former Dodgers and Pirates reliever wants back into the majors and has tried out for some teams. He is 35 and coming back from Tommy John surgery last May.

2. Sammy Stewart, former RP, Red Sox — After six years, he was recently released from Buncombe Correctional Center in Asheville, N.C. Stewart, a free spirit with a great arm, became addicted to crack cocaine and was homeless for many years before being incarcerated on more than 60 drug-related offenses. He had two children with cystic fibrosis, one of whom died in 1991. He was known for colorful comments, including one when asked about what he hoped to accomplish in spring training: “I’m just worried ’bout nothing not hurtin’. Spring training don’t mean dawg.” He was a fun character who has had an awful life.

3. Alfredo Aceves, RP, Red Sox — He will show his talents for Mexico in the WBC, and if all goes well, the Sox may be able to make a late spring training deal for him. “He’s a talented pitcher who can do a lot of things,” said an AL GM. “The baggage is there, but some team will put up with the baggage. Who knows? If he gets to start somewhere, maybe all of the problems go away.”

4. Mike Pelfrey, RHP, Twins — The former No. 1 pick of the Mets (2005) is making a positive impression in Twins camp about 10 months after Tommy John surgery. The Mets did not tender the 6-foot-7-inch, 230-pound righty, who went 50-54 with a 4.36 ERA for them in seven years. Pelfrey, who will make $4 million with another $1.5 million in potential incentives, could wind up being quite a find for the Twins.

5. Aaron Hicks, CF, Twins – The Twins are very excited about him, but don’t know if he’s ready to make the jump from Double A. The speedy, 23-year-old switch hitter is 6-2, 190, and has opened eyes. The Twins aren’t going to hold him back if he’s ready.

6. Brian Wilson, RP, free agent — You just have to believe he will be a fallback for the Tigers when he’s ready to return after Tommy John surgery. Until then, rookie Bruce Rondon will get every opportunity to keep the closer job.

7. Freddy Sanchez, 2B, free agent — Despite some interest in him, teams have not been willing to commit to Sanchez, who has had numerous injuries and surgeries. The former National League batting champion could still be a very good hitter in someone’s lineup.

8. Kyle Lohse, RHP, free agent — An AL GM predicted, “The Rangers probably have the best shot at obtaining him. They missed out on a couple of guys. While you don’t want to overpay or give him an extended contract, they seem to be the most motivated to get a deal done with him.”

9. Christian Vazquez, C, Red Sox — His stock keeps rising, to the point where you wonder whether the Sox will pursue deals for Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Ryan Lavarnway. Vazquez will likely start at Double A but could rise quickly.

Short hops

From the Bill Chuck files: “Jose Bautista led the majors in homers last season for batters with fewer than 100 hits. Bautista had 27 homers among his 80 hits. Jarrod Saltalamacchia was next with 25 homers and just 90 hits. In 1995, Mark McGwire had 87 hits, including 39 homers.” Also, “Over the last three seasons, lefties have hit .273 against Ryan Dempster with two outs, and so have righties.” . . . Happy birthday, Gustavo Molina (31), Bronson Arroyo (36), Mike Lowell (39), and Nick Esasky (53).

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.
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