Where were the Yankees last winter? While names like Josh Hamilton, Zack Greinke and Justin Upton were being shopped around, general manager Brian Cashman sat quietly. With principal owner Hal Steinbrenner mandating that payroll be under the $189 million luxury tax threshold for 2014, the Yankees were handcuffed. That left them to settle for one-year stopgaps like Kevin Youkilis, Travis Hafner and Lyle Overbay. But with the Yankees winning 85 games and finishing 12 games out in the AL East, those luxury tax concerns could be disregarded. If the Yanks once again become the free-spending marauders we're accustomed to, they'll likely return to contention in the AL East and wild-card races.
The Yankees can't go into another season with the likes of Chris Stewart, Francisco Cervelli and Austin Romine at catcher. Whether they sign a star or stopgap, the opportunity is there to add an impact player at the position, especially from an offensive standpoint.
Injuries and suspensions could significantly influence what the Yanks need. Will Alex Rodriguez be suspended for the 2014 season? If so, the Yankees obviously need a third baseman. But that would also free up at least $25 million for next year to spend on free agents. Shortstop will also be a need if Derek Jeter continues to have difficulty recovering from his ankle injury (which led to quad and calf problems during the season).
Then there's second base. If the Yankees don't re-sign Robinson Cano, that creates an offseason priority. Replacing Cano's offensive production at that position will be close to impossible, but there are several possibilities that the team could explore if it comes to that.
The retirement of Andy Pettitte and possible departure of Phil Hughes leaves two big openings in the starting rotation. The same could be the case for the Yankees' bullpen, with Mariano Rivera retiring and Joba Chamberlain's free agency. David Robertson should take over closer duties, but one or two middle relievers may be needed to fill out the rest of the relief corps.
The free agent market has plenty of names that would be an upgrade at catcher. First and foremost is Brian McCann, whose power numbers could get a boost hitting in Yankee Stadium. He would also be a nice fit with a veteran club and has shown he'll be an enforcer when it comes to protecting his pitchers. Jarrod Saltalamacchia is another longer-term possibility. Signing him would stick it a bit to the Red Sox too. If the Yankees were looking for a short-term stopgap until Gary Sanchez is ready, A.J. Pierzynski and Carlos Ruiz would both fulfill that need well.
Early rumblings have attached the Yankees to Shin-Soo Choo in free agency. He'd provide the lineup with a true leadoff hitter and on-base threat, while Yankee Stadium's short right-field porch could spike his power numbers. The Yankees presumably have all three of their starting outfield spots spoken for, but signing someone like Choo or Carlos Beltran would allow manager Joe Girardi to rotate his older players between the outfield and DH, preventing them from wearing down during the season. Beltran would be a nice short-term fix, giving the Yankees' outfield prospects (more on them below) more time to develop. Of course, Curtis Granderson could also be re-signed — at the very least with a one-year, $14 million qualifying offer.
On the pitching side, re-signing Hiroki Kuroda has to be considered a priority. While CC Sabathia may be the Yankees' ace, Kuroda has actually been the team's best starter over the past two seasons. The Yanks appear to have an advantage here in that Kuroda doesn't appear to be interested in signing with another MLB team. (They could also extend a qualifying offer to him.) The lure of finishing his career in Japan will be the main competition. Regardless of whether or not Kuroda re-signs, the Yankees will likely be interested in another Japanese pitcher, Masahiro Tanaka. Posting fees don't count against the luxury tax either, which could make Tanaka even more appealing to the Yankees.
If the Yankees want a left-hander to replace Pettitte, Scott Kazmir or Jason Vargas could be that guy. Perhaps Ted Lilly could return to the Bronx. Would Cashman even dare consider… Barry Zito?
With some bullpen depth, the Yankees could be a team that takes a chance on some relievers coming back from injuries, including Ryan Madson and Joel Hanrahan. But if they want a surer thing to fill out that setup crew behind Robertson, Jesse Crain, Joe Smith and Matt Albers would all provide some reliability in later innings.
There's not much here for the Yankees to work with. As has been the case for the past few seasons, the farm system doesn't have any prospects of consequence — at least from a major league-ready standpoint. There is some depth at positions like outfielder that the Yankees could tap into. But players like Mason Williams and Slade Heathcott also have a future in the Bronx and are hopefully ready by the time veterans like Alfonso Soriano and Ichiro Suzuki move on.
From the major league roster, Brett Gardner might be the most — or only — marketable commodity. But he can be a free agent after 2014, which reduces the Yankees' bargaining power. Additionally, if Gardner is dealt, he'll need to be replaced in center field.
If luxury tax concerns prevent the Yankees from pursuing top free agents, Cashman might have to go the trade route to add upgrades to his roster. But as mentioned above, the depleted farm system doesn't provide much to offer other teams. Do the Yankees have the resources that might interest the Angels in trading Chris Iannetta or Hank Conger, for example? (Howie Kendrick is another Angels player the Yankees could pursue if Cano signs elsewhere.)
Trading for an outfielder could be the best opportunity to add a run-producing bat to the lineup. The Padres are a team with an outfield logjam that could help out the Yankees. Chris Denorfia, Kyle Blanks or Will Venable might be available. Perhaps the Mariners would listen to an offer for Franklin Gutierrez as well.
Maybe the Diamondbacks would like to unload Cody Ross, and would accept less in return if it meant the Yankees picked the remaining $18 million left on his contract. The Dodgers' Andre Ethier is another player who could get squeezed out by a roster crunch. Not only would his left-handed bat would play well at Yankee Stadium, but his ability to play center field would allow more lineup and trade flexibility. However, Ethier is still owed more than $70 million, which is something the Yankees probably don't want to deal with — especially if they want to avoid that luxury tax.