Yankees reloaded for '07

Reloaded Yankees gear up for new campaign

NEW YORK -- The regular cast of characters is intact, and even with a few notable exceptions, the Yankees haven't completed a drastic overhaul as they shoot for their 10th consecutive American League East title.

The changes are more subtle, almost bubbling beneath the surface. But while Joe Torre is still the man in charge, Alex Rodriguez mans third base and the Yankees bring back one of the Major League's most potent lineups, there will be a youth movement quietly under way as well when the Yankees report to Legends Field in Tampa this month.

General manager Brian Cashman moved to import a bounty of prospects into the Yankees' mix over the offseason, shipping out veterans like Randy Johnson, Gary Sheffield and Jaret Wright.

In their place -- and get your scorecards handy -- players like Chris Britton, Alberto Gonzalez, Ross Ohlendorf, Humberto Sanchez and Kevin Whelan have been added to the Yankees' future, along with the developing likes of Philip Hughes, Tyler Clippard, Jeff Karstens and more.

How drastic has the Yankees' farm re-stocking been? Mark Newman, the Yankees vice president of baseball operations, recalled that three years back, the club internally estimated it had 10 players ranked "C" or above - that is, Minor Leaguers who projected to be at least quality Major League players someday.

This year, Newman proudly reports that the Yankees enter 2007 believing they have 23 "C's" or above. "There has been a huge jump," he said.

So while much of the attention around Tampa will center on the return of Andy Pettitte, and everything in the Yankees' universe revolves around the activities of Derek Jeter, there will be much more to watch than just established All-Star talent.

"We're excited to see some of the new players that we've just received, and we're hopeful that some of the guys we've had from last year come in great shape, ready to roll," Cashman said. "Every year, it's a new game for all teams. We're hoping for great weather and it's coming fast."

Top to bottom, the Yankees' Spring Training lineup hasn't changed all that much from when we last saw the Bombers, stinging from their first-round playoff exit at the hands of the Detroit Tigers.

Smooth-fielding Doug Mientkiewicz will be the most notable change in the infield, taking over first base in a platoon that also figures to include either Andy Phillips or Josh Phelps against left-handed pitching. The shift allows Jason Giambi to focus completely on duties as a designated hitter, which the Yankees hope will allow the 36-year-old slugger to play his first full season since 2003.

In the outfield, the Yankees welcome back a cast of experienced veterans, slotting Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon and Bobby Abreu from left to right.

The setup leaves young Melky Cabrera, who impressed in regular duty last season, as the reserve outfielder. Mindful of Cabrera's value to the roster, the Yankees requested that Cabrera sit out this month's Caribbean Series, recognizing the difference a few weeks of rest could make.

But, in a story that has been followed all winter, the first-base rotation and outfield depth chart have left 38-year-old Bernie Williams on the outside looking in. Williams has reportedly been mulling a non-roster invitation to camp from the Yankees, with his 16-year career in pinstripes hanging in the balance.

If Williams accepts the invitation, he will surely become a focal point of Spring Training, with fans warmly embracing the outfielder -- no matter the eventual outcome of camp. His other options would be to play his final seasons with another club, or retire and pursue a budding music career.

"He's a very special player," Cashman said. "It's a unique individual that we're trying to take a great deal of time and effort and discussion as we go through the process."

The Yankees' starting staff, behind ace Chien-Ming Wang, may be the key to their success. After all, the Yankees led the Major Leagues with 930 runs scored last season, but their pitching gave up 22 runs in four games against Detroit in the Division Series, dooming their postseason dreams.

Pettitte slides in as the rotation's top lefty, looking to replace the 17 victories that Johnson provided in each of the last two seasons. Mike Mussina is back as a dependable force in the middle of the rotation, but behind those three, there may be opportunities for that young Triple-A talent to crack through.

Japanese southpaw Kei Igawa is a great unknown as the fourth starter heading into the year, even though he was a three-time strikeout champ in Japan's Central League, and Carl Pavano has not thrown a Major League pitch since June 2005.

With a bullpen that still leads to one of the best in Mariano Rivera, but also is entertaining the faces of Chris Britton, Brian Bruney, Sean Henn and Luis Vizcaino, Cashman knocks on wood and thinks optimistically as the Yankees head into camp.

But the GM also knows that changes are a part of life in the Yankees' world. As he says repeatedly, the Yankees have until Aug. 31 to re-arrange.

"I'd like to continue to find the best roster I can," Cashman said. "All of those world championship crowns that we earned, those rosters were always imperfect. You always can be better."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.