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Bombers rebuilding? Retooling? Call it what you will ... but will it work?

1/14/2015
USA TODAY Sports, Getty Images

NEW YORK -- For the better part of the past two decades, most Yankees teams arrived in the Bronx fully formed, made up of either longtime Yankees, established veterans (read: stars) from other clubs, or highly-touted and sought-after rookies and imports from other leagues.

Now, there's the 2015 Yankees.

Gone from last year's roster are no fewer than 20 big league-caliber players, including Derek Jeter. In their place will be 14 (relatively) new faces, 13 of which were acquired through free agency or trades, and one of which, Alex Rodriguez, is a very familiar face that hasn’t been seen on a baseball field in more than a year due to a drug suspension.

Ring out the old, ring in the new. Call it rebuilding, retooling or reloading, it will be a very different Yankees team that takes the field in Tampa for the first full-squad spring training workout on Feb. 27, and who knows what the team will look like by the time it gets to Yankee Stadium on April 6.

“This year will be different, that’s for sure," general manager Brian Cashman said this week. “This spring will be more important than most because there’s a lot of new guys and a lot of guys we don’t know all that much about. There’s a lot of players we have to get to know. Clearly last year there was a big focus on our captain, who’s no longer here. This year the focus will be on all the new guys."

The Yankees are loathe to use the term “rebuilding" -- Goliaths, of course, do not rebuild -- but they can’t run from the reality that with Jeter, the last member of the legendary Core Four, in retirement, this team will have no on-field links (other than manager Joe Girardi) to the glory days of 1996-2000, and less than a handful -- CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Brett Gardner and A-Rod -- to the team that won the 2009 World Series over the Philadelphia Phillies.

“For people to say [the Yankees] are rebuilding with the second-highest payroll, it's silly," said a baseball executive who requested anonymity. “I think every team constantly tries to get better and that's what they’re trying to do."

But have the Yankees actually done that?

In addition to Jeter, the 2015 Yankees will be without David Robertson, who statistically was among the top 10 closers in MLB last year; Hiroki Kuroda, arguably the most consistent starter on their staff the past three seasons; Shawn Kelley, a useful middle reliever; David Phelps, whose versatility was valued by the Yankees both as a starter and a reliever; Francisco Cervelli, a spark plug of a backup catcher; Brandon McCarthy, who performed well as a starter after a midseason trade with the Diamondbacks; Ichiro Suzuki, a future Hall of Famer who stepped into a full-time role when Carlos Beltran got hurt; and Shane Greene, who showed promise as a starter after being thrust into emergency duty due to the rash of injuries to the rotation.

They also parted with Martin Prado, a trade deadline acquisition who had previously been prized by the Yankees for his ability to play several infield positions as well as the outfield.

They have added Nathan Eovaldi, a young right-hander with a big fastball; Andrew Miller, a lefty who has had a phenomenal season-and-a-half as a setup man and closer; Justin Wilson, who is expected to be the main situational lefty out of their bullpen; Didi Gregorius, a young shortstop who is being asked to replace Jeter; and David Carpenter, another live arm for their bullpen, in exchange for young left-hander Manny Banuelos, formerly the jewel of the Yankees' farm system.

In addition, they re-signed Chase Headley to be their everyday third baseman; Chris Young to be their fourth outfielder, replacing Ichiro; and -- as yet to be officially announced -- Stephen Drew, who unless displaced by either Jose Pirela or Rob Refsnyder in spring training, becomes the next second baseman to try to follow Robinson Cano. They also added journeyman INF/OF Garrett Jones and a handful of young arms to their bullpen, which right now looks like the strongest unit on the club.

But a year after the Yankees spent nearly a half-billion dollars on four free agents -- Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Beltran and Brian McCann -- there was no big-ticket free agent under the Yankees' holiday tree this winter. Jon Lester, Victor Martinez, Nelson Cruz, Pablo Sandoval and yes, Robertson, all signed elsewhere this winter. Max Scherzer and James Shields are still out there, but the Yankees insist they have no interest in either.

“I think ever since they renewed [Cashman, who received a new three-year contract], he's had some ideas about building the team, getting younger and more versatile, and I think they've done that," said the baseball executive. "Does it work? Who knows? I think the whole season comes down to two questions: The starting pitching and the hitting."

There’s no question about the latter, especially with Tanaka, Sabathia and Ivan Nova coming off major injuries and Michael Pineda having a history of major shoulder surgery, and the Yankees' bats struggling to produce fewer runs (633) than they had in 25 years. As a result, the team managed just 84 wins, its lowest total since 1995.

But Cashman disputes the notion that this year’s offseason represents any sort of philosophy change by an organization that has always operated under the Big Bang Theory of baseball. He said the reason the Yankees built through barter rather than bucks this season was strictly due to circumstances.

“It’s a by-product of not having a lot of money coming off the payroll, and of having Alex Rodriguez's money coming back on," Cashman said. “Last year we had a lot of money coming off, which is why we signed all those guys. This year and next year, that’s not the case. We’re locked into a number of guys, for better or worse."

Cashman also said an improvement in the Yankees' farm system -- which is much maligned and has not produced a significant everyday player since Gardner, who was drafted 10 years ago -- made it easier for them to make trades this winter.

"We haven’t always had a lot of tradable parts," he said. "Because of our system becoming stronger we had the ability to interact more on the trade market. You can't be too creative when you have no ammunition to shoot."

But he also hinted owner Hal Steinbrenner may not have been keen on committing another $400 million-plus this winter as he did last year. “The dialogue was, this is the amount of money we have to deal with," he said.

After flirting with the idea of keeping the 2014 payroll below $189 million to avoid paying the luxury tax, the Yankees wound up spending $203 million in 2014, without having to pay Rodriguez's $25 million salary. According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Yankees are committed to about $197 million for 2015, including $21 million for A-Rod.

That should be enough to keep them second on MLB's list, behind the L.A. Dodgers, who in 2014 usurped the Yankees as the biggest-spending team with a $235 million payroll, the first time the Yankees had relinquished the top spot since 1998.

But still, some say the Yankees are spending too little, not too much.

“It’s like they went to an earthquake class in California," said a baseball agent who has dealt with the Yankees. “When you have earthquakes, you can either rebuild your building or find a table to hide under. The Yankees didn’t rebuild their building this winter. They just bought a coffee table to hide under."

It is in any agent's interest, of course, for the Yankees to spend money, and lots of it. But some scouts who spoke to ESPNNewYork.com on condition of anonymity were divided on how effectively the Yankees went about fortifying their roster this winter.

“I like what they did," said one scout. "They are retooling, not rebuilding. [But] even with all the moves, it will come down to the pitching and if Teixeira can carry his weight. Can McCann stay healthy? And where is Beltran's health?"

“I think this is a starting point," said another. “Brian has wanted to get younger and more athletic for a few years but the system hasn’t allowed him to do that. Are they at the top of the perch? No, but this is a step in the right direction."

“The end of the Jeter Era is a significant thing," said a third, a former GM who believes the Yankees' attempt to build a roster out of veterans and young, often unproven players is the right way to go. "You can’t call up only minor leaguers and you can't go just with veterans. You have to combine the two."

The agent, however, believes the Yankees should still be conducting themselves like the Yankees, buying up every top free agent, regardless of cost.

"Cashman is acting like he's the GM of the Oakland A's, and Hal can't keep using that $200 million payroll as a shield," he said. "Because of that, the Yankees are not going to be a playoff team this year, and probably not next year either. There's going to be a lot of empty seats in New York this season."

Yankees attendance was slightly up by about 1,500 fans per game in 2014, but is still down by about 300,000 since 2009. At the prices the Yankees charge for tickets, fans have come to expect a winner. Or, at least, a team that gives the appearance it might develop into one.

Cashman admits he can't guarantee the former but he believes he has accomplished the latter.

“We had a whole number of areas to think through and address," he said. "I think that in the position I'm in, you can never be happy. We're always best to be concerned. But I think we've addressed our needs to the best of our abilities. We were able to retain all or most of our high-end prospects. And I think the major league club has been improved."

And Cashman rejects the notion that a wholesale changeover in team personnel will mean a long period of mediocre, October-less seasons.

"I'm not trying to win a beauty contest here," he said. "I'm trying to win ballgames."