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Brian Cashman has plenty to occupy him

Brian Cashman watches batting practice at Steinbrenner Field

Brian Cashman watches batting practice at Steinbrenner Field on Feb. 18, 2014. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman departed last week's general managers' meetings in Phoenix saying they had been "busier'' for him than in previous years.

It made sense that they were.

Few general managers entered the offseason with more work ahead of them.

Cashman was able to swing a trade, a rare occurrence during the meetings, when he swapped longtime reserve catcher Francisco Cervelli for Pirates lefty reliever Justin Wilson.

Otherwise, the time Cashman spent during 3½ days at the Phoenix Biltmore was about the often tedious but necessary exercise of meeting with agents of potential free-agent targets and opposing general managers for possible trades.

The Yankees' areas of need are well-known: rotation, third base, shortstop, first-base insurance and even more bullpen depth, depending on what happens with free-agent closer David Robertson.

The priority as of now?

"The most important spot is that shortstop position and trying to improve on the current starter, Brendan Ryan,'' Cashman said. "If it takes me a while, so be it.''

It does figure to take a while.

Cashman has referred to the shortstop market, both free agent and trade, as "limited.'' Alexei Ramirez of the White Sox and Elvis Andrus can be had in trades, with Ramirez, 33, probably representing the better possibility for the Yankees because Andrus has an eight-year, $120-million extension that kicks in starting next season. Still, Andrus, a sleek defender, is only 26, and the Yankees have long liked him.

Hanley Ramirez is the biggest name on a free-agent market that includes Stephen Drew and Jed Lowrie, but Ramirez's past baggage makes it unlikely the Yankees will pursue him.

The Yankees do have an interest in retaining Drew, whom they acquired from the Red Sox at the trade deadline.

Drew's agent, Scott Boras, made it clear at the GM meetings that he expects a bounce-back season from his 31-year-old client, who hit .162 with a .237 on-base percentage in a combined 300 at-bats between the Red Sox and Yankees.

"I don't think it's any different for Stephen than it is for any other player. You have those times in your career,'' Boras said, chalking up Drew's troubles to a poor "300 at-bat'' stretch and not an indication of a declining player.

The agent added: "When you have the number of at-bats he's had in his career and you have the power that he has and his defense is so good, he's certainly one of the more valued free agents.''

Cashman has plenty more on his plate than just filling Derek Jeter's shoes. The week started with the news, unsurprising as it was, that Robertson declined the one-year, $15.3-million qualifying offer, allowing him to explore the market. The Yankees would like Robertson back, but there is some thought in the organization that if another team blows him away with a huge three- or four-year offer, the club would be better served giving Dellin Betances a chance to close, sign a cheaper bullpen arm or two as insurance and disburse the money saved on one of the many holes elsewhere.

"Clearly as a free agent, he's looking to maximize his value,'' Cashman said of Robertson. "Whatever that turns out to be, I wouldn't characterize it anything other than the fact that he's a hell of a pitcher that did it in the toughest environment after the greatest [closer] of all time, and he did it with ease. I would suspect that will command top dollar.''

The Yankees spent top dollar last offseason -- committing nearly $400 million in free-agent contracts -- and aren't expected to spend that way this offseason. Still, just because they haven't been linked to any of the headline free agents doesn't mean the Yankees won't be in on any of them, particularly the pitchers.

"Bottom line, ownership, this family [the Steinbrenners] has always had an impressive commitment to the fan base in trying to field a championship-caliber team,'' Cashman said. "Hopefully, I can navigate through some of these opportunities to improve the roster.''

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