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Signing 'senior citizens' has paid off for Yankees

Andy Pettitte of the New York Yankees throws

Andy Pettitte of the New York Yankees throws a pitch against the Detroit Tigers during Game 1 of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium/ (Oct. 13, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

With age comes risk.

Risk of injury. Risk of underperformance. Risk of sudden decline.

Few organizations are more sensitive to this concept than the Yankees, an old team that has spent the offseason getting older.

So far, general manager Brian Cashman has signed five free agents. Average age: 38.4 years.

But Cashman has been increasingly comfortable in taking on those risks in recent years, emboldened by his recent success at squeezing value out of the aged and the injured. Budget constraints have challenged the Yankees to think creatively, and the GM responded by steadily growing his army of scouts and statistical analysts.

"It puts us in a position to make informed decisions and much more comfortable knowing what is really available and what you can expect from those players if you sign them, and what you'd be comfortable paying them,'' Cashman said. "We've evolved with a lot of technology, and a lot of evaluators on the data side as well as the scouting side. I think we've improved our pro scouting network and I think we've improved our evaluation of statistical data streams.''

With that, the Yankees have banked on resourcefulness to stay competitive in the much-improved AL East, staking their fate on their ability to work around a payroll weighed down by past excesses. For the Yankees, that means embracing the risks that come with age.

This winter, they've re-signed franchise stalwarts Andy Pettitte (40) and Mariano Rivera (43), agreed to second tours of duty with Ichiro Suzuki (39) and Hiroki Kuroda (37), and enticed Kevin Youkilis (33) to pass on other offers to play third while the ailing (and aging) Alex Rodriguez recovers from hip surgery.

In each case, younger replacements could have been acquired for long-term contracts. But the Yankees have shied away from them in an effort to hold payroll below $189 million by 2014 to ease their burden in revenue sharing.

Ichiro's two-year deal almost certainly is the only multiyear contract the Yankees will take on this winter. Nevertheless, the Yankees leveraged their unique advantages to sign veterans at relative discounts. Kuroda ($15 million) and Youkilis ($13 million) agreed to one-year contracts even though both were presented better offers elsewhere. And in the past, veterans such as Eric Chavez and Raul Ibañez waited until late in the offseason to sign contracts loaded with incentives.

Indeed, the Yankees have not been shy about flaunting the fact that they've missed the playoffs only once in the past 18 seasons. Or that New York's standing as the nation's biggest media market provides players an easy gateway to exposure and endorsements.

"We have a circumstance where we have a city that's a wonderful place to play, with huge fan support, with great players that we can surround ourselves with,'' Cashman said. "So I think all of those things right now have lined up where I think we've had players decide to pick us over alternative locations where maybe even, in a competitive market, [the offer] was higher than what they took here. It's worked to our advantage.''

Yet friendly price tags are only half of the equation. The Yankees gain nothing if their chosen veterans can't produce or can't stay healthy.

They have endured their share of misses. In 2010, Cashman signed veterans Nick Johnson and Randy Winn. The oft-injured Johnson lived up to his reputation when a wrist problem limited him to 24 games. The 36-year-old Winn washed out before the All-Star break, his skills clearly eroded by age.

Even in their successes, the Yankees have been burned for going to the well one too many times. In 2011, Andruw Jones and Freddy Garcia emerged as valuable complementary players, each warranting a spot on the postseason roster. Thrilled with their production, the Yankees re-signed both for 2012, then left both off the playoff roster after a season of struggles.

Nevertheless, the Yankees also have been richly rewarded for looking past age.

Before Jones, they struck gold with veteran Marcus Thames, who signed a minor-league deal in 2010. He eventually emerged as a valuable power threat against lefthanded pitchers. Now Cashman is hoping for the same from Matt Diaz, 35, whom the team signed to an incentives-enhanced minor-league contract this past week.

Last season, the Yankees gave Chavez a second chance, and the injury-plagued veteran responded by stepping in capably for Rodriguez at third base. Ibañez did the same in the outfield, giving the Yankees a capable replacement, even though he had signed as part of a platoon at designated hitter.

Kuroda thrived in the rotation despite questions about whether his body could handle the rigors of the American League. He was arguably the most reliable pitcher on the staff, not something to be overlooked in a season in which ace CC Sabathia landed on the disabled list twice.

None of it would have been possible without the risk that comes with age.

"I don't think we see things that others don't,'' Cashman said. "A lot of people have access to the same types of information and are organized the same way . . . We are in a better position to manage risk and evaluate opportunities that exist, and approach them in a more confident manner.''

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