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Inbox: Can Yanks build a title contender on budget?

I understand that the Yankees' front office is standing firm on reducing the payroll to $189 million in 2014 to avoid the luxury tax. What counts toward the $189 million and what is the penalty for going over that amount?
-- Cameron B., Greenwood, Ind.

This seems like a good place to start our discussion this week, since Hal Steinbrenner's $189 million directive stands as such a major part of the offseason planning. While there are other expenses that factor in, the most important parts of the payroll figure are the dollars related to the 40-man roster, calculated from the average annual value of each contract, plus medical benefits and performance bonuses.

The Yankees have been penalized for going over the luxury tax in every season since it was implemented in 2003, and they're going to be hit again in 2013, when the threshold sits at $178 million. There's not much they can do about that. But the threshold rises to $189 million in 2014, and because there are significant incentives to get underneath that for at least one year, the Steinbrenners are making that their goal.

How significant are those incentives? Since the Yankees have exceeded the luxury tax more than three times since '03 (only the Yankees and Red Sox have ever exceeded it more than once), they will be charged at a 50-percent rate in '13, up from 42.5 percent in '12. Paying a 50-cent penalty on each dollar is significant when we're talking about deals in the tens of millions.

If the Yankees get under $189 million to avoid paying the luxury tax for 2014, however, they will be in position to receive amnesty under the Collective Bargaining Agreement. That way, if they exceed the figure in 2015 (with a big free-agent class ahead), their tax rate would return to the first-time offender rate of 17.5 percent. It's complicated and there's much more to it, but this is a huge reason why the Yankees appear reluctant to offer multiyear deals this winter.

I just wonder how the Yankees organization can build a real championship team with all these budget restrictions? To me, they can stay under the luxury tax, or try to build a championship team for 2013-14, but not both.
-- Cesar C., Santo Domingo, D.R.

It has been GM Brian Cashman's stance that if the Yankees can't assemble a contender for $189 million, they're doing something wrong. Granted, the Yankees have a well-earned reputation for going to war with their wallet, and many would argue that it wasn't much of a coincidence that their most recent World Series title followed a spending spree of more than $400 million in new contracts. Even though 2012 ended in disappointing fashion, the team still fought a rash of injuries to win 95 games, so it's not like they're rebuilding from the ground up.

Cashman's staff is going to have to get creative to retool that roster for '13, and obviously a huge part of the payroll is already assigned to big pieces like Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and Derek Jeter. They may not be able to take care of some vacancies from within (catcher and right field, for example), but if the Yankees can fill holes with one-year contracts, they'll do it. That's why it's so crucial that Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte both return to the rotation; the Yankees are fine with being an older team as long as they're still competitive.

Since the Marlins are having a fire sale, why don't the Yankees go after Giancarlo Stanton? He is a young powerful outfielder that the Yankees could use.
-- Ken M., Branchburg, N.J.

That would answer the right-field question, and most teams would be thrilled to clear a lineup spot for a player like Stanton. The problem is, as unhappy as Stanton might be with Miami's recent moves, the Marlins say that Stanton is untouchable for 2013 and that they have no intention of trading the All-Star.

Stanton is under club control for one more season before he is eligible for arbitration, and he won't have the service time to become a free agent until after the 2016 season. He would fit the Yankees' needs, but good luck prying him loose.

What, if anything, is being done to address Robinson Cano's hustle? He always seems to be jogging on little dribblers and popups.
-- J.B., Peekskill, N.Y.

Manager Joe Girardi was asked about this after the American League Championship Series, and it was a valid question. Normally, Girardi deflects such queries by pointing out that Cano plays the game with a certain grace and smoothness.

But Girardi -- who, let's not forget, benched Cano for a lack of hustle in September 2008 -- had to have seen what television cameras captured during the playoffs, and he didn't exactly shoot down the question.

"We expect our players to play hard, lead by example, and do those things," Girardi said. "Sometimes frustration sets in -- maybe you don't run as hard as you should, and that's learning how to control your emotions."

Girardi added that there was some tightness in Cano's hip that may have slowed him somewhat, but hinted that might not be the end of the conversation with his second baseman.

"I will address with every one of our players to play hard," he said. "You never know who's going to drop a popup or boot a ground ball and put pressure on a team. But sometimes frustration sets in, and that's one of the things you have to learn to manage."

We haven't been hearing anything about Dellin Betances or Manny Banuelos. Did they take a step back or any chance we can expect to see them in 2013?
-- Rizwan A., Ridgefield Park, N.J.

Banuelos had Tommy John surgery and will not pitch at all in 2013, while Betances took a step back and was demoted to Double-A Trenton last year with control problems. Neither news tidbit figures to help that $189 million payroll target much.

Is Joba Chamberlain definitely not looked at as a starter anymore?
-- Margaret B., Melbourne, Australia

Yes, we can put that to rest. For the Yankees' purposes, Chamberlain is a relief pitcher, though it's not exactly certain where he'll slot in the bullpen next season. He is looking forward to a healthy season after this year's issues, though.

Francisco Cervelli has better big league numbers than both Chris Stewart and Eli Whiteside, and more experience to Austin Romine. Does that not make him a more than qualified backup catcher?
-- Randy W., Smithtown, N.Y.

The Yankees often said that if there had been an injury to Russell Martin, Cervelli -- and not Stewart -- would have been called up to serve as the starting catcher. Obviously, we never had a chance to find out, and Cervelli said coming up in September and playing a small part made his year.

You couldn't help but feel sorry for Cervelli last spring, and it was his bad luck that Stewart was out of Minor League options when the Yankees traded for him. It really shouldn't be out of the question for Cervelli to outplay his competition and reclaim the backup job next spring.

New York Yankees