People have an obsession with the "sky is falling" rhetoric. Whether it be, "America is on the decline", "this generation is declining in moral value", or "the Yankees are on the decline", much of this is grounded more so in fear of the unknown future than actual fact. To examine the validity (or lack there of) in this argument, I think we should take a look at a few things: the players we know to be coming back, players who have left, and players who are likely to be signed/are on the Yankees' radar.
Key Players Returning
Let's just go around the bases. At first base, we have Mark Teixeira coming back from his season-ending wrist tendon injury; there is still some uncertainty on whether he will be back to full potential come opening day. But let's be clear--his presence will eclipse Lyle Overbay's grand total of 0 (!) WAR. If we even get ~2-3 WAR out of him come 2014, that's a huge improvement.
At shortstop, we have Derek Jeter back with a nice raise (what?!) under his belt. The Yankees have security in that it's still only one year--it's still up in the air whether he will play in 2015--but let's be honest, we all know how SS looked in 2013. Like -1.6 WAR bad. Like -37.6 Offensive Runs Below Average bad. Derek Jeter may be hobbled, and he may be on his way out the door, but a barely starter-level Jeter is fine with me.
Center field has been and will continue to be a rock in the form of Brett Gardner. I always get shaky when anyone's game is centered so heavily around one's legs, but Gardner is young enough and cheap enough ($2.8 mil) that he is very much worth it. The Yankees have gotten 16.4 WAR from him, barring his injury ridden 2012, and a batting line hovering around 100 wRC+.
The only significant move the Yankees made at the break was for Alfonso Soriano, and boy did that add some pop to the lineup. Soriano tallied a season line of 112 wRC+ with 34 home runs. His defense is basically replacement level, but that's inconsequential in a corner and with his bat. I don't know if he can sustain ~3 WAR at his age, but I can surmise that we can expect starter-level quality from him.
Alright, fine--I've been overly optimistic and have missed a couple of spots. At one corner, behind the plate, and possibly (but very likely) at third--there are holes. The combo of Vernon Wells, Ichiro, Chris Stewart, and David Adams is just not going to cut it next year, which is why I believe at least one of those will be filled to at least make a formidable 1-7 portion of the lineup.
Pitching was the Yankees' strength in 2013, and I hope that to be the case moving forward. On the starting pitching front, there's CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, and possibly David Phelps and Adam Warren as members of the staff. The latter two I consider to be on the fringe, but I wouldn't be surprised if Girardi gave them a shot in the spring. Nova, I think, will continue to be strong given his Triple-A visit and renewal; the resurgence of his curveball will prove to be effective. Sabathia's the big question mark. I wrote a piece on him recently, which I think sums up his situation. It's time for him to reform his ways in 2014, and I'm confident that he is smart enough to do so. On the relief end, the Yankees are very, very strong. With a core of Boone Logan, David Robertson, Shawn Kelley, and Preston Claiborne (earlier in the season), I don't think anyone doubts that they will continue to be dominant.
Those Who Are Gone
Going into the 2014 season the Yankees are losing, of course: Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Phil Hughes, and Joba Chamberlain. I can honestly say that all of us Yankee fans are more than glad to say goodbye to the latter two (Joba's WAR was -0.6!), but I can also say that while the former two had a great impact, I don't think I subscribe to the view that they are entirely irreplaceable. I'm in the camp of people who believe relief positions to be of minor value (not to downplay Mo's achievement's, though); the difference between an OK closer and Mo is maybe one win per year. And in the case of Pettitte, I wouldn't be surprised if the Yankees went after someone like Matt Garza who could put up similar numbers for a similar price.
Those in the Offseason Picture
The Yankees will need to fill the aforementioned holes, and we've already heard speculation swirling around some popular candidates to fill them. The player at the forefront of all of this is Robinson Cano, who was by far the Yankees' most valuable player in 2013. At 6.0 WAR and a line of 142 wRC+, Cano was just a total beast all year long and has established himself as an elite player and arguably the best at his position. Brian Cashman has stated before that at the wrong price, the Yankees will let him walk. But, I do think that it's clear that he is a priority and that the Yankees will be willing to stretch their budget for him. He's seriously worth it.
Since the retirement of Jorge Posada there's been a void in all of our hearts behind the plate, and it just hasn't been the same on a day-to-day basis. Francisco Cervelli tried to take up that mantle, but with his 2013 injury and steroid suspension, I can't imagine the Yankees sticking with him long term. And with star prospect Gary Sanchez 1-2 years from the Show, there needs to be some sort of plan to bridge the gap. The Chris Stewarts of the world just aren't going to cut it. Given the Steinbrenner's insistence on the $189 mil cap, I think Brian McCann is a stretch, but someone like Dioner Navarro could be a viable option: in 89 games with the Cubs he had a line of 136 wRC+ and a decent 2.5 Defensive Runs Above Average.
It's still unclear whether Curtis Granderson will be offered the Qualifying Offer, but it's obvious that a corner outfielder is in the organization's cross hairs. Given the magical cap, the standard QO salary may be a bit steep, and it could be worth their time to sign someone like David Murphy or Carlos Beltran. Either of the two would be cheaper than a one year deal for Granderson, but one may not get quite the same value (It could be close, though).
The whole Alex Rodriguez fiasco is well-documented so I won't go into too much detail, but if he is out for 2014 there is an obvious need at third base. Hopefully the decision is made early enough so there is enough time to act accordingly. The Yankees have spoken about acquiring Chase Headley, the star San Diego third baseman, but again, the timing of A-Rod's case could make that tricky.
A Qualifying Offer has already been extended to Hiroki Kuroda, who pitched masterfully in 2013. I'm praying that he re-signs, but it's unclear whether he wants to finish his career in NY, LA, or in Japan. Regardless, the Yankees are seriously considering the Japanese stud Masahiro Tanaka and looking at Matt Garza. I would hope that at least one of these works out, but in a best case scenario a rotation of CC, Garza, Tanaka, Kuroda, and Nova would be pretty formidable. One can wish.
What Does It All Mean?
Long story short--we're looking at an improved team over the 2013 crew. There will not be replacement level players at first, short, third, catcher, right, and left for most of the season. As of right now, there are holes at (most likely) third base, a corner outfield position, catcher, and a starting pitcher or two. From a Team WAR standpoint, this is how it looks in context: in 2013, the Yankees ranked 5th in pitching WAR at 18.5 and about average on defense--12th in UZR. In hitting, though, they were obviously dreadful; they were 24th in batting WAR at 10.4. Considering there will be improvements on this front just by virtue of having injured players back for a full season (hopefully), it would be hard for them not to improve, especially if they pick up some pieces in the offseason.
Basically, the Yankee organization won't let the team tank--there's just too much invested in their success. After Steinbrenner & Co. saw what happened in 2013 with a diminished team--dropping attendance and TV ratings--I can't imagine any possible scenario where they allow that to continue. The Yankees depend too much on their branding to initiate some kind of 5-year rebuilding process. Now don't get me wrong--they're definitely at a turning point and are in transition from one era to another. The old guard is all but gone, and there will be questions abound come 2014 and 2015. But if there's one thing I can count on, it's that 2014 will be a competitive year for sure.