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When you're talking about a free-agent market and then you're talking about the Yankees being quiet, something doesn't mix. But this is a new day. The Yankees are openly talking about a payroll ceiling – getting under $189 million by 2014 to avoid luxury taxes – and doing it the season after Robinson Cano becomes a free agent. In the past, wouldn't they have simply swooped in on Josh Hamilton by now?

Hamilton's addiction history aside, wouldn't George Steinbrenner have thought back to that mammoth show Hamilton put on during the 2008 All-Star Home Run Derby at old Yankee Stadium and realized what an addition he'd be with the short porch at the new ballpark? What exactly do the Yankees have to sell next season anyway with Alex Rodriguez out until at least June, Derek Jeter coming off a broken ankle, CC Sabathia starting to break down and Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte coming back for a last rodeo as 40-somethings?

But the Yankees were nowhere to be seen from all you read out of the Winter Meetings in Nashville last week. They didn't re-sign Russell Martin or Eric Chavez and couldn't get … Jeff Keppinger and Nate Schierholtz? What in the name of Horace Clarke is going on here?

The real clues started to come later in the week with word, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, that General Manager Brian Cashman came to Nashville without authorization from Hal Steinbrenner to spend on free agents. Only after consulting with Boss Jr. & Friends could Cashman make Kevin Youkilis a one-year, $12-million offer.

The Mets, meanwhile, claimed the back page with their eight-year, $138-million deal with David Wright although their tight approach to R.A. Dickey was bizarre, especially coming off a Cy Young season. Don't they know knuckleballers often pitch well into their 40s?

The Yankees have far more equity with the fans than the Mets, although all those empty seats in the postseason show it's waning. They did win 95 games last year and got to the ALCS before everything fell off the rails.

The news of Rodriguez's surgery might explain his postseason disappearance – although why he didn't tell the team's medical staff it was his other hip that was hurting remains a mystery. Now, however, the Yankees are just another year older. The Rays remain good, the Blue Jays are pushing hard and the Orioles are clearly better as well.

The Yankees want you to think it was a lousy market they were sitting out. And they're not wrong when Martin can get two years and $17 million and a pitcher with a career losing record like ex-Bison Jeremy Guthrie pulls in three years and $25 million.

“So far what's transpired I wouldn't do,” insisted Cashman. “ … I'm comfortable with the direction we're currently in.”

No one is really sure what direction the Yankees are going anymore. Under The Boss, it was always full speed ahead. But The Boss is gone now. The family constantly denies rumors the team is being shaped for a sale, even as Rupert Murdoch buys 49 percent of the YES Network. Hmmm. Hamilton sits unsigned while Cashman might spend $40 million on third basemen in A-Rod and Youkilis. The prospect cupboard is pretty bare. What's the plan here?

No wonder the Blue Jays made a big move this offseason. The Red Sox suddenly look terrible and the Yankees look to be heading down the abyss of the late '60s and early '70s. It's a wide-open American League East.

More on meetings

• Nationals manager Davey Johnson on his final season: “ I think we're in a perfect position to show the world that we're a pretty good damn ball club, and we can go farther into the postseason, and I want to be a part of that. … World Series or bust, that's probably the slogan this year.”

• The Rangers seem uninterested in going past three years with Hamilton, preferring to focus on trying to sign Zack Greinke — who on Saturday was close to a deal with the Dodgers – and working a multi-team deal that would eventually land them Arizona's Justin Upton. It seems like Seattle might be Hamilton's best landing spot if he doesn't stay in Texas.

• I found the lack of a big market for Michael Bourn interesting but he may have outpriced himself with demands in the $75 million range. B.J. Upton went to Atlanta and the Nationals traded for Denard Span, taking up two possibilities. The Giants re-signed Angel Pagan and the Phillies — where I thought Bourn would go — traded with Minnesota for Ben Revere. Maybe Bourn lands in Cincinnati.

• New Indians manager Terry Francona, on the shift from the big-market Red Sox to low-budget Tribe: “When I took the job in Boston, the expectations were win or go home. I remember being very thankful that Dave Roberts was safe [stealing second base during Game Four of the 2004 ALCS] because I probably would have gone home [had the Yankees swept the series]. This is a little different now. We're younger. But our expectations, at least in my opinion, are still the same. We're supposed to try to win.”

• Blackbeard is in need of a home. The Giants have Sergio Romo and seem ready to cut ties with Brian Wilson, coming off his second Tommy John surgery. Some observers thought the Brewers would be interested but GM Doug Melvin said no. Still, Melvin told reporters that Wilson “looks like a Milwaukee type of guy.”

Van Gundy squishes Fish

As I expected, Stan Van Gundy had terrific thoughts on the NBA, coaching and college basketball during his wide-ranging press conference Tuesday at Canisius College, where he visited with student-athletes after speaking to the school's booster club during a luncheon downtown.

Van Gundy, now working for NBC Sports after 17 years in the NBA, is a devout baseball fan as well. And while I made sure to ask him the requisite questions about Dwight Howard and the Lakers, I had to throw in an inquiry about the Miami Marlins.

And Van Gundy bit. Big-time.

“In pro sports in general, fans have not been treated well and with respect in a lot of instances and the Marlins might be the most egregious example of that,” he said. “You win a world championship in 2003, then you break your team down and the case you make is we have to have low payrolls because in this stadium we can't make any money. But now when you pony up the money as taxpayers to help us build this new stadium, well then when we're in there, we'll be able to go out and afford quality talent. And it looks like a ruse. It really does.

“They went out and signed some people … but it was like they were just waiting for the first chance to dismantle. We weren't even at the all-star break and they're sending Hanley Ramirez out. It just became a convenient excuse.

“Here are the fans now stuck with a rebuilding team again when that wasn't the promise that was made. Regardless of how it works out in the longterm, the ownership of the Marlins was not up front and honest with the fans in Miami and I think it's a shame. But if you know the history of Jeffrey Loria, you probably should have expected it, to be quite honest.”

Perfectly said. Nothing more to add.

Around & About

• The jersey that Don Larsen wore during his perfect game in the 1956 World Series went for $756,000 Thursday at an auction held by Steiner Sports. Larsen sold it to help pay for his grandchildren's college education.

• Plenty of managers are fretting how spring training will be interrupted by the World Baseball Classic. Cracked irascible Tigers boss Jim Leyland when asked about the WBC: “I support it because the commissioner gets mad when I say I don't support it.”

• Speaking of the WBC, former Bisons Tim Leiper and Stubby Clapp have been named coaches for Team Canada. Ex-Blue Jays catcher Ernie Whitt is the manager. Long-time big-league outfielder Larry Walker is the hitting coach.

• Oddest note I saw from the Winter Meetings: Cubs manager Dale Sveum revealed Hall of Famer and former teammate Robin Yount accidentally shot him in the ear and back with pellets during a recent quail hunt in Arizona. “The bird got up in front of him, and he lost track of where I was and pulled the trigger,” Sveum said. “I was just looking for birds myself. It was behind me, so I got drilled with pellets in the back and one stuck in the ear.”

• Officials announced Thursday the meetings will return to Nashville and the sprawling, 600,000-square foot Opryland Hotel in 2015. The event will be at Walt Disney World's Swan and Dolphin Resort in Orlando next year and make its debut at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront in 2014.

email: mharrington@buffnews.com