The New York Yankees entered this weekend's winter meetings in the unfamiliar position of needing to shed payroll, reportedly by the order of owner George Steinbrenner. However, many observers here say they will believe it when they see it, given so many years of Yankees gluttony and signs pointing toward more of the same.

"We're working under an environment now that is different than what we're used to operating under," said Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman.

The Yankees' mission, he said, is "reducing payroll and at the same time putting together a team that can represent the league in the World Series." However, the Yankees are moving closer to signing Japanese slugger Hideki Matsui, according to industry sources.

The Yankees' stated desire to trim payroll stems from the increased financial burden on the franchise under the terms of the new labor agreement. The Yankees had a payroll of about $135 million in 2002 -- by far the highest in the majors -- and contributed about $33 million in revenue sharing.

Under the new labor agreement that kicks in for 2003, they expect to contribute closer to $55 million in revenue sharing. In addition, payrolls above $117 million will be subject to a 17.5 percent luxury tax.

A year ago, the Yankees gave slugging first baseman Jason Giambi the richest contract of the offseason, a seven-year, $120 million deal. But this winter, the Yankees already have severed ties with relievers Ramiro Mendoza and Mike Stanton.

Cashman would not say how much the team needs to reduce, but it is believed the goal is to get below the luxury-tax threshold. To do so, the Yankees are trying to unload expensive contracts such as those of Raul Mondesi, Sterling Hitchcock and Rondell White. They might also be willing to trade Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez.

From Steinbrenner on down, the Yankees have complained the new labor deal was designed specifically to reduce their revenue advantage. Again, at a charity banquet earlier this week, Manager Joe Torre claimed the new labor deal was "aimed at [Steinbrenner], and [the owners] are going to get their pound of flesh."

While crying poor, the Yankees have still signed free agent left-handed reliever Chris Hammond and re-signed third baseman Robin Ventura (at a pay cut of about $3.25 million from Ventura's 2002 salary).

In addition, the team is negotiating to re-sign Roger Clemens -- another expensive move -- and may acquire one of the Montreal Expos' two exceptional young pitchers, Bartolo Colon and Javier Vazquez, in a trade.

Contreras Rejected

Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras's application to become a free agent was rejected today by the commissioner's office, which concluded at least one of the documents was improper.

Contreras defected in October while Cuba's national team was in Mexico, and his agent, Jaime Torres, submitted papers Wednesday to the commissioner's office claiming that the right-hander had established residency in Mexico and had obtained a visa from the Dominican Republic.

Contreras came to the United States after he defected, which makes him subject to the amateur draft. Cubans who defect have tried to become residents of countries outside the United States and Canada, which allows them to be free agents. . . .

The St. Louis Cardinals signed right-hander Chris Carpenter and are expected to announce this weekend they have re-signed veteran left-hander Chuck Finley. Carpenter, formerly of the Toronto Blue Jays, signed a one-year deal with a club option for 2004 believed to be worth a total of $1 million guaranteed. He had shoulder surgery in September is not expected to be ready to pitch until at least midseason.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.