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Decisions, Decisions for the Yankees

by Steve Simineri
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http://www.flickr.com/photos/keithallison/7948013190/

Off-season of intrigue for Cashman, and Yankees begins

This season’s Yankees Opening Day roster consisted of twenty one returning players, and the lone noticeable loss was of stalwart Jorge Posada, who retired in January after seventeen seasons in pinstripes.

However there is no guarantee the roster remains near intact once again as this year’s Yankee group was the oldest in the league, and numerous players are upcoming free agents. Other than the monstrous contracts of C.C. Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, almost everybody else is on the mend this off-season or next, with some due significant raises.

To make General Manager Brian Cashman’s job even more daunting, Owner Hal Steinbrenner reaffirmed a few weeks ago that the goal remains to have the payroll lowered to $189 million by 2014. "I've made it clear that is very important to me, for several reasons," Steinbrenner said. "You are talking about a 10 percent reduction in payroll. I don't see that as an outrageous concept. I never have."

Although the concept doesn’t seem outlandish, a major problem is that the plan was centered on the notion of the next generation of killer B’s, Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances, joining hulking right-hander Michael Pineda in the rotation.

The three highly regarded youngsters were believed to eventually fill out the staff behind Sabathia, while collecting pennies, but none of them threw a single pitch in the majors this year with all their seasons ending prematurely.  

The 23 year old Pineda, who was an All-Star during his rookie season in Seattle, figured to help anchor the staff for years to come, after coming over for the golden jewel of the Yankees farm-system, Jesus Montero.

But he underwent surgery in the spring to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder, and is now a major question mark. Meanwhile, more bad news came for the group a few weeks ago when Banuelos underwent Tommy John surgery.

Last spring the great Mo Rivera proclaimed Banuelos the best pitching prospect he has ever seen, ahead of 1991 first overall pick Brien Taylor, whom he was teammates with two decades ago in Class-A Fort Lauderdale.

Taylor went on to wreck his prized left arm in a barroom brawl, dislocating his shoulder and tearing his labrum after missing on a haymaker while trying to defend his brother. He was never the same again, and now the Yankees must hope another young promising lefty doesn’t fall down a similar road. Even though this is different, it’s still a major setback, and it’s hard to imagine him helping in the Bronx until mid-late 2014, or 2015.

While his news isn’t good, things aren’t much better for Betances. Despite pitching in two games for the Bombers at the end of last season, he struggled mightily in Scranton earlier this year, and was eventually sent to Double-A Trenton because of control issues.

He finished the year in the minors with a combined ERA of 6.44, but he will pitch in the Fall League with the Scottsdale Scorpions, and try to get back on track. Cashman has said that the trio aren’t figuring into his plan for building a rotation next year, and if they do pitch in the bigs it would simply be a bonus.

With that being the case, once again veterans Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda will be heavily relied on. However, the two are only getting older and due new contracts. Kuroda was outstanding, but the workhorse is turning 38 in February, and he will be a hot commodity in the thin pitching market after posting 16 wins and a 3.32 ERA.

Following a one year hiatus, Pettitte looked just dandy in a limited amount of starts, and has hinted towards returning for a final rodeo next season. Despite turning 41 in June, having him back in the fold is increasingly important with the youngsters not near ready. He will however be seeking a raise from the $2.5 million contract he signed in March.

The plan gets further complicated with All-Stars Robinson Cano, and Curtis Granderson, set to hit the market in 2014. The two have club options for 2013, but it won’t be easy locking them up.

 Cano is said to be looking for a mega $200 million contract and Granderson is coming off consecutive 40 home-run seasons, so he too has a lengthy price-tag. However, Cano has been questioned for his work ethic and hitting in the clutch, while Granderson struck out a whopping 195 times and hit .232 this season.

The two didn’t help their cause in the playoffs either, combining for six hits in 70 at-bats. Meanwhile, Cano set a postseason record by going hitless in 29 straight at bats, and Granderson whiffed 16 more times.

However they weren’t the only ones struggling and looking for a new contract, as pending free agent Nick Swisher, was once again invisible. He collected just five hits in 30 at-bats, definitely costing himself a sizeable amount of money in the offseason.

Despite arguably being the worst postseason player ever, the 31-year-old did have another solid season posting 24 homers and 92 RBIs. He has also quietly been one of the more consistent right-fielders in baseball, as he is one of four players at the position since 2009 to have hit at least .250 with 100 homers, joining only Jose Batista, Jay Bruce, and Nelson Cruz.

In the summer, it was reported that he was seeking Jayson Werth money (7 years, $126 million). Even though that idea is now laughable, there’s no question that he’s been a key cog in the Yankees lineup. It will be nearly impossible for Cashman to bring him back while signing both Cano and Granderson long-term. So it’s very likely that yesterday was his last game in pinstripes.

The lineup may look even more different with catcher Russell Martin set to join Swisher in free agency. The 29-year-old declined a three-year, $21 million deal in the spring, and his slow start made himself look foolish.

But despite hitting under .200 for the majority of the season, he played great behind the plate, and picked up his hitting down the stretch. He finished with a.211, average, and a career high 21 longballs. His numbers are also bit deceiving, as many of his outs were hard hit balls, and his .311 on-base percentage was slightly higher than Ichiro’s, who hit .283.

It’s not easy to find a catcher who can handle a pitching staff and hit for power, which is why we may see the Canadian born Martin move on. In his favor, fellow backstops Yadier Molina (5 years, $75 million), and Miguel Montero (5 years, $60 million), recently received hefty paydays.

While some current Yankees in their prime are seeking long-term deals, numerous veterans are just trying to hang on, as the contracts of former All-Stars Ichiro Suzuki, Raul Ibanez, Eric Chavez, Andruw Jones, Freddy Garcia, and Derek Lowe are all set to expire.

Ibanez hit in the clutch all season long, and has already cemented his legacy in Yankee lore. He did exactly what Cashman expected from him and more, after he choose the 40-year old over Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui. He’s also in line for a raise from the $1.1 million he collected this season, but he has yet to announce his future intentions, and is getting old.  

The same can be said for future the Hall-of-Famer Ichiro, who has similarly become a beloved figure in his short time in the Bronx. The 38-year-old was invigorated by the bright lights and winning atmosphere, hitting .325 in 66 games for the Bombers. Despite being brought in to fill the void of Brett Gardner, they may both be sharing the outfield next season. With Swisher set to depart, the Yankees need a right-fielder, and Suzuki has shown that he has plenty left in the tank to be an everyday player.

Chavez may be back in the fold as well after he’s given the Yankees a lot more than they expected from him. The 34-year old is no longer an everyday player, but he put together his best season since 2007, and amazingly stood healthy. He fills a valuable niche on the roster, and should be welcomed back if he wants to continue playing.

This most likely wouldn’t be the case for Jones, Garcia, and Lowe, as they will probably move on. The 39-year old Lowe was the lone member of the group on the playoff roster, with both Jones, and Garcia falling off in the second half.

Despite the fact things seem hectic enough for Cashman, it could get even more difficult, as closer Rafael Soriano might opt-out of his current deal. The 32 year old is set to make $14 million in the last year of his three year pact, but after doing a phenomenal job filling in for the injured Rivera, he may look for a multi-year deal elsewhere, especially with the legend set to reclaim his job.

Speaking of Rivera, he too is a free agent, and like his core four buddy Pettitte, he will need to iron out what will likely be his final major league contract. Unlike Pettitte though, he will be seeing a pay-cut from the $15 million he made this season.

The last major obstacle for Cashman, will be figuring out what to do with the embattled Rodriquez. He has five years and $114 million left on his current deal, making him nearly impossible to move. However people are saying that the Yankees need to rid themselves of him, even if that means eating the majority of his contract.

But don’t expect him to go anywhere, as these Marlins rumors are just a silly pipe-dream. Nobody will take on that contract, and eating the majority of it would just be counterproductive. So this decision may actually be one of the easier one’s for Cashman.

While some things will change by next April, one thing that should remain familiar is the trio of Derek Jeter, Rivera, and Pettitte gearing up for another season in the Bronx. Next season will most likely be the final pursuit of a sixth ring for both Rivera, and Pettitte. Then Jeter will follow them into retirement not so far down the road, and that is when the real change occurs.

Life post the core four is frightening, and the Yankees may have a hard time adjusting. In the last three games against the Tigers they were without their remaining trio, and got a possible glimpse into the future. After Pettitte pitched, and Jeter went down in Game 1, the team looked completely lifeless and deflated; it wasn’t pretty to say the least.

The terrible performance has people questioning the construction of the team and Cashman, with many demanding an overhaul of the aging roster. However he did a brilliant job putting this team together, and not a whole lot needs to be changed, or will be.

Despite being known for their lavish spending, the Yankees received big contributions from a slew of low-cost veterans that he found. Twelve players in all were brought over from other teams, and they were all paid less than $4 million, or had their salaries covered by their old teams.

The bargain-bin list includes Ichiro, Chavez, Ibanez, Jones, Lowe, Garcia, Logan, Clay Rapada, Jayson Nix, Cody Eppley, Chris Stewart, Casey McGehee, The ‘spare parts’ only cost the Yankees about $12 million, and it’s safe to say that was fine work by Cashman, who is seemingly now wearing the bulls-eye on his back.

Yes the team is old, as the roster consisted of eight players 37 or older and three players in their 40’s. Yes they looked run-down, and out of gas these last few weeks. But that’s not the reason why they fell 8 wins short of a Championship, and Cashman agrees, “A lot of people are pointing to this team, and saying we're old and that's the reason we're not getting anywhere," he said. "I'm like, 'Hey, we got there and we are old.' You know, if you're old and still good, it's not an issue."

The Yankees have always been built this way, it’s nothing new, and they’ve earned the nickname ‘Bronx Bombers’ for a reason. This method has helped Cashman deliver twelve division titles since taking over in 1998. Nobody seemed to complain when they clubbed a franchise record 245 homers in the regular season, and won the division, but now those people want the team blown up and the General Manager axed.

Ironically you could say this club overachieved, as they ranked second in baseball in total days lost to injury, yet finished with the best record in the American League. This group didn’t win 95 games by accident, no team does, and the aging roster isn’t about to go into a similar dark age, that the franchise went through during the 60's.

Granted it’s now been one World Series banner in the last 12 seasons, the reality is that winning it all is easier said than done. Baseball is a fickle game, and money doesn’t buy Championships, or produce winners. 

This will be a long, cold winter for Cashman, and the Yankees, as many decisions lie ahead. Fans may not get the overhaul that they want, but the team next season will definitely look slightly different, it’s just a matter of how Cashman constructs it. 

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