New York Yankees Turn Focus to Next Season

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ALDS loss preludes uncertain offseason for AL East champs

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— by Mark Ross

In 2009, the New York Yankees won their 27th World Series title, far and away the most of any major league baseball franchise. They have returned to the postseason the past two years, this season as the top seed in the American League by posting the second-most (97) wins in all of baseball.

But following last night's 3-2 ALDS Game 5 loss to the Detroit Tigers in Yankees Stadium, the team with the highest payroll in the game is left to ponder an early postseason exit for the second year in a row.

While most teams would love to make the playoffs three years in a row, let alone be just two years removed from winning the World Series, this is the Yankees we're talking about where success is measured by one thing — championships.

Look no further than what team president Randy Levine told ESPNNewYork.com earlier today, "We are the Yankees... When you don't win the World Series, it is a bitter disappointment and not a successful year." So with this season already labeled a failure, the focus now shifts to next season and what will the 2012 Yankees look like.

Starting at the top, general manager Brian Cashman is in the final year of his contract. Cashman has been the Yankees' GM since 1998, overseeing four championship teams during his tenure. However, he's also had to weather a fair amount of criticism and take the brunt of the blame when the team has fallen short of its expected goal, such as this year.

It remains to be seen if Levine and the other team executives think it's time for a change in the front office or not, although it should be pointed out that Levine has expressed his desire to re-sign Cashman. Complicating things is the fact that Cashman's name has already been suggested and bandied about for other GM jobs that are open or could come open, most notably the one belonging to the Chicago Cubs.

No matter what happens in the front office, it certainly appears that manager Joe Girardi will be back in 2012. Girardi, who just finished his fourth season as the Yankees' skipper, has a 384-264 record in the regular-season and a 18-10 mark in the postseason. His Yankees team have participated in the past three postseasons, highlighted by the World Series title in 2009. Girardi is signed through the 2013 season and there don't appear to be any signs that a change in the dugout is forthcoming.

As for the product on the field, the Yankees entered the 2011 season with a team payroll of more than $200 million, the highest in the league. The next highest payroll belongs to the Philadelphia Phillies, whose players' salaries totaled around $30 million less than that of the Yankees.

A high team payroll is nothing new for the Yankees and despite another early postseason exit it's not going to change next year. The Yankees currently have more than $150 million committed in salary for the 2012 season, thanks to the lucrative, long-termed contracts belonging to the likes of Alex Rodriguez, C.C. Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, A.J. Burnett, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera.

In fact, these six players alone account for more than $108 million in salary, which is more than the entire payrolls for all but nine TEAMS this past season, according to figures provided by USA Today.

To be fair, Teixeira (.248, 39 HR, 111 RBI), Jeter (.302, 84 R, 61 RBI) and Rivera (1.91 ERA, 44 saves) did their part all season, while the same can not be said for the oft-injured Rodriguez (.276, 16 HR, 62 RBI in just 99 games) and erratic Burnett (11-11,. 5.15 ERA). And then there's Sabathia.

The left-hander had a fine regular season (19-8, 3.00 ERA, 230 Ks in 237 1/3 innings), but he was ineffective in the postseason (6.23 ERA in the ALDS) for the second straight season. What's more, Sabathia, who signed a seven-year, $161-million contract with the Yankees in December 2008, has an opt out clause that if exercised, would make him a free agent this offseason.

While it seems highly unlikely that he would walk away from a guaranteed $92 million over the next four years, Sabathia, who turned 31 this season, may be viewing this as his final opportunity to sign a substantial contract. If he does opt out, there's no reason not to think that the Yankees would do everything they can to re-sign him, but outside of Texas Rangers' left-hander C.J. Wilson, there's not a lot of marquee pitchers among this offseason's potential free agent crop. So if the Yankees do end up re-signing Sabathia, he certainly won't come cheap.

Outside of Sabathia becoming a potential free agent, the only other significant free agent on the Yankees' current roster is Jorge Posada. Early indications are this is the end of Posada's career in pinstripes as the 40-year-old hit just .235 with 14 home runs and 44 RBI in 344 at bats and played a grand total of 16 games in the field, 14 of those coming at first base.

Posada's catching days are long past him as Russell Martin became the starting backstop this season and the Yankees have Teixeira entrenched at first and don't lack for DH options. They also have Jesus Montero, the organization's top hitting prospect, waiting in the wings. Montero, who will turn 22 in November, hit .328 in limited action after being called up in September and figures to be the Yankees' primary DH headed into next season, while spelling Martin behind the plate on occasion.

The infield for next season is already set with Rodriguez (3rd), Jeter (ss), Teixeira (1st) and Robinson Cano (2b). Cano is arguably the Yankees' best all-around player, which is saying something on this star-studded roster. Cano has hit .302 or better the past three seasons and averaged 103 runs, 27 home runs and 104 RBI during the same span. He also has totaled six home runs and 15 RBI while batting .333 the past two postseasons.

Cano, who will turn 29 in November, made $10 million this season and has a $14 million club option for next season and a $15 million club option in 2013. Considering Jeter, who will turn 38 next June, and Rodriguez, 37 next July, will be paid a collective $92 million the next two seasons, it's safe to assume that Cano isn't going anywhere in the immediate future.

Despite the offensive numbers that Cano and Teixeira each put up this season, the best season at the plate by a Yankee came from center fielder Curtis Granderson. In his second season in pinstripes, Granderson led the majors in runs (136), was second in home runs (41), third in RBI (119) and also stole 25 bases. The 30-year-old is one of the top candidates for AL MVP and even if he doesn't win, a top-five finish in the voting seems all but certain, which would raise his 2013 club option from $13 to $15 million.

Granderson should be joined in the outfield next season by Brett Gardner, who for the second straight season showed he can be a productive everyday player. Gardner batted .259 with 87 runs scored and tied for second in the majors with 49 stolen bases this season. The 28-year-old Gardner is arbitration-eligible and positioned for a significant raise from his roughly $500,000 salary this season.

The biggest question related to the outfield is who will round out the starting trio? Nick Swisher has given the Yankees three steady, consistent years at the plate and in the field and has a $10.25 club option for next season. The Yankees may choose to decline the option on Swisher, who will turn 31 in November, and look to free agency for his replacement.

The Yankees may also look to get younger on their bench as both Eric Chavez (turns 34 in December) and Andruw Jones (35 next April) are free agents. With Jeter and Rodriguez getting older, the need to find younger, productive bench players becomes even more important so Girardi can give his veterans the rest they need throughout the season.

Whatever the Yankees' decision-makers decide do in the outfield and with their bench, it doesn't look like they will be joining in the sweepstakes for either of the marquee free agents that will be out there this winter — Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder. As has already been mentioned, the Yankees are set at first with Teixeira and, even though they can afford it, don't need another high-priced DH.

Besides, if the Yankees are going to spend any significant amount of money this offseason it's going to be where it's needed most — pitching. If Sabathia does choose to opt out of his contract, re-signing him will be become their no. 1 priority. Outside of that, there figures to be a lot of turnover on the pitching staff.

Sabathia was far and away the Yankees' best starting pitcher, which only further reinforces the amount of leverage he holds as he decides whether to opt out or not. Burnett for whatever reason  just hasn't been able to put it all together during this three seasons in pinstripes. Even though he's owed $33 million the next two seasons, the Yankees may even explore trading him to someone else just to be rid of him.

If that happens, at best the Yankees will have to eat a significant amount of his contract or what's more likely, take back another bad contract/team's headache (the Cubs' Carlos Zambrano perhaps?) in the process.

To give a better assessment of the state of the Yankees' starting pitching, look no further than the fact that if not for a 24-year-old rookie and two under-the-radar free agent signees, there's a chance they may not have even made the postseason.

Should Sabathia opt out and the Yankees are unable to re-sign him, at least they have Ivan Nova. The rookie from the Dominican Republic made 27 starts this season, finishing second on the team with 16 wins. A strong candidate to win AL Rookie of the Year honors, Nova figures to be a key piece to the Yankees' rotation for years to come.

After Nova, the next biggest surprise regarding the Yankees' rotation was the performances of Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia. Signed to minor-league contracts in January and February respectively, the duo worked their way into the starting rotation and combined to make 51 starts with 311 innings pitched, 20 wins and a 3.82 ERA. While they may not have been spectacular, the 38-year-old Colon and 35-year-old Garcia were reliable and certainly justified their collective $2.4 million salary.

The only other Yankees' starting pitcher to make more than two starts this season was Phil Hughes. The right-hander entered this season looking to build of off his 18-win campaign from a year ago, but he struggled with injuries throughout the year and made just 14 starts. And even when he did pitch, the results (5-5, 5.79 ERA) were not impressive.

Hughes, who turns 26 next June, was long believed to be one of the future cornerstones of the Yankees' rotation. Now, following his injury-plauged, highly ineffective 2011 season, there doesn't appear to be any guarantees that Hughes will even be a part of next season's rotation.

The bullpen, headlined by Rivera, the future Hall of Famer who turns 42 in November and is showing no signs of slowing down, is in considerably better shape compared to the starting rotation headed into 2012. A big reason for this is the emergence of David Robertson.

Headed into this season Robertson figured to be used as a situational or middle-innings reliever with Joba Chamberlain and Rafael Soriano, the Yankees' big free-agent acquisition, tagged as the setup men. However, Soriano went on the DL in the middle of May and Chamberlain went down in June with a torn elbow ligament, which forced Robertson into a more prominent role.

Robertson showed he was more than up to the task as he finished the season with a 4-0 record, 34 holds and a miniscule 1.08 ERA in 70 games pitched as the primary setup guy. Compared to Soriano, who went 2-3 with 23 holds, two saves (in five opportunities) and a 4.12 ERA.

To put it another way, Soriano, who signed a three-year, $35 million deal in January, made more than $254,000 for every inning (39 1/3) he pitched this season, while Robertson made a little more than $460,000 for the entire season or less than $7,000 for every inning he pitched. The 26-year-old Robertson is another of the Yankees' arbitration-eligible players headed for a big raise next season, a raise he rightfully earned.

Ironically enough, Soriano can, like Sabathia, opt out of his contract this offseason. However, given the injuries he battled this season, his lack of production and the fact he would be walking away from a guaranteed $25 million over the next two years, that development seems highly unlikely.

While Robertson, Soriano and Rivera can be assured of their roles in the bullpen next season, the same cannot be said of Chamberlain. The big righty underwent Tommy John surgery in June and even if he is able to return at some point next season, it's unclear where he would fit in.

What is clear is that there figures to be some new faces in the Yankees' bullpen next year and you can never rule out another marquee free agent signee like Soriano. Among some of the names that could be available this winter are Heath Bell, Rafael Betancourt, Ryan Madson and, wait for it Yankee fans, Jonathan Papelbon.

Whatever pitching additions the Yankees make, they do have some promising pitching prospects on the horizon, headlined by left-hander Manny Banuelos and righty Dellin Betances. Cashman made it very clear throughout this season he had no desire in including Banuelos or Betances in any potential trades as he viewed each player a key part of the Yankees' future.

The same can be said for Montero, who certainly appears to figure prominently into the Yankees' plans in 2012 and beyond. And given the state of the starting pitching, Banuelos and Betances may not be far behind.

What remains to be seen, however, is if these three and any other new players that may be added are ready for the spotlight and high expectations that comes with wearing the world-famous pinstripes. After all, with the Yankees, success is measured with one thing, championships.

And considering how hard it's going to be for everyone in the Yankees' organization, not to mention their fans, to watch another team hoist the World Series trophy in a few weeks, 2012 and the next chance at championship no. 28 can't come soon enough.

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