In the wake of the Yankees’ ALCS washout, the Bronx Bombers have been treated like a complete failure. During last night’s NLCS telecast on FOX, Joe Buck and Tim McCarver even compared the end of the Yankees’ 2012 season to the Boston Red Sox’ epic collapse in 2011. Judging by the furor, you’d never guess the Yankees had the best record in the American League.
The Yankees had a historically poor offensive postseason. There’s no way around that fact. However, that doesn’t mean the team should overreact. By the same token, it would be naïve to attribute the offense’s poor showing in October to bad luck and poor timing. Even though the Bronx Bombers ranked among the A.L. leaders in most offensive categories, the lineup was not without its flaws, many of which were exposed during the postseason. So, as Brian Cashman looks back at his team, chances are he’ll come to the conclusion that the status quo can not be maintained.
Even if the Yankees won the World Series, the team’s extensive list of free agents all but ensured significant turnover. Russell Martin, Nick Swisher, Hiroki Kuroda, Raul Ibanez, and Rafael Soriano (who seems certain to exercise his opt out clause) are all meaningful contributors who are likely to either test the market or seek a raise, which could cloud their future in the Bronx. Also complicating matters are the injuries to Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. Neither player is guaranteed to start the season on time, and, considering their ages, a full recovery is impossible to predict. Throw in Andy Pettitte’s annual retirement watch, Curtis Granderson’s $15 million team option, the potential for trade talks involving Alex Rodriguez, and Cashman’s scary insistence that CC Sabathia have his left elbow examined, and, right now, very little seems certain about next year.
Last winter, Brian Cashman preached “pitching, pitching, and more pitching”, but this time around, he would probably sign up to enter 2013 with the exact same pitching staff as last season. Even without Rivera and Michael Pineda, the Yankees had a rotation and bullpen capable of success in both the regular and post season, so there really isn’t a need to make major changes. Of course, keeping everyone in the fold will likely cost more money. The most likely casualty figures to be Soriano, who could command a long-term lucrative contract coming off an outstanding season as a closer. Would the Yankees be willing to sign him to another big money contract? If not, team will enter next season with David Robertson as the only established and healthy member of the bullpen.
If Kuroda and Pettitte return to the fold, and Sabathia’s check-up comes back clean, the Yankees would likely be content to go with a similar rotation augmented by the eventual return of Pineda. Should those plans go awry, the Yankees would likely turn to either the free agent market (Zack Greinke, Edwin Jackson, or Francisco Liriano?), or explore a trade (perhaps the Phillies are still looking to dump the contract of old friend Cliff Lee?). Considering the work that needs to be done on the offense, Cashman is probably hoping to have his pitching staff squared away as soon as possible, but the best laid plans usually don’t make it past November.
The Yankees had one of the best offenses in the American League, but relative run production was down versus prior seasons. Throughout the year, the lineup was plagued by vulnerability to platoon splits as well as a lack of athleticism that manifested on the base paths. Too much attention was paid to the team’s occasional struggles with runners in scoring position and dependence on the long ball, but in reality, what dampened the Yankees offense was the opposing manager’s ability to match-up against individual hitters as well as the lineups inability to manufacture runs, not via small ball, but on actual hits with runners in scoring position.
The ideal way to supply the Yankees’ current deficiency would be to obtain players who are not only younger and more athletic, but can also field their position (or positions) and hit both righties and lefties. Within this conceptual framework, there are some easy targets who have occasionally been the subject of trade rumors during the year. Diamondbacks’ right fielder Justin Upton, Padres’ third baseman Chase Headley, and Braves’ utility many Martin Prado are three players who probably already top the Yankees’ wish list, but, several other teams likely feel the same way. Adding one player from this list will be hard enough, but if the team can somehow pry two away, it would allow Cashman to go in a completely different direction. In particular, Headley’s and Prado’s ability to play the outfield as well as the infield would give the Yankees increased flexibility. Combining one of the two, or another like them, with Upton, for example, would not only allow the Yankees to let Swisher walk, but also give the team more choices regarding Granderson, including declining his $15 million option or picking it up with the intention of trading him.
Should the Yankees’ be unable to make a trade to address their long-term needs, there are a few short-term options in the free agent market. David Ortiz, for example, would provide a significant boost to the Yankees’ lineup in the regular season, while also providing a big presence in October. Would Ortiz’ clutch reputation take some pressure off the embattled the Yankees’ lineup, especially in the postseason, should they make it? It’s impossible to say, but his big bat in the middle definitely wouldn’t hurt. Besides, if Cashman really does have a fetish for “big hairy lefty monsters”, he couldn’t do better than Ortiz.
Ortiz would “clog up” the DH role, especially if Arod remains with the team, but the days of each player staying healthy for an entire season are in the past. The Yankees could easily accommodate both players for about 100-120 games next season, an arrangement that would be even more palatable if the team also acquired a more well-rounded third baseman than Chavez (Headley fits into this plan as well).
In addition to Ortiz, the Yankees could also kick the tires on players like Cody Ross, Torii Hunter, Shane Victorino, or even the embattled Melky Cabrera, but none from this group represents much of an upgrade, if any at all, over the team’s current roster. In fact, if the team were to sign Ortiz and make no other significant trade, it would probably make sense to re-sign Swisher and let Granderson play out his last season in pinstripes. The only other conceivable alternative from the free agent market would be the blockbuster signing of Josh Hamilton, but considering the money and risk involved, the Yankees are unlikely to even test the waters on the former MVP.
Improving the everyday lineup is a priority, but upgrading the bench shouldn’t be overlooked. Regardless of whether Martin returns, the Yankees need a more viable back-up catcher than Chris Stewart. Raul Ibanez’ postseason heroics all but assured he’ll be invited back, but the Yankees would be foolish to do so with the mindset that he is a capable fourth outfielder. Similarly, the Yankees shouldn’t be lulled into thinking Eduardo Nunez is a suitable defensive infielder based on a couple of strong postseason games. With the timing of Jeter’s return uncertain, acquiring a capable backup short stop will be particularly important this off season.
There are so many potential moving pieces on the Yankees roster, it’s almost impossible to draw up a blueprint on the first day of the off season. At this point, just about everything should be on the table. As the winter progresses, individual moves will come into focus, but in the meantime, it seems clear that this off season will be one of the most transformative in recent franchise history. In the past, Cashman has been skilled at remaking the team, but he has always had an open wallet. Will Hal Steinbrenner be willing to back away from his profit-driven pursuit of a $189 million payroll? The answer to that question, more than availability of players, could determine what kind of team the Yankees field in 2013.