Yanks face tough offseason decisions

Sometime in the next 24 hours, Brian Cashman will begin sifting through the forensic evidence left behind from the ALCS, looking for reasons the Yankees’ talent, experience and massive payroll failed them with the season on the line Friday night.

The Rangers weren’t supposed to match any of the Yankees’ assets, yet they’re the ones heading to the World Series.

The Bombers? They turned into a Ferrari with a dead battery in the driveway – expensive, beautiful, useless.

The shock was great enough to leave club officials with an all-important set of questions: Was the 6-1 loss in Game 6 an aberration? Was the entire Series meltdown the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time against a hotter opponent?

Or were multiple blowouts at the hand of the Rangers the work of a deeper, more insidious problem?

Of course, “problem” is a relative term for a team that won 95 games in baseball’s toughest division. But the Yankees realized early in the series the Rangers were younger and hungrier, and not even the Bombers’ most vaunted asset, that winning pedigree, was able to reverse the downward spiral.

Once Cashman starts digging, he’ll find several issues that need to be addressed. We’ll see if he and the Steinbrenner family have the stomach for the tougher ones, starting with Derek Jeter’s contract.

PAYING THE CAPTAIN: Executives acknowledge they have no idea what Jeter will ask for in his new contract – whether he’ll demand to be paid for his legacy in the Bronx or if he’ll be sufficiently self-aware to know he’s in decline, coming off the worst season of his career.

As a 36-year-old singles hitter with limited range, albeit with a true arm, Jeter wouldn’t command more than $8 million to $10 million a year on the open market, and that’s assuming anyone else would actually attempt to sign him. The Yankees saw for themselves how wide the gap was between Jeter and a younger, more athletic shortstop like Elvis Andrus. But it’s not as if they can do anything about it. They’re stuck with him, probably for the next three years.

The Yankees will likely offer Jeter a pay cut from his current $20 million annual salary. Once that happens, we’ll see how much good will actually exists on both sides. A contract worth, say, $15 million would be more than fair, given Jeter’s trend line and age, but it’s hard to believe the captain would accept a 25 percent cut.

What’s more, the Yankees will ask Jeter to consider reducing his playing time in 2011 and will push to drop him in the batting order. With a .270 average and .340 on-base percentage, he’s better suited to hit in the No. 8 or No. 9 spot. Do the Yankees dare impose their will on one of the most popular (and headstrong) players in the team’s history?

RE-SIGNING THE MANAGER: Cashman made it clear Joe Girardi will be back in 2011 and beyond, and for a raise, too. The GM had no quarrels with the way Girardi moved the chess pieces during the ALCS, although Cashman, no dummy, was merely protecting him instead of actually critiquing him.

Girardi’s over-reliance on numbers failed the Yankees time and again in the final week of the season, revealing a lack of trust in his own instincts. As a result, the Yankees never found that “on” switch in Game 6, because Girardi didn’t know how to ask for it. It’s not in his nature to peel away the layers of his players’ psychological flesh.

Instead, the manager relied on matchups, trends and data – all the trimmings of the sabermetric era. When it came time to find an actual leader, someone to put together a monstrous 10-pitch at-bat against Colby Lewis when the season was slipping away, not a single Yankee stepped up. That’s not just an indictment of the players, but their lackluster manager as well.

RE-SIGNING MARIANO RIVERA and ANDY PETTITTE: One of these two tasks will be simple enough to accomplish in a single set of phone calls. Rivera wants to return for one more year and won’t haggle about money. He’s told friends he’ll accept the same salary ($15 million) he’s made since 2008.

Pettitte’s career is at a more critical point. He clearly wants to keep playing, proving he’s just as effective today as he was a decade ago. But, at 38, with pressure from his family to come home, he’ll have to square his decision with his wife. The Yankees also know that, even if Pettitte agrees to another contract, they can no longer count on his being healthy for an entire season.

The groin injury that kept him on the DL for more than two months was the classic red flag of an aging player; the Bombers were only lucky that it wasn’t his arm.

SIGNING CLIFF LEE: To say the Bombers will empty their coffers for Lee is like saying Bill Gates has a few loose dollars lying around. If the courtship of Lee is only about money, then the Yankees will be first on a list with no No. 2s.

What the Bombers don’t know, however, is whether Lee will be swayed by the monsoon of good will being generated in the Rangers’ clubhouse, not to mention the lure of playing for a man’s-man baseball executive in Nolan Ryan.

The fact that Lee is represented by the hard-core Darek Braunecker suggests the great left-hander’s serious about being rewarded for his excellence, as is his right. There’ll be no ole-boy discounts, not even for Ryan. The Yankees certainly could use Lee: he’s the sort of alpha male who would’ve made all the difference in the world in a postseason that ended in embarrassment. Any set of forensics will tell you that.

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