Yankees need to figure out future

BY Bob Klapisch • October 12, 2011

The Yankees have spent the past week recovering from the shock of their Game 5 loss to the Tigers, with mixed results. Brian Cashman says he’s still numb from the upset, while Joe Girardi has anesthetized himself by saying the Yankees were simply unlucky.

Team president Randy Levine took it the hardest, calling the first-round exit “a bitter disappointment.”

No matter from which prism it’s viewed, the Yankees’ championship drought is undeniable, at least by the standard set in the late ’90s. The Bombers have just one World Series ring in the past 11 seasons, which is why Cashman will begin working on a new blueprint for 2012 as soon as he signs a new contract. That should happen within a week.

Girardi’s rationalization aside, the Yankees had every expectation of getting back to the World Series this year. It wasn’t just luck they were counting on, not after leading the American League in runs in the second half, winning the most games and posting the lowest ERA of any team heading for the postseason. And, thanks to Mariano Rivera, the Bombers considered their bullpen second to none.

Yet, this $200 million team was ground into fine powder when the season was on the line. What went wrong? Those are the questions Cashman will have to answer as he tweaks the roster. Here are a few suggestions for an upgrade.

* Re-sign CC Sabathia (on one or two conditions): The left-hander will certainly opt out of his contract this offseason, even though he’s put down roots in the New York area and enjoys playing for the Yankees. Still, as Sabathia told the New York Post this week, “baseball is a business,” and he has every right to negotiate a better deal than the one that expires in 2015, when he’ll be 35 years old.

Coming off 19 wins in 2011 (40 in the past two seasons), Sabathia has plenty of leverage. The Yankees won’t find that kind of productivity anywhere else on the market, unless you think C.J. Wilson or Yu Darvish are ready for New York’s overheated environment.

Sabathia has proved he can cope with big-market chaos. Plus, he’s only 31, with years remaining in his career, not to mention his prime. At least that’s what his birth certificate says. But there are underlying issues that worry the Yankees, including Sabathia’s weight and wear and tear on his arm.

After all, Sabathia’s ERA soared to 4.47 in the last two months of the season, and his numbers have been even worse in the past two Octobers — 16 earned runs, 32 hits and 15 walks in 24.2 innings. That’s a 6.60 ERA.

It’s possible Sabathia was out of sync when the Yankees went to a six-man rotation in August. The irony is that he ended up paying for the extra rest anyway, as four of his highest pitch counts of the season occurred in his last five starts. Girardi didn’t seem to worry about overworking his ace — “CC’s a big, strong guy,” is what the manager always said — although Sabathia ended up facing more batters (985) than anyone in the American League.

Conditioning is the secondary issue the Yankees will address with Sabathia, who gained a significant amount of weight as the season progressed. How much? Out of respect for their star pitcher, the Yankees refuse to say. But Sabathia is the heaviest he’s ever been as a Yankee, and officials are privately discussing how to rein in his diet next year.

Maintaining a certain level of physical fitness should be a clause in the next contract. The Yankees are unlikely to extend Sabathia anywhere near his age-40 season; it’s more likely they’ll increase his average annual salary to $25 million. He’ll have to earn it, though.

* End Alex Rodriguez’s tenure in the cleanup spot: Changing the lineup wouldn’t just be a reward for Robinson Cano, it’d be a favor to A-Rod, as well. Was he hurt this year, neutralized by injuries to his thumb and knee? Absolutely. But it was more than physical limitations that resulted in back-to-back strikeouts in the seventh and ninth innings of Game 5. It was a case of nerves.

Given A-Rod’s overall numbers in the postseason, you almost wonder whether 2009 was an aberration. Since then, in the last two Octobers, the slugger has hit .180 over 50 at-bats, with no HRs and six RBI. In his six Yankee postseasons, A-Rod has hit .224, with four HRs and 15 RBI over 143 at-bats.

So where does he fit? In the No. 5 spot, at the minimum, maybe even No. 6 unless there’s a sustained uptick in his overall health. Until then, Rodriguez seems more uncomfortable than ever in pressure situations — the polar opposite of Cano, who’s as fearless as anyone in the Yankee lineup.

To be fair, though, it’s not just Rodriguez who’s shriveled. Mark Teixeira has hit .170 over 106 at-bats in his three Yankee postseasons. And Nick Swisher has hit .160 over 100 at-bats in three Yankee postseasons.

Girardi will argue these are all small sample sizes, and that players are victims of bad luck. But Girardi’s managerial style — indeed, his personality — is rigid, to put it mildly. By extension, the Yankees are just as tight, missing the free-flowing confidence that Joe Torre used to hone to perfection a decade ago.

Instead, when the Yankees were down in 2011, they stayed down — just 4-49 when trailing after the seventh inning, and 2-50 when trailing after eight. For all the firepower they brandished, the Bombers batted only .225, or nine points below the AL average, with two out and runners in scoring position. Similarly, they hit .221, or 21 points lower than the AL mean, in situations considered close and late.

* Trade A.J. Burnett: Enough is enough, no matter how well Burnett may have pitched against the Tigers in his Division Series start. He’ll be 35 next season, and the right-hander is never going to recover the high-90s fastball of his prime, which will doom him as he continues to work the middle of the plate as if he were a 20-something.

The problem, of course, is getting another team to absorb the final two years of Burnett’s contract, worth a total of $31 million. Newsday’s Ken Davidoff suggested moving him to the Braves for Derek Lowe. It makes sense to think Burnett could prosper in the National League, and it’s true, the Braves would like to unload Lowe.

The obstacle is Lowe’s inability to contain American League hitters. The last time he tried — in 2004 with the Red Sox — he ended up with a 5.42 ERA and 1.615 WHIP, both career highs.

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