Yankees on unfamiliar turf

December 20, 2010

It’s no stretch to say this has been a sobering offseason for the Yankees, who were 0-for-December in their pursuit of free agents, went through a contentious negotiation just to get their own captain, Derek Jeter, back in pinstripes and, for now, have been surpassed by the Red Sox as the American League’s team to beat.

Incredibly, the Yankees look like baseball’s most expensive underdogs with a $200 million payroll. GM Brian Cashman says “patience” is the new operative plan, but to a fan base that’s used to seeing the Bombers get their way, he might as well be speaking Mandarin.

Talk about culture shock: Suddenly, it’s the Sox who’ve turned into the AL’s biggest spenders, able to snare not just Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, but even a significant bit piece for the bullpen, Bobby Jenks. The Yankees’ countermove was to sign Pedro Feliciano, which has everyone wondering what happened to the can-do ethos that netted CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett practically all at once in 2008?

For one, adding those players left the Yankees with fewer holes for 2011. They weren’t looking for three free agents, just one — Cliff Lee. The Bombers threw everything in their arsenal at the lefthander who, as it turns out, just didn’t want to play in New York.

That’s how the hierarchy has consoled itself, by saying Lee’s rejection had nothing to do with money, the city, or the conduct of Stadium fans toward Lee’s wife during the playoffs. If Lee was homesick for Philadelphia, there was no power on earth that could’ve stopped him from re-signing with his former National League team.

The Yankees, after all, put the most money on the table, and the longest guaranteed contract. But it’s worth noting that seventh year was a player option for $16 million, and the contract’s annual average salary, while hefty, was merely in line with what the Phillies and Rangers were both offering. Unlike in their negotiation with Sabathia, the Yankees chose not to bury Lee in cash — which, in effect, would have made it impossible for him to say no.

There are plenty of legitimate reasons for the Yankees’ relative restraint. At 32, Lee is two years older than Sabathia, which means had he accepted the Bombers’ offer, he would’ve been pitching into his age 39 season. The Yankees also felt they were bargaining from relative strength, as opposed to 2008, when they’d failed to make the playoffs.

This time, the Yankees were coming off a 95-win season, which got them to the AL Championship Series. While the finish was disappointing, ownership thought the only competition for Lee’s services would come from Texas, which the Yankees suspected they could outnegotiate. No one envisioned the Phillies creeping in the back door — or, more accurately, not a single Yankees official figured Lee would contact the Phillies after New York’s final offer was made.

That was the biggest blow to the Yankees’ ego: the team that always gets its free-agency prey was summarily blown off by Lee. From Jason Giambi to Mike Mussina, then to the Sabathia-Teixeira-Burnett trifecta — heck, all the way back to Reggie Jackson — the Yankees have historically made the big score.

But not this time. Their money, the prestige, the winning pedigree weren’t enough for Lee — or for Kerry Wood, for that matter. For the second time this month, the Yankees failed to tempt a player who decided on a homecoming over Pinstripes.

“Good for him,” is what one Yankees official said a day after Lee’s introductory press conference at Citizens Bank Park. The Bombers took the high road before, during and after the negotiation, insisting they had no ill will toward Lee.

That might not be true of his agent, however. The Yankees believe Darek Braunecker misled them into thinking Lee was sufficiently interested in playing in the Bronx, enough for the Steinbrenner family to put up $148 million. The Yankees are convinced they were used, which might come back to haunt Braunecker and his other client, who just happens to be Burnett.

“(Braunecker) is going to need us more than (we) need him,” one official cautioned. That might be true in 2013, when Burnett’s contract expires. In the meantime, however, the Yankees are desperate for Burnett to make a comeback, especially if Andy Pettitte chooses to retire.

With Pettitte, the Yankees have a shot at the playoffs; they’re a 92-95 win team that figures to win the wild card. Without him, the Bombers appear to be cooked, unless Cashman can make a blockbuster deal for a starting pitcher before the July 31 trading deadline.

That’s where the “patience” edict comes into play. Cashman is asking fans to hang tight while the Yankees hopefully stay close to the Red Sox. That means rebound seasons not just from Burnett, but Jeter and Alex Rodriguez as well. By most industry estimates, Boston is about to embark on a 100-win season, which means the Yankees’ best-case scenario is to cobble together a playoff-caliber rotation that’ll support the (still) formidable offense.

Pettitte’s return is paramount, then it’ll be up to Cashman to find the final piece. He has money to spend, a few available prospects to potentially move, like 21-year-old catcher Jesus Montero or pitchers Dellin Betances, Andrew Brackman or Manny Banuelos.

Trouble is, some of the logical targets might be not be available. The Marlins just tied up Ricky Nolasco to a long-term deal, Zack Greinke is off the table, and it would be the ultimate longshot for the Cardinals to move Chris Carpenter, despite his $15 million option for 2012. Among next year’s free agents, those who might be dangled in their walk year, Roy Oswalt is at the top of the list. But, seriously, why would the Phillies move him?

Cashman’s Plan B, then, might be to wait for the kids to arrive, if the Yankees have the stomach for two months of Ivan Nova and/or Sergio Mitre at the back of the rotation. Then again, the Bombers could always take a run at Carl Pavano, which would be downright lunacy. Right?