A $200 Million Bust?

As Alex Rodriguez struck out against Detroit fireballer, Jose Valverde, and ended the 2011 ALDS in a surprising 3-2 loss, one word reverberated throughout the Yankee Universe: Failure. Failure to hit with runners on base, failure for the middle of the order to get a clutch hit, failure to capture their 28th World Championship. But was this season really a failure? Now obviously, the mission statement for the Yankees is and always has been to win the World Series. But remember that the Yankees came into the season as prohibitive underdogs to both the Red Sox and the Phillies to win the World Series. Some people didn’t even have them making the playoffs as a Wild Card team. This wasn’t supposed to be their year.

First, let’s recap this series.

The rain certainly played a big part into the series, as neither team was able to use their ace in the way they expected them to.  But despite that, the Yankees took Game 1 with Nova coming out of the pen and put themselves in a good position to win the series. But Freddy Garcia was ineffective in Game 2, and Miguel Cabrera proved that with a first inning home run. What really killed the Yankees early in the series was pitching. They did not put the Tigers away in Game 2, and let them steal back the momentum with an early two runs. CC Sabathia did not put the Tigers away in Game 3 by putting a death grip on them when given an early two-run lead against the best pitcher in the game. In the big match-up between two aces, Sabathia failed to hold his end of the deal, pitching only five and 1/3 rocky innings compared to Verlander’s mostly-dominant eight.

Of course the big story in Game 5 was the Yankee offense, or lack thereof. There were no RBI producing hits with runners in scoring position. The Yankees scored only two runs on ten hits and seemed to be right on the doorstep of breaking it open every inning. Except it never exploded. The Yankee offense could muster only a Robinson Cano home run in the 5th and a bases loaded walk in the 7th and scored only two runs. You can blame a bunch of people, from Jeter, to A-Rod, to Teixeira to Swisher to Martin for the Yankee postseason disappointment. Before I get to the culprits, here’s who not to blame.

1: Alex Rodriguez. Even though he had a miserable Game 5, and only three hits in the series, you have to take in context of his season. He was injured for most of the second half, and even early on in the year was mostly playing through pain. He was scratched in a Sunday Night Game in April in the Yankees’ first trip to Boston. He had only 13 home runs in 99 games. He wasn’t the same player, and fans expected him to be the dominant player when he really wasn’t. That’s not the only reason why. In Games 1, 3, and 4, A-Rod stepped to the plate with a runner on third and less than two outs. Each of those times, even without getting a hit, he drove the run in with a productive out. It’s not the 2009 A-Rod the bashed clutch home run on a nightly basis, but it wasn’t the 2005-’07 A-Rod that popped out all the time. Also, he played a phenomenal, truly great third base. There were balls he had no business fielding that he made look routine.

2: Joe Girardi. People were wondering why he was going to the bullpen so much in Game 5 until it was discovered that Nova left with an injury. He managed the bullpen nearly flawlessly, the only hiccup occurring when CC Sabathia gave up a run in the fifth. The bullpen went 7 innings, and only gave up one run. He trusted A.J. Burnett with the season on the line in Game 4, a decision that proved to be brilliant, albeit with some help from Curtis Granderson.

3: Granderson. He didn’t have a great series, but he had a good one, with a couple of big hits in Detroit. His fielding was also exceptional. Don’t look too much into that bobble on the Martinez hit tonight; Austin Jackson could have crawled home and scored even if he fielded it cleanly. His glove is the only reason the Yankees brought the series back to New York.

Who can you blame:

Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira. Neither of them were able to get any sort of offense going in the series. Teixeira had a decent night in Game 5, doubling and drawing a bases loaded walk. But Nick Swisher followed the bases loaded walk with a strikeout. Perhaps the only big mistake I can think of Girardi making was not flip-flopping Swisher and Posada in the batting order.

Sabathia and Garcia. Garcia was always a danger. He pitched very well in the first half of the season but perhaps the only reason he was ever the starter for Game 2 was because he was only less worse than Colon down the stretch. Sabathia failed to shut down the Tigers after getting a decent lead in Game 3. Perhaps if the rain never falls in Game 1, Sabathia shuts down the Tigers and the Yankees beat Verlander. It’s fun to wonder what would have happened, but ultimately pointless.

Derek Jeter. The average was a low compared to postseasons past, and although he had some big hits and two multi-hit games, he had a very high number of strikeouts and in big spots. But he wasn’t a complete loss. At least he didn’t have a high number of double plays like in 2007’s ALDS. I’m not saying he was a big reason why they lost, and he did hit some balls very hard (Austin Jackson tracked down what could have been a leadoff double in Game 2, Miguel Cabrera also robbed him of a leadoff double tonight), but just didn’t have the usual magic that Jeter has.

You may tell me that I am living in the past, but this series can be thrown into the pile of playoffs from 2004-’06 that the Yankees probably do not lose if they have Andy Pettitte. Now granted, no one knows how effective Pettitte would have been if he had returned for the 2011 season, but I’m pretty sure that any Yankee fan would take an Andy Pettitte at fifty percent over a Freddy Garcia at a hundred percent to start a playoff game. Do you honestly expect Pettitte to pitch poorly in Game 2 of a playoff series with the Yankees up 1-0 in the series? I didn’t think so. Again, it’s fun to think of what could have happened, but ultimately pointless.

But should we be surprised of their first round exit? Probably not.

They lost out on the bidding wars for both Cliff Lee and Zach Greinke, both of whom will be watching their team from the bench for tomorrow’s pair of NLDS Game 5’s. The team had just come off of tense contract negotiations with Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada, and early in Spring Training, it was pointed out that CC Sabathia had the opportunity of opt out of his contract at the end of the season. In Spring Training, it was announced early that Posada would be used exclusively as a DH. In addition, there was growing concern that Phil Hughes’ fastball didn’t have the same pop to it as it did when he won 18 games in 2010.

Because of the retirement of Andy Pettitte, and the inconsistent 2010 season that A.J. Burnett had, starting pitching was already a big question mark entering the season. It also did not help that the two competitors for the fifth spot in the rotation were two journeymen righties, Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon.

But the Yankee season started out fairly well, with Curtis Granderson rebounding from an injury-plagued 2010 season and with Mark Teixeira having an unnaturally solid April. The only problem appeared to be Phil Hughes, whose prolonged loss of velocity and inability to get outs led to him landing on the disabled list two weeks into the season. Enter Bartolo Colon. Somehow, the Yankee season did not end then. The Yankees continued to defy odds with their pitching rotation throughout the early part of the season. CC Sabathia was a Cy Young candidate through July, Ivan Nova blossomed into a solid starter, and A.J. Burnett had a very strong first half of the season. Garcia and Colon, shockingly, each posted ERA’s under 3.25 into the All-Star break.

But there was something missing to the Yankee offense. Perhaps it was Derek Jeter’s .250 average in mid-June. Perhaps it was Robinson Cano not having a lights-out first half. Perhaps it was Alex Rodriguez’s diminished power numbers, or Teixeira and Swisher’s low batting average. Something wasn’t clicking. The Yankees dropped all but one of their games to the Red Sox in the first half of the season, including one on May 14th when Jorge Posada took himself out of the starting lineup, starting the rumor mill on if the aging catcher was edging near retirement.

But the Yankees hovered in contention for a playoff spot, sometimes taking a slight lead in the division, but always holding a firm grip on a Wild Card spot. In the second half, it was like the Yankees flipped a switch, but perhaps not in the best way.

The offense, led by a resurgent Derek Jeter and a red-hot Cano led the way to an eventual American League East championship. Role players like Eduardo Nunez and Eric Chavez stepped up for Alex Rodriguez when he went on the disabled list in July and didn’t return until September. But the pitching never was the same. Phil Hughes, who returned from the DL shortly before the All-Star Break, could never string together a stretch of quality starts. A.J. Burnett, who had pitched a strong first half, was lifeless in August and led to him being relegated to the bullpen in September. Garcia and Colon became less stellar with each passing start. Even CC Sabathia struggled compared to the dominant stretch he had in June and July, beginning with a hammering in Boston in early August. The lone bright spot was the rookie, Ivan Nova, who I strongly believe should be the American League Rookie of the Year. Nova did not lose a game from early June until tonight. The one constant was the lights-out bullpen, led by David Robertson and of course, Mariano Rivera, which was solid all season long.

So why, even with the Yankees failing to get out of the first round is the Yankee season not a colossal failure?

For starters, take into consideration that their rotation always overachieved. There wasn’t that much expected of Freddy Garcia or Bartolo Colon, both of them ended up combining for twenty wins. Phil Hughes was never the dominant pitcher the Yankees thought he could be. A.J. Burnett failed to pitch well in the second half of the season. Following all baseball logic that says good pitching will win games, the Yankees should never have been in the playoffs. But Ivan Nova saved the Yankee season, even on the night that he couldn’t. He went 16-4, and pitched to an ERA under 4 in the American League East. Not an easy task. He pitched very solid in relief in Game 1 of the ALDS, a game he never thought he would appear in. Yes, he did give up two home runs in the first inning tonight, but the kid has a bright future.

The Yankees bullpen was also stellar, in large part due to David Robertson, who has finally mastered his fastball (he learned a cutter from Mariano) to set up a deadly curveball. The ability to keep his cool in pressure situations throughout the season was tremendous. If he keeps it up, I see him being the heir apparent to Mariano more than Rafael Soriano. He has poise, just look at his numbers with the bases loaded.

The Yankees also introduced the catcher of the future, Jesus Montero, into pinstripes. Montero impressed, especially against lefties, against whom he hit .500 in the month of September. It’s a small sample size, but some good signs. The Yankees also were able to get Andrew Brackman, Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances, three highly touted pitching prospects into the mix. If even one of them turns out to be as good or even better than Ivan Nova was, then they will be in good shape. I do not think the season was a failure, especially when they met my expectations. I know that as an organization, they expect to win every year and they certainly had the hitting talent to do so. But GM, Brian Cashman made it very clear at the trade deadline: the future was more important than this season. They could have made a move for Ubaldo Jimenez or Wandy Rodriguez, but the cost, in prospects, was too much. Instead, they relied on Garcia and Colon. It is not unlike the Yankees opting not to pull the trigger for Cliff Lee last season, when, again, the cost of talent from the farm system was too expensive. The Yankees are gearing up for a new dynasty, one with names such as Banuelos, Nunez, Brackman and Montero leading the way. It’s the perfect time to do it, with Jeter, A-Rod and Posada all getting old. Anything past the playoffs this year should have been dessert for Yankee fans. A World Championship would have been second helpings on dessert.

So where do the Yankees go from here? It’s tough to say, really. Firstly, Brian Cashman’s contract is expiring, and although the GM says that he wants to return, a new deal will have to get done first. I think it does get done. Clearly, the starting pitching needs to improve. I think A.J. Burnett’s start in Game 4 bought him another season in New York, or at least a good bargaining chip for the Yankees to use in the trade rumor mill. Right now, assuming CC Sabathia returns and Garcia and Colon are out, you’re looking at a rotation of CC, Nova, (a hopefully healthy) Hughes and Burnett, with the fifth spot open. A quick look at the free agent class reveals a lack of great starting pitchers. The lone exception is Mark Buehrle, the veteran lefty from the White Sox. It will be interesting to see what the White Sox do under new management, but if he is not re-signed, perhaps the Yankees make a play for him. He would fit in well at Yankee Stadium, neutralizing lefties and the short porch in right. Like CC, he is a horse and has thrown over 200 innings in 11 straight seasons. Rumors have him wanting to play for his hometown Cardinals, perhaps that puts him out of the Yankees picture, but because of his experience, he would get big money from the Yankees. Perhaps if Roy Oswalt’s option is not picked up by the Phillies, they make a move there, but he comes with the caveat of a bad back and the age of 34 years old. Or maybe sign Edwin Jackson, who had a successful second half of the season with the Cardinals and has been in both AL East pennant races and pitched in the postseason. C.J. Wilson of the Rangers, is also a possibility. He would be another lefty, one that comes through the Nolan Ryan school of pitching and is now in his second season of pitching deep into the playoffs.

Russell Martin, because of his stellar play behind the plate and managing the most awkwardly assembled Yankees starting rotation since 2008, deserves to be back. He also hit pretty decently too, even if it didn’t show in the playoffs. Nick Swisher’s contract has a team option for the 2012 season, and given his underwhelming first half and a history of not performing in playoff series, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for him to be on a different team next season. A realistic replacement could be either Jason Kubel or Michael Cuddyer, both of whom hail from Minnesota, both of whom have taken major hits to their power numbers since Target Field opened for business. Perhaps even Johnny Damon is a possibility, although that may just be wishful thinking on my part.

I would find it nearly impossible for the Yankees went after any of the Big Three free agents. Those three, of course, are Jose Reyes, Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols. The most likely (although still improbably and senseless) would be Pujols. He started 33 games in Right Field in his rookie season (2001), but to the tune of four errors. And would you really want to give an aging star another gigantic contract? Look at Alex Rodriguez, who was injured most of this season.

If the Yankees are going to make any moves this off-season on the offensive side of the ball, it will be for role players and fixing the bench. Perhaps Chavez is let go in favor of another back up infielder. Perhaps the Yankees bring Andrew Jones back, but after being a non-factor in the postseason and hitting only .182 against righties in the regular season, would either side want the other?

The answer to most Yankee answers might come from their farm system. I think Jorge Posada played his last game in a Yankee uniform tonight. Jesus Montero might become the full-time DH unless he can improve defensively. It wouldn’t be strange to see Montero, Martin and Austin Romine (a more defensive-minded catcher) all be on the Yankees’ 25 man roster next season. Francisco Cervelli would be the odd-man-out and probably used in a trade during the winter. As Jeter and A-Rod get older, you’ll see more of Eduardo Nunez, who hopefully will take a good amount of groundballs each day in the off-season. Defense was Nunez’s worst aspect of his game this season, and if he could develop into an even average defensive infielder on the left side, he will be a decent player.

My thoughts: I think the Yankees sign either Edwin Jackson or Hiroki Kuroda. Ignore Kuroda’s 16 losses (with the unimpressive Dodgers), but look at an ERA just over 3 and a WHIP of 1.21. Also, just 49 walks in 202 IP. The rotation would be CC, Nova, Kuroda, Burnett, Hughes. If they can quickly develop any of the “Killer B’s” that the Yankees have in their farm system, they would be the first ones to come up to the majors should Hughes or Burnett or Nova run into trouble. I hope Swisher remains on the team, because he is a good clubhouse guy, but I’m not sure he will. Swisher’s lifetime batting average in the playoffs is .167 and fans will be looking at him as one of the reasons why the team failed to advance in the playoffs. Remember, the Yankees traded away Alfonso Soriano after the 2003 playoffs because he hit in the .200’s over the 2003 ALCS and World Series, and failed to get timely hits against the Marlins.

The Yankees need to continue to get younger, something they’re in the right direction of doing. I do think that this season was a positive for them, as long as they keep churning out prospects. If they can produce another Nova, or a successor to Jeter or A-Rod, even better. They’re off to a good start with Nova, Hughes, Gardner, Robertson and Montero. This year should never have been about winning the World Series, and Brian Cashman quietly told you that by not making any big moves at the trade deadline. This was about developing talent, and they did a nice job with that. So even though this loss stings, if development of these young players continue, the pieces for another dynasty could be falling into place.

Follow me on Twitter @JustinCirillo

Also tune into play-by-play of Game 5 NLDS Cardinals-Phillies at 8:30 EST Friday on http://www.ustream.tv/channel/baseball-games

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