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ROIT -- It would be ridiculous to judge the New York Yankees solely on the basis of what just transpired in the American League Championship Series. But it would also be a mistake to completely ignore this debacle when judging the future needs of this once-dominant franchise.
General manager Brian Cashman and manager Joe Girardi spent considerable time this week on the "we're better than this" track. "This" ended up being a four-game sweep at the hands of the Detroit Tigers.
Of course the Yankees are better than this. There is a chance that the Houston Astros are better than this. The Yankees had the best record in the AL during the regular season. They defeated a tough Baltimore club in the AL Division Series. They had outstanding pitching through that series and the first three games of the ALCS, until Thursday when a general collapse included ace starter CC Sabathia. The Tigers clinched the AL championship in a truly non-competitive contest, 8-1, with the Yankees managing only two hits.
The Yankees' offensive slump did not originate in the ALCS. They had not hit much in the Baltimore series, either, but had been carried this far by their pitching. The Yankees scored only 22 runs in nine postseason games. They had a team batting average of .188 for the postseason.
The Yankees hit .157 in the ALCS, the second-lowest total among 172 teams that have competed in the LCS since 1969.
Maybe the Yankees never recovered from the fractured ankle suffered by Derek Jeter in Game 1 of the ALCS. Jeter, after all, was the captain, the leader, the spiritual center of this team. But the injury to the previously indestructible Jeter underscored one problem on this roster, which is age. The Yankees are dependent upon players who are going deep, as in deep into the second half of their careers.
The topic of Alex Rodriguez may dominate Yankees-related speculation for some time, although he was far from being alone in struggling at the plate. He was taken out of the starting lineup for the clincher against Baltimore and then again for Games 3 and 4 of this series. Can he and Girardi co-exist after he was publicly demoted in this way? Or, given the obvious decline in A-Rod's production, can New York can find some other franchise willing to take him off its hands. He is still owed $114 million over the next five years. Against fierce competition, this is the most restricting current contract in baseball from the club perspective, and the Yankees would have to pay somebody for the privilege of sending A-Rod somewhere else.
For a club that led the Majors in home runs in 2012, this might be considered a surprise, but the Yankees could be looking for a power bat for '13. In the outfield, they have an option on Curtis Granderson's contract, and they will have to exercise it, even though Granderson, once a very well-rounded performer, is now a bit too much of a home run-or-nothing player.
But they aren't likely to bring back Nick Swisher, who registered yet another disappointing postseason. Swisher may have been on the way out even before October, but his comments that his feelings were hurt by fans at Yankee Stadium could have provided the clincher in his departure.
There is a likely scenario in which two of the primary candidates for the corner outfield spots are Brett Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki. Ichiro demonstrated that he had enough left for the Yankees to make him an offer. But with Ichiro and Gardner at the corner outfield positions, the Yankees would need to add power to the outfield mix.
They're set at first with Mark Teixeira. Robinson Cano should get a long-term deal, despite a glacier-cold postseason performance at the plate. Cano is a fundamental building block for the foreseeable future of this franchise. The Yankees won't find a better overall catcher on the existing market than Russell Martin. He should be brought back as well, his struggles of the first half of the season aside.
The Yankees' fondest hope will be for a fully recovered Jeter to return as shortstop, as leadoff man, as captain, as the ultimate Yankee. Will the third-base spot be occupied by A-Rod, even after he was reduced to the role of platoon player, only seeing time against left-handed pitching?
After Game 4, Rodriguez admitted the situation was nobody's fault but his: "If I'm playing my game, Joe has no choice but to play me," he said. And he was unequivocal on the topic of staying with the Yankees, saying repeatedly: "I love New York City," and adding:
"My focus is to stay here. Let's make that very, very clear."
The Yankees don't have the kind of talent in their farm system that would solve a raft of problems with a new generation of players simultaneously emerging. Fortunately for them, they have the solid core of a pitching staff already on hand, although age will once again be an issue.
Sabathia will head the rotation. Phil Hughes is still a work in progress, but his ability is beyond question. The Yankees have to hope that Andy Pettitte returns once again, even though he will turn 41 in June. Hiroki Kuroda earned another contract, although in the current market he probably won't be available again for one year at $10 million. And he'll be 38. The Yankees can reasonably hope that Michael Pineda can return from an anterior labral tear of his right shoulder and still develop much of what was an immense amount of potential.
The bullpen questions that must be answered include these: When Mariano Rivera returns at age 43 from knee surgery, will he still be the greatest closer in the game? Can the Yankees retain Rafael Soriano as insurance or an extremely highly paid setup man when he might opt out for closer's money elsewhere?
Girardi said his message to his players at the end of this deeply disappointing series included this question: "How do we all, including myself, how do we all get better next year so we don't have this feeling?"
The Yankees were made to appear as mere victims in this ALCS. They're obviously better than that. But as far as the shortcomings that were evident in their play here, New York would ignore those at its peril.