By Sweeny Murti
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This has to be the biggest turning point offseason since 2008.
The Yankees, at that time, were coming off their first non-playoff season in the wild card era. They quickly emptied the vault to sign CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira in the space of a few weeks in December, and set themselves up for the World Championship that followed in 2009.
Unfortunately this time there's not the perfect storm of dollars coming off the books (Jason Giambi, Mike Mussina, Carl Pavano and Bobby Abreu) to go along with the free agency bonanza of four years ago. This time the Yankees enter the winter with a whole lot of issues and not many easy answers.
Think about it this way:
The Yankees have two living icons (Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter) coming off major injuries and an ace starter who will need some sort of procedure for an elbow issue (Sabathia). Their starting catcher (Russell Martin) and right fielder (Nick Swisher) are both former All-Stars who are now free agents. The closer who replaced Rivera (Rafael Soriano) is likely to opt out of his sweetheart deal and become a free agent too. Their left fielder (Brett Gardner) played only 16 games due to injury.
Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte? Free agents.
Let's not forget that Teixeira was banged up all year, first with mysterious coughing fits and later with the strained calf -- and that postseason zeroes Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson will be coming back on team options that will pay them a combined $30 million.
The last time the Yankees had this many crisis points was in '08, when they could have fallen off the cliff pretty quickly if they couldn't convince Sabathia and then the others to take all their money. Joe Girardi was entering his second year as manager that offseason. He could take a mulligan for 2008, but if '09 was a step backward he might not have made it beyond that.
Now, Girardi enters the final year of his second three-year contract. He is not currently a manager you would consider to be on the hot seat. After all, he led an injury-plagued team to 95 wins and the ALCS. And there is no conflict between manager and general manager or between manager and owner.
However, the manager-player relationship is about to be tested. Girardi benched Alex Rodriguez three times in the last five playoff games, and stuck Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher on the bench too. Loyal almost to a fault in his managerial tenure, Girardi will almost certainly have to mend some fences between now and next spring (it is my expectation that all but Swisher will be back with the Yankees next season). Sure, the players he sat had not performed and the manager was in a tough position. But star players who play every day do not always take well to sitting on the bench, and it could take Girardi some time to win back a few guys in that clubhouse.
So, if the Yankees' season starts with some turmoil and Girardi's agitation grows, so could the possibility that next season will be his last as manager. Let's be clear here—I am not saying Joe Girardi will be fired. Because even though some things could go wrong next year, there is no need to assume that they could all go wrong at the same time.
Another important point to consider is that Girardi has been successful since that first year. Remember that while Joe Torre's final years were marked by three straight first-round playoff exits, Girardi has failed to advance past the first round only once in his last four years.
This might not be a Yankee-like definition of success, but since Bud Selig has helped turn the postseason into baseball's version of March Madness (Fall Frenzy, anyone?) the Yankees have become the Duke Blue Devils. No, Girardi isn't on the level of Mike Krzyzewski, but he does keep racking up those big regular season numbers that keep getting you invited to the Big Dance. And don't forget that Coach K did most recently go nine years between national championships. It has become nearly as hard, maybe even harder, to win 11 games in October as it is to win six games in March.
The Yankees need to gear up for another season and get into the tournament. They have many players with many issues, and some of those will begin to iron themselves out in the coming weeks. Yes, they will pick up the options on Cano and Granderson (trading Granderson could be a possibility, but only with a healthy return that fills a need). Martin and Pettitte are likely to be back. Gardner and Teixeira should bounce back healthy. The biggest question marks surround Sabathia, Jeter, and Rivera -- and the Yankees might not find out about them for certain until the season actually starts in April.
April 1 to be exact.
One week before the NCAA Championship game.
Hey Yankees fans -- what's your grand offseason plan? Be heard in the comments below...
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