New York Yankees: Game 3 Win Tempered by Reality Check
With all due respect to Raul Ibanez, this was not the way things were supposed to happen.
Down 2-1 in the ninth inning of a pivotal Game 3 in the ALDS, and having produced virtually no offense for eight-plus innings, the Yankees were simply not engineered to have their fate decided by a 40-year-old journeyman outfielder who, if the regular season had gone to plan, would have been lucky to see 200 plate appearances.
That Ibanez found himself in that situation was strange enough, of course. That he found himself in that situation due to the fact that he was PINCH-HITTING for Alex Rodriguez, and hitting in the 3-slot, no less, has implications far beyond the game, the series, and the season as a whole, regardless of when it comes to an end.
The reality is that this Yankees team, like all Yankees teams before it and all to come, was put together with certain presumptions and expectations. Those presumptions and expectations were based on the current and projected capabilities of the players on the roster, the players in the organization, and with an eye toward the free agent and trade markets.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, without a doubt, understands his role within the Yankees organization. In the end, he is ultimately responsible for the product that is put on the field, regardless of the constraints, or lack thereof, placed on him by Yankees ownership.
For the 2012 season, it is not possible that the template Cashman had in mind included Alex Rodriguez being an offensive liability. That was not part of the plan, that was not part of the construct imagined by Cashman or any other Yankee executive.
Cashman knew this day was coming, of course, and he knew it the instant that the shortsighted and intellectually challenged Hank Steinbrenner signed Rodriguez to a 10-year deal back in 2007.
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Cashman's ability to structure the Yankees has since been severely impacted by that dubious decision, more so in recent years as Yankees' ownership has moved fiscal responsibility and luxury tax management to the forefront of organizational planning.
What Cashman did not likely know, could not have known, really, was that Rodriguez' decline would be so rapid. Cashman and the Yankees, of course, were lacking one critical piece of information that prevented them from having any ability to project this kind of decline, and that piece of information was that Rodriguez was a steroid user. Armed with this information, and understanding the implications, it is unlikely that even the marginally functional Steinbrenner would have signed off on a 10-year package.
And the sad truth is that Cashman, regardless of whether he had knowledge of Rodriguez' drug use, would have never signed off on a 10-year deal for a 33-year-old third baseman had the decision been left to him.
It wasn't, though, and, essentially, that's how we all find ourselves stunned, roughly five years later, when an impotent Rodriguez is pinch-hit for by a man even older than Rodriguez himself.
The factors that led Yankees' manager Joe Girardi to make the decision to sit Rodriguez were, without question, impossible to ignore.
It is not simply that Rodriguez has struggled to consistently produce in these playoffs, rather it is that, apart from two at-bats in Game 2 of this series, he has struggled to consistently compete.
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He appears over-matched, out of sorts, and virtually incapable of being a middle of the order threat. This is so despite the fact that opposing pitchers are directly challenging him, pumping fastball after fastball over the heart of the plate in an effort to avoid placing runners on base in front of cleanup hitter Robinson Cano.
The Yankee hitting coach often encourages his pupils by challenging them to be dangerous; right now, Rodriguez is anything but.
If Rodriguez' recent performance was simply a rough patch, or the result of his recent stretch of significant injuries, pinch-hitting for him in a critical moment would have far less import. Unfortunately for the Yankees' organization, however, this series of events could very well be a sign that this is the beginning of the end of what has been an extraordinary run of organizational success.
The amazing truth is that, after a dry spell that lasted through much of the 1980s and early 1990s, the Yankees have been at or near the top of the baseball world since 1993. They have produced a 20 season run that, when expansion is taken into account, is every bit as impressive as the Yankees dynasty years of the early 1920s through the early 1960s; 14 Division titles, five second place finishes, a third place finish, seven World Series appearances and five World Series Championships.
With Rodriguez now showing definitive signs that it is not simply injuries holding down his performance, the Yankees find themselves facing the strong possibility that, in the seasons to come, they will not be the offensive force they've been for so many years. And there are other, even more troubling realities that must be faced.
Should the Yankees Rebuild or Retool?
Specifically, the free agent market, which has served the Yankees well over these past 20 years, will not be the resource it has been. Teams are locking up their young stars to multi-year contracts, pitchers and position players alike, and so writing a check to plug a hole will no longer be the solution it has so frequently been in the past.
Add to this the fact that Yankees ownership is intent on lowering payroll below $189 million, the magic number for all things luxury cap related, and it becomes clear that internal solutions will have to be found or that the trade route will have to be aggressively explored. More on the trade front later.
Regarding internal solutions, the Yankees are years away from having their young positional prospects impact the big-league roster.
Slade Heathcott, Gary Sanchez, Tyler Austin, Mason Williams, and Dante Bichette all show promise, among others, however none of them appear to have any real chance of cracking the MLB roster until 2014 at best.
And thanks to a combination of poor performance and injuries, none of the highly touted pitching prospects will be challenging for the rotation next year either.
With all this taken into account, it is not hard to project the possibility that the Yankees lineup will struggle for a number of years to come.
Rodriguez is in decline, Mark Teixeira is no longer the threat he once was, Curtis Granderson and/or Nick Swisher are in their final years as Yankees, and Derek Jeter will someday stop being Derek Jeter. Other than Cano (30 in 11 days), a quick glance at the remainder of the lineup tells you that, in addition to the emperor having no clothes, the cupboard is tragically bare.
So, with free agency not as viable as it once was (here are the links to prove it) and with their young prospects several years away, where does this leave the Yankees and Cashman? To put it bluntly, they are between a very large rock and a very hard, hard place.
Those prospects we keep mentioning?
With a billion dollar ballpark to pay for, it is not likely that the Yankees will go the rebuilding route.
It isn't about what the fans want necessarily but rather what ownership needs to sell its merchandise and tickets and cable station. Translation? Say goodbye to many of those young guns mentioned above.
Beginning as early as 2013, the Yankees will need a third baseman, a catcher who can hit above .210, and likely a center fielder and a right fielder as well. They will also need rotation help from 2013 on if Hiroki Kuroda doesn't come back and Andy Pettitte decides not to return.
If you're keeping score at home, that's 50 percent of their position players and 40 percent of their rotation.
Granderson and Swisher, each of whom can demand multi-year deals in the $15 million a year range and above, will both likely price themselves right off the Yankees roster.
The Yankees are already committed to roughly $90 million in salary for just four players, Rodriguez, Jeter, C.C. Sabathia and Teixeira, and when you add in the $20 million or more annually that Cano will soon demand the organization is already at $110 million in salary.
This represents roughly 58 percent of that $189 million luxury tax threshold, and it should be noted that this number does not include the remaining 11 pitchers they'll be paying for or the other nine position players.
Scary stuff if you're the Yankees, scary stuff indeed.
This is the perfect storm that Yankees brass, specifically Cashman, has known was on the way. The organization does not have at its disposal the historical go to remedy of free agency, and the trade route is always problematic in the sense that not very many players produce for the Yankees as they produced for the teams they came from. This is presuming, of course, that the Yankees can even find trade options that don't blow the budget that Cashman is being held to.
In the end, there is a bittersweet element associated with Ibanez' Game 3 performance for the more discerning Yankee fans. They will recall where they were when it all happened, and likely rank it as one of the most special moments in Yankee history, and that is how it should be.
These same fans, though, the ones that see beyond the game and the series and the season, will also recognize the benching of Rodriguez as the demarcation point between Yankee dominance and Yankee mediocrity.
It is time for these fans to savor the moments and the memories of the past 20 years, and whatever new moments and memories are to come before the 2012 season comes to an end.
There may not be many more like them in the offing.
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