Let's get one thing straight right now.
Everybody knows the longer Andy Pettitte waits to decide, the less likely he is to pitch again next season. It's been awhile, so we're not asking you for anything extra there. We're pretty sure he'll make the right choice for all concerned...
Now that that's out of the way and everyone has finished opening their presents and consumed mass quantities with family, friends, and loved ones, there are probably a few citizens of Yankee Universe who may feel Santa has thrown them a curve this ho-ho-Hot Stove season.
While fans of certain other teams have found new toys and shiny expensive presents under their tree, Bomber fans have been forced to guzzle a seemingly bottomless nog of commentary and coverage explaining in gleeful gushing detail why the Yankees will finish somewhere between also-rans and irrelevant come October.
Fear not, however, for reports of the demise of the Evil Empire are very, very premature.
Many and mysterious are the wonders of Santa's benevolence, and with less than two months to go before pitchers and catchers report to camp, we should take a few moments to reflect upon some of the reasons those of us partial to pinstripes should be thanking Santa and eagerly looking forward to the New Year.
For all the talk about their vulnerabilities and whithering old bones, the 2009 World Champion Yankees came within just two games of returning to the Series in 2010—their 15th playoff appearance in 16 years.
They accomplished this feat with half their rotation and core veterans playing hurt down the stretch, and relying heavily upon a handful of role players and spare parts GM Brian Cashman picked up along the way for the MLB equivalent of a couple bags of balls.
Failure to repeat their 2009 finish was a disappointment, surely. But their injuries were of the ill-timed and not major variety.
So we're returning with a team that came just that close, and they're returning whole, healthy, and intact.
Right there, if you're ranking teams by how little they need to improve in 2011 to return to the show for another swing at a ring, the Yankees have to be pretty close to topping the list.
Retention is an invaluable gift few teams find under their tree this time of year.
Big market teams suck key free agents away from other teams, big and small, all the time.
Except in Yankee Universe, where an ex-Yankee is a discarded Yankee. Period.
Say what you will about the Evil Empire, but grant us this: once they join up, nobody wants to leave it, and nobody takes them away from us unless we want to let them go.
Now, we've all heard the carolers sing about the Red Sox shopping spree and how it somehow magically leapfrogs them past the Crawfordless, Penaless, bullpenless Rays and the Leeless Yankees, all the way back to the Series.
It's a catchy refrain, but it doesn't hold its tune.
Save for the potential loss of closer Rafael Soriano (he's gone FA, but yet to sign elsewhere), the division champion Rays have already implemented their plan to replace their departed personnel with young guns that all but mirror younger versions of the players who have left.
The Rays' young flame-throwing starting rotation proved last season to be the most resilient in the AL Beast; it's still intact and a year older and wiser, with yet another invaluable post-season experience to build on in 2011.
Between their embarrassment of riches down on the farm and their full-house pitching depth, a trade for another big bat and 9th-inning stopper between now and the trade deadline is easily imaginable.
As for missing out on Lee, another steady lefty would certainly be a beautiful thing to behold for Yankee fans. But the value of the Lee deal to the Yankees was as much about eliminating him as a future opponent as it was about deepening the rotation.
Most Yankee observers agree the back end three or four years of that seven-year offer smelled like fish waiting to rot. But the Yankees were willing to write it off as the cost of insuring he wouldn't continue his pinstripe-punking ways for the remainder of his effective pitching career.
Fortunately, the Phillies did for the Yankees with Lee what the Sox did for the Yankees with their three-team swap that brought Lackey east and sent Halladay north—that is, removed another certified Yankee killer from the universe.
In the meantime, the Yankee farm is even more fertile than the Rays' with trade bait.
And there's also that thick wad of loose Lee money just bulging and burning a hole in GM Brian Cashman's back pocket.
That's a game-changing megatrade waiting to happen right there, and trades can be even more fun than free agent signings in a number of ways.
The trading season lasts until July 31st. Player performance, health, and usefulness are easier to evaluate. There's more flexibility and opportunities to make a deal. The players' personal preferences are much less of a factor, if at all.
And best of all, the talent pool is practically limitless.
Nobody anywhere is untouchable or out of reach if the right combination of prospects, ham-and-eggers and cash are dangled over the kitty.
Meanwhile, it can be argued (convincingly) that the Sox's signings of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford merely replaced the lost production of Beltre and Martinez; that lefty Crawford's offensive production will take a subsequent steep dip in Fenway; and that the Sox's rotation and bullpen stumbles of yesteryear were not anomalies.
Put another way, the Rays haven't lost much at all; the Yankees haven't lost a thing and remain a penstroke away from a major upgrade of their own; and it's hardly a safe bet that all the Sox's moves this offseason result in actual net gains.
That means 2011's Battle Of The Beasts could very easily be a replay of the 2010 version.
For the Beast that came the closest to the promised land, what could be sweeter?
Thank you, Santa. Thank you very much.
(Now Santa, about Andy...)
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