Lots of things fell in to place around midnight last night – the certainty of a good 3-5 straight years of Phillies playing deep into October; the certainty of the Mets not; a clear runway to the post-season for the Red Sox; a bumpy one filled with uncertainty for the Yanks. But after all that stuff is said and done, what does Cliff Lee's abandonment of Brian Cashman at the altar mean for the Yankees going forward?
Cashman may very well have the plan B he spoke of over the weekend when the Cliff Lee-dread began to sink in and reporters pointed out the inconvenient truth that the Yankees appeared a bit desperate. And maybe that plan B really is made up of more than one word: "suck". Cashman has reportedly been working hard to land Russell Martin, perhaps to enable him some leeway in packaging Jesus Montero together with other young talent in a trade that would bolster the rotation. Whatever the plan B is, we'll know soon enough.
But here are two things we know now, which are relevant to what the Yankees do going forward: 1. A big part of Andy Pettitte's motivation for returning for one more season just went to Philadelphia meaning that the Yankees probably need 2 new starters, not one; 2. There does not seem to be a difference-making top-of-the-roation starter who the Yankees could land for anything less than an absurdly high mortgage-the-future-price-tag.
First Pettitte: Yes, his leverage just shot up and he could squeeze a good dollar out of the Yankees right now. (My how things have changed from two years ago, when the Yankees used their tremendous leverage at the time to cut his guaranteed salary by more than half from 2008, when he pitched through a hurt shoulder to lead the team in IP…even the loyal Pettitte must relish the prospect of turning that "it's just business, man" approach right back around on the Yankee FO). But Pettitte does not seem to be motivated by the money at this stage in his career and hasn't been for years. He has made it clear he would only play for the Yankees if he is to play at all so he doesn't seem to be leveraging anything. No – Pettitte seems more likely to be motivated by the prospect of one more run at glory. And the prospect of gaining that glory in pinstripes just got a lot more remote. At this point I'd be surprised to see him return.
As for available pitching, already there is crazy-talk of the Yankees giving an arm and a leg plus a couple vital organs to the Seattle Mariners to pry King Felix loose. As usual, delusional fans and talk radio hosts can only focus on the utopian end state (how nice it would be to lock up the reigning AL Cy Young winner at the age of 24 – there's one pitcher to whom you could give a 7-year or even longer contract and feel OK about it) while ignoring the current state that can usefully be referred to as "reality". This guy was just locked up for another 5 years at a price the Mariners felt they could afford. The only way they would let him go would be if the Yankees mortgaged their entire franchise, handed over the keys, altered YES-network programming to include "Marinographies" and to feature the '95 post-season on "Yankees Classics", and granted the Mariners front office Prima Nocta rights to their young prospects a la Edward Longshanks.
Same goes for the Marlins' Josh Johnson, whose name is also being irresponsibly bandied about. He just signed less than a year ago for 4 more years – and besides, do you want to make a long-term bet on a young pitcher who has thrown 200 innings exactly once to make the NL-to-AL East leap?
Given all this, could and should the Yankees look to 2011 as that thing that has never been uttered, let alone explicitly embraced in the Bronx for the past 15 years: a "rebuilding" year (shudder)?
The only problem with that is that they do not seem particularly well-placed for that either. They have aging stars out of whom they are trying to squeeze one or two more runs at glory before retirement and virtually all of their contracts run through 2012 with few appearing particularly move-able. When you lock up your aging SS for 3 more years, your aging (though still brilliant) star closer for 2 more, you've got an aging superstar at third base locked up for the next millenium, and your ostensible #2 starter (and #1 headcase) locked up for 3 more years, how much substantial re-tooling can you accomplish in one season? Jorge Posada and Nick Swisher are due to come off the books after the 2011 season (a total of $22 million). That's about it. Should the Yankees trade substantial portions of their considerable but still very young farm talent away now to try to strengthen their position going into 2011? I don't think that makes much sense.
I say do all you can to lure Andy back and fill the remaining starter-slot with a journeyman if necessary (indeed, it may be your only option anyway). Expose some of your young pitching to the big leagues a la the bullpen if they appear ready, including continuing the Ivan Nova experimental grooming process. See how this lot is doing come June and July, specifically: Does Montero seem to be making the leap, is Gardner's production steady/improving from his solid though not magnificent 2010, has AJ remembered how to pitch, have Jeter, Teixeira, and A-Rod remembered how to hit, etc. And then – and only then – consider trading for a run at 2011-glory. This team should certainly be good enough to still be well in the post-season running at that stage and by then some of the leverage the Yankees don't have right now will have come back in the form of other teams imploding and looking to cast off contracts.
Of course, if it is the Yankees who have imploded, then yes, you embrace 2011 as a lost year and try to position for 2012 and beyond. Just don't tell your season-ticket holders and other fans, for whom you have jacked ticket prices so high that they are now entirely justified in demanding an annual plausaible run-at-glory.