Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Pettitte's probable departure shines light on Yankees' curious offseason

If you know where to find the panic button Yankees fans, feel free to press it now.

(Go ahead. Don't be shy. Tilt back the head of that Kevin Maas bust. There it is, in all its resplendent fury. Push it. Good job.)

Your team is officially in serious trouble. I know many believed that was already the case when Cliff Lee chose to sign with the Phillies, but that was premature doom-and-gloom. Lee's cold shoulder was merely a pothole in the Yankees' offseason — something with the potential to do serious damage, but only if other more sinister forces came into play.

The news on Andy Pettitte certainly qualifies as that sinister force. It's like the Yankees hitting the Lee pothole, running down a litter of kittens on the side of the road, then swerving into a black hole of death (also known as third place in the American League East).

The New York Daily News reported on Wednesday night that Pettitte will not begin the 2011 season, and could be ready to call it a career. Buster Olney tweeted that Pettitte starting the season wasn't an option in the first place, since the left-hander hasn't been training.

Not locking down Lee was one thing, but the departure of Pettitte creates a FUBAR scenario on River Avenue. Not even the most optimistic fan can avoid the reality staring them in the face now: The Yankees don't have the horses to contend.

The current rotations of the Red Sox and Yankees (the squeamish may want to look away):

BOS ------------ NYY

Lester ----------- Sabathia
Beckett ----------Hughes
Lackey ---------- Burnett
Buchholz --------Nova
Dice-K -----------Mitreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

(Sorry, I passed out like an 1850s debutante after typing that last name.)

As you can see, we're not looking at a level playing field here. Expect the Yankees to make a push for a Jeremy Bonderman-type to slot into the back end, but as things stand, we have a serious gap in talent. Even the sure-things aren't so sure: Sabathia is coming off knee surgery, Hughes' 18 wins concealed frustrating inconsistency, and Burnett, well, you know all about Burnett.

The only thing going for the Yankees is the weakening of another of the AL East's superpowers. If the Bombers took two steps back, the Rays have taken four. Unfortunately, the Blue Jays were frisky last year, and appear poised to take the next step.

The Yankees' best bet? Hope Toronto and Tampa Bay fizzle and that the Red Sox encounter the same type of injury issues that enveloped them in 2010. But how often does something like that happen in back-to-back years?

With Lee and (presumably) Pettitte out of the picture, a strategy for the Yankees seems to be coming together:

  • Sign Bonderman or Bonderman-type and bump Mitre or Nova out of rotation
  • Sign Andruw Jones/Johnny Damon/Marcus Thames as fourth outfielder
  • Head to camp
  • Open season with flawed team and hope, hope, hope Red Sox don't lap you by June 1
  • If still in running for playoff spot by July, attempt to fortify rotation with blockbuster trade
Not a strategy that inspires the most confidence, is it? It sure seems like the Yankees are hedging their bets. Man, when's the last time you remember that happening?

The 2008 season is now remembered as a "transition year," but that only came in retrospect. The 2011 season seems destined to receive that tag before the team arrives in Tampa.

All of that would be OK if other aspects of the team's offseason didn't stand in such sharp contrast to a "transition" route. The Yankees' two splashiest moves—re-signing their 36-year-old shortstop and 41-year-old closer—were also classic win-now maneuvers.

By retaining their warhorses and not making any additional improvements (sorry, Larry Rothchild for Dave Eiland doesn't count), the whole thing smacks of a team operating as a business model rather than a franchise committed to winning.

Did they not give Lee the seventh guaranteed year because he was 32 and was deemed too much of a risk? Or did they hold back because with Jeter and Mo in the fold, they were going to get their four million fans in the Bronx anyway? In Yankee Universe, is winning beginning to take a back seat to the bottom line? These are real questions that must be asked in the post-Boss world.

The Steinbrenner Doctrine famously stated that every year that ended without a championship was considered a failure. The curious strategy of this offseason makes you wonder if that's really still the case.

Dan Hanzus writes three columns a week on his New York Yankees site, River & Sunset. He can be reached at Follow Dan on Twitter @danhanzus.

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