As Pettitte and Rivera exit, Yankees face uncertain future
There would be no long farewell tour for Andy Pettitte, no throne made of broken bats, no pre-game ceremony featuring a live performance by Metallica. The 41-year-old initially wanted to announce his retirement -- his second retirement, he sheepishly pointed out -- via a conference call to be held after the season, but the Yankees talked him out of it. So around 10 a.m last Friday, Joel Sherman of the New York Post tweeted that he was hearing that the end of Pettitte's career was imminent. Two hours later, the Yankees confirmed the rumors in a statement in which Pettitte said, among other things, "I've exhausted myself, mentally and physically, and that's exactly how I want to leave this game."
At 3:32 p.m., Pettitte ascended the dais in Yankee Stadium's subterranean press conference room, in which the carpet is subtly decorated with interlocking "NYY" symbols, and, for the next 24 minutes, explained his decision in his gentle Texan drawl (line-ups, to Pettitte, are "lahn-ups). "Comin' into this season, I knew this was probably gonna be it," he said. "Whenever I was here, I was all in," he said. "Do I feel like I've dominated this game, as a pitcher? No, I don't. Every game was a grind," he said.
Pettitte's career as a Yankee, indeed, was less dominant than that of the also retiring Mariano Rivera, who received the farewell tour, the throne of bats (actually, a rocking chair) and, on Sunday, the tribute from Metallica. Although most expected all along that this would be Pettitte's last season, Friday's confirmation of that fact occasioned the sinking in of a certain reality, which seemed to be: the Yankees dynasty is over. You don't conduct a funeral by conference call.
Time has caught up with the Yankees as we've come to know them. They now face an uncertain future with just one of their so-called "Core Four" remaining. Pettitte and Rivera are joining Jorge Posada in retirement, leaving only Derek Jeter, who played just 17 games this season, made four trips to the disabled list and turns 40 next June. While Pettitte insisted in his press conference that the central motivation for his departure was simply that his mind and body were telling him that the time was right, he admitted that the haziness of the next few years for the Yankees had its role. "That does play into it," he said.
The truth is, the Yankees' dynasty has, practically anyway, been over since 2000, when they won their fourth World Series in five years. Every season of theirs since then save one, 2009, has ended with a loss. The Yankees of the past 13 years have not been dynastic. They have been consistent contenders, and that might be what's really coming to an end.
The reasons why that threat seems real are many and well covered and extend beyond the absences of Rivera and Pettitte. Many of New York's remaining key players are now old and in decline; others, like Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Hiroki Kuroda, are set to be high-priced free agents; few of the organization's minor league prospects are progressing in such a way that they might be expected to represent acceptable replacements any time soon.
Compounding all of this is that the club's ownership has made clear its intention to cut the team's payroll to less than $189 million next season (it was more than $236 million this year), thereby resetting the annual escalation of the luxury tax Major League Baseball assesses on its biggest-spending clubs. The greatest trick the Steinbrenner family ever pulled might be convincing Yankees fans that a franchise worth some $2.3 billion, and which plays in a stadium that cost more than $1 billion to build (several hundred million of which came from taxpayers), ought to be genuinely worrying about luxury tax bills in the tens of millions. Still, less than $189 million it very likely will be.
Even so, $189 million is $189 million, a payroll exceeded this year by only the Dodgers. Yes, much of that figure is already committed to a handful of players -- Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Ichiro Suzuki, Alfonso Soriano, Vernon Wells and Jeter will combine for $101 million, as the excellent Yankees blog River Avenue Blues recently calculated. And, as that same blog points out, New York's real salary ceiling will be more like $177 million, allowing for the cost of health insurance and other expenses that count toward the final sum. So that leaves around $77 million. Four of 2013's likely playoff-bound clubs -- the Pirates, Indians, A's and Rays -- fielded entire rosters for about that much or less.
Perhaps $20 million will be devoted to the re-signing of currently arbitration-eligible players, like Brett Gardner, Ivan Nova and David Robertson, and more will go to minimum-salary-earning roster filler. Even in the unlikely event that Alex Rodriguez's suspension is completely overturned, the Yankees might have something like $50 million to play with on the free agent market. One way to start will be by doing something that seems counterintuitive, even unthinkable. It will be not only to decline to re-sign Granderson and Kuroda, but to be prepared to let Cano leave as well.
Randy Levine, the club's president, made news earlier this month by publicly declaring that Cano is not a "re-sign at all costs" player. Given the Yankees' situation, he might actually be right. Cano is an annual MVP candidate, but he is also a soon-to-be 31-year-old second baseman who will likely command $20 million or more, for five or more years, on the free agent market. As important a player for New York as Cano has been and continues to be, a team that is in transition mode with several holes to fill, and already has so many dollars tied up in declining assets should think hard before devoting so much of what it has left to what is likely to be a soon-to-be-declining asset.
Instead, the Yankees might model their off-season after that conducted by their greatest rival, the Red Sox, one year ago. Boston general manager Ben Cherington bolstered his roster with veteran, mid-level free agents who didn't command anything Cano-like in terms of either dollars or years: Ryan Dempster (two years, $26.5 million), Shane Victorino (three years, $39 million), Stephen Drew (one year, $9.5 million), Jonny Gomes (two years, $10 million), Mike Napoli (one year, $5 million), David Ross (two years, $6.2 million) and, the bargain of them all, Koji Uehara (one year, $4.5 million).
These are the types of players on whom New York GM Brian Cashman should focus, and they will be out there. Targets might include Rangers catcher A.J. Pierzynski, Mariners DH Kendrys Morales, Rays second baseman Kelly Johnson, Tigers shortstop Jhonny Peralta, Orioles outfielder Nate McLouth, Pirates outfielder Marlon Byrd, starters like the Reds' Bronson Arroyo, the Athletics' Bartolo Colon, the Orioles' Scott Feldman, the Rays' Roberto Hernandez and the Rangers' Colby Lewis, and relievers like the Athletics' Grant Balfour, the Tigers' Joaquin Benoit, the Orioles' Francisco Rodriguez and the Mariners' Oliver Perez.
The Yankees, in short, ought to be in on virtually everyone who does not reside in the free agent market's upper tier -- Cano, Kuroda, Granderson, Nelson Cruz, Jacoby Ellsbury, Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, Jose Dariel Abreu, Masahiro Tanaka and so on. They will only have to sit out on players like that for a single year, before the luxury tax resets and they will allow themselves to become blithe spendthrifts once more. Of course, the 2015 free agent class doesn't appear to be particularly strong, but Clayton Kershaw and Hanley Ramirez are currently set to be a part of it, and you never know.
The point is that in assembling a baseball team, you never know about a lot of things. A lot went wrong for the Yankees in 2013, but they're still eight games above .500 and in wild-card contention. Perhaps, in 2014, they will hit on a number of mid-level free agents, as the Red Sox did this year. Perhaps Derek Jeter has one more healthy season left in him, and Mark Teixera, who is only 33, has several. Perhaps 24-year-old Michael Pineda will return from injury to become the ace into which he seemed to be developing as a Mariners rookie. Perhaps CC Sabathia -- he of the 6.08 second half ERA and the hamstring strain that ended his season one week early -- is only having one bad year. Perhaps a number of the club's talented but recently disappointing or injured top prospects -- like pitcher Manny Banuelos, catcher Gary Sanchez and outfielders Mason Williams, Tyler Austin and Slade Heathcott -- will all at once realize their potential.
Every team faces uncertainty, but most do not have $189 million -- and, remember, that is a cap to which the Yankees will limit themselves for just one season -- with which to address it. As much as Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera will be missed, we would be wise to hold the wreaths and consoling phone calls to the Yankees and their fans until we hear the sound of dirt landing upon pinstriped cherrywood.