Yankees GM Brian Cashman called the re-signing of manager Joe Girardi the first order of business of what should be a very busy winter for the extremely disappointed ALCS losers. There's also the obvious hope to bring back three of the vaunted Core Four, of course, all of whom have expiring contracts. And while these are all important issues for the Yankees, the most pressing concern is something else entirely -- the importing of superstar free-agent pitcher Cliff Lee, who slipped through their mitts back in July, beat them in October and will have a tough choice between them, the incumbent American League champion Rangers and anyone else with a big bankroll who comes calling for arguably baseball's best pitcher.
Chronologically, Girardi comes first. But he will be back, of course. Where's he going to go now that his beloved hometown Cubs quickly hired no-name interim manager Mike Quade? The suspicion is that Girardi wanted back in the Bronx, anyway (who willingly leaves a team with a $200 million payroll?); he just returns without the leverage he was hoping to have.
Once Girardi is re-signed to a deal likely to pay him $3 million or more annually, the real money will be thrown around. And we're not even talking about three of the original Core Four, two of whom are all but certain to be back (Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera) and the third of whom they're just waiting to see whether he'll finally retire (38-year-old Andy Pettitte, whom the Yankees are starting to suspect will come back after all). The great hope, though, is that the big bucks will go to Lee, a postseason phenom so good that he had the Yankees psyched out for two straight Octobers.
Lee, 32, is so unhittable and so hot that competing executives are wondering whether the Yankees will stop at anything -- or any number -- before securing him. Word going around is that Lee will ask to duplicate the record $161 million, seven-year record deal of his good buddy CC Sabathia, the Yankees' current ace. But while his age may limit the years to five or six, Lee's pitching was so good, and the stars are so aligned, that there's no reason for Lee to stop at $23 million per year. With the Yankees ready to excise disappointing Javier Vazquez, still uncertain about Pettitte (at least for the moment) and unsure what -- if anything worthwhile -- they're going to get from mercurial A.J. Burnett, they will do everything within their means to sign Lee and bolster their starting rotation.
The Yankees lost an opportunity this summer to be branded the overwhelming title favorites when they let Lee go to the Rangers, after thinking they had struck a deal with the Mariners. But when Seattle questioned prospect David Adams' leg injury (and it turns out he was more seriously hurt than first believed) and the Rangers read about the Yankees' would-be deal in the papers, Texas relented on top hitting prospect Justin Smoak and got a three-month head start on convincing Lee to stay long-term in the Metroplex. Word was, Lee originally preferred to come to New York, where a perennial contender, historic organization and his buddy Sabathia awaited. Now it's anyone's guess where he goes.
New Rangers owner Chuck Greenberg, who managed to secure the team for only about $2 million of his own money after a 17-month battle, swears that he is coming hard after Lee, and Texas has the advantages now of proximity, smiling faces, the pennant and no state income tax. The Yankees have never failed to lure a coveted free agent, dating back to the '70s with Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson. But this one ought to be interesting. The money could get out of control, especially considering the second-best free agent starter on most teams' list is Carl Pavano, a player the Yankees wouldn't touch if he offered to return for free (he won't, anyway).
Royals star Zack Greinke appears to be the only available pitcher, via trade, who could come close to Lee's talent, and Greinke's past battles with an anxiety disorder are well-known, so New York might not be the best fit. In fact, one competing executive said he is hearing that Greinke will not go to Boston or New York, which, if true, is good and bad for the Yankees. In Lee's bid for a long deal, agent Darek Braunecker is expected to argue that the left-hander is in terrific shape and not as reliant on a high-90s fastball as his buddy Sabathia. The guess here is that if the Yankees could get Lee for $125 million over five years, they would gladly sign up for that now. But the price may go higher than that.
If Lee stays in Texas, and Greinke won't come to New York, the Yankees will 1) Try hard to find a viable frontline starter elsewhere, and 2) Try to combat the talented Rangers with improved offense. That could mean a run at one of the top two offensive players. The Yankees are said to have interest in Carl Crawford, 29, but they're telling folks that their expectations to beat the Angels and Red Sox for either star outfielder (Jayson Werth, 31, being the other) aren't especially high. That could change, of course, if they don't get Lee. Word is that the Yankees prefer Crawford to Werth. They love Crawford's youth, competitiveness and speed, though the right-handed-hitting Werth would balance out their lefty-heavy lineup and has some Yankee connections(superscout and onetime New York first baseman Dennis Werth is Werth's stepfather).
There have been fleeting thoughts and visions about the damage that Adam Dunn could do as a DH playing home games in Yankee Stadium; but beyond that, Dunn has shown no interest in DHing (although it's obviously his most natural position). It appears that the Yankees are starting to feel like they need to keep the DH spot open for a couple of their mid-30s players, including longtime catcher Jorge Posada, 39, who has another year to go on his contract, and possibly third baseman Alex Rodriguez, 35, who had hip surgery a year and a half ago and appeared a bit slower in the field this year.
The current plan for Posada's final year in pinstripes is to have him share time behind the plate with Francisco Cervelli and ballyhooed prospect Jesus Montero. Posada was the main catcher on four World Series winners, but is "shot'' as a primary starter, one scout said, suggesting that Cervelli, who also slipped a bit defensively this year, and Montero, who is a big-time offensive force of the future but still learning the position, would account for the majority of games behind the plate. The depth of catching in New York's system is enviable (Austin Romine, Gary Sanchez and J.R. Murphy are three more well-regarded prospects), but there isn't one who can be identified yet as a plus defender who's also big-league ready.
As for Jeter and Rivera, Posada's longtime teammates, the two iconic Yankees are technically free agents, though no believes that there's any chance they'll go elsewhere. Jeter's contract will be of interest because guesses are all over the board. The Yankees aren't sure that anyone else would even offer him $30 million over three years, but both sides have no reason to end this winning relationship and every incentive to continue the legacy of an alltime great Yankee. One opposing GM foresaw a three-year deal for about $50 million, though a rare, so-so October following his off-year offensively make early $100 million guesses seem off the wall now. How about a two-year deal for $40 million, which gives him a raise but isn't outrageous total dollars? Rivera should get a raise from $15 million, and a two-year deal seems reasonable there, as well -- though perhaps he'd accept the year-to-year program that Pettitte seems to be on.
Pettitte is saying for the moment that he remains unsure what he will do, though people around the team guess that he'll be back based on his competitive juices. Pettitte would seem unlikely to want to leave off a disappointing year (for the team, anyway) when he still has ample ability, not to mention a chance to enhance his Hall of Fame résumé. But if he does go, their pitching situation goes from dicey to dire.
Beyond Rivera, who's expected back, the bullpen appears solid but well short of its late-'90s heyday. Even the setup role remains a question unless they can figure out how to retain Kerry Wood, who did a nice job in that spot but has an $11 million option that's too high to exercise for a non-closer -- and Wood could well have his sights on a closing job elsewhere. If Wood departs, they'd have to hope that Joba Chamberlain returns to form, pray for improvement from David Robertson or scan the free-agent list for a viable bridge to Rivera. Considering Chamberlain's recent regressions, he could be potential trade bait, as well.
The Yankees have decent talent in their system, and if they can somehow sign a prime outfielder, perhaps they could include either Brett Gardner or Nick Swisher in deals, as well. But as usual, the key to the Yankees' winter hopes are dollars and sense.
• Ex-Diamondbacks GM Josh Byrnes is interviewing on Monday and Sandy Alderson on Tuesday as the final two candidates in the Mets' GM derby. Alderson has said that he wants the job, and friends say he means it. He is considered the favorite, as long as the perception is that Mets owner Fred Wilpon is likely to favor him. Mets people say that all three owners (the other two being COO JeffWilpon and club president Saul Katz) are keeping an open mind. They also say Alderson remains "well-versed'' in what's going on with all 30 teams, even though he hasn't held a GM job since 1997 (he was Padres CEO more recently). Rangers GM Jon Daniels, who has an "out'' clause in his contract, remains a wild card -- though Rangers owner Chuck Greenberg expressed confidence that Daniels would be signed to a long-term deal.
• Pat Gillick turned down a chance to interview for the Mets' GM job after what people close to Gillick said was a good conversation with Jeff Wilpon (they needed to talk after Gillick once was quoted as saying that he wouldn't work for "that kid''). But Gillick apparently would be more likely to entertain GM offers from West Coast teams.
• Bob Melvin and Joey Cora continue to be the two names mentioned most prominently in the Brewers' managerial search.
• The Pirates were expected to have picked their manager by now. But Eric Wedge going to manage the Mariners appears to have set them back.
• Toronto's choice of pitching coach John Farrell for manager is being praised by many around baseball. But it is a gamble to hire anyone without managerial experience, especially in that division. Finalist Sandy Alomar Jr. is "going to be a great [manager],'' said one GM, who added that Alomar needs experience first. We'll soon find out if that's true for Farrell, as well.
• Not only did A-Rod seem a step slow late in the year, but so did the Phillies' Chase Utley appear to be off his game. Their hip problems were surgically repaired, but you have to wonder whether there are any lingering effects. Neither star seemed to be himself this October.
• Adam Dunn keeps telling folks that he wants to play the field and stay in the National League, and to this point in his career, he has done that. The Tigers and White Sox might like him for the middle of their lineups, though.
• Yu Darvish's announcement that he'll stay in Japan next year only aides Cliff Lee's case.
• Bengie Molina, who's said he's thinking of retiring, will get a full World Series share as a the Rangers catcher. But would the Giants vote him a partial share no matter who wins?
• The separation of running mates and former Yankee teammates Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera seems to have worked better for Cano, who had a fabulous year. Hard to believe, but Cabrera earned his release with a dreadful year for the Braves.
• Josh Hamilton looks wise to have turned down a $24 million, three-year offer a couple years back, betting on his sobriety and ability.