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A-Rod, Yankees' final batter of 2011, is first question for 2012

After Game 5 was over, and the Tigers were headed to the American League Championship Series and the Yankees headed home, general manager Brian Cashman noted, sadly, that it's time to turn his calendar to 2012. Meanwhile, the calendar seems like it sped up for A-Rod, who had by far his worst year as a professional at age 36.

"Alex looks done,'' one scout said.

At the very least, Rodriguez had more issues than hits in the ALDS defeat to Detroit. Among other problems, his bat speed, timing, confidence and health were cited by baseball insiders as possible problems. His age is certainly something to think about, too.

While nobody turned in a worse series for the losing $200 million team (A-Rod batted .111, slugged .111 and whiffed .333), he still managed to talk a good game afterward. "I have no doubt in my ability to play this game at a very high level and be someone who can contribute something to this lineup every day,'' Rodriguez contended.

Meanwhile, A-Rod stressed, "There are no excuses.'' Not the in-season knee surgery, the time off, nothing. "I was healthy enough,'' he said, referring to the lost series. "That's on me.''

The final moment, the key at-bat, always seems to find baseball's biggest attention magnet. This was not a good time at all for that, and Rodriguez, predictably, struck out for the sixth time in 18 at-bats in the series and the third time in the game, capping an 0-for-4 night that sent the Yankees into next year. Tigers closer Jose Valverde, who is "the guy we wanted to beat,'' according to Nick Swisher, went to 51 for 51 in saves with a 1-2-3 ninth inning against the heart of the Yankees' lineup. And then it really was over for the AL's best regular season team that didn't play like that when it counted in the ALDS, losing three games to two to the Tigers.

"I've got a lot of work to do,'' Rodriguez conceded. "I have to get my house back in order ... No question, I have a lot to prove. I'm looking forward to that challenge. I will be back with a vengeance.''

The problem is that, at his age, hard work or even a vengeance just may not be good enough anymore.

Of course, with six years to go on his contract, A-Rod and the Yankees are stuck with each other. They could move him down in the order, but that's about the only option. They could make him a DH, but at least at the end, he looked like a better fielder than hitter. Here are some more key questions for the 2012 Yankees.

1. What is their main area of concern? Why, of course, it's starting pitching. "Always, always, always,'' general manager Brian Cashman said. Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon provided two miracles this year, and the Yankees are thankful for that. But their contracts are up, and the Yankees will need to piece together a rotation again. Beyond their own CC Sabathia, who can opt out of his contract, the best free-agent pitchers available are Yu Darvish from Japan, C.J. Wilson from Texas and Mark Buehrle from the South Side of Chicago. Darvish is seen as potential frontline starter, Wilson is at least a No. 2 with fewer innings than most 30-year-olds and Buehrle is a remarkably consistent contributor with a lot of innings on him. The issue is: Beyond CC, can they get any of them? Darvish will inspire a feeding frenzy, the demand will be great for Wilson and Rangers people wonder if he might go home to Southern California (the Red Sox and Nationals are among many teams thought to have interest), and Buehrle isn't seen as likely to leave the Midwest in the unlikely event that he leaves the only team he has ever known. Cashman did a terrific job with the bargain basement signings of Garcia and Colon, and maybe he can find some other low-priced gems. Prospects Manuel Banuelos and Dellin Betances may still be a year away.

2. What about CC? He is expected to use his opt out to increase his current guarantee from $92 million remaining over four years to something well beyond that. Sabathia had us all guessing wrong last time. But it would be a surprise if he went anywhere else this time, not after building a compound in Northern New Jersey and saying that there's no better place to play. "I've loved it since Day One,'' Sabathia said. Of course, that doesn't mean he won't turn the opt-out into at least two more years, and maybe three. While he wasn't at his best the final couple months (he had a 4-plus ERA), he is absolutely needed. "Our ace,'' is how Cashman summed up how they feel about Sabathia.

3. Any chance for a trade for Felix Hernandez? The Mariners have been steadfast in their refusal to surrender their ace, and there's no reason to think that will change. Tampa Bay's James Shields could become available, but it's hard to imagine the Rays, already at a $160 million payroll deficit to New York, trading him to the Yankees. Banuelos, Betances, Jesus Montero and possibly even Ivan Nova (though the forearm tightness that was said to knock him out of Game 5 needs to be monitored), give the Yankees plenty of ammunition for a deal.

4. What happens with Jorge Posada? He had a brilliant playoff series (.579 on-base percentage), saving his best for last after a rough season that included being dropped to ninth in the order once, asking out of the lineup once and losing part of his DH job eventually. Praise was flowing for Posada afterward, as folks sensed that this is the end of his Yankees career. Speaking of Posada, Girardi said, "He was tremendous.''

When the question of Posada's Yankees future was posed to Cashman on Thursday, he said, "I'm not prepared to talk about the winter right now.'' A-Rod might have to DH sometimes, and top hitting prospect Montero might have to DH a lot of the time. Tears were also starting to flow. Posada choked up, telling reporters, "I'm sorry.'' It had all the look of a player who knows he has played his last game in pinstripes, or maybe anywhere.

There was no suggestion that Posada, who will be 41 next year, would be invited back. "He's had a tremendous career and I'm sure he's going to play, and I don't know what's going to happen,'' Girardi said. The guess here, sadly, is that he will not be back. While Posada has suggested that he'd consider playing elsewhere, he seems destined to retire a Yankee, as the need for a lefty-only DH isn't strong anywhere and Posada should realize that it's better to retire a lifelong Yankee on a high note.

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5. Is the offense an issue? Well, it certainly was in this series, when the Yankees struggled except for Game 4. They scored 28 runs, their second highest total in an ALDS (they scored 33 in losing the 1995 ALDS to Seattle), but 10 of those runs game in Game 4. Mark Teixeira hit .167 with no home runs, and Swisher hit .211 with one RBI. Of course their offense was the best in baseball over 162 games. So there's no reason for an overhaul. "Our offense should be OK,'' Cashman said.

6. Might they sign a big-time free agent every-day player anyway? It seems unlikely, though Prince Fielder hasn't ruled out looking at offers to DH. More likely, Fielder winds up with the Orioles, Nationals, Cubs or some other team that can offer a first base job. Shortstop Jose Reyes is someone the Yankees like, but there's simply no room, not with a rejuvenated Derek Jeter on board for three more years.

7. What about Swisher? He has a $10.25 million club option for next year, and he did enough after his slow start (23 HRs, 85 RBIs) that it is very likely to be picked up.

8. How about the catching position? Russell Martin exceeded expectations both offensively and defensively, showing good power, a nice throwing arm and leadership skills. They claimed in Los Angeles that he didn't work hard enough, but if so, there was no evidence of that here. He did enough to warrant a new deal. Montero looks like a big-time hitter but remains unproven as a catcher. The Yankees have superb depth among catching prospects with Austin Romine and Gary Sanchez in the pipeline, making Montero potential trade bait (though that would be a gamble because he looks like he'll put up huge offensive numbers).

9. Will Rafael Soriano opt out? No chance. The free-agent market is filled with closers who did that job well this year (Jonathan Papelbon, Heath Bell, Ryan Madson), and Soriano can't want to surrender the two years remaining on the three-year, $35 million deal that Cashman's bosses liked more than he did. Soriano had to like it, too, even if he never showed it with a smile.

10. And Joe Girardi? "I thought he did a great job,'' Cashman said. "I don't think anybody, including myself, was picking us to have the best record in the American League.'' Girardi has two years left and the obvious support of Cashman.

11. And finally there is Cashman. His contract is up, but everyone around the team seems to think it's a foregone conclusion that he's coming back to make it 15 years as GM (and beyond). He has the support of managing partner Hal Steinbrenner and team president Randy Levine. Cashman said he wants to return, too. "I'll sit down with ownership. Obviously, they're going to be disappointed, and rightfully so,'' Cashman said. But if not for Cashman's cost-efficient signings of Garcia, Colon, Martin, Andruw Jones and Eric Chavez, the Yankees probably wouldn't even have been division winners.

• Robin Ventura was a shocker of a pick to succeed former infield mate Ozzie Guillen as White Sox manager, as he has no professional managing or even coaching experience. But White Sox higher-ups like his smarts, integrity and longtime South Side ties. It's a gamble, but he's someone worth gambling on.

• The smart money says the Red Sox go for a manager with little experience, too (though maybe not that little). Dave Martinez and Sandy Alomar Jr., who were thought to be candidates for the White Sox, look like possibilities for the Red Sox. Respected Phillies bench coach Pete Mackanin is also expected to be in the mix. Since Ventura presumably wasn't on their radar, they didn't lose anybody by not rushing into things. The Theo Epstein situation probably needs to be resolved first, anyway.

• There appears to be no certainty that Terry Francona will get another job quickly. He was never in the mix with the White Sox. The Cubs are expected to hire a new manager. But of course, if Epstein becomes their GM, Francona won't be hired there.

• Epstein makes sense as the first choice of the Cubs for GM, as he fits the profile of someone who's had success with analytics and also player development, and it doesn't hurt that he's worked in a big-market fishbowl atmosphere. But most baseball insiders believe that Epstein will wind up staying in Boston. He loves the ownership there and seems to be co-existing with club president Larry Lucchino lately.

• The Mets, Angels and Pirates look like they are in a firing race. The Angels dumped three top front office people, the Pirates axed their medical staff and some veteran scouts and the Mets canned three coaches and at least two scouts. The Mookie Wilson situation is interesting with the Mets, as he appears to be on a yo-yo. It seems the Mets like the publicity bump they get for hiring him but don't really love him as a coach.

• Chip Hale decided to leave the Mets for Oakland on a two-year deal to work for his friend Bob Melvin and also spring near his Arizona home. Hale was said to have finished second for the Mets managerial job that went to Terry Collins.

• Jim Riggleman and Larry Bowa both would make sense for the Mets' bench coach job.

• Albert Pujols' Game 4 play to jump in front of first base to gather a throw and fire across the diamond to nail Chase Utley trying to take third was absolutely brilliant on Pujols' part. Many folks don't grasp his all-around greatness.

• The Diamondbacks may be the story of the year, no matter how Friday night's Game 5 with the Brewers turns out. Scouts still don't get how they keep winning.