• Unprecedented offseason of introspection awaits
• Will Alex Rodriguez leave?
Heading into the playoffs for a 51st time, the New York Yankees had every reason to think they could succeed. They had overcome the early season loss of their all-everything closer Mariano Rivera and a host of other nagging injuries throughout the season, winning 95 games, staving off the pesky Orioles in taking yet another American League East title. They were to face Baltimore in the ALDS, a formality, and then play the winner of the Detroit and Oakland series. There were no pesky rivals to speak of, the Boston Red Sox finished in the cellar, the Los Angeles Angels were shut out of the postseason, and the O's had upset the Texas Rangers in the wild-card game. The path was seemingly clear for the Yankees to make it to the World Series at the very least, and their fans could be forgiven for daydreaming about a 28th championship coming to the Bronx.
What followed was one of the most bizarre unravelings the sport has ever seen - a lineup that scored the second most runs in the American League and hit the most homers, disintegrated into an outfit that, and no exaggeration here, simply did not belong in Major League Baseball. New York scored five runs in the ninth inning against Baltimore in Game One of the ALDS, and it wasn't until Game One of the ALCS, five games later, that they were able to score multiple runs in another inning. In Game Four vs. Detroit, they had two hits and struck out 12 times. They were, pathetic, exposed to all as an old, rickety and punchless team. Done.
Who could of guessed before this postseason began that the New York Yankees dynasty would crumble before our eyes, that they would be facing an offseason of unprecedented introspection after being crushed in the ALCS by a team that won 88 games in the weak Central Division, and taken to the limit by, of all ball clubs, the Baltimore Orioles.
When a team makes the playoffs in 17 out of 18 years you believe success is forever - in Yankee-land, you don't believe playoff droughts are possible. Certainly not in the era of $200m payrolls anyway. Then you witness what we saw this October and it all crystallizes before you. It's over, the way it was over in 1965 when an 11-year playoff absence began, in 1982 when New York began a stretch of 12 seasons without playoff baseball.
The Baltimore Orioles and Detroit Tigers didn't have a pitching staff of Bob Gibson's and Sandy Koufax's (although Justin Verlander is close), but it looked like it when Robinson Cano had three hits in 41 plate appearances, Curtis Granderson had three hits in 33 plate appearances, Nick Swisher didn't show up, again, and Mark Teixeira had exactly one extra base hit. Then there was Alex Rodriguez, who by virtue of his enormous salary and lightning rod personality, became, perhaps unfairly, the grandest symbol of the playoff failure. He struck out 12 times in six games and had just three hits. A-Rod struggled from the start, and went from potentially being dropped in the lineup to fifth, to being pinch hit for in big spots, to being benched, while attempting to navigate the latest firestorm while attempting to pick up models.
Had the Yankees simply been upset by the Orioles, perhaps they could have ignored what was coming for a bit longer. They wouldn't have been around to be embarrassed in a second consecutive series after being beaten by a team of destiny, a more acceptable outcome in sports. Instead, the undressing continued against Detroit, and worse, injury was added to the insults. In Game One, after Raul Ibanez provided more ninth inning miracles, Derek Jeter shattered his ankle. The Captain, the unprecedented symbol of the franchise, was helped off the field at Yankee Stadium. Hope was lost without him, and Detroit continued to slice through New York's lineup without a fight.
Now Joe Girardi's Yankees board a flight to New York empty handed, facing major issues across their roster. Can the aging Jeter play shortstop next season after suffering such an injury, and if so, can he produce another season like he did in 2012? Will Andy Pettitte return at age 41? Will Rivera make a full recovery and be re-signed? First baseman Mark Teixeira is in a major decline, center fielder Curtis Granderson has become a hit and mostly miss player, right fielder Nick Swisher, a free agent, is likely gone, Ichiro, also a free agent, could return but will be 39. Outfielder Raul Ibanez, one of the only Yankees to hit in the postseason is not an everyday player. Catcher Russell Martin can't hit a lick and can also be a free agent. Alex Rodriguez' numbers spiralled out of control, and was then punished by Yankees management for not producing in the playoffs or in the regular season (17 homers). It seems to be a forgone conclusion that he will be moved but with five years and $114m remaining on his contract, however, it will take some real creativity from GM Brian Cashman, and/or some major cash eating for New Yorkers to see the back of unlucky 13 this offseason.
With an average age of 33, and gaping holes in their roster, and no guarantees that throwing money at problems will be able to fix their major shortcomings, there is every reason to believe that at best, the Yankees will have an outside shot at a playoff spot next season. More realistically, the Yankees are in line to finish 2013 with a losing record, which would be the first time the team finished sub .500 since 1992, and put an end to a nearly two decade old baseball dynasty in the Bronx.
There are no easy fixes but I think we could speculate and ask ourselves, WWGD, or what would George do? George being the departed former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who moved both heaven and earth to try to compete, regularly failing. He may have signed Josh Hamilton to whatever he wants, then resigned Ichiro and move Granderson to a corner outfield position. Or perhaps he would trade Granderson and sign Michael Bourn. DH Jeter and then sign the Marco Scutaro to play shortstop? Bring in Mike Napoli to catch and eat A-Rod's contract? Who knows, it's all speculation of course. One thing we do know is that the Yankees want to stay competitive and get under the $190m luxury tax threshold coming in 2014, and that will be no easy trick.