What happens if this pitcher isn't wearing
pinstripes next season?
Throughout the 2000s, the New York Yankees signed or traded for a plethora of starting pitchers. They experimented with all sorts of failure: from worn-out former stars like Kevin Brown and Randy Johnson to the likes of Esteban Loaiza, Javy Vazquez and Jon Lieber to the injury-plagued Carl Pavano. The Yankees got every ounce they could out of Mike Mussina and kept bringing back Roger Clemens like he was Brett Favre, but that, mixed with a merry-go-round bullpen was never enough to get the job done. It wasn't until the Empire bagged a legit big fish in his prime, C.C. Sabathia, and brought back Andy Pettitte that they won their first World Series in nine years.
But recent history is about to repeat itself. The foregone conclusion of the Yankees signing Cliff Lee is no more as the Rangers slammed the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. After the Rangers' Game 6 victory, Lee said if Texas wins the World Series, it would be difficult for him to leave. He also said that he is closer to his home in Arkansas than he's ever been in his career.
If Lee stays in Texas, New York right back where they were in 2003: looking to reload, but with a depleted pond. Then, they settled for Javy Vasquez and a 39-year-old Kevin Brown. In 2011 free agent talent is even more sparse.
When the Yankees lose, their fans expect the front office to spend spend spend, but upon closer inspection, they will find their team between a Lee and a hard place. The Dodgers already signed the second best 2011 free agent starter Ted Lilly to a three-year contract, the third best, Bronson Arroyo, re-upped with the Reds. Four-through-10 is a pretty severe drop off:
- Jon Garland – 14-12, 3.47 ERA in 33 starts for the San Diego Padres
- Hiroki Kuroda – 11-13, 3.39 ERA in 31 starts for the Los Angeles Dodgers
- *Rich Harden – 5-5. 5.58 ERA in 18 starts for the Texas Rangers
- Vicente Padilla – 6-5, 4.07 ERA in 16 starts for the Dodgers
- Carl Pavano – 17-11, 3.75 ERA in 32 starts for the Minnesota Twins
- *Jeff Francis – 4-6, 5.00 ERA in 19 starts for the Colorado Rockies
- *Chris Young - 2-0, 0.90 ERA in four starts for the San Diego Padres
*player or team has option
After that, it gets real fuzzy. The next best free agents are: Ben Sheets, Aaron Harang, Jorge De La Rosa, Freddy Garcia, Jeremy Bonderman, Erik Bedard and Brad Penny. Not exactly what you call having options.
Options are limited within the minor leagues for the Yankees, too. The Yankees' top pitching prospects, according to Baseball America are Zach McAllister, Manny Banuelos, Jeremy Bleich and Andrew Brackman. McAllister went 9-12 with a 5.29 ERA in triple-A Scranton, Banuelos started 15 games between high-A and double-A, going 0-4 with a 2.51 ERA, Bleich went 3-2 with a 4.79 ERA in eight starts for double-A Trenton and Brackman went 10-11 with a 3.90 ERA between high-A and double-A. Pitcher Ivan Nova, who went 12-3 last year in Scranton and started seven games for the Yankees in 2010 going 1-2 with a 4.50 ERA, will likely start 2011 in triple-A.
If 39-year-old pitcher Andy Pettitte retires, that leaves Sabathia, Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett, who was 10-16 in 2010, are the only remaining starters. The saving grace may be Yankees No. 1 prospect Jesus Montero. New York has dangled Montero before, even trying to trade him to Seattle for Cliff Lee at mid-season. Montero ranked as the 19th best prospect in baseball according to MLB.com's top 50 prospects. Scouts reportedly say he isn't good enough behind the plate to catch at the major league level, and first base is taken, so the Yankees could try to deal Montero for a superstar pitcher whose contract is coming up after 2011.
While Zack Greinke's name has been batted about, there are a few other potential free agents after '11 such as White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle, former Cy Young award winner Chris Carpenter, Astros' lefty Wandy Rodriguez, Rangers' lefty C.J. Wilson and White Sox starter Edwin Rodriguez might interest the Yankees.
Even if the Yankees do sign Cliff Lee to a $30 million per year deal over seven years or so, they still have plenty of work to do this off-season. Their bullpen struggled during the ALCS and their weakness at the catching position was glaring. As in the early 2000s, long-term contracts to aging players eventually catch up to the Yankees. Jorge Posada will make more than $13 million next season and at this point, he's a shadow of the hitter he used to be and a liability in the field. The Yankees also have an aging Alex Rodriguez whose production can only go down and a difficult situation with Derek Jeter, who can no longer effectively play shortstop.
We do know this: the New York Yankees' fan base expects moves to be made. But, buyer beware that the last time the Yankees knee-jerked, they missed the World Series for six straight seasons. The key to their long-term success may be trying to move older players in favor of prospects or unproven players. This may mean sacrificing a shot at 2011. But, just try asking Yankees fans for patience.
Matthew Coller is a senior staff member of the Business of Sports Network, and is a freelance writer. He can be followed on Twitter
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