Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Baseball [Print without images]

Monday, July 16, 2007
Yankees uncertain of their future

By Bob Klapisch
Special to ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- With a nervous gaze toward the calendar and the standings, the Yankees' strategy at the trading deadline will depend on how they play in the next two weeks. Or, to put it more simply, the Bombers' decision-makers are on hold, waiting for one more (one last?) hot streak.

"If we're going to make a move, it has to happen now," is how one high-ranking official put it Thursday. That's hardly an overstatement, considering the Yankees are facing a double-digit deficit in the American League East, and are almost that far removed from the AL wild-card lead with no sign of a collapse by the teams in front of them. It looks and feels like a transition year in the Bronx; many baseball people say the Yankees are closer to the playoffs in 2008 than they are in 2007. But no one's giving up yet, primarily because of the Yankees' soft schedule in July.

Alex Rodriguez
Only time will tell whether Alex Rodriguez will continue to be looked at in a good light by Yankees fans.
Their first 29 games after the All-Star break are against sub-.500 teams, including eight of the first 12 against the already-dead Devil Rays.

The math alone says the Yankees would be wise to flip the calendar. Even if the Red Sox play .500 the rest of the way, they'd still finish with 91 wins. The Yankees would have to win 63 percent of their games to match that. They'd have to win 61 percent to beat the Indians for the wild card. None of this is impossible, of course, just improbable. Yet, GM Brian Cashman is holding off on any major trades -- either as a buyer or a seller -- until the Yankees take advantage of their schedule. Or not.

"Right now our focus is trying to get the roster to play up to its abilities," Cashman said. "We don't have any major needs. We might tweak here or there, but I don't see us as major players [at the July 31 deadline]."

Despite the Red Sox's surplus, the Yankees cling to the belief that they've underachieved for so long -- and have endured so many injuries and bad breaks -- that their luck has to change sooner or later. Plus, as Cashman says, noting the Twins' comeback in 2006, "this has been done before. People say we're done, but there's a precedent that says otherwise."

Still, the Yankees aren't oblivious to their underachievement. With a sub.-500 record at the break, they qualified as the worst team of the Joe Torre era. But admitting to 4 million paying fans that the season is over runs counter to the Yankees' philosophy; it's alien to the entire win-or-else culture that George Steinbrenner promotes. No wonder the Yankees are procrastinating on Plan B. They're not even sure whom to trade even if they decide to become sellers.

Kyle Farnsworth, who's in Torre's doghouse for throwing his glove against the dugout wall after being removed from a game on June 29, would be a likely candidate to go. Bobby Abreu has experienced enough of a resurgence to stir interest from at least one National League team, although an American League executive who's seen Abreu recently remains unimpressed. "He's an opposite-field singles hitter who's slowed down a lot in the last year."

Another possibility is acquiring Shea Hillenbrand, but that would happen only if the Yankees are ready to give him the everyday job at first base. That decision has not been made, team insiders say. The club is equally unclear about where Alex Rodriguez is headed or just how to negotiate with him without alienating Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada, New York's other free-agents-to-be.

In the most likely scenario, the Yankees will indeed bend corporate policy and offer A-Rod a contract extension before season's end. One insider said, "he keeps saying he loves the Yankees, now he'll get a chance to show us he means it." But the Bombers also promise to vanish if A-Rod opts out of his contract in November. The same higher-up said, "if Alex opts out, it means he wants out, he doesn't want to play here. We won't let him use us."

It's hard to believe A-Rod will be pressured to drop his free agency rights. As agent Scott Boras told the New York Daily News, "Alex has always said he's comfortable in New York. It doesn't mean he's not comfortable somewhere else, either."

If Alex opts out [of his contract], it means he wants out, he doesn't want to play here. We won't let him use us.

A Yankees high-ranking official

A-Rod's feelings about the Yankees are obviously linked to their check-writing ability -- when has he not been about the money? But if Rodriguez bolts, it may have to do with the end of the Bronx renaissance, which began in 1995. The team is well-stocked with pitching prospects at the Double-A level, but there aren't many saviors among the position players. This winter's free agent market will be similarly lean.

And there's the unresolved futures of both Cashman, whose contract expires after 2008, and Torre, who has no commitment from Steinbrenner after this season. If the Yankees' playoff-streak ends this year after 12 straight appearances, count on changes to occur at the top.

This is the decline-phase Yankee haters have prayed for since the mid-'90s. But not everyone is gloating.

"The Yankees are great for baseball, especially when they're good," said A's general manager Billy Beane. "Anyone who doesn't believe that is incredibly short-sighted. Me, personally, I never viewed the Yankees as some hated, evil rival, because I have so much respect for the way they play the game. If they're having a down period, it's only temporary, and their down period is going to be a lot shorter than most teams'."

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.