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Thursday, August 8, 2013
A-Rod saga masked Yanks' ugly truth

By Wallace Matthews
ESPNNewYork.com

Since May 25, only three teams in Major League Baseball have worse records than the New York Yankees: The Astros. The Giants.

And the White Sox, who just completed a three-game sweep of the Yankees early Thursday morning in Chicago.

You can make the argument that by virtue of the outcome of that series, the Yankees are now the worst team in baseball. After all, if you need to beat the best to be the best, it stands to reason that if you lose to the worst, you become the worst.

That is the backdrop against which the Yankees return to the Bronx for a seven-game homestand Friday night, beginning with three against the Detroit Tigers, who incidentally are the third-best team in baseball since May 25, the date on which the Yankees' season started going to hell.

Friday night was supposed to be about the return of Alex Rodriguez to Yankee Stadium, the ballpark he was booed out of last October, and things have only gotten worse for him since.

Alex Rodriguez sign
Fans may choose to boo A-Rod in the Bronx on Friday. But he isn't the Yankees' biggest problem.

But now, the A-Rod saga is reduced to a true sideshow, a secondary story to the real issue at Yankee Stadium, which is no longer how to salvage their season, but how to reclaim their future.

In all but a mathematical sense, this season is a lost cause. There are 49 games left, and the Yankees would likely have to win 33 of them to reach 90 wins for the season, probably the minimum threshold to be in the wild-card hunt. That would mean playing .673 ball the rest of the way, a pace they haven't come close to all season, even when it looked like the Yankees might have struck gold with Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner and Lyle Overbay.

That turned out to be fool's gold. And now they are stuck with sacks of it around their necks, weighing them down for the rest of this season, and in Wells' case, next season as well.

The truly depressing thing about this year is that since the All-Star break, that arbitrarily drawn line in the sand after which struggling teams vow to regroup, the Yankees are 6-12. Since the day of the trade deadline, at which the Yankees were able to add nothing to their roster, they are 1-5. And since trading for Alfonso Soriano, who was supposed to jump-start the offense, on July 26, they are 3-7.

(It seems almost unfair to mention this, but since the return of A-Rod, they are 0-3.)

The point is, nothing has seemed to help. And there are no longer any reinforcements on the way. If Derek Jeter, who has been unable to play more than three games in a row without going back to the DL, winds up playing 30 games all season, it will be a pleasant surprise.

So there's really no use in agonizing over or even discussing this season until something miraculous happens in the coming days. A sweep of these seven games at home, after all, could change the momentum and the feeling in the clubhouse.

(The second four games of the homestand are against the Los Angeles Angels, an indisputably bad team whose record since May 25 is two games better than the Yankees'.)

Now, there are two questions to answer: Who's to blame for what has happened this year? And what can be done to avoid a similar fate next year?

There are two simple answers to the first question.

The first is that injuries to key members of the club were simply too much to overcome. And in hindsight, it now seems that the 2013 Yankees were doomed from the moment Jeter went down with a broken ankle in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series last October. From there, an ever-cascading series of catastrophes followed.

The second is that Hal Steinbrenner, with his self-imposed $189 million cap, handcuffed his general manager just long enough so that there weren't many players left on which Brian Cashman could spend his money.

That is why, instead of bringing back Russell Martin, Raul Ibanez and Eric Chavez, the Yankees wound up with Wells and Hafner and Overbay.

And anyone in the Yankees front office who tells you $189 million was never a hard-and-fast number is engaging in revisionist history in order to curry favor with the boss (as opposed to The Boss).

The second question is much more difficult to answer.

For starters, there are question marks at just about every position for next year. It is assumed that Jeter and Mark Teixeira will be healthy for 2014 and will resume their duties at shortstop and first base. But both will be a year older -- Jeter, in fact will turn 40 before the season is half-over -- and coming off injuries that turned out to be much more serious than originally believed.

Second base and third base are up in the air: A-Rod is likely to spend part, if not all, of the season serving a suspension. And it is by no means guaranteed, considering how many long-term free-agent deals have backfired on them, that the Yankees will tie down Robinson Cano, who seems to be taking the phrase "walk year'' way too literally on his way to first base.

As of now, the outfield will be Brett Gardner, Ichiro Suzuki and either Soriano or Wells. Aside from Gardner, the baby of that bunch is Wells, who will come to spring training heading toward his 36th birthday.

And of course, the Yankees will have three starting pitchers, and maybe four, to replace. Phil Hughes is a free agent and will not be back. So, too, is Andy Pettitte, who may choose a return to retirement after the frustration of an ineffective season. Then again, it may not be his choice.

At 39, Hiroki Kuroda may want to call it quits. And even if he doesn't, the days of getting him to work for a mere $15 million are over after the season he's had in 2013.

That leaves just CC Sabathia, who looks headed for an A-Rod-like conclusion to his Yankees contract, and Ivan Nova, as holdovers for next year's rotation.

And have I mentioned that in addition to everything else, the Yankees will need to replace not just a closer, but the greatest closer of all time?

The answers are not coming from down on the farm -- as a member of the team's front office admitted to me Thursday, "Our farm system has taken a step backward this year" -- and they might not be in the free-agent market, either.

Jacoby Ellsbury will be there, and so will Brian McCann and Matt Garza. But so will a lot of familiar faces: Chavez, Ibanez, Michael Young, and yes, A.J. Burnett.

It's a lot easier to see how the Yankees got into this mess than to figure a way out.

That is Cashman's job, and that of his staff, with the financial support of an owner who, even if he doesn't thirst for victory the way his father did, certainly won't want to be embarrassed like this for a second season in a row.

So if you're heading to Yankee Stadium to boo Alex Rodriguez on Friday, just remember this: He's no longer the problem, and he's hardly the person to blame.

The truth is, for the past couple of weeks, Rodriguez's continuing soap opera has served to divert attention from how bad the Yankees have been.

Friday night, the team gets to return A-Rod's favor.