A-Rod the Trophy Wife and Robinson Cano

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Like most trophy marriages, Alex Rodriguez and the Yankees is comparable to a Hollywood union that wound up in marriage counseling with one side wanting a divorce and the other wanting a substantial payoff to leave. To make matters worse, there’s tantamount to a conviction hanging over the head of one of the participants and financial issues hovering around the other. It’s getting worse and worse with each passing day with no end in sight. There’s no point in analyzing the contretemps and accusations because by the time you read this, there will have been five more statements from each side to outdate the latest war of words.

The Yankees can’t say that after they traded for A-Rod, they didn’t get on-field production. If it was ten years ago and A-Rod was an MVP-contender, the team would be far more willing to stand behind him regardless of what he’s been accused of doing. They owe him $86 million from 2014 through 2017 and don’t want to pay him because he’s an average player at best.

It’s typical that the sides in such a marriage enjoyed a honeymoon of several years when all was good and wonderful. A-Rod began to show his age and underlying problems that the Yankees either glossed over or ignored as long as he was hitting 35+ homers a year. When he opted out of his contract after the 2007 season, it was right after his second MVP season in three years in pinstripes. He’d kept his hotness that attracted the Yankees to him. Factions in the Yankees organization, notably general manager Brian Cashman, wanted to let him leave. Hank Steinbrenner stepped in and lavished a new $275 million contract to keep the marriage together with money. In spite of the idea that the contract was a disaster from the start, A-Rod hit 30+ homers in the first three years of the deal. Then the injuries and controversies began in earnest and he stopped being productive.

This is how these types of marriages end. To avoid a repeat, the Yankees have to examine what made them get into bed with A-Rod in the first place. They and other clubs need to think critically about such a bow to expediency for his star power and ability to put fans in the seats. With A-Rod, they became the Yankees as an entity rather than a cohesive team.

The Yankees teams from 1996 through 2003 were a group that knew and trusted one another. There was a definition of purpose with the club. And that’s with having begun the process of bringing in mercenaries and nuisances like Roger Clemens and David Wells. With A-Rod, they made the conscious decision to bring his sideshow and contract with him. They collected stars instead of getting players that fit on and off the field. That can work as long as there isn’t an albatross of a contract hanging over the team’s head in the latter years of the deal. Had A-Rod not had this PED nightmare of his own doing, the Yankees would have bitten the bullet, dealt with his age-related decline and injury and lived with what he could provide, waiting out its (and his) expiration. Now they just want him gone and they don’t want to pay him. In essence, they’re trying to break the agreement that came with the marriage. While they couldn’t have predicted it would degenerate into this, they had to know that eventually they’d be paying him for what he was a decade earlier.

This directly ties into their current construction of the club and what they’re going to do about Robinson Cano.

Cano’s lack of hustle is getting to the point where he’s not going to bother running on a ground ball at all; he’s simply going to walk back to the dugout as if he’d just struck out. In reality, there’s no difference between the two because with his current effort, if the infielder bobbles or outright muffs a grounder, Cano will still be out by five steps. The combination of the A-Rod mess, the $200+ million contracts that are already disastrous (Albert Pujols), Cano’s age and burgeoning laziness could spur the Yankees to decide that they’re not going to hamstring the franchise in the same way again just to placate the fans and media to keep an admittedly great player who wants an amount of money he cannot possibly live up to.

The Yankees set a line in the sand with Derek Jeter during his last free agent negotiations. They made their offer, Jeter was unhappy with it and they told him to see if he could do better elsewhere. With Jeter, they were safe in knowing he wasn’t going to leave and the rest of baseball wasn’t going to bother pursuing him because they also knew he wouldn’t leave. Cano isn’t Jeter and another team would pursue him if there was an opening. But the situation is similar in that few other teams have the capability and willingness to give Cano $200+ million. The Dodgers are the only ones that come to mind who could and they might shy away from the pursuit.

The Cardinals wound up looking completely innocent and retrospectively brilliant by letting Pujols leave when no one thought he would. That they had just won the World Series gave them some wiggle room, but in the end Pujols chased the money and the Cardinals hid behind their own financial circumstances to justify him departing. The combination of circumstances with the Yankees is different, but their own issues could result in Cano leaving as well. It’s either that or take the amount of money the Yankees offer to stay even if it’s far below what he clearly wants. It will be an amount of money that no one could ever spend. Whether Cano’s ego can deal with not surpassing that magic number of $200 million is the question. But he might not have much of a choice and A-Rod could be held, in part, responsible for that too.




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Randy Levine Is Not George Steinbrenner

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George Steinbrenner is dead. Hank Steinbrenner has been muzzled like one of the Steinbrenners’ prize horses. Hal Steinbrenner is almost Derek Jeter-like in his ability to speak and say nothing at the same time. That leaves team president Randy Levine as the team spokesman with whom the media feels it can light a fuse and ignite an explosion.

The fact remains that Randy Levine is not George Steinbrenner. Whether or not this is a good or bad thing is in the eyes of the beholder. It’s a natural occurrence for memories to focus on the positive after someone is dead and gone. The truth is that George spent a lot of money, fired a lot of managers and had long stretches of dysfunction and embarrassment surrounding his organization. That’s before getting into his two suspensions. The Yankees rebuilt with George suspended for the Howie Spira affair and it’s unlikely that the young players who were part of the Yankees five championships over the past 18 years would have been allowed to develop as Yankees had he been around amid all his impatient bluster. He would have traded them. Through fortuitous circumstances, he returned to a team on the cusp of a championship and his public profile grew from a raving dictator who’d ruined a once-proud franchise into the generous general who led the club and gave his employees everything they needed to be successful.

The Yankee fans who started rooting for the team, conveniently, when they won their first championship of the era in 1996, only remember the “good” George. He was irreplaceable in a multitude of ways, positively and negatively. Writers miss him because their newspapers and websites would be filled with threats, missives, irrational screaming sessions that could just as easily have come from the pages of Mein Kampf, and demands that the team play better with no excuses. The fans miss him—with some justification—because if he were around, there wouldn’t be an $189 million limit on the 2014 payroll and they wouldn’t be trotting the array of cheap and limited no-names at catcher, at third base, at first base and in the outfield as they have so far this season.

But he’s gone. Now there’s a college of cardinals in his place with an interest in making money above winning. They don’t have the passion for the game and competition that the father had. Perhaps it was inevitable that once he was gone the edge would be gone too. The fear that accompanied working for the Yankees has degenerated into a corporate comfortableness. The sense of urgency has disappeared and there’s no one to replicate it.

In this ESPN piece, Wallace Matthews tried to get some answers from Levine and walked away with nothing. Levine has been under fire in recent days because of his comment that the team has the talent to contend. Whether or not he really believes that is known only to him. He’s not a baseball guy, but the Yankees’ baseball guys haven’t done a particularly good job either and that’s something that George would’ve latched onto and, also with some justification, gone into a raving rant wondering why the young players that were supposed to be the cornerstones to the future have, by and large, faltered. If it was George, he’s openly ask why the Rays, A’s, Pirates and others are able to win without a $200 million payroll and his team can’t. It’s obvious, from Hal’s statements, that he too is wondering the same thing. The difference between him and his father is that he’s acting on it by slashing payroll. Levine is the front man, nothing more. He’s not able to do the George thing and cause earthquakes with his bellowing. People sort or roll their eyes at him and/or ignore him.

Levine also failed to give votes of confidence to general manager Brian Cashman and manager Joe Girardi. Was that by design? If it had been George in his heyday, both would be in serious jeopardy. The ground under Cashman’s feet should be teetering regardless of whether it was George, the Steinbrenner kids or Levine making the decision; Girardi deserves a better fate and if they fire him, he’ll have his choice of about four to six jobs almost immediately, some very tempting like the Nationals, Angels and his hometown White Sox. Dismissing Girardi would speed the team’s downfall. Dismissing Cashman would probably be a positive given the team’s new financial circumstances and the GM’s clear inability to function under this template.

Levine sounded as if he was trying to be positive and not be controversial. Because he’s not George and because the media and fans are looking for fire and brimstone, they’re clutching at what Levine said, as innocuous as it was, and what he didn’t say. That makes it a no-win, meaningless situation. Nobody really cares what Levine says because he doesn’t have the surrounding lunacy that was a George hallmark. There’s no George Steinbrenner anymore. He’s not coming back. And as things stand now, neither are the Yankees that George’s money built.

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The Yankees Go “Significant” When They Needed To Go “Offer Cano Can’t Refuse”

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Yankees GM Brian Cashman revealed that the team has made a “significant” offer to second baseman Robinson Cano to preclude his pending free agency. What “significant” entails is anyone’s guess, but we can easily surmise that it wasn’t enough because Cano didn’t agree to it.

The Yankees made a “significant” offer when what they really needed to do was make an offer Cano couldn’t refuse as the Mets did with David Wright. Agent Scott Boras takes his players to free agency if he can help it and Cano has indicated that he wants money, period. This won’t be a Jered Weaver situation where the player doesn’t care about topping the salary chart, wants to stay in his present locale and tells Boras that over the agent’s objections. Cano wants to get paid and while he’d definitely prefer to stay with the Yankees, he’d be perfectly content to go across the country to the Dodgers if it meant getting the contract he feels he deserves.

Why Cashman chose to disclose this information is the big question. The implication that it was a “slip up” is ludicrous. It was done intentionally. Cashman, while wanting credit for being an architect of the club rather than a checkbook GM whose success has hinged upon a $200 million payroll, has also shown that he doesn’t care about loyalties or off-field factors when negotiating contracts. He would prefer to let Cano leave than saddle the club with another albatross-like commitment that they’ll regret in five years. It was Cashman who wanted to let Alex Rodriguez leave when A-Rod and Boras opted out of the third baseman’s contract in 2007, but had his blueprint and implementation sabotaged by Hank Steinbrenner. As it turned out, Cashman was prescient. He was also willing to let Derek Jeter walk if it came to that after 2010. Both Cashman and Jeter knew that Jeter wouldn’t leave and the negotiations were a face-saving wrestling match, mostly on the part of Jeter trying not to be embarrassed by taking a giant pay cut.

That brings up the “why” as to Cashman making public an offer that was made and rejected. The Steinbrenners are obviously feeling the heat not just from the chance that Cano could leave, but from the warm California sun and budgetless amounts of cash Dodgers’ GM Ned Colletti has to spend. “Significant” is the word of the day and Boras knows the Dodgers will be “significant” bidders for Cano—in fact, they won’t be stopped if they desperately want to sign the second baseman and will continually trump the Yankees until Cano is given the previously mentioned offer he can’t refuse.

This revelation was a public relations decision and it was a bad one. With it in the public now, the pressure shifts to Cano. The reality is that the dollars and years were unlikely to be anywhere close to what it would’ve taken to convince him to forego free agency, but the cryptic, undetailed telling of the tale by Cashman leaves plenty of room for ambiguity and the onus hovers around the player while putting each side in an antagonistic position. Rather than conducting a friendly negotiation in which the parties want to get the deal done as happened with Wright, the passive aggressiveness between club and player/agent is sure to begin next. Cano is not as cognizant of his image in being a Yankee for life as Jeter was. Unsolicited providing of this information was a bad idea and it’s going to explode in the Yankees’ faces unless they get Cano signed.

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Not Your Daddy’s Steinbrenner

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If Hal Steinbrenner is being sincere when he says he doesn’t understand why fans are concerned and upset that the Yankees haven’t made significant improvements over the winter, he’s gone beyond holding true to the company line he himself implemented and venturing into unexplored territory of delusion.

Back when George Steinbrenner was running things he was hard on his employees, but he was able to hit back at criticism (albeit in a loony, bullying way) without the screechy bewilderment that underscores Hal’s continued parental entreaties to a bratty progeny (the fans and media) that they should appreciate what they’re given.

Unwittingly or not, he’s lavishing expectations on a compromised and aged squad that are no longer as realistic as they once were. The Yankees do have the personnel to contend in 2013, but their margin of error is tied to the financial margins they’ve unilaterally enacted and with which they’ve constrained GM Brian Cashman. The easy answer will be to blame Cashman or manager Joe Girardi (in the last year of his contract), but is it fair to say it’s Cashman’s and Girardi’s fault for having run a club based on veteran mercenaries and a core of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte who can still play but whose primes were a decade ago? All GMs and manager have their strengths and weaknesses and Cashman’s strength is buying free agents. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a difficult juggling act to put him in this position with no money to spend, a mandate to reduce the payroll to a finite number foreign to him during his tenure while simultaneously demanding that he figure it out and win.

George would’ve openly ranted and raved about his $200 million club annually flaming out in the playoffs, but with the ranting and raving there would be money available to get better. With this team under Hal, it’s not.

Hal is constantly referencing the money spent to retain Hiroki Kuroda, Pettitte, Ichiro Suzuki and the signing of Kevin Youkilis, but he’s misunderstanding the litany of reasons that fans are justifiably concerned.

Their bench is atrocious. They’re old. In their division, the Blue Jays are substantially improved to go along with the still-strong Rays and the AL Wild Card winning Orioles. There’s talk from the likes of Mike Francesa that the Red Sox are “terrible.” Terrible is a bit much. If the Red Sox have 10 question marks heading into the 2013 season, the Yankees have 8.

When listening to Francesa and other Yankee-centric “analysts,” the shifting of tone is stark and noticeable. It’s not an automatic 95 wins and ticket punched to the playoffs in March. It’s “they’ll be in the mix.” In the mix of what is unexplained. Perhaps this is a coping mechanism to reconcile the “new” Yankees in their minds.

The talk that they’re going to “do something” to improve before the season has ceased as well for the simple fact that the reality has hit that there’s not much of anything they can do at this late date. Travis Hafner is about as good as it’s going to get as far as “improving.”

Another hard truth came this week with Felix Hernandez’s contract extension with the Mariners. The players available on the market aren’t young and star-level. Justin Verlander, Stephen Strasburg, Clayton Kershaw—they’re not going to see free agency. With Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy, the Yankees sought to mimic the Red Sox development of Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester to save money in the long run, but in 2008 the Yankees did that by choice and when it failed, they signed CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett to fill the unfilled holes. Now, they have to develop out of necessity, making it all the more challenging. They don’t have the money to buy nor the prospects to trade or use themselves.

Hal sounds like he’s whining at the box he’s put his team in. For all of George’s faults, one thing he never did was whine. Perhaps Hal’s reaction comes from the safety and security of not having built anything of his own, but inheriting it. It was long thought that Hank Steinbrenner was reminiscent of their father as the out-of-control lunatic with a bloviating temper and outlandish statements that were quickly qualified with an eyeroll and head shake. Hank was figuratively (or literally, we don’t know) locked away. Hal was the sane and logical one. He was the rational, understanding, business-minded steward of the Yankee brand who let his baseball people run the club and understood why, if the team lost 7 out of 10, that it wasn’t a lack of motivation or work ethic on the part of the manager or coaches that required a pep talk of several firings, but because they hit a rough patch from which they’d emerge because of superior talent.

Hal’s statements could be seen as maintaining a unified front and waiting to see what happens, but I doubt he’s that calculating. He’s stung by the criticism and is not acknowledging the faults that his club has because he doesn’t understand them himself. He doesn’t have the intimidating persona that his father did implying that if the team doesn’t perform, heads will roll, headlines will explode, missives will be issued, and no one is safe. Randy Levine tries to play that part, but he’s sort of laughed at and ignored.

The sense of entitlement is prominent and a bigger reason than anything else to be worried if you’re a Yankees fan. If the ownership doesn’t comprehend the problems, how is it possible to fix them? This is especially so when the resources to do the repairs are as limited as they apparently are.

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And Hal Was Supposed to be the Sane Steinbrenner Son

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Hal Steinbrenner spoke about the state of the Yankees today. Brian Costa has a recap of his comments in their entirety.

It finally appears to be sinking in that the Yankees really, truly, honestly are not going to find bricks of money hidden in a secret compartment behind the monument section of Yankee Stadium; that they’re actually intent on a 2014 payroll of $189 million. Or lower!!!

And the fans are panicking.

Steinbrenner, while expressing inexplicable surprise that fans and media are upset that the biggest name the Yankees have imported this winter has been a reviled former Red Sox star Kevin Youkilis and the next biggest is Russ Canzler, is showing a blindness to reality that not even his father George or brother Hank could muster.

Judging by his statement about the $189 million goal for 2014 in saying that it will only be that high if he thinks the team has a chance to contend for a championship, there won’t be a sneak attack on the rest of baseball with a Yankees spending spree that’s been their consistent manner of doing business for the entire tenure the family has owned the team. Given the reaction to that nugget, we may see him backtrack on it when the public relations hit expands to the proportions it will in the coming days.

But clarification won’t alter the truth and the truth seems to be that the Yankees’ vault is closed.

The comment of not needing a $220 million payroll to win a championship places the onus directly on GM Brian Cashman to figure a way to do what the majority of baseball has to do and function in a universe where there’s not a wellspring of cash to cover failed prospects, bad trades and disastrous free agent signings.

Is there something we don’t know? Are the Steinbrenners lowering the payroll for a reason? Did they sell a chunk of the YES Network to News Corp. with the intention to sell the whole thing—network and team—and get out of baseball completely in the next couple of years? Or are they having financial problems that have yet to be disclosed?

The rising luxury tax and outside expenditures is a legitimate excuse for the club to take steps to save a significant amount of money. Hal mentions this. But now it’s becoming something more than a number they’re shooting for. Hal’s latest assertions do not bode well for the future of a team that has relied on money to maintain their position at or near the top of baseball since 1994. In fact, they sound as if they’re consciously shifting the expectations in an effort to prepare the fans for the inevitable reality that this is it; that there won’t be a blockbuster deal made right before spring training to again vault the Yankees back to World Series favorites.

Much like Hank said that a struggling Mike Mussina needed to learn to pitch like Jamie Moyer, it may be that Hal, with some justification, is looking at clubs like the Athletics and Rays and seeing that they didn’t need to spend Yankee money to build winning clubs, and he’s insisting on Cashman figuring out how to win with less money. There’s a logic to the concept and it’s not as if they’re reducing payroll to the less than $75 million that those clubs spend. It’s not absurd to say to Cashman, “Is $189 million not enough to win? Why can Andrew Friedman and Billy Beane figure out how to do it and you can’t?”

But Beane and Friedman learned their trade without any money. There’s a significant difference between never having had any money to spend and suddenly having it and vice versa. Cashman has never been in the position where there was a limit on his spending power. It’s somewhat unfair to think that he’ll seamlessly transition to a new method diametrically opposed to what he’s grown accustomed to.

It certainly doesn’t help that Cashman’s talent recognition skills and drafts have been mostly disastrous; that he shunned international players like Yu Darvish and Aroldis Chapman who, in years past, would have been Yankees, period. That they were gunshy from the nightmarish signings of Jose Contreras and Kei Igawa is more of an indictment on the Yankees and their ability to recognize talent rather than pigeonhole players based on past mistakes. The avoidance of Darvish and Chapman was portrayed as a decision not to pay for unknowns, but they were afraid of spending for players who weren’t worth it when they should’ve signed both.

Following the trade for Michael Pineda and Cashman’s other pitching disasters, how is it reasonable to think he’ll learn how to adapt to this new template on a terrain he’s never had to navigate. It’s like taking Cashman and dropping him in the middle of NASA and telling him to build a spaceship—he doesn’t know how to do it and it’s delusional to expect him to be able to.

Cashman has not developed any star starting pitchers and there have been few position players apart from Robinson Cano to be nurtured by and make it big as Yankees. When he tried to grow his own pitchers with Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy, it resulted in the lone missed playoff season of 2008 since the mid-1990s. In the aftermath, he did what the Yankees have always done: he threw money at the problem and it worked.

As far as youngsters go, the latest excuses we’ve heard from Cashman include the high percentage of success in Tommy John surgery that the prize prospect Manny Banuelos underwent; that he intended to draft Mike Trout; that he did draft Gerrit Cole.

The bottom line is that Banuelos, Pineda, Jose Campos, Dellin Betances and other supposed future Yankees stars have shown no indication of being anything close to what the team will need to transition from the days of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte to a new era without those stalwarts. Cole didn’t sign when the Yankees drafted him in the first round in 2008. He went to college and is about to make it to the big leagues with the Pirates. Trout wasn’t available and they drafted Slade Heathcott. Heathcott is a year older than Trout and is still in A ball; Trout almost won the AL MVP. Nobody wants to hear about what Cashman “would’ve” done. They want to hear about what he did and plans to do. There’s no answer yet.

Now there’s no money to throw around and they’re stagnating, telling fans to be patient, thinking they’ve done more than they have by signing stars well past their primes and hoping that there’s one more run left in the remaining core Jeter, Rivera and Pettitte with all three returning from significant injuries. There’s an absence of comprehension with the Steinbrenner sons that was heretofore perceived to be a hallmark of the personality of their father.

Like a person who grew up wealthy and had everything done for him, Cashman is incapable of functioning without that financial safety net. Learning on the fly, perhaps he’ll be able to succeed in this Yankees landscape, but perhaps he won’t. Either way, it’s bound to take time to adjust and one thing Cashman doesn’t have is time. For Friedman, constraints have given him freedom. Because he has no money, an ownership with whom he works hand-in-hand and trusts him implicitly, and a fanbase that either understands the circumstances or ignores the team altogether, Friedman can trade Matt Garza; he can trade James Shields; he can listen to offers on David Price; he can let Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton leave without making an offer to keep them. Cashman can’t do that and if he was given approval to build his team similarly to the Rays and made the attempt to let Cano leave via free agency, how long would he last before the groundswell of fan anger exploded, leaving the Steinbrenners no choice but to placate the fans and make a change to a new GM? For Cashman, constraints are just constraints and he’s shown neither the skill nor the experience at working that way to tapdance his way around them.

Read the statements from Hal Steinbrenner and accept them, because it’s not a diversionary tactic. It’s real.

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The Logic of Rafael Soriano’s Opt Out

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Now that Rafael Soriano is still out on the market with seemingly no viable landing spot to be a closer and get the long-term contract he and agent Scott Boras want, it’s easy to criticize the decision to opt out of the last guaranteed year he had with the Yankees and that he rejected the qualifying offer the Yankees extended to receive draft pick compensation when Soriano signs elsewhere.

It’s a “Why would you do that?/You had no choice,” situation that may end up backfiring, but will still be understandable.

Had Soriano not opted out of the last year of the contract, he was to be paid $14 million in 2013. Since he opted out and had a $1.5 million buyout of the contract, that plus the set-in-stone qualifying offer of $13.3 million would have netted $14.8 million in 2013.

Given Soriano’s history with Boras, however, why would he believe the media and fan reaction of implied craziness for opting out of a nearly $15 million payday over the agent who got him the $35 million deal from the Yankees in a nearly identical situation after the 2010 season when it didn’t appear that he had an offer that lucrative forthcoming?

When Soriano first entered free agency after the 2010 season, he had a bad reputation from his year with the Rays because of complaining about pitching in non-save situations and for disliking when manager Joe Maddon asked him to pitch more than one inning. But he’d had a great year with a 1.73 ERA, 45 saves and 36 hits allowed in 62 innings with 57 strikeouts. This was prior to the qualifying offer rule in the CBA, but there was still draft pick compensation for top tier free agents. No team wanted to give up the draft pick compensation to sign Soriano. That was until the Yankees, shut out of the free agent market when Cliff Lee chose the Phillies over them and facing the prospect of an empty winter shopping cart, saw Hank and Hal Steinbrenner and Randy Levine overrule GM Brian Cashman and sign Soriano. They surrendered the draft pick and made public the unsaid but known truth that the GM didn’t have final say in baseball matters. Cashman was borderline insubordinate with his open opposition to the contract.

Soriano was uncomfortable in the Yankees insular and stuffy clubhouse, didn’t do a good job as the set-up man and found himself demoted to the seventh inning rather than the eighth, with David Robertson—and his salary $9.5 million less than that of Soriano—taking over and making the All-Star team.

Soriano simply didn’t fit and this continued into 2012…until Mariano Rivera tore his ACL. Robertson proved unable to close and got injured himself, and they were left with Soriano.

They were rewarded with a different pitcher with a different attitude and wholly changed body language. Back in his comfort zone as the closer with the accompanying adrenaline rush of the ninth inning and the opportunity to accumulate the status symbol save stat, Soriano was indeed a savior for the Yankees and was, more than is presently acknowledged, a key component to the club winning the AL East again. As a bonus, the brilliant season forced Boras to look at this situation and the 2013 situation and advise his client to opt out of his deal.

The Yankees would have paid Soriano the $14.8 million without complaint in 2013 with the pitcher returning to his role as set-up man for Rivera, relatively safe in the knowledge that they had a suitable backup if Rivera’s unable to make it back from his torn ACL and that Soriano was not signed long-term and not sabotaging their attempts to get under the $189 million payroll threshold in 2014. But that was no benefit to Soriano in any way other than a guaranteed payday. It’s true that Soriano could have made $14.8 million and then accepted the Yankees qualifying offer after 2013, guaranteeing himself an extra $30 million. Presumably he would be the closer in 2014, but he’d also be two years older pitching for a team that, currently, doesn’t look like it’s going to be very good.

If the agent is saying he’ll receive $60 million from the team that signs him. If he was faced with the prospect of returning to the set-up role and maybe being the closer in 2014 if Rivera retires (or getting traded), he had reason to listen to his agent because his agent had come through for him before. Soriano was so good in 2012 as the closer and so terrible as the set-up man in 2011 and the first month of 2012, that his value was not going to be higher than it is now at age 33. It’s his last chance for a long-term deal and he went for it.

Boras will say to clubs, “You need a closer? Look, here’s your closer. He did it in New York and he did it replacing a legend.” There’s a logic to the argument. There’s also a logic to the argument that Soriano will be more valuable than the draft pick that closer-hungry clubs built to win now like the Tigers would trade for him.

Teams with a protected draft pick like the Blue Jays might go for Soriano and not give up anything more than a second round pick. They’re all-in as it is and Soriano is more proven than Sergio Santos and Casey Janssen, plus they have money to spend.

There aren’t many places for Soriano to go, but there weren’t many places for him to go after the 2010 season and Boras got him paid. I wouldn’t discount the possibility of him doing it again and as senseless as it seemed for Soriano to turn down the guaranteed money, it wasn’t a hasty decision. It might not work, but it made sense.

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Yankees Belt-Tightening, Part II—the Aftereffects of Austerity

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In normal circumstances, the words “austerity measures” would never be linked with “$200 million payroll,” but that’s where the Yankees currently are.

With that $200 million payroll and the upcoming strict penalties on franchises with higher payrolls, the mandate has come down from ownership for the Yankees to get the total down to $189 million by 2014. This will supposedly save as much as $50 million in taxes and they’ll be able to spend again after 2014.

I wrote about this in detail here.

But what will the team look like by 2014 and will players want to join the Yankees when they’re no longer the “Yankees,” but just another team that’s struggled for two straight years and whose future isn’t attached to the stars Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte who will either be gone by then or severely limited in what they can still accomplish?

To illustrate how far the Yankees have fallen under this new budget, the catcher at the top of their depth chart is Francisco Cervelli who couldn’t even stick with the big league club as a backup last season. They lost Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Eric Chavez, and Raul Ibanez. The latter three, they wanted back. They couldn’t pay for Martin, Chavez and Ibanez? What’s worse, they appeared to expect all three to wait out the Yankees and eschew other job offers in the hopes that they’d be welcomed back in the Bronx.

What’s worse: the ineptitude or the arrogance?

If George Steinbrenner were still around, he’d have said, “To hell with the luxury tax,” and qualified such an attitude by referencing the amount of money the team wasted over the years on such duds as Carl Pavano, Javier Vazquez, Kevin Brown, Steve Karsay, Kyle Farnsworth, Pedro Feliciano and countless others, many of whom were total unknowns to George, therefore he wouldn’t have received the convenient blame for their signings with a baseball exec’s eyeroll, head shake and surreptitious gesture toward the owner’s box, “blame him, not me,” thereby acquitting themselves when they were, in fact, guilty. But now, the bulk of the responsibility falls straight to the baseball people. He’d also be under the belief that the Yankees brand of excellence couldn’t withstand what they’re increasingly likely to experience in 2013-2014 and that the money would wind up back in their pockets eventually due to their success.

Are there financial problems that haven’t been disclosed? A large chunk of the YES Network was recently sold to Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. In years past, that money would’ve functioned as a cash infusion and gone right back into the construction of the club, but it hasn’t. They’re still not spending on players over the long term with that looming shadow of 2014 engulfing everything they plan to do. Every improvement/retention is on a one or two year contract: Kevin Youkilis—1-year; Hiroki Kuroda—1-year; Ichiro Suzuki—2-years. It’s hard to find younger, impact players when constrained so tightly and the players they’ve signed are older and/or declining which is why they were available to the Yankees on short-term contracts in the first place.

The Yankees don’t have any young players on the way up to bolster the veteran troops.

It takes inexplicable audacity for GM Brian Cashman to trumpet the pitching prospects the club was developing under stringent rules to “protect” them, then to dismiss their failures leading to a release (Andrew Brackman); a demotion to the lower minors to re-learn to throw strikes (Dellin Betances); and injury (Manny Banuelos). The reactions to the injuries to Banuelos, Jose Campos and Michael Pineda are especially galling. Banuelos’s injury—Tommy John surgery—was casually tossed aside by Cashman, pointing out the high success rate of the procedure as if it was no big deal that the pitcher got hurt. But he got hurt while under the restrictions the Yankees has placed on him—restrictions that were designed to simultaneously keep him healthy and develop him, yet wound up doing neither.

Campos was referenced as the “key” to the trade that brought Pineda; Campos was injured in late April with an undisclosed elbow problem and is now throwing off a mound and expected to be ready for spring training. That he missed almost the entire 2012 season with an injury the Yankees never described in full would give me pause for his durability going forward. The 2013 projections for Pineda to be an important contributor are more prayerful than expectant, adding to the uncertainty.

There’s a streamlining that may make sense in the long run such as the decision to drop StubHub as an official ticket reseller and instead move to Ticketmaster. They sold that chunk of YES and are in the process of slashing the payroll.

Any other team would be subject to a media firestorm trying to uncover the real reason for the sudden belt-tightening with the luxury tax excuse not be accepted at face value. Is there an underlying “why?” for this attachment to $189 million, the opt-out of the StubHub deal, and the sale of 49% of YES? The potential lost windfall of missing the post-season and the lack of fans going to the park, buying beer and souvenirs, paying the exorbitant fees to park their cars and bottom line spending money on memorabilia is going to diminish the revenue further.

Perhaps this is a natural byproduct of the failures to win a championship in any season other than 2009 in spite of having the highest payroll—by a substantial margin—in every year since their prior title in 2000. Could it be that the Steinbrenner sons looked at Cashman and wondered why Billy Beane, Brian Sabean, Andrew Friedman, and John Mozeliak were able to win with a fraction of the limitless cash the Yankees bestowed on Cashman and want him to make them more money by being a GM instead of a guy holding a blank checkbook? In recent years, I don’t see what it is Cashman has done that Hal Steinbrenner couldn’t have done if he decided to be the final word in baseball decisions and let the scouts do the drafting and he went onto the market to buy recognizable names.

Anyone can buy stuff.

Cashman’s aforementioned failures at development show his limits as a GM. It’s not easy to transform from the guy with a load of money available to toss at mistakes and use that cash as a pothole filler and be the guy who has no choice but to be frugal and figure something else out. Much like Hank Steinbrenner saying early in 2008 that the struggling righty pitcher Mike Mussina had to learn to throw like the soft-tossing lefty Jamie Moyer, it sounds easier when said from a distance and a “Why’s he doing it and you’re not?” than it is to implement.

No matter how it’s quantified, this Yankees team is reliant on the past production of these veteran players without the money that was there in the past to cover for them if they don’t deliver.

The fans aren’t going to want to hear about the “future.” They’re going to want Cashman and the Steinbrenners to do something. But given their inaction thus far in the winter of 2012-2013, it doesn’t look as if they’re going to with anyone significant.

This time, they don’t have a prior year’s championship to use as a shield. The Yankees were subject to a broom at the hands of the Tigers. That’s not a particularly coveted memory. In fact, it might have been a portent of what’s to come, except worse.

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YES, the Yankees and Murdoch—A Look Into the Future

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Newscorp is closing in on a deal to purchase up to 49% of the YES Network—NY Times story.

After all those years of pure Yankees partisanship disguised as evenhanded sports news, it’s a relief that a trusted and historically non-partisan, fact-based entity such as Newscorp is buying into YES. Now, with the skillsets of Rupert Murdoch in installing qualified and reputable people to deliver fair and balanced dissemination of information, YES can become something other than the Yankees infomercial it’s been for its entire existence. Let’s look into the crystal ball of what to expect.

Say YES in the Morning with Meredith and John—6  to 10 AM

Meredith Marakovits and John Sterling bring you all the morning sports news with your coffee (and possibly a small shot of bourbon). Join Meredith and John as long as John is able to get up in the morning and clear the bleariness out of his head and eyes.

The audience wins. The….audience…..WWWWIIIIIINNNNNNSSSS!!!!!

The Emperor’s Lair with Jason Zillo—10 AM-11 AM

If you’re wondering what it’s like to be the gatekeeper to the Yankees Universe, wonder no more. Jason Zillo takes you on a tour of the Yankees from the all-seeing, all-knowing, guardian of the brand. From Derek Jeter’s lavish Tampa home to Alex Rodriguez’s star-studded dating history (he can give you a free baseball with his number on it), Zillo grants you, the audience, an audience.*

*Like the evil, all-powerful Anthony from the “It’s a Good Life” episode of the Twilight Zone, this is contingent on you only thinking good thoughts about the Yankees. He is the gatekeeper, after all.

Hank Steinbrenner Bloviates—11 AM-12 PM

With smoke coming out his his ears, nose, mouth and eyes—some of it cigarette related, some not; as well as imparting of baseball knowledge and irrational demands reminiscent of his late father emanating from his behind amid more smoke, Hank Steinbrenner asks, no, demands that you watch. And don’t change that channel.

The Daily National Anthem with Haley Swindal—12 PM-1 PM

You’re a patriot, aren’t you? Well, then you must enjoy Haley Swindal singing multiple renditions of The Star Spangled Banner and God Bless America, followed by stories about the adventures she’s experienced traveling around the world…singing The Star Spangled Banner and God Bless America. It’s a travel show unlike any you’ve ever seen!!

Mike’s On Simulcast—the Mike Francesa Show on WFAN 1 PM-6:30 PM (6 PM in-season)

A better Yankees apologist not officially working for YES you’ll never find. Francesa doesn’t bother with the inconveniences of journalism by deciding to interview or question the likes of Yankees GM Brian Cashman or manager Joe Girardi, he interacts with them providing insight and advice on players from Brandon Inge to Nate McLouth.

Of course Hiroki Kuroda’s going to take a 1-year deal to return to the Yankees!!! Of course he is!!! He prefers the West Coast? But don’t you wanna be a YANKEE?!?!

Watch Francesa drink endless buckets of Diet Coke, rant against the Mets with a faux passion diabolically disguised by raving, incomprehensible lunacy; see him cut Rex Ryan and the Jets down to size better than liposuction and stomach stapling; listen as he makes a difference (because it affected him) with LIPA.

And don’t you ever forget that Darrelle Revis committed pass interference on the doctor when he had knee surgery too.

During the baseball season

Yankees Pregame with Bob Lorenz, Nancy Newman and “analysts”—6 PM-7PM

If you’re looking for validation as to why the Yankees are the greatest thing ever-ever and will never lose but will only run out of innings, the search is over. The team of experts will provide you with a Machiavellian justification to explain away any lingering doubts that the Yankees might not actually be the only team to win a World Series in baseball history.

From April to late October (guaranteed)—Yankees Baseball 7 PM-10 PM

Yankees baseball from start to finish with zero objectivity and intelligent baseball wisdom delivered by the endless stream of broadcasters Michael Kay, Ken Singleton, David Cone, John Flaherty, Al Leiter, Mel Allen, Phil Rizzuto, Suzyn Waldman, Dwight Gooden, Mel Hall, Frank Messer, Denver Wieland, Kyle Hanratty, Dugan McPhasenot, Bell Corling, Deafness Matriculation and the rest of the crew!!

The Yankees Post-Game Show with Bob Lorenz

Detailed analysis of each game from how the opposing team wilted at the mere sight of the pinstripes and the all-encompassing nature of the Yankees aura, or explanations why the Yankees should have won and, in fact, did win even if they lost in that inconvenient “reality” of a completed game.

During the off-season

The Kay Factor—8 PM-9 PM

If you enjoy Michael Kay on CenterStage, you’ll certainly enjoy him in an edgier version of the previous incarnations of his show. Resplendent in leather, Kay will take the Mets to the woodshed; he’ll jab his finger in your face; he’ll threaten to punch Phil Mushnick!! With guests such as Joel Sherman, Dick Morris, Karl Rove, and Richard Gere(?), join Michael for a hard-hitting hour of sports news that’s sure to whet your appetite for chicken parm!

Curry—9 PM-10 PM

Don’t you dare question Jack Curry’s journalistic credibility. He’ll get the story from the PR department of the same organization for which he works and then throw a tantrum if ESPN reports it as well. Prepare to be Re-Tweeted and called a clown for an hour each weeknight if you’re not onboard the unstoppable Curry train!! It’s like Sean Hannity, only with less rationality and more self-indulgent tantrums.

Cash—10 PM-11 PM

Brian Cashman’s entire world is opened up for all to see. From the “obvious process” that goes into any and all decisions, to the “Big Hairy Monsters,” to the pitching development, to the trades, he’ll take you from Carl Pavano to Pedro Feliciano, from Joe Torre to Joe Girardi, from the Joba Rules to his exhilarating nightlife.

Prepare to be stalked with internal baseball knowledge (among other things) from a guy who works hard and plays hard!

The Randy Levine Revue—11 PM-Midnight

One part Dr. Phil, one part Oprah, one part Jim Henson, and one part Frank Caliendo, Randy Levine informs and entertains! With such guests as Rudy Giuliani, a puppet version of Torre in which Randy retorts in a different way each to night to Torre telling him to “Shut the bleep up!”, along with singing and dancing, Randy’s as talented as he is versatile.

If you thought the YES Network was the go-to place before with George Steinbrenner’s looming presence, you have no idea what’s coming. Prepare for the reckoning with Fox News and the YES Network joined together. You’ve always compared them. Now they are one. It had to happen. And finally, it is.

We all win.

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The Yankees’ Problems Go Far Beyond One Fractured Ankle and a Blown Call

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So Nick Swisher’s gregariousness—long an irritant to opponents—is no longer charming to the home fans when he’s 4 for 26, lost a ball in the lights in right field, and they’re looking for someone, anyone to blame for Derek Jeter’s ankle injury no matter how ludicrous the shifting of responsibility is? Swisher is surprised and “hurt” by the fans heckling and booing him?

Indicative of the need for vast chunks of the fanbase to awaken to an unexpected and unforeseen reality, Swisher is the case study of how things truly are for the Yankees when the “magic” disappears or decides to shift its allegiance to another venue.

The search for reasons that there were blocks empty seats at Yankee Stadium for playoff games is a bunch of noise. No one can pinpoint exactly why it’s happening in spite of Randy Levine’s complaints or baseless theories. It could mean anything. In a poor economic climate, fans may not have the money to purchase the seats, pay for the parking, indulge in the concessions. It could be that some have become so accustomed to the Yankees being in the playoffs every year that it’s lost its specialness and they’re paying scant attention to the how and are making the unsaid statement of, “Let me know when the World Series starts.”

The World Series will start on October 24th and the Yankees still have time to be a participant. But barring a miraculous turnaround, they will instead be cleaning out their lockers while it’s going on. Some, like Swisher, will be doing it for the final time as a Yankee.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t call for instant replay when it negatively influences you, but laugh heartily and say smugly, “Them’s the breaks!” when Joe Mauer hits a ball that was clearly fair and was called foul; or when Jeffrey Maier has become a folk hero and part of the “Yankees lore” when he interferes with a Jeter home run ball that wasn’t and may have turned the entire 1996 ALCS in the Yankees’ favor and been the catalyst for their dynasty. Jeter, after that game, was asked what he would say to the young Maier and with the remnants of his antiquated fade haircut still in place and in the formative years of being a Yankees’ hero, he said, “Attaboy!!!” with undisguised glee at the Yankees winning in a similarly unfair fashion as they’re complaining about losing now. Except the Mauer and Maier calls changed the games entirely and the blown call on Omar Infante was only made because Infante made a mistake rounding the base and that the subsequent Yankees’ pitchers couldn’t record one out to make the point moot.

It’s the condescension and self-indulgent arrogance that is currently reverberating on the entire Yankees apparatus from the front office, to the YES Network, to the sanctioned bloggers, to the media, to the players, to the fanbase.

We want justice when it benefits us.

We love the players as long as they perform for us.

We function with dignity and class as long as we win.

Players join the Yankees because they offer the most money and they win. But when a player says no as Cliff Lee did, it’s because he doesn’t appreciate the “privilege” of being a Yankee, not because he and his wife preferred Philadelphia or Texas or because his wife didn’t brush off the same abuse that is being heaped on Swisher now was being hurled at her (along with spit and beer) in the 2010 ALCS.

It’s a wonderful world to live in where there’s no responsibility and money can be tossed at every problem to solve it.

The reality hurts when it hits like a sledgehammer. This faux history and concept of invisible baseball Gods smiling on the Yankees is eliminated by the truth. It was the need for capital in a musical produced by Red Sox owner Harry Frazee that led to the selling of Babe Ruth to the Yankees. They started winning shortly after getting the best player in the game and it turned into a circular entity. The more they won, the more money they made; the more money they made, the more free agent amateurs wanted to play for them because they paid the most in bonuses and they won. It continued on through Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. The amateur draft was implemented in the mid-1960s and the Yankees collapsed. They began winning again through free agency in the mid-late-1970s and it started all up again. There was a long lull and lucky—not smart, lucky—drafts garnered Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte. Amateur free agents upon whom they stumbled and nearly dumped such as Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams turned into stars. They drafted a skinny shortstop, Jeter, in the first round of 1992 and got a historic player. This talk I’ve seen of a method to the madness with “doing the most damage in the later rounds of the draft” is pure better-breeding, blueblood idiocy. Any team that drafts an infielder in the 24th round who develops into Posada, or a lanky lefty like Pettitte in the 22nd round—both in the 1990 draft—is lucky.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but don’t make it more than it is.

Jeter gets injured and rather than being treated as an athlete who happened to get hurt in the middle of a contest, on Twitter it morphs into “a funeral procession,” and those who laughed (sort of the way the Yankees laugh at the Mets and Red Sox when misfortune hits them), are “justified” to have been thrown over the railing at Yankee Stadium. Jeter is analogous to a “wounded warrior being carted off the battlefield.” No. He’s not. He’s a very rich athlete who got hurt. That this type of thing was said while there are actual soldiers being carted off real battlefields and coming back missing limbs, burned beyond recognition, or dead makes this type of comparison all the more despicable.

Yes. Murdering someone makes logical sense when things don’t work out for you. That’s the way 12-year-old, bullying mentalities think. “If I don’t get to play with your toy, I’m gonna break the toy so you can’t play with it either.” “If I don’t get to win, I’m taking my ball and going home.”

When Rivera got hurt, there was this identical dynamic.

There’s an impenetrable fortress of delusion among these fans who have known nothing but winning in their time as Yankees’ fans. They don’t realize that sports is a diversion and these are human beings doing a job. A true tragedy occurred in 2006 when Cory Lidle crashed his plane days after the Yankees had been eliminated by the Tigers. Days earlier, he’d been a guest on WFAN with Chris Russo and, when Lidle said he was enjoying a beautiful day in New York City with his daughter, Russo indignantly said something to the tune of, “Well, if I’d just lost a playoff series I wouldn’t be out enjoying the day.” Lidle replied, “What am I supposed to do? Sit home and cry?”

In the Jimmy Fallon movie Fever Pitch, as the Red Sox fell behind the Yankees 3 games to 0 in the ALCS of 2004, Fallon’s character is out drowning his sorrows when he spots then-Red Sox players Johnny Damon and Jason Varitek out having dinner. An epiphany hits him that they’re human beings who are doing a job and will then go out and live their lives after the fact and that includes going out and having a nice dinner. There’s no reason to cry; a tantrum won’t help; and there’s no hiding in their homes musing on what went wrong.

Because it’s a job.

This incarnation of the Yankees from 1996 to now has never had to do a rebuild. They never had to worry about money because George Steinbrenner, for all his faults, was willing to spend under the theory that success on the field would beget profit off it. And he was right. But now the Boss is gone and GM Brian Cashman is hell-bent on getting the payroll down to a reasonable level so the new luxury tax regulations won’t drastically increase the bottom line. Is it due to a mandate from Hank and Hal Steinbrenner? Or is it Cashman trying again to prove that he belongs in the fleeting upper echelon of GMs currently inhabited by the likes of Andrew Friedman and Billy Beane who are specifically there because of limited resources and their own cagey maneuvers that sometimes work and sometimes don’t?

Cashman tried to rebuild his farm system so the Yankees didn’t have to rely on the checkbook to save them. In 2008 that resulted in a missed playoff spot and was, as usual, covered by spending, spending, spending on Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett. They’re still seeking young pitchers with cost certainty and upside and have Manny Banuelos (Tommy John surgery), Dellin Betances (can’t throw strikes), Michael Pineda (acquired, abused, and on the shelf with a torn labrum), and Jose Campos (the invisible key who hasn’t pitched or been heard from since May).

Annual contention and a World Series or failure sentiment is a great roadmap to disappointment. As the Phillies, Angels, and Red Sox have proven, money doesn’t buy a playoff spot, let alone a championship. The Red Sox and Mets have proven how quickly it can all come apart.

That can happen to the Yankees.

As they age, they decline (Alex Rodriguez); get hurt (Jeter and Rivera); outlive their usefulness (Swisher, Curtis Granderson), and bear the brunt of the outrage that the championships are not being delivered as they were in the past.

Are they prepared to pay Robinson Cano the $200+ million he’s going to want as a free agent after 2013? While they’re trying to cut costs and know that Cano isn’t the hardest worker in the world and whose laziness will extract an increasing toll on his production when the game is no longer easy for him? Does Cano look effortless because he’s so good or is it that he doesn’t put in much effort? And how does that portend what a player like him is going to accomplish as he’s guaranteed an amount of money that he’ll never be able to spend is coming to him no matter how he performs? He doesn’t run ground balls out now in the playoffs, is he going to run them out when he’s 35 and has 5 years to run on a contract that the Yankees can look at A-Rod’s fall and know is disastrous? The days of a player putting up Barry Bonds numbers at ages 36-42 ended with increased drug testing and harsher punishments. A-Rod is a 37-year-old player and this is what happens to 37-year-old players regardless of how great they once were. They can’t catch up to the fastball, they have to start their swings earlier in case it’s on the way leaving them susceptible to hard breaking stuff and changeups.

There’s no fixing it.

The Yankees might come back and win this ALCS. To do it, they’ll have to beat the best pitcher in baseball, Justin Verlander, pitching at home as the Tigers have a 2-0 series lead. It can be done. The Yankees can still win the World Series. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that they do. Will it be enjoyed or will there be a la-de-da, “we win again,” attitude that has set the stage for this rickety foundation and imminent collapse?

How much cake can a fan eat? How many pieces of chicken parm can Michael Kay stuff into his mouth? Like Wall Street, how many yachts can they waterski behind? When is enough enough?

Whether your personal investment and fantasyworld of egomania lets you see it, win or lose this dynasty is coming down and it’s happening right before your eyes.

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American League East—2012 Present and 2013 Future

All Star Game, Ballparks, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, MVP, Paul Lebowitz's 2012 Baseball Guide, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Politics, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, Umpires, World Series

Let’s look at the current construction of each club and make an honest appraisal of their 2012 status and 2013 future. We’ll start with the AL East.

Baltimore Orioles

As an excuse to justify how brilliant they are and that their numbers are never wrong, it’s en vogue for the stats-obsessed to repeatedly reference how “lucky” the Orioles are because of their negative run differential and that their record under the shaky metric of the Pythagorean Win Theorem has them 12 games worse than their actual record.

The Orioles have three major attributes: they hit the ball out of the park; they have a deep bullpen; and they have a manager in Buck Showalter who knows how to push the right buttons. Bullpens fluctuate so there’s no guarantee that will continue into 2013; they’ll still have players who hit the ball out of the park; and Showalter is discussing a contract extension.

Their starting rotation are all in their mid-20s and they have young players Dylan Bundy and Manny Machado set to make contributions. The Orioles may take a step back next year, but they’ve turned the corner from a laughingstock where no player would choose to go unless they’re overpaid or without options to a viable destination with a plan and a chance to win. And they have a great shot at the playoffs this season.

New York Yankees

Anyone speculating about Joe Girardi’s job security is looking for a scapegoat and trying to distract from the real culprits in the team’s inconsistency and age: Brian Cashman and, to a lesser extent, the Steinbrenners.

If this team doesn’t make the playoffs, they’re going to have to make structural changes to the roster. The constant discussion of their 10 games lead in July is glossing over the fact that they’ve had one good month—June when they went 20-7. Aside from that, they’re around a .500 team and making the playoffs in 2012 is in jeopardy. They’re old, expensive, and worn down. It remains to be seen what this veteran crew is going to have left in the tank even if they do make the playoffs

All of a sudden criticism has been extended to hitting coach Kevin Long for the slide of Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, among others. Long might be gone, playoffs or not. The Yankees minor league system is dwindling in stature and legitimate prospects, thereby limiting what they’ll be able to acquire on the market; their open decision to try and reduce payroll to prevent luxury tax implications will also reduce their options to improve the team on the fly.

If they fall from the playoffs or are a one-and-done scenario, I’d fire Cashman not just for his incompetent trade for Michael Pineda and failure to address needs at the trading deadline, but also because I still have an issue with him having written a reference on team letterhead for either his girlfriend or a woman that was blackmailing him. His judgment on and off the field is highly questionable.

Maybe it’s time for Billy Eppler to get a chance or to even bring back Gene Michael for a 2-3 year run as GM.

Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays are loaded with young pitching, aggressive in making trades, and build a different bullpen every year with the refuse of other clubs. Because they are operating under severe financial constraints and the scrutiny around them is limited, they can do what they want and live with a season of 83-79 or worse to get back to 95 wins the next season. This is what they are and how they’ll remain under the current management.

Toronto Blue Jays

Edwin Encarnacion hit his 40th home run last night. He joins Jose Bautista as a journeyman player who suddenly starting hitting the ball out of the park with a ridiculous frequency for the Blue Jays. But they’re still the same team that discovers a player for whom it clicked in his late-20s, and winds up with a win total between 75-83 and is in third or fourth place in the division.

Their manager John Farrell is in demand to take over the Red Sox and the Blue Jays don’t sound all that bothered about it. Their entire starting rotation has spent time on the disabled list for one malady or another. Their offense is flashy, but as inconsistent as their would-be star pitcher Brandon Morrow.

It’s just off in Toronto. They do noticeable things like make aggressive trades, hit homers and steal bases, but they don’t win. I don’t hear people referring to GM Alex Anthopoulos as a genius much anymore. What are they thinking North of the border when they spent so many years jumping at the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays like a child trying to recover a confiscated toy, then see the Red Sox come apart, the Yankees vulnerable, and the Rays beatable and that it’s the Orioles and not the Blue Jays who are taking advantage?

I thought the Blue Jays would take the next step this season, but that belief has been prevalent for a decade and they’re frozen in place. I’m not picking them again unless they make significant changes on and off the field.

Boston Red Sox

On some level, I understand what they did when they hired Bobby Valentine to replace Terry Francona. I’m not one who’s seeing their atrocious season as validating Francona is some bizarre way. He and Theo Epstein take as much responsibility if not more as Larry Lucchino and Valentine in 2012. They were trying to move forward with the roster as it was, make a few tweaks here and there, and see if it got better. It didn’t and it’s not Valentine’s fault.

They got rid of Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, and Carl Crawford, saved money and bolstered the farm system. But if you think they’re going to hire Farrell or whoever; sign a few free agents with the available money or make a big trade and they’ll be back to where they were as World Series favorites, you’ve got another thing coming. There’s a lot of work to do in Boston and it’s not going to be a short-term process. If they go half-in/half-out and try to straddle the line as they did last winter, expect more of the same in 2013.

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