Tigers vs. Yankees ALCS: New York faces an uphill climb heading into Game 3


New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter is carried off the field by trainer Steve Donohue, left, and Manager Joe Girardi after breaking his ankle during Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers. (Ray Stubblebine/Reuters)
October 15, 2012

Like the Rolling Stones in 2012, the old band was together for a two-night engagement last weekend, trying in vain to replicate their hits on the Big Apple’s grandest stage. The old guys couldn’t hit the notes, though. And the new ones didn’t quite fit in. The fans who bothered to show up — there were seats, rows and sections that were empty — surely realize this current version of the New York Yankees could be nearing the end of a fantastic run.

When the American League Championship Series resumes Tuesday night at Comerica Park, Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander will be on the mound, preparing the last rites for baseball’s most dominant franchise of the past quarter-century. The Yankees trail the best-of-seven series, 2-0, and must face Detroit’s top hurlers in Games 3 and 4. Even if they somehow prolong the series, this postseason has cast plenty of uncertainty on the long-term sustainability of the Yankees juggernaut.

New York has missed the postseason just once since 1995, but this ALCS is unique. The Yankees took the field on Sunday and for the first time since 1995, two cornerstones — Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera — were both absent from the playoff roster. Rivera spent the season on the disabled list and Jeter is spending the rest of this postseason on crutches, after breaking his ankle in Game 1 against the Tigers. The symbolism is impossible to ignore: The Yankees are facing great change in the coming months and years.

As former Yankees manager Joe Torre told reporters in New York, “Eventually, that day was going to come.”

Current Manager Joe Girardi said Jeter will consult with a specialist in Charlotte, and news reports this week suggest surgery might be inevitable. The Yankees expect Jeter to be healthy in three months, but even then, he’s 38 years old. The “Core Four” that turned Yankee Stadium into the sport’s largest trophy case — Jeter, Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte — is part of the franchise’s history books, not its future.

That future, in fact, only became murkier in recent weeks, as some of the Yankees’ biggest names have struggled.

Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano have hit a combined 5 for 55 in this postseason. In addition, Nick Swisher is only 4 of 26 and Curtis Granderson is 3 for 26. Among the four of them, they’ve accounted for 38 strikeouts in the postseason, including seven in Game 2. Their October performances could have a big impact on the team’s offseason strategy.

Swisher will be a free agent, and Cano and Granderson are both facing club options. While Cano might have seemed ready for a blockbuster deal, Rodriguez’s struggles have certainly exposed the risks to long-term contracts that endanger a team’s long-term health. And Rodriguez’s own lucrative deal could limit the flexibility the Yankees’ brass feels it has in the offseason.

In December 2007, the Yankees gave Rodriguez a 10-year contract that would keep him in pinstripes through 2017, when he’ll be 42 years old. He’s still owed $115 million, and there’s growing concern that his production will never be the same. In these playoffs, he’s 0 for 18 with 12 strikeouts against right-handed pitchers, and he hasn’t hit a home run in a month.

Rodriguez has been so painfully bad that Girardi has twice benched him for a pinch hitter in clutch situations in these playoffs and left him out of the lineup entirely for the Yankees’ decisive Game 5 of the American League Division Series against the Baltimore Orioles.

“It’s kind of been a weird year for us. . . . We’ve dealt with a lot of trials and tribulations,” Rodriguez said following Game 2.

Jeter’s injury was just the latest trial, and it certainly felt like a death sentence of sorts. The iconic shortstop is among the last vestiges of the team’s glory days. While they still win plenty of ballgames April through September, the Yankees have captured only one World Series title since 2000.

Even if he’s healthy and re-signs, Rivera will be 43 next year. Pettitte, 40, came out of retirement to pitch this season, though injuries prevented him from contributing more. He’s made no announcements about his future.

“It’s just going to be really a matter of if I feel like it’s something that I want to do again,” he said this month.

Someone will have to replace them, but that could also require a change in philosophy. Only eight players on the current postseason roster were homegrown, and the team will be facing some big financial questions. While the Yankees payroll this season was nearly $210 million, the team already has nearly $120 million on the books for next year. CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and Rodriguez are due at least $23 million apiece, with Rodriguez slated to earn $29 million. (Rodriguez will also pocket a $6 million bonus if he hits 14 more home runs to pass Willie Mays on the all-time home run list.) Those three are, in fact, the only players the Yankees have locked up beyond 2013.

This offseason they’re facing several difficult roster decisions. Eligible for free agency: Rivera, Swisher, Ichiro Suzuki, Raul Ibanez, Hiroki Kuroda, Russell Martin and Andruw Jones. Even fielding the same aging team would require a significant investment.

“They get a great return for the things that they put into their organization,” Orioles Manager Buck Showalter said during the ALDS. “They pick not only good players but good people. That combination is hard to overcome.”

But Showalter’s squad also illustrates the challenges the Yankees face. The Orioles cost less than half to assemble and were neck and neck with the Yankees down the stretch. The American League East is not just a two-horse race.

For now, the Yankees are focused on climbing out of their two-game hole in Detroit and making the most out of this fall’s playoff appearance. They can’t take for granted that they’ll have this opportunity every October.

“It has been a little disappointing the past couple years,” Sabathia said earlier this month. “Hopefully we can turn it around.”

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