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Keefe To The City: Looking Back And Forward At The Yankees

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Alex Avila #13 of the Detroit Tigers celebrates the Tigers 3-2 win as Alex Rodriguez #13 of the New York Yankees reacts after striking out for the games final out during Game Five of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium on October 6, 2011. (credit: Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Alex Avila #13 of the Detroit Tigers celebrates the Tigers 3-2 win as Alex Rodriguez #13 of the New York Yankees reacts after striking out for the games final out during Game Five of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium on October 6, 2011. (credit: Nick Laham/Getty Images)

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By Neil Keefe
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This will be the fourth day that there hasn’t been a baseball game I have cared to watch and it’s just weird. The Yankees went out in five games over the course of seven days and now I have to wait until next spring to watch baseball again.

Sweeny Murti (also known as the Voice of Reason here) joined me for epic email discussions throughout the season for the second straight year. With the Yankees no longer in the playoffs, he joined me one last time for the 2011 season to talk about what went wrong in the ALDS and what we can expect this winter as the team changes for 2012.

Keefe: Well, that sucked. I was hoping to need the Voice of Reason again before the ALCS and before the World Series and then look back at the season sometime around Halloween weekend. Instead, it’s Oct. 10 and the season has been over for four days. I like to say “devastating” but I don’t think that word is even enough for this.

It’s hard to say the Yankees were the better team than the Tigers since the Tigers are playing in the ALCS and the Yankees aren’t. But I think that is why this hurts so much because the Yankees were the better team than the Tigers. The Tigers had one pitcher and one hitter to fear and were able to knock off a Yankees lineup that was supposed to be the best in the game. But while Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher couldn’t find a way to put the ball in play or even create a productive out, the Tigers got production from Don Kelly and Ramon Santiago and Brandon Inge.

I said if the Yankees couldn’t beat Doug Fister and Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello then they weren’t going to get past the Rangers in the ALCS or the Phillies in the World Series (obviously the Phillies are no longer part of this theory). In the end, the Yankees couldn’t beat Max Scherzer in Game 2, CC Sabathia couldn’t hold a lead in Game 3 and the Yankees couldn’t get a timely hit in Game 5. It’s never a good thing when you’re sitting there hoping for Fister, Scherzer and Joaquin Benoit to walk Yankees because you have absolutely no faith in them getting on base any other way. If the Yankees could have so much trouble with the Tigers than what were they going to do against the Rangers? My answer is: Likely nothing.

There is a lot of blame to go around for this early exit and we will get to it all, but let’s start where the series began: Sept. 30. It was CC Sabathia vs. Justin Verlander in Game 1. The rain suspended the game until the following night. CC Sabathia was dominant for two innings looking like he did early in the summer (before the six-man rotation) and allowed a run on a Yankee Stadium home run off Delmon Young’s bat. CC threw 27 pitches. He had last started a game on Sept. 21 (127 pitches). That means outside of bullpen sessions, CC had thrown 154 pitches in the last 10 days. Joe Girardi decided CC then couldn’t start until Monday for Game 3. This is the same CC Sabathia that has pitched at least 28 games in all 11 MLB seasons and averages 34 starts and 226 innings a year. Now when the Yankees need him most at the most important time of the season (the whole reason he is paid $23 million per year), he suddenly needs rest. So, instead of having CC in two games, the Yankees now had him for one game because he threw 27 pitches on Friday. (I am getting angrier as I write this.)

I understand the need to “protect” pitchers in this day and age, but THIS IS CC SABATHIA WE’RE TALKING ABOUT! It’s not Phil Hughes, who proved that Brian Cashman’s little innings plan isn’t an exact science (no plan is) or Joba Chamberlain, whose surgery makes the whole Joba Rules era a joke. The Yankees lost their best starter and their only really reliable starter (yes, Nova was good but also a rookie) because of 27 pitches. They played for six months (seven with spring training) and let 27 pitches dictate their October. That’s awesome! So my question to you is: How does Joe Girardi not bring CC back for Game 2?

Murti: Wow. Obsess much? This CC Sabathia thing has had you sleepless for a week now, hasn’t it?

Understand this: Starting pitchers are not like relief pitchers. They are not conditioned to go two in a row, three out of four, blah, blah, blah. I know it sounds silly to you, after such a low pitch total, but it’s more about a pitcher ramping up and ramping down again and routine. Relief pitchers actually understand this. They hate warming up and sitting down and the affect it has on their arms that they have an unprintable term (on a family website) for such use.

Now, back to Sabathia. Could he have gone back out for Game 2? Probably. But it was determined that for the long-term health of the team in this series that he would not have been as effective. When you get into deciding Game 5s or 7s you tend to throw those types of things out. Sandy Koufax, on two days rest in the 1965 World Series, threw a complete game. Randy Johnson came out of the bullpen on two days rest in the 2001 World Series against the Yankees. Both times were Game 7s.

Don’t forget that Justin Verlander, the best pitcher on the planet this year, threw fewer pitches than Sabathia did in Game 1 and the Tigers didn’t let him pitch until Game 3 either. And Jim Leyland even decided before Game 5 he would not use Verlander out of the ‘pen. Nobody is questioning that strategy are they? No, because other players stepped up.

And let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture here … the Yankees DID NOT lose this series because they didn’t pitch well enough.

And let’s also remember, that this wasn’t the monumental upset you think it is. The Yankees lost in a deciding Game 5 by one run to a team that had only two fewer wins than they did in the regular season. Just one hit in any of the last four innings of Game 5 and the Yankees are playing the Rangers. This probably won’t make you feel any better, but the margin between winning and losing this series wasn’t all that great, nor should it have been. Every team in the AL was more evenly matched than we would have thought earlier in the season.

Now, I sense you have some questions about the team’s offensive production…

Keefe: I have many questions about the offense, but we’re not there yet.

This year felt a lot like the 2004-2008 years and I said that multiple times prior to the season and it proved true in the postseason. The Yankees just didn’t have enough pitching. Whether Joe Girardi managed the pitching staff questionably or not, the Yankees had a one-man staff and even though Nova was good, he should have been the fourth or fifth starter on the team. Obviously I have a problem with “bridge” years and planning for the future, and I understand you have to have years like the Yankees had this year in order to get better for 2012 and beyond.

Before we get to the offense and oh, believe me, we will get there, let’s look at Joe Girardi’s phenomenal use of the bullpen. Girardi made sure to give his “A” relievers proper rest throughout the season and even more rest than normal during the last few weeks before the end of the season and even before the Yankees clinched. (He did this last year too.) So, then when the playoffs start, guess who comes trotting out of the bullpen in Games 1 and 2 … Ladies and gentlemen, Luis Ayala!

Ayala was the 11th man on an 11-man staff yet somehow how he pitched TWICE in five playoffs games. He couldn’t end Game 1 and in Game 2 he gave up an extra run in what was already a 4-1 game in the ninth inning. Here’s the problem: You can’t waste innings in the playoffs. I don’t care what the score is. Sure, Ayala pitching in a 9-1 game for three outs in Game 1 is acceptable, but in a game the Yankees trail in Game 2? No. This is Oct. 2. This isn’t June 2. He should not have the ball. The Tigers score again and then the Yankees go after Jose Valverde to the point that the one extra run changed how the Yankees played out that inning. Where was David Robertson? Where was Mariano Rivera? How could Robertson make two appearances in the playoffs and Rivera faced just throw to four hitters? Didn’t these guys just get weeks of proper rest to be able to go every single time in the playoffs?

Yes, Girardi played with urgency in Game 5 when his back was against the wall. But that was the first time he played with urgency … when the Yankees trailed in a must-win game. I jokingly told my friends that Rivera should start Game 5 since he was rested and could give the Yankees three innings and then go to Robertson or Soriano and build the game backwards. But I understand that is a radical viewpoint and something baseball probably isn’t ready for. But that’s real urgency.

But back to some sanity … how does Girardi not use his “A” relievers in Game 2 when the Yankees trailed by a reasonable deficit? And how does Soriano come out for A SECOND INNING in Game 3, and ultimately decided the game? Weren’t these guys rested for a reason? Or are Robertson and Rivera now rested so they can be lights out in spring training?

Murti: First of all, I’m glad you don’t totally believe your “radical” and “real urgency” theory. Frankly, it’s just pure stupidity.

While Luis Ayala was not part of the Yankees primary relief combo, he actually pitched pretty well this year. After early injuries to Joba Chamberlain and Rafael Soriano, Ayala didn’t become the go-to guy I thought he would, but he did compile a pretty good season. His 2.09 ERA was seventh in the AL among relievers. He pitched in more losing games than winning games, which means he was more often used when the Yankees were trailing and his job was to keep the game close.

OK, so rules are made to be broken in the postseason, but already down three runs and with no off-day before Game 3, I believe Joe Girardi’s strategy was to keep his top relievers ready for multiple innings in Games 3 and 4, not knowing what he would get out of a somewhat compromised Sabathia in Game 3 and an enigmatic A.J. Burnett in Game 4. If the Tigers’ lead was only two runs, I think he would have perhaps tried Robertson.

OK, Ayala gave up a run. If Robertson came on and gave up a run, you would be complaining that he was wasted in a situation where the Yankees were down three runs and now he might not be able to go as far the next two days. Yes, it was about resting a guy, but not the way you are thinking. It was more about the situation.

Soriano for a second inning in Game 3 was one move I did find a little curious. I questioned it as the inning started, tweeting that Soriano had not pitched more than one inning all season. He was also a one-inning save guy for Tampa Bay last year.  I thought it was a dangerous move, and then I got dozens of angry tweets back when Delmon Young took him deep for a 5-4 lead. I think the tie game on the road had Girardi trying to get a little more out of Soriano. He actually didn’t melt down the way I suspected he might. He did give up the go-ahead run. I get it. But Young also hit home runs off Sabathia and Nova in the series. Hitters get some credit too sometimes.

As for resting, you would have seen Robertson and Rivera in Game 4 if the Yankees hadn’t scored six runs in the eighth inning. Maybe the Yankees should have just made some outs there to make you feel better?

Again, lets just remember that the Yankees didn’t get beat by a 74-win team. I think the Tigers deserve a tiny bit of credit, no?

Keefe: Yes, the Tigers do deserve some credit, but there is more blame to go around, and a lot of that blame goes to A-Rod and the Goof Troop, otherwise known as the middle of the order and the Yankees’ 4-5-6 hitters.

Right now, if I had a game on the line and I had to pick between A-Rod, Teixeira and Swisher to go to the plate for me, I would pick Whitey Ford. Ford will be 83 this month and he might be the worst postseason hitter in the Yankees history, but he’s not that much worse than Swisher, and at least he won 10 World Series games on the mound.

All joking aside, the only good thing about the Yankees season being over is that I don’t have to watch another at-bat from these. Whether it’s watching A-Rod fail in big spots, watching Teixeira swing over another changeup or pop up a fastball to the shortstop, or watching Swisher go down looking and them complaining about the call to the ump, I just don’t think I could take anymore of it in 2011. It seems almost comical now that they we had to have serious discussions about whether or not Robinson Cano should be hitting third for the Yankees.

The problem is there isn’t much Girardi could do with these three other than hope they do something, which they didn’t. I think along with CC failing to protect a lead in Game 3, these three are the most to blame for the series loss and they deserve the majority of the blame. So, I’m asking you this: What is it that makes Teixeira and Swisher awful when the regular season becomes the postseason. (I’m leaving A-Rod out of this since he proved himself in 2009.) Can it be just that they are facing the elite pitchers in the game and aren’t beating up on No. 4 and No. 5 starters and padding their stats that way? Is there really truth to the theories that Swisher is a “garbage time” hitter and empty calorie guy? (I know you will probably cite his HR off Valverde.) And what happens with Swisher this offseason? Do the Yankees pick up his option? I think they do since he is important to the 162-game schedule even if he is invisible in October.

P.S. Only six more years of A-Rod! The 2017 ALDS should be fun!

Murti: There is no way around the fact that the middle of the Yankees order is what let the Yankees down the most. As I noted earlier, the Yankees were really just one base hit away from winning Game 5. I won’t use your little nickname, I’ll let you have that one. But those three hitters each came up with the bases loaded in the seventh inning, the go-ahead run on base for all of them. A-Rod struck out, Teixeira walked, and Swisher struck out (on a ball, mind you).

After Cano’s home run in the fifth inning made it 3-1, the Yankees had the tying run either on base or at the plate 13 times and couldn’t get it home. This lineup was coming up empty at nearly every turn. Yes, it is something we’ve seen before, and we’ll probably see it again.

The Yankees are built to score runs over the regular season. A lot of runs. They have never been able to really match the pitching staffs they had during the championship years of 1996-2000. And really, that’s hard to duplicate. We know they have tried, but it’s just not that easy to do. There’s a reason teams don’t win three straight and four in five years all the time.

The Yankees build their teams to get to the postseason EVERY year. The unpredictability of pitching means you have to do that with offense. If you get lucky (and sometimes that’s all it takes, luck) you have a championship team. If it was guaranteed the Yankees would win every year because they outspend everybody, well, what fun would that be?

Now, as the Yankees build for another 162 game season, they would be hard pressed to replace the production Nick Swisher has given them, averaging 27 home runs and 85 RBIs per year.  An option for $10.25 million allows the Yankees to avoid a long-term commitment and get a player looking for a big payday in his walk year. Win-win.

A-Rod and Teixeira are here to stay for the long haul. A-Rod worries me simply because I don’t think he will be able to stay healthy for 150 games anymore. He hasn’t played 150 games since 2007. We will be five years removed from that next year, so what makes me think he will do it again? The Yankees have to hope he can stay healthy with some DH at-bats and maximize his at-bats. You might get a 30-100 guy again, but the days of 45-130 are long gone I think.

Teixeira will continue to put up big regular season numbers since he is in the prime of his career. I believe his average will rebound because he is too good a hitter and has come to grips with his unconscious (or conscious) obsession with the short porch in right field. Realizing that, Teixeira is still a good enough hitter to go gap to gap and hit closer to the .295/.385/.554 numbers he averaged from 2004-2009 than the .252/.353/.487 he put up the last two years.

What happens in the postseason? Well, there’s just no way of predicting. You build your lineup with good hitters and then you take your chances in October.

Keefe: While A-Rod and the Goof Troop (I know you will use this eventually even though Lance the Dance for Lance Berkman never caught on for you in 2010) failed time and time again, there were a few bright spots for the Yankees offense in the playoffs.

Brett Gardner produced a lot of big hits in the postseason and Jorge Posada was probably the Yankees’ best all-around hitter in the five games. Actually, forget probably … he was.

Jorge Posada probably isn’t going to be a Yankee next year. I would say that it’s basically a given, but we have seen crazier things happen before, so it’s not impossible to say he won’t be back. With the Yankees needing the DH spot at-bats for some of the other aging players on the team, it’s likely that groundout that Jorge hit into in Game 5 was the last at-bat of his major league career.

You have covered the Yankees for 11 seasons and all but three of Posada’s time as a full-time catcher or DH. If Game 5 was in fact Posada’s last game, he certainly went out on top going 6-for-14 with a TRIPLE and four walks against the Tigers. He has put together a borderline Hall-of-Fame career and the only time the Yankees have missed the postseason since 1993 was the one time Posada was forced to miss the majority of the season (he played just 51 games in 2008). He has been an important part of the Yankees since becoming a full-time player on the team and it’s hard to be “underrated” on the Yankees, but Jorge Posada was.

I have always enjoyed watching Posada play and as the players from my childhood dwindle away with now Jeter and Mariano being the last two left, it will be weird to watch a Yankees game without No. 20 either behind the plate, on the field or in the dugout. And since you have been covering the team for nearly Posada’s entire career, what is your most memorable Posada moment or story?

Murti: Jorge Posada has been one of my favorite players to cover because he was so brutally honest after a game, especially a loss. Losing eats up Posada so much that he can never cover up his emotion with a phony answer. You always know how Posada feels after a game. And when the Yankees win, it’s just about the team, especially the pitchers. If Posada hits two home runs, he is happier to talk about that day’s pitchers than he is his own performance. I remember even towards the end of the 2003 season when he was nearing 30 home runs and was a legitimate MVP candidate, it took a very awkward group interview to get him to reveal anything about his personal accomplishments that season.

One of the things that stands out to me about Posada is watching how much joy he took in 2009. He was so distraught in 2008 (as you noted, missing time with injury and feeling he let the team down after signing a big contract the previous winter). Posada rebounded to put up one of his finest offensive seasons and I really could tell how much he enjoyed the World Series celebration that year.

I also will remember how passionate Posada is about two players that died long before he knew who either one was. As a native Puerto Rican, Posada speaks adoringly of Roberto Clemente and what he means to the legions of worshipers in the Latin community. And Posada also feels a close connection to Thurman Munson, keeping a picture of him in his locker. I could see the emotion this past Aug. 2, when Posada spoke to me about not being a catcher on the one day he loved catching in particular, helping mark the anniversary of Munson’s death in 1979.

In all the above cases, I can tell one thing: Jorge Posada is as emotional a player as I will ever meet. It may not have always been his best friend, temper getting away from him time to time. But his passion about playing the game is everything a Yankee fan should want from a Yankee.

Keefe: Now that the season is over and we have thrown the blame around for the ALDS loss, it’s time to stop reflecting on what went wrong in Games 2, 3 and 5 and look ahead to 2012 to try to prevent the same mistakes from happening and to hope that the postseason lasts longer than five games at this time next year.

So, with that I think the most important questions revolve around the starting pitching in 2012. Sure, the championship series are still going on and the Yankees are still a while away from making decisions, but we don’t have to wait as long as the Yankees do.

What happens with the rotation in 2012? I would assume CC will opt out and re-up with the Yankees, but is that a 100-percent guarantee? I would also think that Ivan Nova and obviously (and unfortunately) A.J. Burnett get spots in the 2012 rotation, but what about Phil Hughes? And what happens with Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon? I would think that neither of them come back, but maybe one of them does? And C.J. Wilson looks like a good candidate to fill that No. 2 spot in the rotation that the Yankees failed to really fill in 2012.

And what about the guy who catches these guys in Russell Martin? He played on a one-year deal to prove that he is still one of the best catchers in the league and he proved himself on the biggest stage in the game. Does he come back again to bridge the gap to the kids with a multiyear deal or does he go somewhere else?

I know that’s a lot of questions to answer for the Voice of Reason, but since the season is over, this is where we go our separate ways until the Winter Meetings. For now it’s football and hockey season and I have to worry about the Giants going for their third straight regular season collapse (that loss to the Seahawks was an awesome cherry on top after the ALDS) and whether the Rangers can finally find a way to score more than one or two goals every game and take some of the workload off Henrik Lundqvist.

It was another successful season having the Voice of Reason as an outlet to keep my grounded and to keep me from going overboard. We’ll talk in December and hopefully again when the Yankees introduce C.J. Wilson as the newest Yankee.

Murti: Yes, CC Sabathia will probably opt out, and yes the Yankees will probably re-sign him. In my opinion, this will end up as nothing more than a renegotiation that keeps both sides happy. And by that I mean Sabathia will get a boatload of money and the Yankees will still have him to pitch in 2012. Will they regret how long the deal goes beyond that? Maybe. But when has that ever stopped the Yankees? Besides, they have little choice but to bring back Sabathia.

Burnett will get more chances, since he has two more years on his contract. Nova was a positive, but be careful with expectations. You need look no further than Phil Hughes in 2010 and 2011. The Yankees certainly hope he begins 2012 healthy and closer to his All-Star form. Freddy Garcia, who has proven to be durable and effective, would be worth bringing back on a low-risk deal. I would bet Colon is left to go elsewhere after fading down the stretch. But boy, was he fun to watch early in the season.

I’m not sure if I’d start figuring out which number to give C.J. Wilson just yet. I know he is the best available pitcher on this free agent market, but the best available pitchers (that aren’t sure fire aces) usually end up with contracts that are less than reasonable and ones that fans like you end up attacking. See: Pavano, Carl and Burnett, A.J. as examples.

Wilson is intriguing, but I wonder if he will be worth a bidding war for the Yankees to be involved in. Japanese sensation Yu Darvish is a candidate, but I wonder if the Yankees will be scared away from the Japanese pitching market.

So where else do the Yankees go? They do have some talented pitching prospects, but I’m not sure if they are ready to trust any with a rotation spot out of the spring. Maybe Manny Banuelos turns in a spring like Ivan Nova and forces the team to take him north. But my guess is the Yankees will try not to rush him. More likely, the Yankees use some of this talent on the farm and try again to pull off a trade for an established starter.  At the trade deadline last July there were rumors of talks for Francisco Liriano and Gio Gonzalez, and there will be those and others as the winter moves along. It would not surprise me to see Brian Cashman (yes, I expect him back too) to get aggressive rather than face another year of piecing together a rotation.

Could that mean moving Jesus Montero? The Yankees have held onto him for a while now, but they are never afraid to move a prospect when they feel the right deal is there to be made. Sometimes they shy away for any number of reasons, but if there is a player they want, they have the ability to make the move.

Russell Martin probably comes back for another year with perhaps Austin Romine as a backup. Montero’s situation clouds things. He’s too good a bat just to be the backup catcher, so maybe he has a larger role and Romine wins a job because of his superior defense. It’s too soon to tell. Suffice to say there are options there, but Martin definitely deserves a chance to come back.

I understand there are now other teams to occupy what’s left of your mind. But don’t hesitate to come back for an appointment when you need. I would say we’ve made some progress over the last two years, but I’d hate to see you think you’re cured. Remember, as Nuke LaLoosh once said, “Take ‘em one day at a time. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.”

Follow Neil on Twitter @NeilKeefe

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