Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Bob Klapisch: Joe won't go, but what about A-Rod?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

NEW YORK -- Hand on his heart, Joe Torre swears he never asked George Steinbrenner how close he came to being fired, or just how real The Boss' anger was on Saturday night after the Yankees were obliterated by the Tigers. True or not, Torre owes his reprieve to one man, general manager Brian Cashman, whose intense telephone lobbying brought the Bombers back from the edge of a '70s and '80s-era regime change.

So the wobbly Yankees are on course again, which is to say, no one's getting canned this week. Torre is safe -- at least until the first losing streak in 2007. But other, stronger winds of change will soon sweep through the Bronx, as the Bombers realize they cannot put the same product on the field next opening day.

Despite their public declaration of loyalty to Alex Rodriguez, the Yankee hierarchy believes there's no choice but to explore a trade for the troubled third baseman. Two factors go into that decision. The first is the irrefutable need for starting pitching. By the end of the AL Division Series, Torre had only one pitcher he could trust, Chien-Ming Wang, whom he wouldn't start on three days' rest in Game 4 because of concerns about Wang's surgically repaired shoulder.

The rest of the rotation was damaged goods. Randy Johnson has turned into a five-inning, five-run starter. Mike Mussina has regressed into a No. 4 entity. No one else is worth mentioning.
The Angels would be the most likely candidate to take on A-Rod's baggage, if not the $16 million he's owed next year. One American League executive said, "[Anaheim] is the one team out there with enough talent to help the Yankees [in a trade]." Still, GM Bill Stoneman is notorious for caution that borders on inertia. It won't be easy convincing him to make a controversial swap.

But do the Yankees have any choice except to push Stoneman? Torre's decision to bat A-Rod in the No. 8 spot in Game 4 spoke volumes about how he feels about his third baseman's mental state. Torre says he consulted with Rodriguez before the game and was assured that, "He didn't have a problem with it." But friends of the slugger say otherwise.

It's now up to Rodriguez to decide whether he wants to be remembered as the player who failed in New York and finally moved to another team in surrender. Or, A-Rod can tough it out in pinstripes for another season, despite the near-certainty he'll be booed thickly by fans who've grown tired of the ongoing drama.

Rodriguez can control his fate because he has full no-trade powers in his contract. The last time friends checked on Rodriguez's commitment to the Yankees, they were convinced he wants to stay. But that was before the Sports Illustrated article that depicted A-Rod as both oblivious and isolated in the Yankee clubhouse.

Torre, too, came off as less than sympathetic. Dropping Rodriguez so low in the order during the division series all but confirmed that suspicion.

The Yankees have, for now, chosen Torre over A-Rod, Mussina, Gary Sheffield and Bernie Williams, none of whom figures to return in '07. Torre's survival means Steinbrenner has, for now, forgiven him for the team's lack of fire down the stretch, and charges levied by Sheffield and Cory Lidle that the Yankees were mentally unprepared for the Tigers.

Curiously, Torre defended the Yankees' collapse, as well as the six-year world championship drought, by saying there's an element of "luck" in the postseason. If he could change anything, Torre said, it would be to "play 162 games instead of a best-of-five [series]."

That's the first time Torre has ever invoked the [Oakland GM] Billy Beane philosophy, which essentially says: The postseason is an open-air crapshoot. Certainly, the Yankees weren't talking about luck when they were winning four world championships between 1996-2000. But now they say -- with some justification -- that a best-of-five series is an unfair measuring stick of greatness.

Beane backed Torre on this explanation, saying the adoption of the shorter division series was the worst thing that could've happened to the Yankee dynasty.

"I got crushed for saying in the book ["Moneyball"] that the postseason is about luck, but now everyone is agreeing with me," Beane said. "It just happens to be true. And a small-market team like the A's needs luck against a big-market team like the Yankees. More often than not, the Yankees are going to have the better team. That's why I'd be much more worried about the Yankees if they were in my division than facing them in a short series."

That line of thinking may or may not placate Yankee fans who've been conditioned into thinking the team was going to the World Series every year. To those still in shock at the string of 20 scoreless innings during the division series, the first question is: How could this happen to the most dangerous lineup in baseball? Luck -- bad luck -- is only supposed to sabotage mortals such as the A's and Braves and, yes, the Mets. Not the Yankees.

But Torre is still breathing because he and Cashman were able to convince Steinbrenner that October offers no guarantees, not even with a $200 million payroll. The fact that The Boss relented means he's either getting soft or getting old. Probably both. But don't think Cashman doesn't feel the sting of defeat.

"We feel obligated to deliver more than we have," said the general manager. Of course, Cashman wouldn't offer any hints about the new blueprint for 2007, only that, "We'll look at everything" in changing the dynamic.

That means it's Torre and Jeter over A-Rod. Cashman already has received his first e-mail from another GM proposing a deal for Rodriguez. The proposed swap was so one-sided Cashman jokingly dismissed the executive as "a buzzard."

Still, you can hear the drumbeat of change. Someone has to pay for this collapse. And it won't be Torre.

No comments: