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Yankee Panky # 28: Roll with the Changes . . . Whenever they Happen

Annual organizational changes are part of the Yankees’ credo. For the Yankees, the “brain trust” meetings in Tampa are usually a harbinger of what’s to come in the winter. At this point, with nothing happening and the team not tipping its hand, reporters had nothing to report except that there was nothing to report. Sadly, that’s still a story.

What have we learned in the 10 days since the Yankees’ first-round defeat? For the most part, nothing we didn’t already know in March.

1) Mariano Rivera is upset that the Yankees did not negotiate a contract extension before the season, as they did in 2004. And he loves Joe Torre.

2) A-Rod could opt out of his contract, Scott Boras will likely instruct him to do so and test the free-agent market, where he’ll command upwards of $30 million per year.

The Daily News’ Sunday feature “Inside the A-Rod Power Play” has a ton of interesting tidbits and projections of how the negotiations could go. Boras and A-Rod had their own “organizational” meetings in California this week to determine his free-agent value. Boras went on Darren Rovell’s CNBC show yesterday and claimed that A-Rod is the reason for the Yankees’ attendance increase, YES’s increased ratings, and another report stated that he could ask YES to pay a portion of A-Rod’s salary. (Boy would I love to be a fly on the wall of those discussions at YES headquarters.) Can we – and should we – take Boras seriously here? Giving him air time at this stage, when he and A-Rod have 10 days after the World Series to decide on the opt-out, seems premature. But it keeps the Yankees in the news, so for the purposes of this column, that’s a good thing.

3) Jorge Posada is a free agent, and his teammates consider him indispensable.

4) The Yankees must decide whether to pick up Bob Abreu’s $16 million option for next season.

5) Although the successor has changed, George Steinbrenner is ceding control of high-level baseball decisions to the younger generation of his family.

6) Joe Torre or Brian Cashman – or both — could find themselves working elsewhere in 2008.

For me, the two most telling lines on this topic came in Tuesday’s NY Times, from Tyler Kepner. First, he likened the atmosphere of the powwow to “a Soprano family sit-down” (all he left out is that we, the casual observers, are watching and expecting someone to get whacked). Secondly, near the end, while discussing the reporters’ stakeout of Brian Cashman’s arrival and the GM’s run of no-comments, Kepner reminded us that last year, GMS III had wanted to fire Torre with a year remaining on his contract. Shortly thereafter, Cashman publicly defended Torre and placed blame on the players. He has not done that yet, which is curious, given how staunchly Cashman has supported Torre. One can infer a couple of things here: 1) that Cashman believes managerial change is necessary; and 2) with spawn of Steinbrenner assuming control of baseball operations, a move that could lead to a resurgent Tampa influence, Cashman may see the writing on the wall for his own job. Thus, if he wants to retain his job, keeping mum on the Torre situation – at least in public – may be the safest course of action. That’s Bill Madden’s theory and he’s sticking to it. Pete Caldera and Bob Klapisch believe otherwise.

Cashman addressed the media yesterday and basically spent four minutes saying that nothing was decided and that we’ll know when a decision is made.

Interesting tidbit: Cashman flew back to New York yesterday, while team president Randy Levine and COO Lonn Trost stayed in Tampa with the Steinbrenners. Decisions on the manager, and maybe the general manager, could be made at the highest levels, and soon. If you believe Buster Olney, we’ll know Torre’s fate by the end of the week, which is great, since it pretty much is the end of the week.

* In watching the two league championship series and reflecting back on the Yankees-Indians Division Series, it has occurred to me that the Indians and Rockies are the most deserving teams to reach the World Series but because both have emphasized and embraced the team concept. Eric Wedge and Clint Hurdle have trusted their instincts and trusted their players – all of them. Numerous players have come through in key situations, from Paul Byrd to Asrubal Cabrera to Casey Blake to Grady Sizemore, and from Jeff Francis to Kaz Matsui to the entire middle relief staff. Scoring runs with two outs and demonstrating an ability to shut down an opposing team’s offense in the late innings are key ingredients to winning in the postseason. The Yankees and Red Sox have not done this. Case in point: two games Byrd started mirrored each other, from the Indians jumping to a big lead to the Yankees and Red Sox trying to chip away with solo home runs.

* The coverage in the 10 days since the locker cleanout has focused on individuals and questions surrounding potential free-agent defections that could drastically alter the makeup of the 2008 Yankees. In the initial review of the loss, the local and national media highlighted the individual foibles of A-Rod, Posada, Matsui, Abreu and most notably, Derek Jeter, as opposed to the team as a collective. This was an interesting take, considering how well they jelled as a unit in the final 95 games of the season. In four games, they reverted to a group that appeared tense and grew individualistic and home-run happy at bat, especially with runners in scoring position.

I thought the writers – from Bill Simmons on down – who compared this Indians team to the 1996 Yankees were on to something. They have an interesting mix of players with postseason experience and those who are completely green, boast a lineup that has some notable players but no bona fide stars, a serviceable starting rotation and perhaps the best middle-relief tandem in the game. Most of all, this group plays hungry and confident. The Yankees, for the past three Division Series, have played as if they’re starving and desperate.

Fair or unfair, the Torre situation is being portrayed as the key to the offseason. I think that’s a misrepresentation of a larger issue, but the mainstreamers need a scapegoat and Torre is certainly a convenient one. If it’s decided that a change is necessary, who is the best candidate to replace him? I don’t know. What I do know is that whoever it is must figure out how to cure the yips that have existed since the 9th inning of Game 4 of the 2004 LCS. We accuse the media of creating stories; here’s one that’s obvious and few can get the people involved in that demise to speak candidly about the effect that loss truly had on the Yankees.

Perhaps the answer lies within someone who wasn’t there and has no previous connection to the organization.

Steven Goldman gave me a nice sendoff in cyber-print back in January, not long after I left YES. I’d like to do the same for my former boss, Fred Harner. I was stunned to hear from a few former colleagues that he left the company shortly before the end of the regular season. It was like the last domino falling. Fred joined YES in November of 2001 and was one of the first dozen employees at the network. He laid the plans for the Web site and when he was ready to build the editorial component of the site, hired the 23-year-old punk version of me. In three weeks, we created enough content to launch the site; the network launched four days later and I don’t know if we ever really stopped grinding. Our YES partnership lasted five years, and we worked together for a year before that at ABC. He was a great boss – at ABC and YES, we always called him “our fearless leader” – and he remains mentor and friend. I wish him the best of luck in his new endeavors, which include being a father.

Until next week…

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver