ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Head bowed, eyes moistened, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman was deep into a private conversation with Bernie Williams Monday night in what could've been a farewell moment for two members of the organization likely to be elsewhere in 2006.
Cashman had been crying, or was close to it, after a Game 5 loss to the Angels in the AL Division Series. Williams seemed almost as emotional as the Yankees packed for a long flight home, straight into the arms of a another chilly offseason.
Despite a record-setting $203 million payroll, the Yankees' championship drought has reached five years, and the strain showed in the clubhouse. Manager Joe Torre said, "I don't think I've ever been as disappointed in the final score" after a ninth-inning rally was snuffed out by Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez.
Rodriguez didn't hide from his failure, though. He stood at his locker and said, "I played like a dog the last five games" and added that he needed to "look in the mirror" after another empty October.
Counting the last three games of the 2004 AL Championship Series, A-Rod is 4-for-his-last-32 in the postseason with no RBI -- a blemish that all but negates his MVP-like numbers in the regular season.
The question, of course, is what the Yankees can and will do to recapture the magic of the mid-to-late '90s. Owner George Steinbrenner was already in an ugly mood after a 5-2 loss in Game 3, after which he was overheard telling a Stadium employee, "It's over for some people."
The Boss didn't clarify what hit list he was talking about, but changes are clearly coming. The Yankees first intend to resolve Cashman's status, since his contract with Steinbrenner expires on Oct. 31. So far, the GM has given no indication that he wants to return -- a sure sign, some colleagues say, that he's been waiting for an opening in Philadelphia or Washington.
Now that GM Ed Wade has been dismissed, the Phillies reportedly covet Cashman and/or Mets executive Jim Duquette. Cashman is first on that wish list, depending on whether he makes himself available.
But not even Cashman's closest friends in the industry have any idea which way he's leaning. He's so far resisted a formidable offer from Steinbrenner -- a 20 percent raise over his current $1.1 million salary, as well as an equity in the team -- that would make him the highest-paid GM in the major leagues.
Until Cashman makes up his mind, the Yankees obviously can't begin rebuilding -- or score-settling, depending on one's interpretation of Steinbrenner's business plan. Among their free agents-to-be are Williams and Hideki Matsui, as well as Tom Gordon, Tino Martinez, Ruben Sierra, Al Leiter and Tanyon Sturtze.
Some of the decisions will resolve themselves: Martinez and Leiter are almost certain to retire, and the club long ago expressed interest in re-signing Matsui. Conversely, the Yankees wouldn't bring back Williams for a farewell unless he's willing to take a substantial pay cut from this year's $14 million salary and also accepted a limited, 250-at-bat role on next year's team.
But even if Williams somehow returned, the Yankees clearly need a younger, more durable front-line center fielder. There are indications Steinbrenner wants to sign Johnny Damon at any cost, but an even wilder scenario would have Manny Ramirez wearing pinstripes, ending Matsui's three-year relationship with the Yankees.
Impossible? Ramirez recently told a friend he'd play for either the Yankees or Mets. With the Red Sox apparently investigating the trade market for their moody slugger, the Yankees could enter the sweepstakes, even if it meant acquiring Ramirez in a three-way deal.
Regardless of how the outfield is aligned next year, the Yankees' pitching options are limited by the three years and $27 million owed to the mysteriously disabled Carl Pavano and the two-year commitment to the equally fragile Jaret Wright.
Otherwise, the Bombers have no incentive to move Aaron Small, Chien-Ming Wang and Shawn Chacon. The front of the rotation will remain unchanged with the aging but (mostly) effective Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina, who will enter 2006 in the final year of his contract.
The bullpen? Gordon might've pitched himself out of pinstripes by failing to hold down the Angels in Game 3, retiring none of the four batters he faced in the seventh inning. Gordon's postseason anxiety became obvious in 2004, when the Red Sox scored six runs in 6 2/3 innings against him in the ALCS, so unnerved the right-hander reportedly threw up in the bullpen before appearing in Games 4 and 5.
The Yankees are already leaning towards free agent B.J. Ryan as a setup man, and the interest is apparently mutual. The other bullpen peripherals -- Scott Proctor and Alan Embree -- are history, and Sturtze, once a seventh-inning rock of dependability, could move on.
The Yankees' inner circle, however, will be spared a facelift. Gary Sheffield has a year left on a deal he personally negotiated with Steinbrenner; Jeter is still the captain and the Yankees' most marketable commodity; A-Rod is still the regular-season statistics champion (and is too expensive to contemplate trading, anyway); and Mariano Rivera, even at age 36, shows no sign of a decline.
That leaves Torre, who has two years and $13.1 million coming to him. He's said he would wait until the end of the season to comment on Steinbrenner's constant tweaking and the Tampa-based second-guessing that hounded him all year. Now everyone's curious what Torre will actually say.
It's highly unlikely that Torre will resign, but the gulf between him and the Boss has never been wider. With a startling early exit from the playoffs, the struggle between owner and manager will be worth watching during another World Series-less winter in New York.
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.