Commentary

Joe Girardi has a big challenge ahead

Yanks manager re-ups for three more years, but 2011 will be tougher than 2010

Updated: October 29, 2010, 8:59 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

For Joe Girardi, signing his new contract to manage the New York Yankees for three more years was about as easy as his job will get between now and 2013.

[+] EnlargeJoe Girardi
AP Photo/Seth WenigJoe Girardi and the Yankees have some tweaking to do before the 2011 season.

Because now that the fun stuff is out of the way -- agreeing to a $400,000-per-year raise and another $50,000 in bonus money should he take the Yankees back to the World Series -- there are a lot of difficult tasks ahead.

First off, he's got to find a new pitching coach -- a search made more difficult by the likely fact that he wishes he still had the old one.

But GM Brian Cashman made that call for him, firing Dave Eiland at the end of the season, so now Girardi has to start from scratch and form a new working relationship with whoever Cashman decides to entrust with what he calls "a hugely important position.''

But wait, it gets tougher. Then there is the looming prospect of having to ask -- no, tell -- Derek Jeter that the spot formerly reserved for him at the top of the Yankees' batting order isn't his anymore.

That ought to go well. And then there is the conversation he must have with Jorge Posada, in which he informs the charter member of the Yankees' Core Four that the seat that has been his for the past 14 years -- the one directly behind home plate at Yankee Stadium -- may not be his sole property anymore, either, and that he may be taking a seat on the bench between his at-bats a lot more often than he would like next season.

Then there is the Alex Rodriguez problem -- as in, when do you tell your $32.5 million third baseman that it is time for him to become a part-time third-baseman or full-time DH? Hopefully for Girardi, that conversation is a full season away, after Posada's contract runs out. And presumably his GM will do something about the potential logjam of designated hitters on the Yankees' roster.

Plus, there is the A.J. Burnett problem -- such as when, if ever, to use him again. And the Joba Chamberlain problem (same as the A.J. Burnett problem), and the David Robertson problem -- better known as "which bridge should I take to get to Mariano Island?''

For a team that won 95 games in 2010 and came within two victories of a second-straight trip to the World Series, Girardi seems to have inherited more than his fair share of problems along with his $9 million windfall.

Part of the reason for that is, $213 million doesn't seem to buy what it used to. For all that money, by the end of their playoff run the Yankees found themselves short of pitching -- both starting and relief -- and thinner on the bench than Mariano is in the waistline.

The problem is, so much of the team's payroll is concentrated on so little of its roster that sometimes it appears as though the rest is patchwork. For instance, if A-Rod or Jeter go down, who steps in behind them? Same goes for Mark Teixeira, now that Lance Berkman is gone.

And as for the truly unthinkable, what if Rivera goes down? In that case, there simply is no Plan B, because realistically, there can't be.

At times during the playoffs, it seemed as though Girardi was managing with a roster of 23 players instead of 25 -- the equivalent of an NBA coach whittling his rotation down to seven players.

He had Austin Kearns on his roster for no discernible reason other than he had no better choice. Same goes for Ramiro Pena. And when they lost Mark Teixeira to a hamstring injury in the ALCS, the best they could come up with to replace him was Eduardo Nunez.

Girardi didn't get away with it in 2010, and it will be even tougher in 2011, when everyone is a year older and many of them are a year closer to retirement.

Already, Girardi is hinting at what he knows must be done. Without singling out Jeter, he acknowledged that lineup changes are probably on the way. And while praising Jeter and A-Rod for their defensive abilities -- "The balls that they get to, they make the plays'' -- what was left unsaid spoke volumes about their lack of range.

Girardi knows his roster is aging. He also has no idea -- and neither, apparently, does Cashman -- if Hal and Hank Steinbrenner will authorize the kind of expenditures necessary to replace those aging parts with veteran major league-ready talent.

"I have no anticipation one way or the other,'' Cashman said when asked if he thought his payroll would change in either direction for 2011. He is headed to a series of meetings in Tampa with the Steinbrenner Bros. on Monday to learn how fat his checkbook will be for next season.

It is assumed the Yankees will go all-out for Cliff Lee, the Texas Rangers' stud left-hander who stifled them in Game 3 of the ALCS. After that, nothing is certain. Cashman has said he is happy with his outfield of Brett Gardner in left, Curtis Granderson in center and Nick Swisher in right -- making it questionable, and perhaps doubtful, that the Yankees will make a run at Carl Crawford, the Tampa Bay Rays outfielder who will be also be a free agent this winter.

But there are other pressing needs that must be addressed. Who will replace Kerry Wood as the eighth-inning set-up man? Who will inherit the bulk of the catching if Posada is phased into a DH role? Will Cliff Lee be enough to shore up the rotation, especially if Andy Pettitte decides not to come back?

These are questions for Cashman to wrestle with in the winter, but they will be Girardi's problems once the season begins. Add in Girardi's own internal struggles -- he gives off a tense and intense vibe that may or may not affect the demeanor of his clubhouse -- and you are mixing up a potion that could simmer all season long and eventually explode.

For now, the Yankees have made the right choice. Girardi, for all his quirks and compulsive behaviors, is a fine manager who seems to have the trust and respect of his players and his GM. His record here over the past three years certainly warranted a new contract for at least three more.

But with that contract should have also come the promise of the kind of full support and backup he didn't have in 2010.

Despite his protestations to the contrary, it would have been natural for Girardi to have at least toyed with the idea of taking the job managing the Chicago Cubs -- in the city where he grew up, with the team he rooted for as a kid and wound up playing for.

After that job went to someone else, Girardi's decision to stay with the Yankees must have gotten a whole lot easier.

But come 2011, he actually has to manage them again. And that is going to be a whole lot tougher than it was in 2010.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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