- Wallace Matthews, ESPN Staff Writer
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Once again, Cliff Lee has beaten the New York Yankees, left them with their bats on their shoulders and their chins in the dirt, and I am going to tell you right at the start I have no idea what they are going to do about it.
I don't know if they're going to pick up a starter or a reliever. I couldn't tell you if they will plunge back into the free-agent market to scavenge what little is left, or mortgage their future by trading their prospects for someone else's headache.
Don't ask me for names because, right now, there aren't many that are even worth mentioning.
I can't tell you what the Yankees will do next because, frankly, I don't think the Yankees know what they are going to do next.
But I can tell you this, with full confidence: They are going to do something, and soon. Something big enough that even if it doesn't make you forget Cliff Lee and the marriage that was never meant to be, it at least will make it easier to bear the pain.
They will not do it out of fear or panic, or because they love their fans or because they have some insatiable desire to win that eclipses that of every other sports franchise in the history of planet Earth, although all of that may factor into it.
They will do it for one important reason: Because they have to.
And they will do it for 50,000 reasons: The number of seats, the vast majority of them exorbitantly priced, that must be filled or, as close to filled as corporately possible, 81 times a season beginning with March 31.
Last year, the Yankees won 95 games, fell a game shy of winning the division and two wins short of a second straight trip to the World Series.
Right now, the 2011 team doesn't look quite as good as the 2010 team, which wasn't quite good enough. But it is only December. By April 1, this team will have you believing in its chances again. Whether that is reality or merely an April Fool's Day prank will remain to be determined. But by the time the Yankees take the field for their home opener against the Detroit Tigers, they will at least look like the real thing.
After that, it will be up to the players to perform, as it always is.
Make no mistake, the Yankees badly wanted Cliff Lee and sorely needed him.
But they will find a way to get by without him. They have found ways to get by without better players, and even better pitchers, than him. (Greg Maddux, anyone?)
Several times over the weekend in phone calls with me and again during his conference call with the media on Tuesday, Brian Cashman bristled over the perception that the Yankees' front office was in some sort of disarray, knocked punchy by an offseason that so far has not gone the way many expected it would, that he and his colleagues were as disoriented and aimless as a drunken sailor let loose in Times Square with George Steinbrenner's checkbook.
"I don't like the perception out there that we don't know what we're doing,'' he said.
Cashman and Co. know exactly what they're doing, and exactly what they have to do now: Feed the beast known as Yankee Stadium 3.0, the one that must swallow 45,000 bodies -- and their wallets -- on an almost nightly basis between March 31 and Oct. 1 in order to remain financially healthy.
That is why I am sure the Yankees will take the necessary steps to shore up their shaky starting rotation and fortify their bullpen, if only to maintain the perception that they have not been hurt by Lee and should still be considered the favorites not only to represent the American League in the 2011 World Series but to beat the presumptive NL favorite, the Philadelphia Phillies.
Right now, I couldn't tell you if it will be Brandon Webb or Jeremy Bonderman via free agency, Carlos Zambrano or Matt Garza or King Felix Hernandez via trade, or Kerry Wood returning to set up for Mariano Rivera. And I can't tell you if the necessary parts will be installed in time for Opening Day or if some will still need to be picked up at next July's non-waiver trade deadline.
(I can pretty much guarantee you it won't be Carl Pavano 2.0, not after the way Javy Vazquez Redux turned out.)
But I can tell you that the necessary parts will be found and plugged into the necessary holes, because the Yankees really have no other choice.
I can't imagine things ever going back to the way they were in the early '70s or late '80s, because not only do the Yankees have the means and the desire to make sure they don't, they also have the crushing appetite of their new ballpark and its debt service to satisfy.
They have to find a way to fill those seats and the ballgame alone isn't enough. Nor is the return of Derek Jeter for three more years, or Rivera for two, or seven more seasons of A-Rod. This isn't the '70s or '80s anymore, and the fun of going to a ballgame simply isn't enough.
At today's prices, fans expect more than just entertainment and more than one or two big names. They expect winning. And not just winning, but the kind of winning that leads somewhere. And not just anywhere, but to the World Series and beyond.
No fans expect more than Yankee fans, who sometimes behave as though they would like to fast forward through the season and get right to the ticker-tape parade.
The dismay and panic expressed by many of the Yankees fans I interacted with in various media platforms following the announcement that Lee had spurned the Bombers for the Phillies was palpable and, frankly, irrational.
As Cashman pointed out, the Yankees still have CC Sabathia -- a 21-game winner last year. They still have Phil Hughes, an 18-game winner in his first season as a starter. There is probably a 50-50 chance, although no better, that Andy Pettitte comes back for one more season. They have Ivan Nova, who showed so much promise in a few showings late last season.
And oh yeah, they still have A.J. Burnett, whom Cashman absolutely assures us cannot possibly have another season as horrendous as his 2010. (OK, so you don't have to swallow everything he says. You need to learn to pick and choose.)
But the truth is, that is the foundation for a pretty good rotation, and if the Yankees were to add a Zambrano, an admitted head case who at least knows the new pitching coach, Larry Rothschild, or a Matt Garza or a Chris Carpenter, and if Pettitte comes back, the loss of Lee won't look like a fatal blow anymore, will it?
And if nothing else, at least he's out of the AL and won't get a chance to torment the Yankees until the next World Series, provided they or the Phillies are fortunate to get that far.
Cashman did more spinning than Dorothy Hamill turning an axel during his conference call Tuesday, but one thing he said really is beyond dispute: The Yankees don't have a lot of holes to fill.
True, the one they have to fill is a big one, and as the GM adroitly pointed out, everyone's price for the Yankees has just gone up, because now they all smell blood in the water.
But the Yankees will find a way, because they always have. And now, because they always must.
The fans in the palatial baseball palace they play in demands to be fed every night, and they only way to attract their dinner is by putting out a team that at least looks as though it can go all the way.
The same ballpark that pressures the Yankees to field a competitive team every season is your insurance policy that they will.
And that is with Cliff Lee or the way it is now: without him.
11hRandy Jennings, Special to ESPN.com