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Injuries, age finally catching up to Yankees

Is the Yankees' empire in the early stages of collapse? The question, once a Christmas wish for the rest of the AL East, is being posed everywhere in the big leagues this week, as the Bombers drastically altered their lineup to avoid falling into last place.

Incredibly, the team that won 101 regular-season games last year is feeling threatened by ... the Devil Rays. Having already split the first two games of their battle for the cellar, the Yankees will be relying on two rookies, Sean Henn and Chien-Ming Wang, to rescue them in the next two days.

How did the Yankees go from being the greatest on-paper team of the Joe Torre era to the division's cesspool? It's been a perfect storm of injuries and age, which is precisely how the '65 Yankees ushered in an 11-year dark age in the Bronx. Club officials refuse to believe history is repeating itself, but no one expected Bernie Williams to lose his skills so rapidly, or Jason Giambi to be quite this helpless or Jorge Posada to look this exhausted just a month into the season.

Kevin Brown? He might be sprinting to the finish line of his Yankee career, given the way he pitched Tuesday night against the D-Rays. Allowing six runs in the first inning, dooming the Yankees to an embarrassing 11-4 loss, Brown allowed his ERA to balloon to 8.25. Once considered the game's premier ground-ball pitcher, able to devastate right-handed hitters with his 90-plus mph two-seam fastball, Brown is no longer a mystery to anyone, as the American league is batting .346 against him.

Not finding a way to dump Brown during the offseason ranks among the worst of the Yankees' corporate mistakes. So was underestimating Jon Lieber's market value, letting him slip away to the Phillies and thinking he could be replaced by Jaret Wright. But the most egregious error in judgment, other executives say, was George Steinbrenner's insistence on acquiring Randy Johnson when his lieutenants preferred Carlos Beltran.

If ever there were a perfect successor for the post-Williams era, it was the young, switch-hitting Beltran who not only was interested in becoming a Yankee but also was willing to give Steinbrenner a $10 million discount. The Boss never made a move, however, having finally reached his pain threshold after signing Johnson and inflating the payroll to its current $203 million.

One Yankee insider said that adding Beltran's salary would've been "one too many logs in a forest fire." There was no swaying Steinbrenner, although the Mets were so fearful of the Yankees' wealth they negotiated with Beltran all night after he rejected the Astros' offer of salary arbitration. Mets GM Omar Minaya came to terms with Beltran as Steinbrenner was, literally, asleep.

The Yankees dismissed the Mets' triumph, reasoning they could live without Beltran. After all, the inner core – Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui, Gary Sheffield – was still intact. And now they had Johnson, the game's greatest left-hander. Any problems that crept up ... well, Steinbrenner had always been able to buy his way out of trouble. But for years executives had been predicting a crash, insisting Steinbrenner's love of aging, big-name players would eventually ruin the franchise.

Pat Gillick, the former GM of the Blue Jays, Orioles and Mariners, recently told the St. Petersburg Times, "Unless [Steinbrenner] has a bottomless pit, it's going to come to an end. Unless he wants to go to $300 million to keep buying free agents, there is going to be light at the end of the tunnel."

Yankee officials still don't buy into that doomsday scenario – not with at least $50 million coming off the books in 2006. But no one disputes how troubled the team seems to be lately. After his team lost all three series in the last home stand – to the Rangers, Angels and Blue Jays – GM Brian Cashman made an emergency trip to Tampa, where the Yankees began a four-game series.

Cashman didn't minimize the urgency of his visit.

"I'm not going to sit still and watch what I've watched for the last 25 games," he said. Within hours, the Yankees had a stunning new look. Williams was on the bench, Matsui was in center field, Tony Womack was in left despite never having played the position and rookie Robinson Cano was at second base. While other GM's praised Cashman for having the guts to act so decisively, few of his peers held out much hope the redesign would change the Yankees' fate.

Matsui's arm will eventually be a liability in center, experts say. Womack doesn't hit enough to justify playing him in left. And Giambi is still taking up a roster spot, as is Brown. The Yankees' ability to make further changes is hampered by the lack of tradable big-league talent – one NL general manager flatly said "no thanks" when asked about Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill – and Cano and third baseman Eric Duncan are the last two minor-league commodities.

That means the Yankees probably don't have enough to snare, say, Ken Griffey Jr., who says he wouldn't mind playing in the Bronx, or Mike Cameron, who would be a perfect fit if the Mets ever decided to shop him.

As for Giambi, the Yankees still think they can trade him – hoping other GMs haven't figured out he's had a "cooler" effect on the rest of the lineup – but no one seems interested.

"He'd have to come for free," is what one executive said unenthusiastically, meaning the Yankees would have to absorb every last penny of the $82 million Giambi is owed. But Steinbrenner might not have a choice.

Rebuilding the Yankees isn't going to be quick. And it sure won't be cheap.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.