The departure of Theo Epstein was the topic of conversation between two Yankees executives recently, and they agreed: The flak over Epstein could come back and bite them in 2006, because the Red Sox's front office would go above and beyond to prove they could win without Epstein.
If Epstein had remained, the team would have continued on a more conservative and -- and in the long run, perhaps more effective -- route of player development, with the budget constraints hardened. But now the Red Sox ownership, the Yankees' executives agreed, will be more aggressive, in the wake of Epstein's departure. They'll take more chances, perhaps expand their budget, do more to make sure the team will win in 2006, the first year A.T. (After Theo).
Now the Red Sox are moving close to a first big strike, with the impending acquisition of Josh Beckett, and we are accustomed to seeing the Yankees hammering away in response. However, what the Yankees might do is bite the bullet, instead of firing back.
Sure, the Yankees would love to sign B.J. Ryan to be a set-up man, but don't have any real hope that is going to happen. They'd love to add Brian Giles to their outfield, but they're fully aware he could sign someplace else. But in this first winter since the organization has rededicated itself to the philosophy of developing and even keeping prospects -- an approach that led to the dynasty of 1996-2001 -- the Yankees might make only marginal changes. "There is a perception that things haven't gone our way this offseason," Brian Cashman said Tuesday morning. "But everything that's happened so far is not unexpected to me."
The Yankees could have dived into the Josh Beckett sweepstakes and could have lost, anyway, given Boston's willingness to dangle top prospect Hanley Ramirez. But once the Marlins asked for Chien-Ming Wang and other prospects, the Yankees checked out. They want to keep Wang, top pitching prospect Philip Hughes and second baseman Robinson Cano, and right now, they don't have the depth in their farm system that the Red Sox have to even consider those types of trades without further damaging the organization long-term.
In addition, the Yankees would've had to absorb Mike Lowell, who would've been just one more high-priced older player thrown onto the pile of similar players the team has accumulated -- and the Yankees wouldn't have even had a natural place for Lowell to play.
There will be similar opportunities in the weeks ahead, such as a potential deal for Carlos Delgado, but for now, the Yankees intend to hold fast to their current course of rebuilding the farm system and passing up the opportunity for expensive stars. The weak free-agent market appears to provide only imperfect solutions: They have no interest in A.J. Burnett because of the enormous gamble he might represent, at a $50 million price tag, and they have little interest in Johnny Damon unless he's willing to sign with New York at a bargain rate, which is highly unlikely.
That could mean going into next spring training with Bubba Crosby penciled in as the center fielder. That could mean Jaret Wright will be switched into middle relief, with the Yankees hoping that either Wright or Tanyon Sturtze or Scott Proctor develops into the needed frontline set-up man. That could mean "operating like Billy Beane runs the Athletics -- finding solutions in spring training, or during the season," says one club official.
After getting such surprising results from Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon last season, club officials feel better about taking chances like that. Right now, the team is not operating with the manic need to fill every roster spot with an ex-All-Star.
They've still got a deep wealth of talent, that lethal lineup of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui and the developing Cano, and whether or not they spend money this winter, the Yankees will still be in position to make midseason deals (for a Mike Cameron, for example).
But for once, the Yankees might actually pass on the compulsion to immediately fire back in their war against the Red Sox. They're trying to build and save their ammunition for another day.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is available in paperback and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.