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Originally published September 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 5, 2008 at 7:36 PM

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Larry Stone

Yanks, M's share similar shortfall

The Yankees can do a little commiserating with the Mariners when they open a three-game series tonight at Safeco Field. Hold a chapter meeting...

Seattle Times baseball reporter

Today

Yankees @ Mariners, 7:10 p.m., FSN

The Yankees can do a little commiserating with the Mariners when they open a three-game series tonight at Safeco Field. Hold a chapter meeting of Under-Achievers Anonymous, perhaps.

Both teams opened the season with huge payrolls and playoff visions. Both have been major disappointments, undone by declining veterans and not-ready-for-prime-time kids. Each faces a stark winter re-evaluating the master plan.

Of course, this is not a perfect parallel. The Yankees' $200 million payroll puts the Mariners' piddly $118 million payout to shame. And while Seattle has been out of contention since May and is in the running for the worst record in baseball, the Yankees remain, with 22 games to go, on the outer fringes of the wild-card race.

"We're fighting for our lives," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman acknowledged Thursday in a phone interview from Tampa, where the Yankees lost to the Rays and then headed off on a late-night flight to Seattle.

Cashman travels infrequently with the Yankees, compared with other GMs, but he felt the need to be with them on this do-or-die nine-game trip. The fact that it happened to include Seattle, where he has been in the general-manager rumor mill from the day Bill Bavasi was fired, is merely coincidental.

Cashman won't address his future, which is as cloudy as that of the team he oversees. His three-year, $5.4 million contract is up at the end of the season, and Cashman has yet to commit to a Yankees future in 2009.

Nor has the team yet officially committed to the 41-year-old Cashman, under whose guidance the Yankees won World Series titles in 1998, '99 and 2000, lost the World Series in 2001 and 2003, and hasn't been back since.

The New York Post reported earlier this week that Hal and Hank Steinbrenner, the brothers who now operate the Yankees in lieu of father George's declining health, agree they want Cashman back in 2009.

However, Cashman figures to be in hot demand as a potential free-agent executive, and he may be ready for a new challenge. Besides Seattle, there will be a GM opening in Philadelphia, and possibly Washington, D.C., where Cashman attended college at Catholic University.

Eight years and counting without a trophy is an eternity in the Bronx. The heat on everyone in the Yankees organization will only grow if they miss the postseason for the first time since 1993.

Trailing Boston in the wild-card race by 7 ½ games, it's a longshot proposition for the Yankees to still be alive in October. But Cashman is clinging to the hope of picking up one game a week in the standings, and making their season-ending series with the Red Sox at Fenway Park mean something.

"Our attitude is stay positive and keep it simple," Cashman said. "If we win our games, we still control our own destiny. No one can keep us out if we slowly make up ground."

However, most people who have seen the Yankees every day believe they're dead and buried for 2008. As with the Mariners, it's been a multifaceted collapse.

Young pitchers like Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy were huge disappointments. Injuries to the likes of Chien-Ming Wang, Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui have been devastating. Outfielder Melky Cabrera and second baseman Robinson Cano have regressed. Even the sainted Derek Jeter has shown signs of wear and tear.

"The bottom line is, you're either championship-caliber or you're not," Cashman said. "If you're not, there's always various reasons."

Cashman, who convinced the Steinbrenners that letting Hughes and Kennedy grow into the rotation was better than using them as chips to get Johan Santana from Minnesota, has taken blame for the Yankees' rocky season.

"People were starting to get frustrated, and they wanted reasons why [the Yankees were struggling]," Cashman said. "Some were pretty obvious. But if people aren't interested in the obvious, and want a pound of flesh, I'll step up and be the pound of flesh."

With Alex Rodriguez back in the fold after signing a new 10-year, $275 million deal last winter, the Yankees' offense looked capable of scoring 900 runs. Instead, they are at 679 with less than a month to go.

Rodriguez has put up his usual impressive statistical package — a .315 average, 31 homers (bringing him to 549 in his career) and 90 runs batted in. His OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of .999 is exceeded in the American League only by Texas' Milton Bradley (1.031).

But, as usual, detractors love to point to Rodriguez's supposed struggles in the clutch, pointing at numbers like this: just seven RBI in 63 "late and close" at-bats (seventh inning or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck).

Cashman has only praise for Rodriguez, who has won two Most Valuable Player awards in four Yankees seasons, but has yet to get them into the World Series.

A-Rod's ultimate Yankees reputation depends on accomplishing that. Rodriguez knows it, just as Cashman knows that he probably won't have the luxury of a rebuilding program similar to the one that the Mariners seem prepared to embrace.

Already, Hank Steinbrenner has whispered about Yankees interest in potential free agents C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. The machine must be fed, even if the machine is broken.

"They [Hank and Hal] both inherited from their dad the thirst for another World Series title to add to the trophy case," Cashman said. "The New York scene is always about the pressure to win and get where you need to get.

"Very few organizations deal with that. The Dallas Cowboys have to be very similar. That runs on autopilot; it's a presence that's always there. And rightfully so. It's something that everyone takes very seriously."

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
lstone@seattletimes.com

UPDATE - 10:00 PM
Larry Stone: Young pitcher Michael Pineda offers glimpse of exciting future for Mariners

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