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Changes seem certain after Yanks' collapse

NEW YORK — Even before the Yankees lost the World Series last fall, George Steinbrenner was vowing to make major changes. Steinbrenner, the principal owner, poured still more cash into the team, and general manager Brian Cashman overhauled 60 percent of the roster. It did not work.

Steinbrenner, the man who said winning was second to breathing — second? — never expected to lose to the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series. There could have been no worse fate for the Yankees than that, except, perhaps, for the way the defeat played out: three victories followed by four losses, an unprecedented collapse in the history of postseason baseball.

So what now? Steinbrenner emphasized manager Joe Torre's role after losing Game 6, saying that the series was "in Joe Torre's hands."

It has been nearly a decade since Steinbrenner forced out a manager, but to do it now would mean to eat the $19.2 million he owes Torre through 2007.

Steinbrenner may be rash, but he understands Torre's power with the public. Steinbrenner knows that firing Torre, a certain Hall of Fame manager, would tarnish his legacy and leave Torre open to be hired by another team. It would seem highly unlikely.

Cashman may be more vulnerable. Last December, when Steinbrenner picked up Cashman's 2005 option worth more than $1 million, he did so in response to a newspaper article that said Cashman was miserable. Steinbrenner made the move without telling Cashman first.

That followed a year of Steinbrenner's antagonizing Cashman, who seemed to regain favor with his trade for Alex Rodriguez in February. But Steinbrenner shook up the staff at the team's training facility in Tampa, Fla., at various points this season, and he could shuffle the New York staff as well, making Cashman a scapegoat.

The Yankees suffered at the trading deadline because they did not have the prospects to land pitcher Randy Johnson from the Arizona Diamondbacks. They will enter this winter in the same predicament, with few — if any — young, inexpensive chips to deal.

Starter Javier Vazquez might draw interest, though he has three years left on a four-year, $45 million deal that seems well above market price. Center fielder Kenny Lofton will be a prime target to be traded, with one year left on his two-year, $6.2 million contract.

The Yankees almost certainly will spend wildly to win; Steinbrenner has shown no tendency to do otherwise. The obvious target is the Houston free agent Carlos Beltran, whose agent, Scott Boras, is widely expected to ask for more than $100 million. Such a demand would lead Beltran straight to Yankee Stadium, where another Boras client, Bernie Williams, would have to cede center field.

Signing Beltran and bumping Williams to designated hitter would put Jason Giambi in limbo. The Yankees were pleased with the play of first baseman John Olerud, who helped them in the field and did not hurt them at the plate. Olerud is a free agent and could return, but that would leave Giambi, Olerud and Williams to jockey for playing time.

Williams and Giambi have no-trade clauses and would be difficult to move, given their salaries and declining production. Williams is entering the final year of his contract, but the Yankees owe Giambi a staggering $82 million through 2008.

The Yankees have flexibility at second base, though Miguel Cairo, a pending free agent, did a solid job and earned the trust of Torre.

The team's most pressing issue is starting pitching. Mike Mussina will return, and after Jon Lieber's performance in the postseason, picking up his $8 million option looks reasonable. Vazquez probably will be back. Orlando Hernandez is a free agent who could return to add depth to the staff.

The tricky question is Kevin Brown, yet another Boras client with a no-trade clause. Brown is entering the final year of his seven-year, $105 million contract, and given his persistent health problems, he is unlikely to draw any trade interest.

Fortunately for the Yankees, the market is rich in free-agent starters. They could make a run at Boston's Pedro Martinez to indulge Steinbrenner's fascination with big-name stars. Other potential free-agent right-handers include Russ Ortiz of the Braves, Carl Pavano of the Marlins and Brad Radke of the Twins.

The Yankees might prefer a left-hander, because they did not have one this season. Two homegrown Yankees could be available as free agents.

The Yankees developed Eric Milton of the Phillies, trading him to the Twins in 1998 for Chuck Knoblauch, and they might try to sign him. They also developed Al Leiter, who is unsure if he will return to the Mets but wants to stay in New York. Leiter and the Mets have a mutual $10 million option.

Other old favorites will also be available as free agents, and Steinbrenner could push for a reunion with pitchers Roger Clemens or David Wells. They won championship rings with the Yankees, something no player has done for four years and counting.