Yet in a drama-filled season in which the Yankees celebrated Derek Jeter's 3,000th hit and Mariano Rivera's 602nd save and watched Jorge Posada's decline, it was the surprise pitching of Ivan Nova, Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia that helped push the $200 million behemoth in the Bronx to the best record in the league (97-65).
"Our pitchers threw as well as they could this year," manager Joe Girardi said Thursday night after a 3-2 loss to Detroit in Game 5 of division series. "Going into spring training, all the question marks. They pitched their hearts out."
Problem was Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and a Yankees lineup that hit a major league-leading 222 homers this season came up empty time and again in the deciding game against the Detroit Tigers, sending New York to an early exit from the postseason.
"I personally share in our fans' disappointment that this season has ended without a championship. That is, and always will be, our singular goal every season," Yankees co-chairman Hal Steinbrenner said in a statement. "I assure you that this disappointment will strengthen our resolve to field a team in 2012 that can bring a 28th championship to the Bronx. That work starts now."
With a lineup led by MVP candidates Robinson Cano and Granderson and a stingy bullpen, the Yankees' first order of business will certainly be their rotation, one that could be missing Sabathia.
Sabathia can opt out of his 7-year, $161 million contract by the third day after the end of the World Series.
With both a potent offense that hit a major league-leading 222 homers and a stingy bullpen that will likely remain intact, the Yankees' chances of repeating as division champions -- and going deeper than the first round in the postseason -- could depend on their starting five.
And they may have to do it without their ace: Sabathia can opt out of his 7-year, $161 million contract by the third day after the end of the World Series.
Sabathia was noncommittal in a somber clubhouse late Thursday after he made his first career relief appearance as the Yankees washed out in the first round, the burly left-hander's earliest exit from the postseason in his three years in New York.
"I haven't made any decisions," Sabathia said. "I love it here. There's nothing like pitching in pinstripes. There's nothing like pitching in front of the fans in the Bronx. I've had a great experience."
With C.J. Wilson, Mark Buehrle and Edwin Jackson leading a weak free-agent market for pitchers, the Yankees will likely lock up the 31-year-old Sabathia (19-8, 3.00 ERA) for several more years on top of the four years and $92 million that remains on his current contract.
"I can continue to promise that the owners will continue to put us in an opportunity to have success or failure in the postseason," general manager Brian Cashman said. "The bar is set high and it's high for a reason."
Cashman's contract is up at the end of the month and he says he'd liked to remain in the job he has held since 1998.
Should Cashman stay, he'll also have to make a decision on the 40-year-old Posada, whose four-year contract is up.
The Core Four member pulled himself out of the lineup in May and lost his starting job late in the season when top prospect Jesus Montero was called up. He rebounded nicely against Detroit going 6 for 14 and started all five games as the designated hitter.
Posada wasn't ready to think about his future after the Yankees' loss Thursday, cutting his interview short when he became teary eyed.
"I don't know what's going to happen," Posada said. "I really can't answer that right now."
The Yankees closed their clubhouse to media Friday because they said players don't usually show up to clean out their lockers the day after the season ends. Several stars, however, were photographed driving away from the stadium.
"Unfortunately we're going to have to deal with all this stuff a lot sooner than we thought," Cashman said, sitting on a couch in the clubhouse.
The 35-year-old Garcia and 38-year-old Colon were invited to spring training on minor league contracts with little expectations. They both ended up playing big roles while Phil Hughes followed up his 18-win season by making only 14 starts because of arm trouble that caused a drop in his velocity.
Garcia and Colon are both free agents.
A.J. Burnett had another troubling season -- his 5.15 ERA was third worst among all qualifying pitchers -- although he pitched well in start against the Tigers in Game 4.
Nova was the biggest surprise of all. Despite having spent most of July in the minors his 16 wins led all rookies and the Yankees won his final 12 starts in the regular season. But he left his start Thursday with a strained right forearm. An MRI exam revealed a Grade 1 flexor strain. The Yankees said Friday the injury is expected to heal without complications.
In the bullpen, Dave Robertson emerged as an All-Star setup man. Rafael Soriano had a strong September after getting off to a rocky start and spending time on the DL, and has the option to terminate his contract for 2012. He will likely stay because the free-agent market for closers is flush this year.
Granderson had a standout season with 41 homers and 119 RBIs, Brett Gardner proved he was a solid, everyday big league left fielder and Jeter quieted a storm of criticism with a second half that led to a .297 finish.
But if the Yankees are going to fulfill their yearly goal of World Series title or bust, they will need Rodriguez to prove his aging body is not in permanent decline and Teixeira to improve upon his career-worst .248 average.
Rodriguez needs to overcome the knee and thumb injuries that slowed him in the second half and left him a liability in the playoffs (2 for 18) and the Yankees' lineup soft in the middle. A-Rod hit less than 30 homers (16) for the first time since 1997.
"I've got a lot of work for me to do," Rodriguez said. "I've got to get my health back in order and I know exactly what I have to do to get back to help this team get back to the top."