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From 1996 to 2001, there was arguably no better team in baseball than the New York Yankees. The Yankees won four World Series titles and five American League pennants in that span. Now, they’re in danger of losing the core of that group.

Joe Torre, who managed those teams and whose contract as Yankees manager expired at the end of the 2007 season, rejected an extension worth upward of $8 million -- a base of $5 million with another $3 million in incentives. The team has said it is now moving forward without Torre.

Speculation on early candidates to replace Torre include bench coach Don Mattingly, a long-time favorite of both owner George Steinbrenner and Yankee fans, and Joe Girardi, who was a Yankee bench coach before winning the National League Manager of the Year Award in 2006 with the Florida Marlins. A potential candidate from outside the organization is Tony LaRussa, who has won two World Series championships.

With Torre may go three huge pieces of those great Yankee teams: starting pitcher Andy Pettitte, catcher Jorge Posada, and closer Mariano Rivera. The latter two are free agents, while Pettitte has a $16 million player option for 2008 or may even follow his close friend Roger Clemens into retirement.

All three are entwined in Yankee legend, having come up around the same time and establishing themselves as top-notch players. Pettitte has 35 postseason starts and has thrown 218.1 innings, both major league records. His ERA in those starts is a respectable 3.96. Posada is a career .277 hitter and finished this year with a .338 mark. Rivera has a 0.80 ERA and 8-1 record in the postseason as one of the most dominant closers in baseball history.

The team will do its best to retain the services of all three, but any one of the trio may feel as if the Yankees made a mistake by not bringing back Torre.

The team also has to make some fiscal choices concerning players involved with their more recent past: those acquired during their free-spending ways of the early 2000’s. Alex Rodriguez, the superstar third baseman with three years and potentially $91 million remaining on his contract, can opt out of his contract after the World Series. It is widely believed that his agent, Scott Boras, will steer Rodriguez to look for a new contract this offseason.

The Yankees also face a decision on what to do about right fielder Bobby Abreu. He has a $16 million club option for the 2008 season, which is a steep price for a hitter who only hit 16 home runs and put up a career worst .369 on base percentage.

If the older players are indeed heading out, there’s a new cast of young players ready to take over. Starting pitchers Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain has shown their potential at the major league level, while outfielder Melky Cabrera deserves an every day job as an outfielder.

The best course of action for the Yankees is to let Abreu and Rodriguez, if he opts out of his contract, leave via free agency and pick up the draft picks that would be awarded to them. Then, they need to make sure Pettitte, Posada, and Rivera will be members of their team for seasons to come. The farm system does not have enough depth to make up for the losses, while the free agent market this offseason does not feature any appetizing players.

It’s difficult to guess exactly what the Yankees are going to do this offseason. One thing is for certain, however: This offseason is going to go a long way toward determining whether or not the bridge to their better years has finally collapsed.