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Yankees' ALDS exit leaves future uncertain for three veteran cornerstones

NEW YORK - A few days after the World Series ends, the New York Yankees' 40-man roster will look quite different than it does now. Eight players will become free agents no later than Nov. 5, and the Yankees have a decision on a ninth: pick up a $12.5 million option or exercise a $2 million buyout.

Five of those eight free agents were trade deadline rentals and a sixth, Neil Walker, was a one-year addition signed in March, but it's the other three players whose uncertain futures push uncomfortable buttons in Yankees lore, for they are the elder statesmen: CC Sabathia, David Robertson, and Brett Gardner, the only three left from the Yankees' last World Series team in 2009.

Gardner is currently the longest-tenured Yankee, having been drafted in 2005 and made his major-league debut in pinstripes in 2008, and he's the only one with more than a 50/50 chance of returning, as he's the one with that contract option.

"Of course, I'd love to be back," Gardner said after the final game. "I don't want to stand here and say I don't want to play any more baseball or I'm done. My body feels great, I feel healthy and I've obviously enjoyed the last couple seasons here back in the playoffs."

That option may complicate things slightly, though, for Gardner. This year, his .236/.322/.368 slash line, 12 home runs and 45 RBI in 140 games were totals that were all down significantly from his 2017 totals, and he hit just .209 in the second half while being virtually benched the final few weeks of the season.

The Yankees don't have to worry about any tax implications when considering Gardner's future, as the buyout is already factored into the 2018 payroll total that should be under the threshold, but uncertainty about his role could force the issue. 

Still, Gardner is a true life-long Yankee, drafted in 2005 and only ever wearing pinstripes as a major-leaguer, so he's hopeful about keeping it that way.

"I've never played anywhere else and I've been here a long time, but we have a lot of talented young guys," Gardner said. "We'll see comes of it. My agent and I have a great relationship with the front office and I'm sure, when the time is right, we'll sit down and figure out what my future looks like."

As for Sabathia, he's right behind Gardner as the second longest-tenured Yankee and is a true free agent following the expiration of his one-year deal. At 38 and with a bad knee, Sabathia may seem closer to the retirement notion than Gardner, but he remains adamant that he wants to play in 2019 - which means that he, too, has considered ALDS Game 4 could be the coda of his brilliant decade-long act in the Bronx.

"Of course, I I've thought about it, but that's not a sad thing, it is what it is," CC said. "But hopefully I'll get a chance to pitch somewhere next year, and hopefully here because I love it here. This is a young team that has a lot of talent, and I'd love to be a part of seeing this thing through because it's going to go through. This is a very young team that's going to win a World Series, and I want to be a part of it."

If it is the end, though, Sabathia doesn't want his monumental achievements, including his 129 wins and 3.74 ERA, to be his only lasting memory of the last decade.

"A good teammate who cared about that guys a lot and pushed and was trying to win a championship every time out," CC said when asked how he wants to be remembered. "That's all you can ask for."

It doesn't seem like that'll be a worry.

"If I had to pick one word to describe CC, I'd say he's a warrior," Aaron judge said. "It doesn't matter how he's feeling or what's going on - he's going to out on that mound for you every five days, he's going to pick you up when you're down and he's going to be in your corner at all times. I've been blessed these past couple years to be around him and learn from him and see how he treats people. My first Spring Training when I came in, he acted like I'd known him for 10 years. That's something special."

As for Robertson, he's a mix of both Sabathia and Gardner; drafted in 2006, Robertson debuted in 2008 and was a Yankee through 2014 before joining the White Sox in free agency. He returned via trade last July and was happy to not only be back "home," but to be with an emerging team with a potential championship future.

"I definitely felt we had a good chance (at a 2018 championship)," Robertson said. "We've got a lot of talent in this clubhouse right now, and a lot of it is young talent that's only going to get better."

He, too, would like to stick around to see that through, but unlike CC, Robertson's intimation was that he was much more open to a more beneficial opportunity elsewhere, too. 

"Obviously, I'd like to think that (I'm part of the future), but I don't know what's going to happen the next few months," he said. "I'll wait and see what happens. That's the best I can tell you on that. I have to look out what's best for me."

The future is wide open for all three, but one thing is clear: whether or not any or all return, the trio has, even if just by virtue of 2009, left the franchise in a better state than the one they entered it in. 

"Man, a lot has changed in 11 years," Gardner reflected. "I think when I came up, it was much more of a veteran team, but we've seen somewhat of a youth movement here the last couple years. A lot of these position players are in their early-to-mid-20s with bright careers ahead of them…I think it's an exciting time to be a Yankees fan."