Now, the Hard Part for the Yankees
The 2013 season has ended uncharacteristically early for the Yankees. Since 1995, the team has played October baseball 17 times. The only miss before this season was in 2008.
Well, this year may be the beginning of a new streak, one many fans aren’t familiar with: one where the Yankees are irrelevant to the postseason for a decade or longer. It’s happened twice in my lifetime. There was a 13 year drought from 1965 – 1976 and then a 15 year absence from 1981-1995. But for a fan under 30, odds are they don’t remember those periods of futility. They are as remote to their experience as the days of Honus Wagner and Babe Ruth. To them, I can only say: “Buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
2013 is the season in which age finally caught up to the team. Baseball is a young man’s game, and trying to remain competitive when you’re starting line-up features 6 players over the age of 33 was going to be an adventure. That five of the six suffered serious injury isn’t a huge surprise. That the sixth, RF Ichiro Suzuki, played 148 games this year should be. 2014 will probably be the season when age and the salary cap finally sink the team. Ownership has repeatedly announced they plan to drop payroll below $187 million, a drop of $40 million from this season. Of that, about $93 million is already committed to a handful of players. That leaves precious little to shore up a team that is going to lose some key players, has two key contributors entering free agency and not much in the farm system. Let’s take a look at the internal options for next year – and what can reasonably be expected.
IF: Returning – 1B Mark Teixeira, SS Derek Jeter, SS Eduardo Nunez, UT Jayson Nix, C Chris Stewart, C Francisco Cervelli, C Austin Romine
Free Agents – 1B/3B Kevin Youkilis, 1B/3B Mark Reynolds, 1B Lyle Overbay, 1B Travis Hafner, 2B Robinson Cano
Limbo – 3B Alex Rodriguez
In the minors – 2B/3B David Adams, C JR Murphy, 1B Corban Joseph, C Gary Sanchez, 3B/OF Ronnier Mustelier
When you feature three shortstops on your major league roster, you realistically don’t have any. For a team that featured a future Hall-of-Famer at the position since 1996, it’s a strange place to be. Yet the Yankees would be insane if they think Jeter can be an everyday shortstop at age 40, especially coming off a season in which he never healed from a season ending injury in 2012. Do the Yanks stand pat, praying that the talented, but erratic Nunez can blossom while Jeter plays perhaps 30-40 games in the field? Equally concerning is the situation at third, where the safe bet is that PED King Alex Rodriguez will serve most, if not all, of his record 211 game suspension. He didn’t look like a major league caliber fielder during his abbreviated stint this season and the options behind him aren’t terrific. First appears set with the return of Mark Teixeira, but how effective will the 34 year old be coming off major wrist surgery?
But the biggest question of all is what to do about Cano. The guy is talented, but he’s always lacked the inner drive that transforms talent into greatness (ever watch him run out a ground ball or routine double?). He often looks bored and tends to press when the team needs him most. Still, without him the Yankees could face a total power outage in 2014 and beyond. Reports today have him asking for a 10 year, $310 million contract. Given their financial commitments, there’s no way the Bronx Bombers resign him at anything close to that price. But they really don’t have any options at second base, They could get a decent second sacker in free agency, but there aren’t any of Cano’s caliber, or even any viable long term solutions available.
OF: Returning – CF Brett Gardner, LF Alfonso Soriano, RF Ichiro Suzuki, OF Vernon Wells
Free Agents – OF Curtis Granderson
In the minors – LF Zoilo Almonte, CF Melky Mesa, OF Mason Williams, OF Slade Heathcott, OF/IF Addison Maruszak
The outfield could actually be okay next year, provided Soriano and Ichiro don’t break down. Gardner is never going to be a stud outfielder, but does possess speed and a great glove. Wells is a waste of a roster spot at this point, while Almonte showed signs of being at least a quality fourth outfielder in limited duty.
SP: Returning – LHP CC Sabathia, RHP Ivan Nova, RHP David Phelps
Free Agents/Retired – RHP Phil Hughes, RHP Hiroki Kuroda, LHP Andy Pettitte
In the minors – LHP VIdal Nuno, RHP Michael Pineda, LHP Manny Banuelos, LHP Nik Turley
This could be the worst starting rotation in baseball next season. No, really – I’m not joking. The team is losing three members from this year’s rather mediocre staff (unless GM Brian Cashman has aneurysm and resigns Hughes). That leaves an aging and increasingly ineffective CC Sabathia as the lone proven quantity. Ivan Nova has shown flashes, but not consistency. Phelps will probably develop into a reliable back-of-the-rotation pitcher. Adam Warren probably earned a shot at a starting spot with his strong effort out of the bullpen. Barring a free agent signing, that means the Yanks will hope that Pineda, Nuno or Banuelos can come back from injury plagued seasons and turn their talent into major league performance.
RP: Returning – RHP David Robertson, RHP Preston Claiborne, RHP Shawn Kelly, LHP Boone Logan, RHP Adam Warren, LHP David Huff
Free Agents/Retiring – RHP Mariano Rivera, RHP Joba Chamberlain
In the minors – LHP Cesar Cabral, RHP Dellin Betances, RHP Brett Marshall
This was the strongest unit for the Yanks in 2013 and looks to be again in 2014. Of course, replacing Mariano Rivera is impossible, but David Robertson should be more than adequate as the closer. The setup corps will suffer from the promotion of Robertson and the likely move of Warren to the rotation, but adding Cabral (who has looked good as a LOOGY) and Betances should be adequate. Chamberlain is addition through subtraction at this point.
The New Yankees: Just like the 1965 Yankees
Ok, so it’s the weekend. Time to take a break from the serious stuff. Time to kick back, relax, drink a cold adult beverage and do something just for fun.
For me, that’s always meant baseball. These days, decrepit knees and faltering eyesight have ended what was once an almost promising career in an over-35 league. (We won’t talk about my misadventures on the field before I turned 35, either). Suffice it to say while my play has never reminded anyone of a major leaguer, I always enjoyed the game. These days, part of my summer routine is to put my feet up and watch my favorite team: the New York Yankees.
I’ve been a fan since the original bad old days, when Ron Blomberg and Fred Stanley were mainstays. I cheered when the team was great, suffered again when they got really bad and jumped for joy when they returned to the pinnacle. These days, turning on a Yankees game is almost a rite of self-immolation. Has the circle turned yet again?
In a word, yes. Last year’s team won their division. This year’s squad will be lucky to finish with an even record. What happened? Sadly, nothing a seasoned fan hasn’t seen coming for a couple of years now. Age, injuries and a depleted farm system have resulted in the current roster of cast-offs, has-beens and never-weres.
Age: Baseball is a young man’s game. Players once were considered on the downside of his career by the time they turned 32. Then, steroids and amphetamines kept guys in their late 30’s playing better than their younger counterparts. Baseball has done a good job on getting the drugs out of the game and once again, players in their mid-30’s are not producing like they did 3 or 4 seasons prior. On the other hand, a rule of thumb is that (except for the occasional phenom) young players need 2 or 3 seasons to become solid contributors.
This is troubling for the Yankees. They field the majors oldest team, with an average age of 32. On most nights, they put 4 players on the field over 35. Three of the starting pitchers are 34 or older and the closer is 43. Toss in that three rookies are playing regularly, while another 4 are pitching regularly, and age is a big problem for the team.
Injuries: The Yankees have an all-star team on the disabled list. It includes players who have transcended the sport to become cultural icons in Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, the starting first baseman, starting center fielder and starting catcher, and the starting DH who was also supposed to be the primary backup at first and third base. It’s forced journeymen to play first base, shortstop, third base, catcher, DH and two outfield positions. The result is about what you would expect: going into play last night, the Yankees were next to last in the league in batting average and slugging percentage, last in total hits and doubles and in the bottom third in runs scored. The trends haven’t been positive, either: the team was second in runs scored in April, but dead last in June.
Farm System: The last time the Yankee farm system produced a solid position player was Robinson Cano, in 2005. That’s eight seasons since any Yankee farm hand has proven to be even a league average player. Necessity has forced the Yankees to play one rookie at third base, another about 30% of the time at catcher and they recently called up another to play left field. The combined batting average of those three is .211. Sadly, there isn’t a player in AAA or even AA that looks like a sure-fire major leaguer, either. There are hopes for three AA outfielders and a catcher in A ball, but those players are at least a year (and probably two) before being able to help the major league roster.
At least the pitching has fared better. The Yankees have had a pretty good crop of decent pitchers come up through the system, including mainstays Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Ivan Nova, David Robertson, Adam Warren, David Phelps and Preston Claiborne.
So how does all of this translate into the future? Not very well. Jeter is trying to come back from breaking the same ankle twice at age 39. He is a certain Hall-of-Famer once he retires, but few men have played shortstop at his age. Whether Jeter can remains to be seen; at this point he still hasn’t demonstrated the ability to even get through one game physically. Rodriguez, at 38, is trying to come back from a twice-repaired hip – the type of injury that ends most careers. Mark Teixeira and Kevin Youkilis’s seasons are officially over. Of all the injured starters, only Curtis Granderson has a reasonable shot at coming back at anywhere close to the type of player he was before breaking his wrist. Now toss in the fact that the Yankees management has committed to shed about $50 million in payroll next season, nearly 20% of the team’s current budget. It means the Yankees will likely be finding bargain basement players to man the left side of the infield, catcher, an outfield spot and three of the starting pitchers. Teixeira will be back, but nobody is expecting him to be anything like the player he was five seasons ago. It’s likely that Granderson will be let go in free agency – and there is uncertainty if Cano comes back. Everyone thinks he will be, but his current asking price is actually too rich for this version of Yankee brass.
No, this is looking like the start of another run of futility in the South Bronx. The only question is, how long will this one last?