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?