In the winter of 2013, it appeared that the old Yankees were finally back. After years of payroll reduction, they were splurging in a way not seen since 2009, when their last free agent bonanza landed them a championship. One by one, big names migrated toward the Bronx: Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Masahiro Tanaka. The Yankees were loading up for a title run in the wake of a Boston championship, an injury felt so deeply by the Bronx faithful that another year of coasting by on an aging core would no longer do. But the 2014 Yankees failed miserably, betrayed by frayed arms and injured sluggers. They failed so badly, in fact, that the Yankees are now adrift, completely rudderless and unable to get out of the doldrums by making it rain.
Ignoring, for a moment, the circus surrounding the reappearance of Alex Rodriguez, the 2014 Yankees present the least captivating Yankees club in over twenty years. After Derek Jeter’s retirement, the Yankees lack a central star that represents the mystical “Yankee Way,” which is just polite way of describing sustained, boring excellence. Instead, the Yankees are banking on the return of the core that was miserable last year, a collection of aging batters and inconsistent stars who couldn’t hit if their lives depended on it.
On paper at least, the Yankees really don’t look all that bad - but paper can be deceiving. The Yankees are counting on players with long and recent histories of injuries to have resurgent seasons, with ancient players like Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran hogging the middle of the lineup. Bringing up the center of the infield is Stephen Drew and Didi Gregorious, players whose batting averages have hovered around the Mendoza line. Considering the Yankees had Robinson Cano and Jeter occupy those spaces for nine incredibly productive seasons, the decline in talent is palpable.
In a division that includes a rebuilt and quite scary Red Sox team, a stacked Blue Jays, and a pesky and youthful Orioles, this kind of roster simply won’t cut it. The Yankees have the pitching, especially their bullpen, and it wasn’t their arms that really failed them last year. The Yankees just couldn’t hit. So how many one or two-run losses will ownership accept before they begin to stomp around and try to buy their way out of it? Isn’t their a Steinbrenner somewhere still involved? What happened to the Evil Empire?
The fact of the matter is that the Yankees are no longer at the center of the baseball world. The baseball universe, of which the Yankees used to be the giant black hole at the center, has shifted beneath them with such alacrity as to leave the Yankees with empty seats, a weak product, and most embarrassing of all, outshone by the Red Sox.
A new generation of baseball owners has run circles around the Steinbrenner’s, armed with endless amounts of money and employing the smartest baseball minds around. While the Steinbrenner’s $3.1 billion fortune is nothing to sneeze at, it’s nothing compared to the amounts that the investment companies that control the Dodgers, Red Sox, and Chicago Cubs are willing to spend. To those organizations, the luxury tax truly means nothing. But to Hal Steinbrenner, who inherited the Yankees from his father, the luxury tax stings – the Yankees and Yankee-related businesses remain the Steinbrenner’s main source of wealth.
Instead of trying to outspend their competitors, the Yankees have adopted a “back to basics” campaign – trying to fix their horribly broken farm system. After years of shipping off prospects at the trade deadline for fading bats and arms, the Yankees have stopped salting their own earth and begun spending their money on player development. This off-season, the Yankees spent $15.5 million on signing ten out of the top thirty international prospects out there. While they embarrassingly missed out on Cuban prospect Yoan Moncada, the Yankees are betting big on their farm, a system that once produced such future Hall-of-Famers as Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Robinson Cano, not to mention very, very good players like Alfonso Soriano, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettite. Recently, the Yankees have produced a great reliever in Dellin Betances, but beyond that, the greatest farm system success story is Brett Gardner, which is not much of a success story at all.
Whether this farm system gambit will pan out or not is a matter of patience. With the losses mounting and the seats remaining empty, coupled with success by such long-time rivals as the Red Sox and Dodgers, will the Yankees really stick to the plan or revert to their old ways? And even if they wanted to become the free-spending juggernaut of yore, are their wallets even deep enough? Expect the New York Post to tackle these questions with splashy headlines.
As always there’s solace to be found in one consideration: They’re not the Mets. Yet.
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