The Yankees are in trouble, and they have no one to blame by themselves. (Image: Derick E. Hingle, US Presswire)

The Yankees Are In Trouble and They Can Blame Themselves

Lately, it seems like we are living in some sort of alternate baseball universe, where the Dodgers are spending enough money to rival the gross domestic product of some small nations, while the Yankees scrimp and save every penny. The result? The loss of players like Russell Martin (to the Pirates?!!), Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones (to Japan, but still that’s beside the point). Meanwhile, unexpected spark-plug players like Raul Ibanez and Ichiro Suzuki wait in the wings, waiting for the financial dust to settle. Further, reports out of last week’s Winter Meetings in Nashville say that general manager Brian Cashman was telling agents that he didn’t have the authority to make deals without ownership approval, as Hal Steinbrenner’s determination to get below the $189 million luxury tax threshold. It’s clear that the Yankees are being more fiscally conservative. All of this news culminates in a veritable panic in Yankee-land over growing concerns about the team’s standstill thus far this offseason. And while YGY’s Matt Hunter may be right that the Yankees are in trouble, it doesn’t really have anything to do with the lack of movement on the free agent or trade front. The Yankees are in trouble for other reasons– and they have absolutely no one to blame but themselves.

I assume that everyone remembers that offseason after the 2008 season, when fans were screaming for Joe Girardi to be run out of town after failing to lead the team to the playoffs for the first time since the mid-1990’s, and Cashman was being excoriated for his lack of deal-making to help the team. What followed? An almost $300 million spending spree which served as an early Christmas present in the Bronx, bringing CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira to the Bronx, merely one season after ownership re-upped Alex Rodriguez to a $275 million deal. In case you’re keeping score that is over $500 million on three players alone – not to mention the money owed to Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, etc.; so round up to about $600-ish million, to be conservative for that 2009-2012 period. (Burnett did get traded, and Posada came off the books, but let’s use round numbers.)

Not a problem, especially considering the Yankees’ deep pockets, right? Financially, it’s not a problem. The Yankees can afford to go over $189 million mark, and have long-since held the payroll to be around $210 million. Additionally, there was a fresh infusion of cash earlier in the fall when a huge chunk of the YES Network was purchased by News Corp. (Moreover, if the Dodgers, who are a storied team but haven’t been relevant for years can spend like their printing $100 bills, the Yankees can, in theory, certainly keep pace with their massive and lucrative brand.) Money isn’t the problem. Similarly, failing to spend money isn’t the problem, either. The actual problem isn’t going to be fixed by spending $3 million on Chavez that I am sure can be found in a couch cushion on River Avenue.

The issue is that the Yankees have close to $500 million tied up in players who are all older than 31 years old, and have many of them locked up for at least four to five years. That championship the Yankees won in 2009? I sincerely hope everyone enjoyed that, and the spending spree before it. Because that behavior- that reactionary overspending- is exactly what got the Yankees into this mess. You simply cannot commit to such contracts when committed to getting below a self-imposed $189-million dollar cap, particularly when the AAV of each contract is so high, making the players absolutely untradeable (with approval, in cases of no-trade) as they move into more advanced age. Sure, they’ll still be able to tee off on bad pitching. Yes, they’ll be able to hit home runs. Absolutely, they will be able to have hot streaks. But increasingly, they’ll also be playing like they did in the 2012 ALDS – badly, slowly, with more strikeouts and more tired arms. There will be more pulled hammys that take forever to heal. In other words, the Yankees will endure all the things associated with older players that cause baseball teams to not play at a high level.

All of which begets an entirely new problem for the Yankees, which isn’t really a new problem at all: aging, expensive and performance-declining players. This isn’t a new development. Randy Johnson. The return of Roger Clemens. Kevin Brown. Gary Sheffield. The current production of Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira. Effectively, what the Yankees have done following the Dynasty Years, in an apparent attempt to regain their former glory from 1996-2000, was attempt to buy championships. And it failed, bringing them one championship from 2001 to 2012.

Why? The Yankees pay players in free agency at 30 years old for production of 25-28-year-olds, stats that are extremely unlikely to ever be produced again. And as those older players get even older, what does everyone think is going to happen? They’re going to get better? Wishful thinking. Age and workload is already taking tolls. Teixeira has been a disaster at the plate outside of belting 30-ish home runs with an abysmal batting average and a huge strikeout rate since 2010. Sabathia’s expensive left elbow is having bone spurs, barely one year into his current contract extension. A-Rod is now dealing with another torn hip labrum. Rivera is 43 and coming off an ACL tear, while Jeter is closing in on 40 and nursing a broken ankle. There is no promise that these players, who will likely be adversely slowed in their healing by their age, will return to full capacity, (even at their ages) due to these injuries. Two out of the five starters are over 36-years-old in Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda, and while they were great in 2012, you almost feel like the Yankees are playing with house money with their success. As a team, the Yankees are simply not as spry as the younger teams in the league, not as fast, or fresh, or really – the giant elephant in the room that everyone isn’t really saying – that good anymore.

That isn’t something spending $3 million on a bench-depth utility player is going to fix. That is a substantial problem, as the core around which the team is built is no longer among the best players at their respective positions, which is fine. This isn’t a fantasy league in which one can just draft the best player at each position. But the players they Yankees have now aren’t even the best versions of themselves, either. Unable to produce to the levels of the contracts they earn, or unable to produce sufficiently, period, the Yankees are an old team with expensive players, who are no longer capable of playing the best baseball they can. And that is why the Yankees are in trouble. Which is why they’re not re-signing Nick Swisher, and why there is merit to the argument of taking a step back on Robinson Cano when he becomes a free agent at the end of the 2013 season, or why trading away 40 home runs in Curtis Granderson for a package of young talent makes sense.

The holes the Yankees fill will likely be sorted out sooner rather than later. Brian Cashman is among the best GMs in the game, for reasons other than his ability to write a check (which seemingly has been cut off at this point), and Yankees fans should expect him to strengthen the team as much as possible. But the real weaknesses don’t lie in losing depth players, or failing to re-sign a particular player. The weakness is in the overall construction of the team. As we look ahead to the conclusion of the 2013 season, it will be interesting to see what the Yankees do. Will they stay the course, eschewing the old and trusted veterans for younger, cheaper options should Rivera and Pettitte choose to continue to play? Will the Yankees do something they’ve never done with Cano — let a home grown superstar simply walk away because of the years and dollars he’s asking for? Will this period of austerity signal a one-year change, or a new mentality of refusing to overpay for past performance in free agency, with a renewed focus on internal player development? All of these things remain to be seen, and it is hard to read the tea leaves. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Yankees are in trouble, all of their own doing, but this has nothing to do with the lack of action this off-season. The strategy — wooing big, expensive and aging free agent players  – is coming home to roost. While that 2009 championship was the immediate result, the lasting effect might be even worse — that championship team was the last for a good, long while.

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  • Thrills Seeker

    One another BIG reason for the position they find themselves in: player develpment and/or lack of talent in the minors. There seems to be no stars coming out of the minors to fill these slots. Why? No team can hope to maintain championship level anymore with just free agents. The core of the championship teams: Petite, Posada, Jeter, Rivers..all home grown. So where are the next generation catchers and outfielders? How about a star infielder in the making? Anyone at all? The Yankees got robbed of a big league bat in the Jesus Montero deal with a sore armed pitcher in return. And now the cupboard is bare. Someone has to be held responsible for the failure of their player development and it needs to get fixed ASAP or it’s going to be the 80′s all over again.

    • Chris_Carelli

      I get what you’re saying, but I disagree about the cupboard being bare. Unfortunately, the players they can hang their hat on will not be ready until probably 2015. Gary Sanchez is widely looked at as one of, if not the best, catching prospect in the game, which is why they ditched Montero, who is DH with a catcher’s mitt. And he showed last season he’s not exactly a sure thing with the bat. It’s hard to judge that deal now.

      The Yankees also have Mason Williams (#40) and Tyler Austin (#56) ranked in the top 100 MLB prospects by The Yankees have others in the system who could develop into something quicker than those guys – Slade Heathcott, David Adams, Angelo Gumbs and Zoilo Almonte to name a few. The Yankees have drafted well considering their position over the last couple seasons as well.

      I wish they had been more cognizant of the farm system earlier on so that they would not have had to invest in one-year contracts for 2013, and it will be just as difficult in 2014. It would have been great to have one or two home grown players ready for 2013, but they don’t (except may Austin Romine if he is given a chance to catch) so they’re trying to work their way into a better situation now. To the point of the article this is of their doing, but it looks to me like the farm is one part they are trying to fix.

    • Alex Pugliese

      In the Yankees defense, it was difficult to build up a farm team with ownership so focused on a “now” mentality. It’s hard to wait for those players to be ready to play at the big-league level– it’s a lot easier to trade unknowns for a known entity. But, to his credit, as he has gotten more control over baseball operations and development, Brian Cashman has been pretty tough about not trading chips (remember his desire to not trade Hughes for Santana in 2007, refusal to package Montero for anything other than Lee in 2010). I think that it is a process, and that process is still a ways off, but it is happening. We just have to be patient, which is something that Yankees fans aren’t accustomed to doing. Also- comparatively, baseball has money to spare, so other teams can go after free agents the way the Yankees always have. It is much more evenly matched across the sport than we think, which is why one team doesn’t dominate the way the Yankees did in the 1990′s anymore.

    • Alex Pugliese

      Also, thanks for reading!!

  • Phil Sausto

    If i recall, even with older players the Yankees won more games than any other AL over the past 2 years. I think there are a lot of teams that would take that record.

    • Chris_Carelli

      You’re totally right about that. Question remains, can they continue to to do it as they get older and older and the young crop is two-three years away?

      • Alex Pugliese

        Agreed. There will be a gap-year or two there, and it remains to see how they’ll weather it, especially since during that time, some important contracts will be up/time to think about extensions: Rivera, Jeter, Granderson, Cano, Hughes, to name a few.

        • Matt Hunter

          Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised, nor would I be upset, if the Yankees let all those names go. It might be time for a fresh start for the team. I can handle a few years of mediocrity in order to flush out those bad contracts and start building the team the right way. But that strategy depends on the success of certain players, Michael Pineda and Tyler Austin being the big ones I can think of right now.

          • Chris_Carelli

            Don’t hold your breath on Jeter and Cano.

          • Matt Hunter

            To leave you mean? I know. Cano wouldn’t be so bad, but depending on Jeter’s 2013 season, I feel pretty strongly that he should call it quits after next year. I just don’t see him providing much value at this age.

          • Chris_Carelli

            Yea, I meant leaving. I think they ink Cano and I have a feeling Jeter takes his 2014 option no matter how he plays in 2013.

          • Matt Hunter

            Oh right I forgot about Jeter’s option. Well, at least $8 million isn’t too much. Do you know how that works with the MADCap? Does he count as $8 mil or the AAV of the whole contract including the option?

          • Matt Hunter

            To answer my own question, it looks like player options are included in the AAV, but not team options or vesting options. So Jeter will count as about $15 mil for the MADCap, even though he’ll only be making $8 mil (if he takes the option)

          • Chris_Carelli

            Right, his option is actually $9.5 million now since he won the Silver Slugger. He can be a good soldier and refuse the option. Then sign a one-year deal for say $12 million, make more and lower the MADCap…Or if he has a good 2013, he’ll want and likely receive a multiyear deal with a lower AAV to close out his career.

  • woocane

    One can never count on championships. The spending spree got them the World Championship of 2009. The approach that Pugliese would have advocated might have led to zero.

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