The Yankees are in trouble. Sort of. Back on August 1, they were 6.5 games ahead of both Tampa Bay and Baltimore, and seemingly cruising to another American League East title. Things have not gone well with respect to the standings for the Yankees — while they played just over .500 ball in August, both the Orioles and Rays got very hot. After last night’s loss at Camden Yards, New York is tied with Baltimore for first and only two games up on Tampa Bay. Fans and Yankees-aligned bloggers understandably are getting antsy.
According to Cool Standings, things aren’t that much different today than they were at the beginning of August. On August 1, Cool Standings gave the Yankees about a 92 percent chance of making the playoffs. Today, Cool Standings puts the Yankees chances of making the playoffs at “only” 79 percent. This is not to dismiss the incentive to win the division rather than get stuck in the new one-game wild card playoff – it’s to point out that the Yankees are quite unlikely to miss the playoffs.
This has not dissuaded some from taking the Yankees’ faltering hold on the division as an opportunity to severely criticize the teams’ moves of recent years, and see this as the bill coming due for expensive contracts for aging players. However, how much criticism is warranted of a team that is simply paying for services rendered?
I often get bogged down in qualifications before I ever get to the meat of my post, so I will try and keep them brief. I am not going to take the increasingly fashionable path of (correctly) noting that “there is a ton of stuff we don’t know” and thus concluding that we should refrain from criticizing a team’s moves. I’ve discussed my problems with that line of thinking elsewhere.
Nor am I going to defend specific moves at length, or argue that Brian Cashman and the Yankees front office have been taking the most optimal path the last few years. This is not because I think it’s out of bounds, but because I want to focus on something else.
It is true that the Yankees are old. Of their current regular position players, only Russell Martin and Robinson Cano began the season under 30-years-old, and they were each 29. Their only two reliable starting pitchers, CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda, were 31 and 37, respectively. The coming (non-) positional collision due to health, age, defensive ability between Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Mark Teixeira will be the subject of much rubbernecking, given the money each are guaranteed. Mariano Rivera is not a sure thing to come back as his old self at his age. The list goes on. They may make the playoffs this year, so the argument goes, but the future looks ugly.
Indeed it might get very ugly, depending on whether or not the Yankees decide to match the Dodgers’ new spending ways, take the gloves off, and make it rain. (How is that for mixed metaphors?) There are many good posts still to be written on how the new influx of cash into the MLB, amateur spending limits, and the decreasing number of players making it to free agency in their primes (due to signing contracts prior to free agency) will change the landscape of baseball. This could change the winning strategies for both small and big market teams. This is not one of those posts, however.
Again: yes the Yankees are old. No, they aren’t as good as they have been in once years.Yes, they really have an incentive to win the divsion (as opposed to just the wildcard) this year. No, they probably weren’t as good as their record and divisional lead suggested earlier this season. Yes, they’ve also had good luck: Jeter’s weird resurgence, Kuroda being awesome after switching to the harder league at 37, Eric Chavez?!?!?. And most of it has countered the bad luck: mostly injuries to older guys, but also Brett Gardner, more-rapid than expected declines from guys like Mark Teixeira. However, I am not here to make excuses for the Yankees’ front office.
Rather, in what is perhaps a sign of my age (generously interpreted as “maturity,” although it may just be that I’m tired and boring), I think a bit of perspective is in order. The only season in which the Yankees have missed the playoffs since 1995 was 2008, and the following year they won the World Series. This is not to point out that certain Yankees bloggers, like their fans, have been “too greedy” or something. As fans, it is their job to want to win every year. But as analysts, this need to be able to rewind themselves, so to speak, and think about where the team has been and what it should have done.
Let’s somewhat arbitrarily set the starting point of most recent period of the Brian Cashman era at the 2008-2009 offseason. That was the off-season after which the Yankees had missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993 (there were no playoffs in 1994). The Yankees got a big makeover, with Mark Teixeira taking over at first base, and CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett joining the rotation. Among other things, the team also made a stunning trade with the White Sox that sent a pu-pu platter to Chicago for Nick Swisher. That team went on to win the World Series.
I suppose the complaint, then, is that the Yankees should have built a team for sustained success, and that means getting younger and cheaper. Without rehearsing every move since the 2009 World Series, it is true that the team hasn’t exactly had a youth movement. They did try to make some moves in that direction, even if some those moves did not pan out quite as well as hoped.
The team let go World Series heroes Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui to decline somewhere else, Joba Chamberlain (remember him) and Phil Hughes were given shots to contribute, and, despite a certain faction of the internet (whom I will leave nameless because I’m such a nice person) insisting that there was no way he was an everyday player, made Brett Gardner one of their starting outfielders, which he did with great success prior to his year’s injury. (I’m sure the response will be that no one could have seen Gardner being as good as he was. Yeah, who could possibly have imagined that?)
Still, the Yankees were generally an old team that was getting older, something that is brought into relief by the 2012 team generously featuring a number of zombies: Chavez, Raul Ibanez, Andruw Jones, and, of course, Ichiro! Most of their playing time is due to injury, especially Gardner’s, but an older team is going to roll the dice with that, anyway.
Back to the earlier narrative. After a World Series with a cast of stars, it obviously would have been weird for the Yankees to go back to the drawing board. Prior to the 2010 season, Cool standings favored the Yankees be go back the playoffs, even at their age. And they did. They were favored to do so in 2011, and they did. They were favored this year, and, yes, it looks like they will, barring an utter collapse. (I am assuming everyone here knows that the playoffs are a virtual crapshoot, and thus, criticizing a front office for how far the team actually gets in the playoffs is pretty silly.)
The point that I am getting to in a rather roundabout way is that looking at their position each off-season, it is easy to see, from the Yankees’ perspective, why they hardly thought that big changes were needed. I do understand the argument that if the Yankees are not going to spend like crazy, they should be getting younger faster. I am not arguing that one flag in 2009 excuses any other moves that are made for some period. My point is simply that every year, the Yankees have had good reason to think that they were going to have a great shot at the playoffs. Yes, players decline as they age, and the Yankees have a lot of old players. But the “objective” projections never saw that cumulative decline adding up to the Yankees not making the playoffs, and that continues to be borne out in reality.
That is not to say that the Yankees could not have gotten younger and still gone to the playoffs. But it’s at least somewhat incumbent on the critics to give some suggestions along those lines. Is any team in recent years (prior the the insane Dodgers moves) going to give the Yankees a return that is immediately useful for the playoffs for A-Rod’s contract? Jeter’s? Teixeira’s? Whatever crunches are coming up, those are the Yankees current best options, even if they are overpaid. Yeah, Ichiro is terrible, but exactly what were the Yankees going to send to Cleveland for Shin-Soo Choo?
Eventually, Cashman and the Yankees will probably have to pay the piper. That does not necessarily mean that at some point they are headed for another horrific run like the franchise had in the 1980s. But at some point, the older players with immovable contracts are going to make it difficult to work in whatever younger players the Yankees might want to integrate into the team through their farm system or free agency. Trades are going to be tough. There are legitimate criticisms to be made of decisions the Yankees have made. However, just generally insisting that the team should “get younger” or start working from more sustainable model rings more than a bit hollow when the team fulfills projections of making the playoffs every year — which is, after all, the ultimate goal of this game. Why should they bite the bullet now?