October found the New York Yankees playing golf. November found them at a crossroads.
Whereas the Yankee dynasty of the late 90s was built through trades and careful management of the farm system, the Yankees of the 21st century have relied heavily on bloated free agent contracts. When November 2008 arrived, New York faced the free agency or retirement of several these expensive, now-aging players, and had to choose: keep spending big on a new crop of free agents, starting the cycle over again and paying a premium for talent that was at or past its prime, or start afresh with a young crop of talent.
Unfortunately, New York’s farm system largely made this choice for them. Keith Law ranked the Yankees 15th in his organizational rankings (that’s dead middle, in case you struggle with numbers), and wrote of them:
For the first time in several years, the Yankees’ system is light on impact talent, with major question marks on each of the top four prospects. The 2008 draft class doesn’t offer much hope — the Yankees’ first pick reversed course on them midsummer and decided to go to college; their third pick had a medical issue and didn’t agree to terms; and the resulting crop of players doesn’t offer much upside.
After the ’07 season, writing for Baseball Prospectus, Kevin Goldstein praised the Yankee system but noted that it was a little overly heavy on arms. What a difference a season makes, at least in the eyes of the Yanks and their fans — while Joba Chamberlain’s stock is still high, the same cannot be said of Ian Kennedy and Philip Hughes, two prospects who were highly anticipated but quickly fell from grace. And this year, the Yankees’ highest ranked prospect out of the Keith Law 100 doesn’t show up until #46, in the person of centerfielder Austin Jackson. And even that’s bad news, as Jackson was ranked #24 on the same list last year.
In short, New York had no choice but to spend.
And spend they did. But know this: for the Yankees, money is no object. For New York, money is not just a competitive advantage, it is the competitive advantage, just like the A’s have innovation and the Braves have scouting. For New York, money is also a secondary and tertiary competitive advantage, like Boston’s crack medical team. The fact is, as much money as the Red Sox or Mets or Tigers or 26 other teams have, they will eventually reach a limit. A point beyond which they cannot spend. That is, for all intents and purposes, just not true for the Yankees.
Big contracts are not albatrosses to them, even when players get hurt. No, when players get hurt, the real albatross is the roster spot (see: Pavano, Carl). So we can’t judge Yankee contracts by the standards of other teams. This should be crystal clear in this recessionary winter, when if a free agent wasn’t on the Yankees’ wishlist, he practically had a “50% off” sign around his neck (see: Lowe, Derek; Burrell, Pat; Ramirez, Manny; Dunn, Adam; etc.).
On the other hand, when the Yankees did get involved, a player’s price skyrocketed — especially in the case of CC Sabathia, where New York’s interest has been well-known for nearly a year, if not longer. In that case, they wound up bidding against themselves, having to top their own offer even though no other team had come close to matching it, because of the hefty ace’s known hesitance about moving to the Big Apple. Perhaps learning from this (as well as from the signing of AJ Burnett, another auction where they got involved early) the Yankees kept their pursuit of Mark Teixeira far below the radar. If New York had been a publicly known bidder throughout the battle for Tex, I don’t doubt that they could’ve ended up forking over the $200+ million uber-agent Scott Boras was originally asking for. And just because they could afford it doesn’t mean they want to pay it.
While New York’s pitching woes got the most attention this summer, they were actually rather easy to fix. First, the problems were easily identified: 1) placing too much of the burden on young pitchers who a) couldn’t be expected to throw anything close to 200 innings and b) would quite reasonably need some time to adjust to the big league hitters who quickly adjusted to them, and 2) a catastrophic and totally unpredictable injury to staff workhorse Chien Ming Wang. These are easy enough to rectify, and the Yankees have rectified them — by acquiring another 200+ innings ace in Sabathia and the talented-when-healthy AJ Burnett, as well as re-signing Andy Pettitte to offset the loss of Mike Mussina to retirement.
The issues with their offense, however, were more systemic and pervasive, and less easily solved. I am tempted to oversimplify these a bit and just chalk it up to a bad case of old-man-itis.
Despite a heated debate after last year’s Yankee HOA about just how old the Yankees really were, they were afflicted in ’08 by a rash of old-man problems. A hammy there, an oblique here, a rotator cuff over there. Up and down the Yankee lineup, there were guys who, suddenly, were only fit for DH duty (see: Matsui, Hideki and Giambi, Jason) or were trying to suck it up through injuries that probably should have landed them on the DL (see: Jeter, Derek and Damon, Johnny). Then there were the key lineup stalwarts who did spend time on the DL: Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada.
The hoary veterans put up solid numbers despite these aches and pains — all six of these players had OBPs well north of .350 — but they couldn’t take their spots in the lineup often enough, and the Yankee bench consisted of spare parts such as Wilson Betemit, Shelley Duncan, and Morgan Ensberg. And unfortunately, the team’s youngest regulars — Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera — had OBPs that just barely scraped .300. So New York ended up with the second-best OBP in the league, but could not push enough runs across the plate. One culprit: though they were fourth in the league in homers, they were 9th in homers with men on base. But before you blame this unforgivable lack of clutchness on A-Rod, here’s something to chew on: according to BP’s EqBRR stat (coincidentally, the sound I make when I take the dog out to pee on a cold February morning) almost the entire Yankee team was about average or just below average on the basepaths — with the sole exception of A-Rod.
The other symptom of old-man-itis is, of course: defense. Specifically, a lack of it: the Yankees came in 25th out of all 30 teams in defensive efficiency. Derek Jeter, it’s a well-known fact, hasn’t been able to go left for years. Well, he can’t really go right, anymore, either. And Alex Rodriguez, unfortunately, spent a lot of good defensive years struggling to adjust to third base, and is now approaching the age when his range will decline. Cano’s glove is also suspect. And there goes your whole left infield. (Sorry, Chien Ming.) At least now first base will be anchored by the sturdy and golden gloved Teixeira, rather than the rickety and rangeless Giambi.
In the outfield, the Yankees suffered from the continued defensive decline of Bobby Abreu in right and injuries that left Johnny Damon better suited to left field than to center. This meant that for much of the year, they had to put up with Melky Cabrera’s bat to get his glove. (He was said to be improving his plate discipline over the winter. We’ll see.) The July trade for Xavier Nady helped them in this regard, and should pay more dividends this year, as will the addition of Nick Swisher. (Damon’s weaker arm actually means moving him to left permanently could be a blessing.)
So, while I don’t think New York’s strategy is the best — even with their mega-acquisitions, they’ll have a tough time beating out Tampa’s young talent and Boston’s depth — I do think it’s the one that made the most sense for them, at this juncture. But if they want to get out of this vicious cycle, they’ll need to continue to focus on their player scouting and development. And, like, get their draft picks to sign next year.
Added: Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett, Nick Swisher, Kevin Cash
Lost: Mike Mussina, Bobby Abreu, Darrell Rasner, Wilson Betemit, Carl Pavano, Sidney Ponson
Projected rotation and closer:
SP1: CC Sabathia
SP2: Chien Ming Wang
SP3: AJ Burnett
SP4: Andy Pettitte
SP5: Joba Chamberlain/Phil Hughes
CL: Mariano Rivera
LF: Johnny Damon
SS: Derek Jeter
1B: Mark Teixeira
3B: Alex Rodriguez
DH: Hideki Matsui
C: Jorge Posada
RF: Xavier Nady
CF: Nick Swisher
2B: Robinson Cano
There is really only one major quibble I have with what NY has done here. I don’t know why they felt the need to acquire AJ Burnett after they snagged CC Sabathia — it seems like gilding the lily, or inventing the Bacon Explosion. But then again, if you have unlimited money, why not gild the crap out of that lily? (Sure, if you applied this to interior decorating, your house would end up looking like this. But remember: only poor people have “taste.”)
In the end, all you have to do is look at the players New York is losing and the players they’re adding to know that this was a good winter for the Yanks. But I’m docking them a few points. I’m counting their depleted farm system against them, and I would’ve liked to see the Yankees pick up a defensively solid infielder to back up A-Rod and Jeter, and just generally focus more on creating more depth and defensive capability throughout their lineup. Their sudden urge to trade Xavier Nady once they acquired Swisher seemed like a failure to recognize that this great team they’ve built is strong, but very brittle. One or two tough injuries could leave them with holes they can’t fill — especially since their millions won’t be of much use at the trade deadline.