It’s difficult to overstate the offensive dominance of the 2009 New York Yankees, a team assembled in that old-school Yankee way of buying the best players available, paying them what they were worth, sitting back and watching. The Yankees had missed the playoffs the year before, ending a ridiculous string of 13 postseason appearances. They responded by outscoring the next-most productive team by more than 30 runs, by posting the franchise’s best OPS since World War II, by hitting a then-franchise record 244 home runs and by winning 103 games – six more than any other team in baseball.
On Sept. 2 of that season, they thumped out 17 hits against eight – count ’em, eight – Baltimore pitchers. Johnny Damon had four of them. Alex Rodriguez drove in four runs. CC Sabathia held the Orioles to one run in seven innings. This 10-2 thrashing became the sixth of seven straight wins, pushed the Yankees’ lead in the American League East to 7 1/2 games, and was just another display of the kind of power that would eventually produce the franchise’s 27th World Series championship.
Which is a roundabout way of getting to how far they have fallen, and how difficult it could be to get back to heights which, not so long ago, were a yearly expectation in the Bronx.
This Sept. 2 – Monday night – the Yankees hosted Boston in a series between two franchises that will combine to spend more than $363 million in salaries this year, yet are just playing out the string. The Yankees managed four runs, the 17th time in the last 22 games they’ve scored that many or fewer. They lost, falling 9 1/2 games behind the Orioles, matching their largest deficit of the season. They entered play Wednesday five games out of the second wild-card spot. It’s likely they’ll miss the postseason in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1992-93.
But when might the Yankees be back? The team that took the field to support rookie starter Shane Greene Monday night included one player – catcher Francisco Cervelli – still in his 20s. The iconic shortstop, Derek Jeter, is retiring, and his replacement – be it the Rockies’ Troy Tulowitzki or Cubs’ Starlin Castro or someone else – hasn’t been identified yet. And that might not be the Yankees’ biggest issue in “rebuilding” – and when was the last time that word was used about this franchise?
Let’s look at the money the Yankees have committed for the future. This is, of course, a franchise that can spend its way out of most problems, and is still on pace to lead the AL in attendance. But the money here isn’t just dollars, rather what they represent. It’s the evaluation that the following players would help the Yankees achieve the only goal that matters to their fans, winning World Series.
Take catcher Brian McCann. On Opening Day next year, he’ll be 31. He is owed $68 million over the next four seasons. And his 2014 on-base percentage (.289), slugging percentage (.392) and OPS (.682) are all the lowest of his 10-year career.
Take first baseman Mark Teixeira. On Opening Day next year, he’ll be 34. He is owed $45 million over the next two seasons. And (not counting a 2013 that was almost completely lost to injury) his OBP and OPS have declined each season since 2009, settling in at .323 and .737. (An average AL first baseman this year has a .324 OBP and .735 OPS, and yet Teixeira will make $22.5 million for essentially the same production.)
Take, too, outfielder/designated hitter Carlos Beltran. He’ll be 37 when the Yankees open next season. He’s owed $30 million over the next two years. And his first season in pinstripes has been the worst of his 17-year major league career, with lows in batting average (.241) and OBP (.305) and an OPS (.725) he hasn’t seen since an injury-shortened 2000 season in Kansas City – 14 years and four teams ago.
On and on. Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury will receive nearly $127 million over the next six seasons, yet his production this year – his first with the Yankees – is below his averages in his career with the Red Sox. Monday night, the Yankees’ No. 3 hitter was Brett Gardner, a decent, homegrown value who will make $46 million over the next four seasons. But hitting third for the Yankees? Shouldn’t that be someone like Alex Rodriguez?
Oh, wait. Right. Rodriguez. His Biogenesis suspension ends after this year, and it wouldn’t seem to be in his DNA to just go away quietly. And that could be the Yankees’ most significant offensive (not to mention public relations) problem: what to do with a 39-year-old player owed $61 million from 2015-17 whose numbers from 2010-13 (.269/.351/.463) show a marked decline from the rest of his career (.305/.390/.576)?
So, get out the calculator. That’s $377 million committed to hitters who have contributed to a 2014 offense that is last in the AL in runs scored, on pace to score 642 for the year. The number of times the Yankees have failed to score 642 runs in a season over the past 40 years: Once.
This, by the way, does not even begin to deal with what the Yankees will do with their rotation, which could lose the only pitcher likely to crack the 150-inning barrier to free agency (Hiroki Kuroda) and which owes $48 million over the next two years to someone who managed just eight starts this year (Sabathia) and will need reassurances on the would-be ace (Masahiro Tanaka) because he hasn’t pitched since July 8 because of a partially torn ligament in his elbow. And it also doesn’t sort out who will close if David Robertson departs for free agency, though maybe Dellin Betances is ready for that role.
So where to turn? The minor-league system? The last position players the Yankees developed came from the 2005 draft, Gardner and outfielder Austin Jackson, now with the Mariners. That has not been the Yankees’ way, and it doesn’t figure to be now.
The Yankees haven’t had a losing season since 1992. They might not this season. But as they honor Jeter on his way to retirement, they may, also, be ushering out their old way of doing business. They are five years removed from their most recent World Series, but the current construction of the franchise begs the question: Are they closer to their last than they are to their next?