Yankee haters have had plenty of opportunities to engage in Schadenfreude in the last few years. The Bronx Bombers, a team that regards postseason success as a birthright, has become the biggest October underachiever. Since taking a three-games-to-none lead on the Boston Red Sox in 2004, the Yanks are 4-12 in the playoffs, and they haven't gotten out of the first round of the playoffs in each of the last three seasons. The coming months may bring Yankee haters even more glee. As the season wears on, it's looking less likely that the Yanks will even make the playoffs, much less win if they get there.
As of Thursday afternoon, they were 26-27, and mired in last place in their division, but that isn't half the story. Any Yankee fan worth their pin-striped bobble head dolls will remind you that the Yanks started 21-29 last season then pulled it together and went 73-39 the rest of the way. And so far this season, the team has often played without its two best players, catcher Jorge Posada and third baseman Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod recently returned after missing a few weeks with a leg injury. Posada is slated to return this weekend from a shoulder injury.
The importance of those two players is hard to understate; Joe Sheehan, one of the best analysts at the baseball think tank Web site Baseball Prospectus said in a recent chat that the Yanks last year were a .500 team, plus two of the five best players in the American League. Without those two players, the Yanks have indeed been just a .500 team, but I think the problems facing the Yankees are deeper than that. Let's look at the big picture.
For Yankees haters, the team's last dynastic run, when they won four World Series in five years, was a monolith, but Yankees fans typically see the team in two segments, the early years and the later titles. The 1996 and 1998 teams, which were built around four home-grown all stars: shortstop Derek Jeter, centerfielder Bernie Williams, starting pitcher Andy Petite and relief pitcher Mariano Rivera, plus a motley crew of solid but unspectacular players acquired on the relative cheap from other teams. Third baseman Scott Brosius fits into that category along with first baseman Tino Martinez, right fielder Paul O'Neill, starting pitchers David Cone and David Wells.
In the spring of 1999, the Yanks traded for pitcher Roger Clemens and signed him to a big contract. From there the Yanks began to transition into a roster that looked more like their worst stereotype, a filthy rich team intent on buying all the best talent. After Clemens, a parade of all stars or former all stars joined the fold: Mike Mussina, Jason Giambi, Raul Mondesi, Hideki Matsui, Gary Sheffield, Johnny Damon, Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, Bobby Abreu. The Yanks no longer looked like a baseball team but rather a fantasy league team in real life.
During the late '90s, I used to enjoy matching wits with baseball fans who said that the Yankees financial resources gave them an unfair advantage. The Yanks payroll did lead the league back then, but it was about $110 million -$120 million. I crunched some numbers to show that most teams could afford a payroll in the $100 million range if they were inclined. By 2004, the Yankee payroll had swollen to more than $200 million. I gave up.
They not only had an unfair advantage, but they were using it ruthlessly. However, that unfair financial advantage failed to translate into championships. In 2003, a Florida Marlins team with a largely home-grown roster and a payroll barely a quarter the size of the Yanks beat them in the World Series. In recent years it has become something of an October tradition that some largely home-grown team full of young, flame-throwing pitchers shows the Yanks the door.
The Yankee roster is aging (32-year-old A-Rod is the third youngest Yankee regular), so the team is taking a different direction. Rather than trade their most heralded young players for top pitcher Johan Santana this fall, they are trying to recapture the spirit of the '96-'98 teams and build with home-grown talent.
It's an admirable goal, but there is one major problem—the current core of young Yankees, second baseman Robinson Cano, starting pitcher Chien-Ming Wang, centerfielder Melky Cabrera and relief—and soon to be starting—pitcher Joba Chamberlain are nowhere near as talented as the core from which the Yankees built their late '90s empire. That core would be larger but the Yankees forfeited several draft picks earlier this decade during their free agent spending spree, and in general the team doesn't select very high in the first round. That is in stark contrast to the mid '90s core which was drafted in the years following the Yanks' four straight losing seasons, 1989-1992.
The Yankees are in a way, victims of their own success, and in a way they are victims of the '03 Marlins success. Hare-brained management in Florida decided not to keep that team together (though the talent development machine in Florida is so strong that they keep winning in years that they are supposed to be rebuilding), but most teams following their model of developing good young players are signing those players to long term contracts, which ensures that the Indians, Rays and Tigers will be quality teams in years to come, and it severely diminishes the amount of talent on the free agent market, a prime source of Yankee roster building.
The Yankees are probably on a wise path, but this year and the next season or two ahead may qualify as transitional pains. There is more talent in the Yankees' system, most notably, pitchers Philip Hughes and Ian Kennedy, but they will need time to find their major league sea legs. Meanwhile with an aging roster, a young and an insufficient supply of young players to replace them, a couple of 84-78 seasons loom.
The Yanks may need to manage expectations, something that is probably not in the Yankee repertoire. But if they don't, they could turn into the soap opera that characterized the team in the early '80s, and the Yankee hater's Schadenfreude will turn to loud, derisive laughter.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.