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What Happened to the Yankees?

As we write the obituary for the Bronx Bombers' season, we have more questions than answers for their future

Turning the end of the Yankees’ season into a referendum on Alex Rodriguez is reductive. This is a team that suffered multiple major injuries to key players, yet still won 95 games and an AL East title before an ALCS loss to the team with the best pitcher and best hitter on earth.1 Rodriguez was hardly alone in his struggles as the Tigers swept the Yankees out of the playoffs, joining Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, and Nick Swisher to form a Voltron of playoff incompetence.

2013 and beyond are a different story. When asking, “What the hell do the Yankees do from here?” the answer starts with, “What the hell do the Yankees do with A-Rod?”

Counting a few huge contracts, a smattering of buyouts, and A.J. Burnett, the Yankees owe about $119 million for next season. That’s $119 million for five players, with A-Rod leading the way at $28 million. Add up options certain (Cano at $15 million) or likely (Granderson at $13 million) to get picked up and you’re at $147 million. Pile on likely arbitration awards (Phil Hughes, Brett Gardner, David Robertson, maybe others) and you’re inching closer to the high end of the Yankees’ payroll tolerance — with less than half the roster filled, several gaping holes in the lineup, an unsettled rotation, and questions swirling around many of the 2012 holdovers.

What the Yankees need to do, when everything dies down and the story stops revolving around frivolous sideshows like the old flip-the-ball-to-attractive-lady-and-exchange-numbers trick,2 is figure out how much A-Rod has left in the tank. On July 24, he was hitting .276/.358/.449, a far cry from the A-Rod of old, but still well-above-average numbers for a starting third baseman. Then he broke his left hand after getting hit by a pitch. When he returned, his power was gone: In his final 28 regular-season games, Rodriguez hit just .261/.341/.369, with six extra-base hits in 111 at-bats. His 0-for-18 playoff streak (with 12 strikeouts) against right-handed pitchers is an extension of that September swoon. Does that mean Rodriguez’s nosedive was a function of small-sample-size variance? His hand still bothering him? Rust and disrupted timing from being out that long? Or is this just Alex Rodriguez, 37-year-old former superstar who can’t catch up to good fastballs anymore and never will again? It’s been a decline several years in the making, with A-Rod’s slugging dropping every year since 2007. Watching him repeatedly swing through high heat this year, you have to wonder if his skills erosion is accelerating, and if it’s a bigger factor than a few weeks on the DL.

Joe Girardi has taken his share of heat for the Yankees’ offensive failures during this year’s playoffs. Some of these moves were reasonably defensible: Eric Chavez couldn’t hit a lick in the playoffs, but A-Rod had been helpless against right-handers for weeks, couldn’t hit a fastball, and was facing a staff full of right-handers with really good fastballs. Some were less so: Curtis Granderson might have looked completely lost at the plate throughout October, but you’re not solving any problems by opting for a terribly rusty, probably-less-than-100-percent Gardner instead. At any rate, when bona fide superstars like Cano can’t hit a lick, you lose Jeter, and the team as a whole collectively falls into a coma, no amount of tinkering will likely help all that much. A critic might reasonably ask if a manager’s job is to ensure his team doesn’t lose consciousness. But these things happen occasionally. Girardi hurts himself when he occasionally falls back on gut decisions, though he goes with instinct over actual data less often than most other managers, which is a good thing. Unless there’s a full-on clubhouse mutiny brewing, the Yankees can and probably should move forward with Girardi still at the helm. But just in case … cut Boone Logan ASAP. Dude clearly has compromising photos of his skipper.

Still, it’s easy for us to get too linear when thinking about this stuff. What should the Yankees do with A-Rod? Dump him, he’s a bum! is a common refrain. Of course that doesn’t address the question of how to unload a player who is owed $114 million over the next five years, is declining rapidly, and won’t be done with this contract until age 42. If you cut him outright, another team will wait until he clears waivers, claim him for nothing — and then you’re still on the hook for $114 million. If you trade him but agree to cover everything he’s owed, you’re not getting any salary relief and you still might not get much talent back. There might be a hybrid trade to be had in which the Yankees eat a big chunk of cash (but not all $114 million) and get a useful player or two back. There are likely multiple teams with third-base holes who’d make a deal for Rodriguez at the right price.3 But the Yankees have to know they’re probably not getting any kind of sweetheart deal. The running joke is that the Dodgers will overpay for A-Rod the way they did in August for Adrian Gonzalez. Plenty of people disagreed with the Dodgers’ belief that Gonzalez was still a star, given the drop in his power and a disturbing plunge in his walk rate. But Gonzalez had a more recent track record of stardom and was several years younger than A-Rod, plus the seize-the-day impetus swirling around the waiver trade deadline made the offer more tempting. None of those factors is in play now.

Oh, and A-Rod just said he has no intention of waiving his no-trade clause. Maybe he will if someone cuts him a huge check. But that’s another sizable obstacle standing in the way of a trade.

If Rodriguez were the only under-contract player with performance issues this would be easy, even with $114 million left to be paid. He isn’t. Mark Teixeira just set career lows in games played and slugging average and just missed career lows in multiple other categories; he turns 334 in April and will make $23 million-plus a year for the next four years. Granderson set a career high for strikeouts in a full season with career lows for batting average and on-base percentage, and hit so poorly this postseason that Girardi benched him for Gardner, who had played about four seconds all season. Advanced metrics also point to career-worst defensive results, and Granderson turns 32 in March. Derek Jeter hiked his batting average and home runs to their highest point since his huge 2009 season, but he turns 39 in June, and the latest reports have him missing four to five months after ankle surgery, which could make him a question mark next spring.

Those concerns, combined with pending free agency for Swisher, Ichiro, Russell Martin, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, and only-hitter-Joe Girardi-seemed-to-trust Raul Ibanez,5 leave the Yankees with a long shopping list this offseason.6 The problem, once again, will be the Yankees’ budget.

Wait, what?

Teams currently spending more than $189 million on annual payroll stand to save a ton of money if they can duck under that number by 2014. The Yankees are the only team currently spending more than that, clocking in at nearly $210 million this season counting the $11.5 million they’re paying Burnett. If they can rein in spending, they could save about $40 million a year given the luxury tax rules. That’s a gigantic incentive for the Yankees to tighten their diamond-crusted belts.

On the other hand, the Yankees live by certain conditions that cry out for hyperaggressive spending. Because they’ve contended every year, they haven’t drafted higher than the 20s in two decades, thus making it tougher to land blue-chip prospects who could develop into future stars. New spending caps on the draft and international market, with extremely harsh penalties for violators,7 negate the utility of blowing your wad on those areas. And baseball’s oldest roster doesn’t have time to wait multiple years for prospects to develop.

The biggest reason for the Yankees to go full ham is that they’re swimming in cash. Forbes estimates that the Yanks reaped $439 million in revenue last year, 42 percent more than the next-highest team, the Red Sox. The owners’ effective wealth might be significantly higher, given that the YES Network (partly owned by the Yankees) is a private and wildly profitable enterprise, the franchise’s market value is surging every year, and baseball’s national TV deal is about to drop an additional $26 million per year into every team’s coffers. The Steinbrenners are perfectly entitled to pocket massive profits and cap their spending at whatever level they choose, of course. But if the goal is to win as many games as possible while still remaining wildly profitable, the Yankees have plenty of wiggle room.

The easiest and most obvious position to upgrade is the outfield. Gardner should be back and ready to play a full season, and his 2010 and 2011 numbers suggest the Yankees could see a four- or five-win boost with Gardner playing every day again, if he has one of his typical high-OBP/great speed/great defense seasons. Assuming Granderson also returns, that leaves a corner outfield spot vacant. Assuming you don’t blow one-year defensive samples out of proportion, the best outfielder on the market is Josh Hamilton. With A-Rod and Teixeira slipping and Swisher likely taking his 24 homers to another team, the Yankees could use another big power threat to pair with Robinson Cano in the middle of the lineup. Though he’d be leaving hitter-friendly Texas, Hamilton’s power potential given Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch would be tough to fathom … or maybe not that tough. The addition of Hamilton would make the Yankees lineup a little lefty-heavy, but signing right-handed bats to cover the catcher and DH spots (or catcher and third base, if shifting A-Rod to DH becomes a thought) could address that issue.

Signing a player who turns 32 in May, has an injury history and personal demons, and sometimes goes weeks without laying off pitches four feet off the plate wouldn’t seem to be a very prudent investment, especially if Hamilton fetches a contract that stretches well into nine figures. But these are the times we live in: Truly elite, somewhat younger talents like Matt Cain and Joey Votto get locked up soon before they can test free agency, and even traditionally cheap teams like the Pirates hand long-term deals to younger stars like Andrew McCutchen when they’ve barely started their arbitration clocks. On a strict wins-per-dollars basis, there’s a good chance a big deal for Hamilton (or B.J. Upton, Michael Bourn, Swisher, or any other 2012-13 bigger-name free agent)8 doesn’t pay off. You do it anyway, banking on the profits at the front end of a long-term deal canceling out most of the losses on the back end. You accept that these are the best players available, they won’t cost a boatload of talent the way a blockbuster trade might, and that the one competitive advantage the Yankees had, have, and will have for the foreseeable future is more money than God.

If the Yankees were to lean toward a trade, there could be plenty of talent available, albeit mostly of the B+ or less variety. There’s been buzz about the Indians possibly moving Shin-Soo Choo, the Angels flipping Peter Bourjos (if Torii Hunter re-signs), and the Diamondbacks trading their surplus by shopping Jason Kubel or Gerardo Parra. And that’s just the outfield position. We might see several good-to-very-good starters get shopped this offseason, headed by the Rays potentially exploring what they could get for James Shields or Jeremy Hellickson.

Which leads to one different possibility: The Yankees do everything they can to make themselves into the best run-prevention team in the league. That’s a tough path to imagine after a postseason in which the Yankees hit like the 1899 Cleveland Spiders. It might also be their most logical course of action.

The 2012 squad allowed fewer runs than every AL team save the A’s, Mariners, and Rays, all of whom play in extremely friendly pitcher’s parks. CC Sabathia might’ve gotten lit up in this year’s playoff swan song, but he still ranks as one of if not the best pitcher in baseball over the past six years. The money is there to go after Zack Greinke. If the pearl-clutchers and psychics decide Greinke’s not properly wired to pitch in New York, Anibal Sanchez ranks as one of baseball’s most underrated arms, and could slot nicely as a durable right-hander with improving command pitching behind the lefty ace. A full year of Gardner should do wonders for the team’s outfield defense, and the Yankees could always target someone like Bourn instead of Hamilton in the outfield and a quality glove at third to move A-Rod to DH if catching the ball became a major priority. Bringing back Hiroki Kuroda on a short-term deal could be a viable move, and you roll the dice on Phil Hughes’s gopheritis vs. Ivan Nova’s Jekyll-and-Hyde slider if all you’re seeking is a viable fifth starter.

If you want an X factor for the Yankees rotation, and for the team’s 2013 season, it’s Michael Pineda. Because the Yankees draft so late every year, and face the specter of the draft cap, and make win-now trades like Austin Jackson and friends for Granderson, they end up with few high-impact players 25 and younger on the roster. ESPN Stats & Info notes that New York was one of only five teams to have no players in their age-25-or-younger seasons record 300 or more at-bats in 2012.9 As much as free agency can be a good source for productive players (albeit players often near the tail end of their peaks and almost always overpaid), one needs only to track the careers of Cano and Jeter, as well as Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte, to know that finding dynamic young talent, tough as it might be, is a great way to raise championship banners. Pineda isn’t homegrown like those others, but he was the return for Jesus Montero in last offseason’s challenge trade. At age 23, just a year removed from an amazing rookie season in which he fanned more than a batter an inning, Pineda has the potential to supercharge the Yankees rotation and offer that final piece needed to make this a true run-prevention powerhouse. Of course, Pineda’s also coming off shoulder surgery, might show up to camp weighing 712 pounds the way he did this spring, and got busted for DUI in August to boot. Maybe Pineda’s not so much an X factor right now as he is a lottery ticket.

Therein lies the rub. The Yankees have a roster full of famous baseball players. They have a lot more money than any other team, which could allow them to make a bunch of upgrades. And ALCS horrors aside, they’re still the defending division champs. But they also have few sure things going for them. The risk built into so many Yankee players, combined with a lack of young upside on the roster and the usual array of able AL East rivals, could make for an uncertain, even dicey 2013. No matter what becomes of their biggest scapegoat.

Filed Under: Future, Series, The Future

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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