But how is this possible? The starting rotation is a good place to start. CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, and Ivan Nova have replaced Kevin Brown, Andy Pettitte, David Wells, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, etc who pitched for the Yankees in their late 30s and early 40s. With possible new additions of Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos in the future, the Yankees look to stay young (and talented and cheaper) in the rotation. The Yankees will probably add a vet to offset the risk of inserting a rookie or two into the rotation, but the focus on the farm system is trying to pay dividends.
The lineup, however, is ticking upward. Hovering around 32 years old on average, the Yankee lineup is getting older, and it’s likely to continue doing so. 2012 might see a small decrease in age when they swap Jorge Posada for Jesus Montero, but Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Mark Teixeira aren’t getting younger. Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson could be replaced but by whom? They’ll probably still be around, or someone of similar age will be. Russell Martin may be replaced by Austin Romine, but Romine is only 5 years younger than Martin. Meanwhile, Brett Gardner and Robinson Cano are entering their primes but are still getting older. In other words, there’s one, maybe two, switch that will make the team younger, but changing DHs to get that isn’t exactly helping as it keeps the older guys on the field.
But are the Yankees increasingly dependent on aging players? When the Yankees were older in 2004, they got their production from Jeter (30), ARod (28), Hideki Matsui (30), Jorge Posada (32), and Gary Sheffield (35), but most of their producers were in their prime. A year later in 2005, Jeter (31) and ARod (29) were the young guns in an old lineup that really produced, but seemingly realizing they were too old, the Yankees added Johnny Damon (32) and Bobby Abreu (32) the next season instead of 36-year olds Bernie Williams and Gary Sheffield. This season, the Yankees expect Jeter (37), ARod (35), and Teixeira (31) to be major producers, but they also have Robinson Cano (28) to be the MVP along with solid contributions from Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson, and Brett Gardner, who are still 27-30.
All of this sounds a little confusing, so let’s state it a little simpler. The Yankees may be getting older as a team, but we know the “big producers” we all know and love are getting older. However, they are being replaced by a more balanced attack, carefully crafted by Brian Cashman. Just like they did earlier in the decade, the Yankees are simply rotating guys in when they can, getting younger occasionally, and remaining an older team. Sure, Jeter, Rodriguez, and Teixeira (though he’s not really old yet) are simply becoming the Williams, Sheffield, and Jason Giambis of 2005. But they are being replaced (in the production sense, not literally) by Granderson, Gardner, and Swisher instead of the Brosiuses, Cairos, and Sierras, essentially making for a more balanced attack. Seems like the naysayers were/are wrong, right?
A common mistake people make when they look at history is trying to make direct comparisons. The Iraq War is this generation’s Vietnam. “This year’s Rays”. The list goes on and on. We see a somewhat similar situation, and we assume the same result as the earlier situation. Ergo, the Yankees were old and expensive a few years ago and have continued to win, and therefore, this squad will continue to win. In the end, it all comes back to details.
What makes this team dissimilar from the others is the time remaining on contracts. When the Williams, Giambis, and Sheffields were getting older, their contracts were expiring within a few years. Rodriguez is already old, but he’s here for 6 more seasons after 2011. Jeter is even older but here for 3 more years. Teixeira isn’t exactly old and should be fine for a couple years, but the Yankees are paying him for the next five seasons hoping those April slumps don’t devolve into 6-month slumps. Granderson and Swisher could be gone after this season, but at age 30, the Yankees aren’t likely to find younger options on the market or in their farm system that can produce at similar levels. Meanwhile, Gardner and Cano are getting older, though their production is at All-Star and MVP levels and should remain so for a while. The problem here is that the aging players are locked into certain positions, but because Montero will likely DH, ARod and Jeter have to remain at defensively-important positions. Instead of being able to move them to DH, trade for or sign a star player, and utilize their financial might, the Yankees are left without positions to add these star players even if they still have the money. Pitching-wise, the team looks good, but regarding the lineup, the Yankees may run into major issues in a year or two. Of course, the Yankees could simply choose to swallow contracts and put those players on the bench in favor of younger, still-expensive players, or they could trade prospects for cheaper, younger stars. But remember that those moves have consequences. The Yankees have a huge payroll, but swallowing $20 million contracts is hard for anyone. And trading away the younger guys take away the younger, cheaper players that allow for some flexibility.
None of this is to say the Yankees are guaranteed to fall off a cliff. When people claimed to see the end of the road years ago, they were wrong, and if they continue to claim to see the end of the road based on the Yankees free-agent spending, they are just as wrong now. The Yankees have shown that cycling in and out free-agents is possible. After a few years, they just adjust, get a little younger until they get old again, rinse, and repeat. But this only works when the cycle is allowed to continue, and that’s where I see a more plausible fall. The Yankees have made more and longer commitments than they did earlier in the decade, and if CC opts out and re-signs, they may have yet another one. When the cycle needs to turn over, the Yankees will still have ARod, Jeter, and Teixeira (though, again, Teixeira’s situation is the best of the three and likely to remain somewhat positive), and maybe CC, still occupying major slots in the lineup, and they won’t be able to move them to a DH spot like they could with Giambi, Matsui, and Sheffield because Montero may likely be the guy inhabiting that spot. The Yankees have always been old, but they had flexibility. That flexibility, however, may be diminishing. In order to keep the Yankees from having any off years, ARod’s hip needs to be healthy, Jeter needs to not collapse, and Teixeira needs to age gracefully. It’s possible, and it’s happened before. But can it happen again? This isn’t to say the Yankees are about to head down the AL East standings in the next few years (they spend too much and have too much talent to just die unless the worst-case scenario happens), but the Yankees are walking a tighter rope than normal. A misstep or two could see the Yankees tumble.