I haven’t written about this in a long time, but the theme going around the internet right now is, “The Yankees need to get younger.” I don’t think we’ve done a particularly good job articulating why this is the case. The Yankees are a team that is capable of buying the best free agents, and naturally will keep some of those free agents into old age.
Its okay for the Yankees to have a higher proportion of their roster filled with declining players than, say, the Rays. That’s going to be the nature of free agent contracts: you mostly pay for years outside of a guy’s prime. What is not okay is when the majority of the Yankee team is on the downslope. While the Yankees may be able to add players even with a starting lineup of high-salary guys, they have trouble subtracting them. Alex Rodriguez’s salary isn’t an all-debilitating albatross despite its enormous cost and poor return, and won’t prevent the Yankees from making big moves going forward. However, Alex Rodriguez’s salary does do one thing: it guarantees him a spot in the lineup at the beginning of the season.
This is a pretty important point. For the foreseeable future, the Yankees will have Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and Alex Rodriguez in the lineup every day, at least when they aren’t injured. They aren’t going to go out and sign a Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols or even Adam LaRoche to fill their first base spot. They may be able to hope for a backup like Eric Chavez to surface every year to pick up the slack, but if Mark Teixeira doesn’t hit well, they just won’t get good production out of 1st base.
The absolute worst case scenario for the Yankees would be what I like to call either, “Dutch Disease”, or more concretely, “New York Rangers/Knicks Disease.” Its the curse of having too much money to spend. When you spend a lot of money on a lot of free agent deals at once, you end up locked into playing a lot of the same players at the same age for a long period of time. And this is exactly what the Yankees are in danger of.
Go to Baseball Reference and look at the OPS+ numbers of the New York Yankees. The Yankees have seven players with an OPS+ over 110. We have a pretty good offense and are on top of a competitive division. Despite recent issues, it has on balance been a successful MLB season. But if you look again, you’ll see that no player other than Robinson Cano has been having a truly excellent season. Almost all of them are playing worse than their career averages. You’re looking at a group of really talented, highly-priced players on the wrong side of thirty (except for Cano) who are all declining at the same time.
This should be a great big red flag. The Yankees face some important decisions on Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson, and Robinson Cano in the next two off-seasons. They will have to choose whether or not to commit to them as long term fixtures in the Yankee lineup, joining the other declining veterans. All would probably make the Yankees a better 2013-2014 team than the obvious alternatives, but could put them in a serious Rangers/Knicks Disease bind after that.
The Yankee farm system has some strong points, but is not offering any real immediate aid here. The organization is actually pretty well on its way to a fairly young, cheap starting rotation, assuming they manage to get Ivan Nova’s problems relatively straight, and Michael Pineda comes back effective. But on the lineup side, they need to seriously start to worry about the long term.
As a Yankee fan, I expect the team to be pretty good every season. I want them contending for the playoffs. However, I think the smart decision for 2013-2014 is to let two of the three (Granderson and Swisher) old guys walk away, while retaining Robinson Cano, the youngest of the group. If this means that they are not favored to win the division, then so be it. Wait for the younger free agents (Take out a full page newspaper add saying, ‘Seriously Mike Trout, do you want $300 million? Don’t sign an extension), and for the guys on the farm to become options. I’ll thank Cashman for his patience when a reloaded 2015 Yankees sets itself for another long term run at multiple World Series titles.