Home > Uncategorized > A Crack in the Empire?

A Crack in the Empire?

Given their history of postseason success, it would be exceedingly capricious to write the Yankees off down 3-1 to Texas in the ALCS, but… (don’t you just love a leading but) with two of the final three in Texas, Mark Teixeira’s hammy hanging by a thread, and Cliff Lee looming in game 7, the Yanks certainly look to be in dire straits. So, if this really is the end of the Yankee’s season, then an interesting question begins to emerge for the Evil Empire: where to from here?

The Yanks are the defending World Series champions, they have averaged 95.6 wins over the last five years and they have a seemingly unlimited payroll, but this series has shown that their foundation might be developing a few flaws. I don’t actually mean a two meter hole straight to the core of the Death Star kind of flaw, more of a who the hell allowed Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Jorge Posada to age past 35 kind of flaw.

When I was listening to Mr Tony yesterday, he was discussing how impressive Cliff Lee’s pitching performance was against the best offence in baseball, but as I’ve watched the Yankees this year, I’ve rarely thought of them as being the best offense in baseball, let alone the Murderers Row they once were.

This was the Yankees opening day roster:

1) D. Jeter ss
2) N. Johnson dh
3) A. Rodriguez 3b
4) M. Teixeira 1b
5) R. Cano 2b
6) J. Posada c
7) C. Granderson cf
8) N. Swisher rf
9) B. Gardner lf

And here is their lineup from Game 3 game against Texas:

1) D. Jeter ss
2) N. Swisher rf
3) A. Rodriguez 3b
4) M. Teixeira 1b
5) R. Cano 2b
6) M. Thames (L. Berkman) dh
7) J. Posada c
8) C. Granderson cf
9) B. Gardner lf

The second lineup is basically, give or take an adjustment here or there, what the Yankees preferred postseason lineup has been (I put Berkman in parenthesis, because obviously him and Thames split the position). So, right off the top I think we can all agree that the great Nick Johnson experiment ended exactly as we thought it would, with him on the DL after only 24 games. Now, Thames and Berkman have been fine in that role. Good even, but Berkman is Berkman is 34 and far removed from the man who once posted a 163 OPS+. And Thames? Well, he’s a solid platoon hitter, but uhmmm… seriously, it’s Marcus F***ing Thames?

Ok, good. Now, let me say that Robby Cano is a much better ball player than I thought and he had a hell of a season. He’s money baby. After that? If you read my Jays piece, then you know I think that Brett Gardner’s good, but he’s a plucky hitter kind of guy, not a stud with a stick. Nick Swisher? He’s good; a solid contributor and his 130 OPS + this year is nothing to sneeze at, but again, if I’m Cliff Lee I’m not quaking at the thought of facing him. Which brings us to Curtis Granderson, whom everyone says is the nicest guy. Of course, they also say that the writing’s on the wall and the dude, nice though he be, can’t hit a lefthander to save his life. Joe DiMaggio he ain’t.

All of which clears away the flotsam. So, lets get to the heart of the matter:

Derek Jeter
Alex Rodriguez
Mark Teixeira
Jorge Posada

Now, obviously we’re talking about three Hall of Famers* and a man who finished second in last years MVP voting, here. So there is nothing but grade AAA prime beef in front of us, but… has some of it past its ‘best by’ date?

*The more I think it about it, the more I think that Posada’s position, rate stats and rings eventually push him through the gates. And obviously with ARod I’m ignoring the whole steroid thing when saying he’s a Hall of Famer.

Lets start with Tex, because he’s the only one still in his prime. Obviously he hasn’t exactly passed his ‘best by’ date, but I do think we’re past the point where we can continue to think of him as one of the top ten (20, 30?) players in the game. A steady presence in the field and a switch hitter with a career 134 OPS+, Tex is a very good player. He’s hit 275 home runs in eight seasons, but this year his WAR (3.5) was 12th amongst first basemen. ONLY first basemen. Sure, some of the names above him you wouldn’t take, guys like Adam Dunn, Daric Barton, and Aubrey Huff are either too one dimensional, too young, or too fluky to pick over Tex, but the other names:

Joey Votto (7.4)
Albert Pujols (7.3)
Miguel Cabrera (6.2)
Adrian Gonzalelz (5.3)
Justin Morneau (5.3 – in only half a season)
Paul Konerko (4.2)
Kevin Youkillis (4.2 – in not much more than half a season)
Prince Fielder (4.1)

Maybe you say that Votto’s only really done it once, that Konerko’s too old, and that Fielder’s a meal away from his own zip code, but that still makes Tex the sixth best first baseman in baseball (fun fact: can anyone pick out the big name missing?). Again, good but not exactly Bernie Williams in the late nineties good.

Which brings us to the three geriatrics. First Posada: Look, I’m not going to mince words, if Jorge’s not your DH next year (and with his .248, .357, .454 line this year, I’m not entirely certain he’s a good enough hitter any longer for even that), then the Yanks are going to have problems. Never Johnny Bench behind the plate, he’s now become a giant liability. He couldn’t throw my grandmother out and his movement for pitches out of the zone is stiff and slow. All of which was fine when he was 35 and posting a 970 OPS, but that was three years ago and when next season kicks off, Posada will be a creaky 39 years old.

The Yanks may have an in house answer in Jesus Montero but two things give me reservations about the slugging catcher. One, nobody but the Yanks thinks he can catch, so if he breaks into the bigs next year, then the Yanks will be carrying two catchers, both of whom play thier position about as well as Granny. Two, oh I don’t know… call it Chamberlainshock. Phil Hughes had a good season this year, but I’ve just lived through a few too many great Yankee (and Red Sox for that matter) prospects to bite every time they’ve got the next great thing on the horizon. They might, but let me see him do it for 81 games in New York before I count my chickens.

Two down, Jeter and Arod left to go. The two best shortstops of their generation. Two absolute no doubt about it Hall of Famers. Mr. Clutch and Mr. Mirror. They are excellence personified, with a combined 177.4 WAR between them. Of course, they are also a combined 71 years old. Now, we all know that great baseball players remain great past the years of mere mortals, but we also know that in the post steroid era, ageing does occur and I think we can be sure that in the case of both these guys, it has.

I’m not saying they aren’t still good, but Jeter’s just publicly suffered through his worst professional season. Like Posada he’s playing a premium defensive position poorly (that might be an understatement), which was fine when he was a premium offensive player, but when his OPS+ is 90, that’s a problem. Bill Simmons keeps claiming that he expects a big bounce back year from Jeter, but I’m not entirely sure how much of that is real and how much of that is him trying to reverse jinx the Captain. Last year Jeter was great, a genuine MVP candidate, but the year before he was only average. That’s two mediocre years out of the last three. For a player deep into his 30s, there’s a pretty well trodden path that Jeter’s walking. According to Baseball-Reference, the top two comparable players to Jeter after this season were Roberto Alomar and Craig Biggio. When Alomar had his bad year with the Mets, everyone thought he’d bounce back the next year. Instead he bounced from the Mets to the White Sox, to the D-Backs back to the Sox, before bouncing right out of baseball. Biggio hung on longer, but his OPS never again topped 104. Of course those two were second basemen, what about shortstops you ask?

Well, after 36, Barry Larkin’s last four years he had OPS+s of 90, 74. 94, 101. Alan Trammel? 84, 32. Heck, even the Ironman himself, Cal Ripken, only had one other season with an OPS + above 100 after 35 and that was a season in which he only had 300 odd at bats. So, while Jeter may well have a bounce back year, I think we are talking about a bounce back to .300, .350., .400 not the .334, .406., .465 he posted last year.

All of which brings us to the big money man, Alex Rodriguez. Now, I’m already at 1600 words and half an hour away from my deadline, so I’m going to make this quick. ARod’s HR, OPS, and WAR over the last five years:

2007 – 54, 1.067, 9.2
2008 – 35, .965, 6.0
2009 – 30, .933, 4.5
2010 – 30, .847, 3.9

I’m no statistician and I don’t even play one on TV, but I’m pretty sure when numbers trend down like that for four years in a row, that’s indicative of something bad. Of course, this wouldn’t be that big a deal if ARod didn’t have 8 years and 174 million left on his current deal. If he’s in decline now, what’s he going to be in two years? Four? Six? Rodriguez’s decline phase is likely to be long and productive, but like the rest of the lineup, we are no longer looking at a monster hitter. He simply isn’t a batter that a pitcher like Lee is going to fear (and yes, I hate the Rice-ian “fear” argument, but you know what I mean).

The Yanks have one great hitter relative to position, Robinson Cano. They have two pretty good ones (Tex and ARod) and then they have a handful of good to decent guys, many of whom are going the wrong way with their skills. Yes, they are the Yankees and they’ve made the playoffs in 15 of the last 16 years, but there are flaws to their roster. Pieces of the puzzle no longer fit so succinctly and I no longer consider them a lock to win 100 games every year.

When I wrote that the Yankees seemingly had a limitless payroll above, I think that in the next three or four years, we’ll see just how limitless it truly is. Can they shuffle off the dead weight of Arod’s contract when it becomes onerous. How much does Jeter make and what happens when he’s a weak hitting right fielder instead of the Captain of Yore. Do they let Posada walk next year? Are they going to watch the Sox sign Carl Crawford, get anxious and dump a terrible deal at the feet of Jayson “I spell my first name wrong” Werth? And none of these 1800 words talk about a pitching staff that has some glaring holes (AJ Burnett anyone).

Now, obviously all these cracks can be spackled up with money (cough-Lee-cough), but when you’re spending a hundred million to cover up a hundred million mistake, at some point, eventually, maybe, (do I sound desperately hopeful here?) the cracks start to spread, the foundation starts to crumble and the empire comes crashing down…

  1. Baldy
    October 20, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    The trouble with the evil empire crashing and burning is that they’ll do it for a year, maybe two, and then they’ll buy their way back into the game. Until and unless they put in an iron clad salary cap that allows the small venues to compete the big venues will continue to dominate and the game will thereby be diminished by a lack of competition and excitement. Now – why not treat it like Monopoly – everyone starts with the same amount adn let’s see whatcha can do!

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