By Jason Keidel
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There’s a growing hole in the long mural of Yankees success. And perhaps through it slides their perch atop the baseball world.
For the first time since 1992-’93, the Yankees will not win 90 games in consecutive full seasons. (They only played 114 games in 1994 and there were no playoffs.) And these are also the first back-to-back seasons since then that the Yanks will miss the playoffs, assuming they don’t sneak into a Wild Card spot this season — which is quite reasonable.
And if the numbers continue to fall, this will be the fifth straight season the Yankees will see a dip in home attendance. Between 2005 and 2008, Yankee Stadium bubbled with fans, with over 4 million each season. Their peak season (2007) saw 4,271,083 fans, which is almost a full million more than last season, which dropped to 3,279,589. Ironic that this drought occurred exactly when the Yanks entered their new and (allegedly) improved ballpark.
So whom do we blame for the mediocre play, the smattering of fans and the conspicuous disappearance from the playoffs?
The Steinbrenner family gets carte blanche to run the franchise. For over 30 years, King George poured his cash, cachet and soul into the Yankees. And even when he was an ogre, no New Yorker doubted his monolithic devotion to the team. And despite his progeny’s newfound frugality, the Yankees will always spend around $200 million yearly on payroll.
How about Brian Cashman? For years, there’s been a cynical sense that he merely rode the coattails of the Core Four, and since he was allowed to spend like King Farouk on the roster, he could always keep the Bombers in contention. And now that the charmed quartet is officially gone once Derek Jeter retires this fall, we are seeing the sad remnants of Cashman’s shortcomings.
Or does he get a mulligan? When your rotation drops like a scene from “The Strain,” does Cashman get a pass, a chance to hide in the shade of our shared patience? No general manager can plan for losing 80 percent of his starting staff.
But that doesn’t explain or excuse the dearth of decent talent in their minors. According to Baseball Prospectus, the Yanks have the 23rd-ranked farm system in MLB, with only one prospect, Gary Sanchez, ranked in the top 100 (85th).
And while it’s become their modern motif, the Yankees can’t just buy players exclusively and expect to win. Even when they splurged on free agents, there was always a Bernie or Jorge or Derek or Mariano from the farm. Now, with Robinson Cano gone, we can’t name one young, true Yankee on the come.
Or is this the natural course of events? Teams can’t win forever, even with the Yankees’ bulging war chest. Between 1995 and 2007, they made the playoffs every year. Then after a blip in ’08, they won the World Series in ’09. Maybe since we’re no longer high on the faerie dust of the dynasty, the withdrawal is severe. So are we right to be worried, or will they just regroup and retool and win in 2015?
They won’t win if they enter next season with this season’s personnel. Not one everyday player is batting .300 — a mind-numbing reality for the Bronx Bombers, who used to trot out a conga line of boppers.
Just two years ago, the Yankees had 10 players with double-digit home runs and three with at least 90 RBIs. This year they are only assured five players with at least 10 homers, and only Brett Gardner and Mark Teixeira have as many as 50 RBIs entering August.
Gardner aside, their most productive players are the oft-injured Teixeira and Jacoby Ellsbury. And they’re both on the wrong side of 30. The supposed bedrock backstop to lead the new age of pinstripes, Brian McCann, is already called Brian McCan’t. While the Athletics bagged Jon Lester and the Tigers nabbed David Price right before the trade deadline, the Yankees got … Stephen Drew and Martin Prado.
We’ve long debated about the plunge in attendance and TV ratings, whether they’re an adjunct of average baseball a dim galaxy of stars or both. Would 95 wins draw its own crowd, or would 85 wins with A-Rod and Jeter be enough to feed the star-starved city we’ve become?
Jeter’s retirement tour hasn’t been nearly enough to tickle the Yankees’ constituency. It’s just too much to say goodbye 81 times. His last game will surely be drenched in tears, but there isn’t the overwhelming romanticism that we felt with Mariano Rivera last year. Maybe that’s because Jeter is following an icon too soon, or maybe it’s because Jeter doesn’t engender the same feelings. For all his diamond deeds, Jeter isn’t the emotional sort, whereas Mo was quick to cry and pray and love the masses.
But the lack of a frothing fan base isn’t Jeter’s concern. That’s on Cashman. It’s fitting that the Steinbrenner lieutenant has his sleepy monotone, bulging blue eyes and yearlong frown. Cashman has the solemn refrain of someone who hasn’t won in five decades, not five years. And, depending on your view of the current Yankees, it may be time for new blood to flow through the veins of management.
Even when the Yanks did almost everything right, they stopped winning titles over a decade ago. Now that they do very little right, they find themselves buried in the obscurity of second-tier teams, the very pack the Yanks used to smirk past on their yearly stroll to the AL East title.
But it seems the joke is on the Yankees now. If that doesn’t fall on the general manager, then who does it fall on?
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