By Sean Hartnett
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Empires rise and fall. We’re finding out the Yankees are no different.
With 44 games remaining, this team does not possess the fear-inducing aura of Bronx Bombers teams of recent vintage. These Yankees are no longer the conquering legion that overpowers pennant-chasing rivals during the final hurdles of August and September.
A collection of scrapheap pickups and unlikely contributors have only papered over the cracks of a model franchise in decline. Thanks to new faces such as Brandon McCarthy, Chase Headley and rookie starter Shane Greene, the Yankees (61-57) have improbably kept their heads above water in both the wild card chase. New York entered play Wednesday 2 1/2 games out of the second spot.
The stopgap solutions are only delaying the dam from inevitably breaking and submerging the Yankees in an October-less wasteland during the final weeks of the Derek Jeter era. Just like legendary closer Mariano Rivera and playoff ace Andy Pettitte before him, it is likely that Jeter will be denied one last shot at playoff glory.
Yankees fans have always pinned their hopes on Jeter’s broad shoulders. The superlative shortstop has been a model of consistent excellence since his 1996 rookie season. Alongside homegrown icons Pettitte, Rivera, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada, Jeter played an instrumental role in elevating the Bombers to the pantheon of greatness in baseball’s modern era.
The Yankees’ four World Series titles between 1996 and 2000 is a feat that might never be replicated given the rise of ultra-competitiveness between franchises in recent years. Parity has hit an all-time high in the national pastime –28 of 30 MLB teams have had a winning season at least once in the past five years. The crosstown Mets and Houston Astros are the only teams not to finish above .500 in the past five seasons.
With each passing retirement of franchise greats, the Yankees have become increasingly reliant on targeting marquee free agents. The Steinbrenners and veteran general manager Brian Cashman have dangled expensive, long-term contracts at the finest free-agent talents – only to get burned in the long run.
CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira were two of the game’s most dominant players in 2009. They have since deteriorated into expensive injury-plagued shadows of their former greatness. Sabathia is signed through 2016 with a $25 million vesting option for 2017 based on the health of his left shoulder. Teixeira will earn $22.5 million annually through 2016.
The Yankees can only hope that 30-year-old center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury doesn’t suffer a similar fate to Sabathia and Teixeira. Ellsbury signed a seven-year, $153 million contract in the offseason that includes a $21 million club option in 2021. Veteran outfielder Carlos Beltran is under contract for two more seasons at $15 million per year. Injuries have played a role in the 37-year-old’s production in his first season in the Bronx, limiting him to 85 games, a .243 average, 14 home runs and 45 RBI. His .299 on-base percentage is a career low.
The Yankees had their chance to allow albatross third baseman Alex Rodriguez to walk away for good after the controversial slugger opted out of his contract during the 2007 World Series. Instead, the Bombers’ brass re-signed A-Rod to a 10-year, $275 million contract that runs through 2017.
When the now-disgraced, soon-to-be 39-year-old slugger returns from suspension in 2015, the Yankees might have to pay $61 million to make the “lightning rod” and his two bad hips disappear.
Meanwhile, efficient low-payroll teams are thriving. Three of the five lowest payroll teams made playoffs last season.
The Yankees are in need of an organizational re-think, but that’s unlikely to happen as long as the Steinbrenners are running the show. Those who are afraid of change tend to get left in the dust.
Even the Red Sox and general manager Ben Cherington have become adverse to long-term contracts, having shed the bloated deals of Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett in August 2012. He waved goodbye to Ellsbury this winter and opted to trade stud starter Jon Lester instead of meeting his escalating contract demands.
The Red Sox know when to deal away upcoming free agents for parts that can help them in the future. By trading Lester and outfielder Jonny Gomes to the Oakland Athletics, Cherington was able to acquire Yoenis Cespedes’ power bat to offer protection behind star slugger David Ortiz. The Red Sox are counting on Cespedes to be a key contributor in 2015 and could perhaps re-sign Lester in the winter.
Yankees fans fear what lies beyond 2014. When the club reports to Tampa for spring training there won’t be a No. 2 jersey hanging in the locker room at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Gone will be the last member of their three-peat 2000 World Series team.
Next season, when the Yankees take the field on opening day, only Teixeira, Sabathia, Brett Gardner, possibly David Robertson (he will be free agent at season’s end) and perhaps A-Rod will remain from their 2009 World Series-winning roster.
Provided he doesn’t have any further problems with his right elbow, Masahiro Tanaka will anchor the rotation next season. But the Japanese right-hander, right-hander Michael Pineda, catcher Brian McCann, and outfielders Gardner and Ellsbury are really not enough to carry this team to the playoffs. The Yankees’ lackluster farm system was a detriment to them landing impact players at this season’s trade deadline. A lack of organizational assets will force the Yankees to continue to place a high emphasis on free agency.
Who knows what the Yankees will get out of Sabathia and his balky right knee, Teixeira and his assortment of ailments, and Beltran a year 0lder in 2015. The vast majority of Yankees fans would prefer to see A-Rod as far away from the Bronx as possible, but if he returns his $21 million contract will compound the Yankees’ problems and lineup flexibility because he’ll likely need to DH a lot
Rome fell after a 500-year reign as the world’s greatest superpower. After qualifying for the playoffs in 17 of the past 19 seasons, the current Yankees no longer stand as baseball’s predominant force.
The Yankees are no longer leading the pack — they’re chasing the pack.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey
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