It’s Getting Late Early for the Yankees

published October 21, 2010

The bags were packed at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, the Yankees knowing that they’d either head to Texas for Friday’s LCS game six or scatter to their respective homes, the 2010 season over and done.

Anything can happen in a short series, and only a fool would count out the New Yorkers before the final out of their fourth defeat.  The Rangers know the ALCS could have been a sweep, but for a late inning bullpen collapse in the opening game.

The Yankees will send Phil Hughes to the mound on Friday, and Colby Lewis will start for Texas; if New York forces a seventh game, Cliff Lee will try to extend his October mastery in another matchup with Andy Pettitte.

History, as you might expect, is on Texas’s side.  In forty-two previous best-of-seven series, a team has headed home for the last two games with a 3-2 lead.  In more than three-quarters of those series – 32 of 42 – they won one of the two games.

It wasn’t supposed to get to this point so soon for the Yankees.  Their offseason spending splurge two winters ago — when they committed $423.5 million to C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira – seemed to herald a newly replenished dynasty.

Teixeira replaced the faded Jason Giambi in the middle of the order; Sabathia and Burnett would take over the rotation spots from the retiring Mike Mussina and the perennially injured Chien-Ming Wang (or the short-term rental of Roger Clemens).  The starters were also going to buy time for a trio of young pitchers: Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Ian Kennedy.  The young arms were prized so highly that Brian Cashman refused to include them in a trade offer to the Twins for Johan Santana.

The moves paid off immediately with a World Series win in 2009.  But the Bronx (and its Tampa suburb) is the world capital of What Have You Done For Me Lately, and a wild-card season and an LCS loss are not what they had in mind as a return on their massive payroll.  What’s gone wrong?

1.  Young pitchers are unpredictable. You can always hope they develop, but there are no sure things.  Joba ruled briefly in 2008, but regardless of whether you think he should start or relieve, he has struggled to meet even sharply lowered expectations since.  Hughes has been brilliant in stretches, but tired in the second half of his first full season as a starter at age 24.  Ian Kennedy went to Arizona in the four-team trade that brought Curtis Granderson to New York; he led the National League in wild pitches.

2.  Calendars keep turning. The Core Four are old.  Jorge Posada will be forty in August.  Mariano Rivera turns forty-one in November.  Andy Pettitte, 38, missed two months with a variety of ailments ranging from an aching elbow and strained hip flexor to a persistent tear in his groin.  Derek Jeter will be 37 at the All-Star break next year; only one team in baseball history has reached the World Series with a 37-year-old shortstop playing 100 or more games (the 1956 Brooklyn Dodgers, with Pee Wee Reese).

Rivera, long recognized as perhaps the best athlete on the Yankees, could well maintain his effectiveness for years to come.  Posada is another story.  He was the hidden asset in the Yankees’ dynasty, averaging 21 homers and a .866 OPS from 1998-2007.  In the last three years, he has started just 65 games per season behind the plate, and the dropoff to Francisco Cervelli is considerable.  Help is on the way in the person of Jesus Montero, who slugged over .500 in AAA at age 20 this year, but a jump to the majors at his age is asking a lot.

3.  The A-Rod Conundrum.  On any other team, the Rodriguez contract would be a looming disaster.  He’s thirty-five, can no longer be counted on to play 150 games at third (he hasn’t done so since 2007), has hip problems, and will make an average of $25 million a year until 2017.  In New York, however, these commitments won’t prevent the team from making others of equal magnitude.  Yankees fans loath him, seeing him as the antithesis of Jeter, a player whose overall numbers belie his worthlessness in the clutch.  (His overall clutch statistics, using’s “Late & Close” measure, have been better than Jeter’s in four of their seven seasons together.)  His performance in the 2010 postseason – 6-for-28, .214, one double, three RBIs – will do little to quiet his critics.

4.  Turnover in the outfield. The 2009 champions had Melky Cabrera in center, Johnny Damon in left, Nick Swisher in right, and Hideki Matsui at DH.  They reasonably cut loose the two older players, dealt Cabrera to Atlanta to bring back Javier Vasquez  (an example of the team’s willingness to buy high, trading for Vasquez off a career year), and this year put Brett Gardner in left, Granderson in center, Swisher in right, and Marcus Thames as primary DH.  The infield is exceptionally productive – even as Jeter’s performance has fallen off, Robinson Cano has become a potential MVP – but the outfield has offset some of that strength.

Texas has taken its lead in the series by exploiting the vulnerability of the Yankees’ starting pitching besides Sabathia.  There’s an obvious way for the Yanks to address this, of course: make a blow-away offer to Cliff Lee in the coming months.  With the Texas ownership situation resolved at last, Nolan Ryan may elect to overspend to keep his ace, particularly if he leads the Rangers to their first World Series appearance.  If that happens, it will be harder than ever for the Yankees to compensate for the aging of their veteran core.  The New Yorkers may well be nearing the end of their run as perennial championship contenders.

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