|What does the future hold for Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and the rest of the old Yankee guard? (US Presswire)|
The Yankees have made the playoffs in 17 of the last 18 seasons, and it likely would've been 18 of 19 if the 1994 season had been allowed to unfurl completely. Let's mull that over for a moment. In MLB, it's harder to make the postseason than it is in of the other (and lesser!) major pro sports. Yet when it comes to October baseball, the navy pinstripes have become as familiar a sight as the red, white and blue bunting.
So, yes, the Yankees have been a part of baseball's contending fray with tidal regularity. But is their unthinkable run coming to an end? Although they've already clinched a berth for 2012, the future beyond this month is not promising. And, unlike in seasons past, raiding those boundless coffers might not be enough.
Consider a few things. The Yankees, at present, have the oldest roster of position players in all of baseball, and they have second-oldest pitching staff. There's nothing wrong with a roster that skews veteran insofar as the present is concerned, but the future is another matter. Up and down the lineup, stalwarts like Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson are all on the wrong side of 30 (or, in A-Rod's case, the wrong side of 35). Derek Jeter, while enjoying a remarkable and historic renaissance this season, can't possibly keep it up. He's an all-time great and a future inner-circle hall-of-famer, but most of all he's 38. Will they re-sign Nick Swisher? Should they re-sign Nick Swisher? What about catcher and DH?
In the rotation, will Hiroki Kuroda return and remain effective? Andy Pettitte will retire once again, right? Has CC Sabathia's decline phase begun? Will Mariano Rivera choose to come back? Can Michael Pineda be counted on for anything of consequence? And how long can their pitchers keep working around what's a pretty awful team defense?
I'm asking a lot of questions for a reason: the Yankees have a lot of questions. What they don't have are answers. This year's Yankee model is obviously a very good team, but this nexus of advancing age, thin farm system and altered free-agent landscape might conspire to complicate the Yankees' usual winter routine.
On the farm, catcher Gary Sanchez, the Yankees' top position prospect, has lots of potential, but he's just 19 and coming off a season spent in A-ball. He's not close to being ready for baseball at the highest level, in other words. Outfielder Mason Williams' development seemed to have stalled even before his season-ending shoulder injury. Third baseman Dante Bichette Jr. is still just 19 and has shown very little power this season. While the Yankees have a few promising arms in the system, they're very light on position prospects who are ready to contribute. That, however, is precisely what they need.
That's what they need because this winter's crop of free agents is a weak one. Josh Hamilton is the prize, but he obviously carries with him a great deal of risk. Even if he did interest the Yankees, a number of other high-payroll competitors are likely to kick his tires, as well. Michael Bourn? He's a thought. Adding him, however, would require the Yankees to move Granderson off of center (or else waste much of Bourn's value -- his elite glove) and either resign Brett Gardner to a permanent reserve role or let Swisher walk. Does that move the needle enough?
On the pitching front, what about Zack Greinke? While generally speaking, the "Can Player A succeed in Market B?" narrative is too much with us, but Greinke in the Bronx genuinely feels like a mutually destructive pairing. There's just not much out there that fits the Yankees' substantial needs. (The New York media, however, are free to continue entertaining waking dreams of acquiring Felix Hernandez in exchange for Yankee offal, even though the Mariners have no interest in such a pact.)
The "new economics," if you will, means teams, many of which are flush with new local-television revenues, are more willing to lock up players long-term during their cost-controlled years. That, in turn, thins the free-agent herd. For instance, top talents like Cole Hamels, Yadier Molina, Matt Cain, Andre Ethier, Brandon Phillips and Carlos Quentin, among others, all signed extensions during this, their walk year. Maybe the Yankees could have taken their usual approach had none of those things happened, but happen they did.
Throw in an AL East that still figures to be pretty tough, and you've got the makings of a disappointing season for the Yankees. Age, a weak system at the upper levels and a paltry free-agent market may not permit anything more. And wouldn't that be a change?