There’s Always Next Year: The Coming Yankee Meltdown

The night the Yankees lost to the Red Sox, I spent some time listening to WFAN. As a native Midwesterner with no affinity for any of the local teams, I really only ever put on The Fan when something major — preferably bad — happens to a New York team. I think the last time I listened to the station for any extended period of time was the night the Knicks traded Latrell Sprewell to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

I was expecting an angry, drunken, rage-filled reaction, reminiscent of the Sprewell discussion, and a Sunday program I used to listen to in Boston that I dubbed “Late Night Drunken Sports Radio.” But in fact, most of the Yankee fans were conciliatory, resigned to their fate, and already pitching transaction scenarios for the offseason. Sound familiar, Red Sox fans?

What was really illuminating was when a couple of the hosts did a brief roster analysis, and one asked the other which Yankees are likely to be dumped as a result of the most embarrassing loss in franchise history. The answer? “Esteban Loaiza, and probably Kenny Lofton.” The rest of the team? Either mainstay superstars or untradeable bad contracts. I suppose Jason Giambi qualifies as both.

The current makeup of the Yankee roster says a lot about where they’ve gone as an organization over the past few years. The Yankee teams that won four World Series between 1996 and 2000 established a winning formula: yes, they spent money on superstars, but they also made smart trades, drew impact players (Jeter, Rivera, Posada) from within the organization, and cultivated many more top prospects for use in trades for veteran help. They paid attention to team chemistry and character, and never seemed to sign worthless players to bad contracts. And much as those teams were offensive juggernauts, dominant pitching was always what carried them over the top, especially in the postseason.

Yes, the teams were deeper than most, but they also won championships with the likes of Charlie Hayes, Mariano Duncan, Joe Girardi, and Chad Curtis in the starting lineup. It’s hard to imagine even a Chuck Knoblauch — let alone a Girardi — playing a prominent role for the Yankees in 2004, or especially in 2005. Over the years — as the team has paid its players more and more money — they’ve almost inversely paid less and less attention to the attributes that contributed to their dynasty.

With George Steinbrenner getting more and more desperate as the team’s most recent championship recedes even further into the rear-view mirror — four years, at last count — there’s no reason to think the trend won’t continue until the franchise crumbles, Lakers-style. I’m not making this argument because I believe it’s morally wrong for the Yankees to spend gobs of money. What I’m saying is, now that the Yankees’ only apparent player-personnel strategy is to spend money, it will ultimately be their undoing.

Let’s look at the areas in which the Yankees have betrayed the principles of their most recent dynasty:

Organizational Strength

For years the Yankees had such a strong pipeline of top prospects coming through their system that not only were they able to plug players such as Jeter into the lineup as rookies, they were seldom outbid by other teams in trade packages — often giving up “can’t-miss prospects” the likes of Ricky Ledee, Ruben Rivera, Ed Yarnall, and Homer Bush for veteran help. Rivera was the poster child for being a Yankee “top prospect” who was traded and turned to nothing, before he was the poster child for stealing Jeter’s glove and trying to sell it.

But in the last two or three years, the team’s minor-league infrastructure appears to have whittled down to the nothing, to the point where the Yankees were unable to pull off a trade for Randy Johnson in July when no other serious bidders were even in the hunt — a turn of events that would’ve been unimaginable in any other year. And don’t forget, the last Yankee farmhand to become a regular for the big club was Alfonso Soriano in 2001.

Character

You may hate Roger Clemens — most fans do. Maybe you’re sick of David Wells too, or bring your “Jeter Sucks” sign to every game. But unlikable as these guys may be to fans and opponents, they’re effective players who don’t do things to sabotage their own teams. Last offseason the Yankees brought in both Gary Sheffield and Kevin Brown, two players who had worn out their welcome at several of their previous stops — New York is the sixth team for both players.

Throughout their careers both players have very much cultivated the “clubhouse cancer” label and Brown, in fact, represents a literal physical danger to the clubhouse itself — no wall, water cooler, or light fixture is safe for as long as he’s around. The Sheffield signing, before the Sox comeback anyway, worked out; the Brown one, I think we can say, did not. But either way, the team never would’ve stood for clubhouse cancers prior to this season; now, the ban seems to have been relaxed. Will Jeff Kent be starting at second for them next year?

Bad Contracts

True, Steinbrenner “doesn’t care about money.” As long as it’s helping him win, that is. But what if he signs five relief pitchers for too many years, way over their value, and none produce except for Tom Gordon — who blew it in the playoffs? Steve Karsay signed for big bucks a few years ago and has pitched seven times in the past two years. They got the White Sox to take Jose Contreras off their hands, but will they be so lucky to find a sucker next time?

Did the Yankees ever carry around bad, long-term contracts during the championship years, or even make any bad player personnel decisions at all? The only one I can remember is Hideki Irabu, and he was easily gotten rid of too. A $200 million payroll is fine, for Steinbrenner, when he’s winning. But when the team eventually starts to lose, what will he do then?

Strength of Pitching

Roger Clemens. David Cone. Mike Mussina. Andy Pettitte. Jimmy Key. David Wells. A veritable who’s-who of great American League starters from the ‘90s drifted through the Bronx during the early Torre Era, making the difference in just about every playoff series for five years. But after Clemens and Pettitte departed last offseason, the Yanks had no true dominant ace — of the above list, only Mussina remains, and he’s on the downside of his career. Brown is 40, and Javier Vazquez has ace potential that hasn’t as of yet been realized, at least not in New York.

Notice how the team always wins around 100 games, yet keeps coming up short in the playoffs? In the three-playoff-round era, pitching wins championships, and the Yankees’ pitching has come up short in the postseason since 2001. One constant that remains from early in the Yankees’ run is that Mariano Rivera is still a top closer. But as anyone who watched the last four games of the Boston series can attest, he’s not quite as invincible as he once was, and against the Red Sox especially. For years the Yankees knew a lead going into the ninth was an automatic win; Rivera’s still the best closer in the game, but he’s not quite so automatic anymore, and he’s bound to get less automatic as the years go by.

Team Chemistry

To be sure, the championship-era teams never lacked for stars. But as mentioned above, some not-so-big-names also played big roles on those Yankee championship teams. Remember those Jim Leyritz homers? Scott Brosius in the 2001 series? Then there was the next tier — the Paul O’Neills, the Tino Martinezes — solid regulars who won’t be Hall of Famers, but who came through for the team year after year regardless. There’s no room for such midlevel players on the Yankees anymore; George only wants superstars — and in such a situation clashing egos are inevitable — especially if the team ever starts losing.

So, about next year …

The Yankees will need to address their pitching, and also, as usual, appraise the best-available-players list to see if they can bring one or more of them in. But they can’t make trades, because they have no prospects to trade, nor can they fill in holes with rookies because there aren’t any of those on the way, either. We also won’t be seeing any more of the next-best-thing — the Soriano-for-A-Rod/Weaver-for-Brown “cheap veteran for expensive veteran” trades — because they also don’t have any cheap veterans left.

Therefore, with nearly every player under contract at prices that no other team wants to pay, the team’s only remaining option for making over the roster is free agency. George doesn’t mind, I’m sure. And with Carlos Beltran available after a postseason performance of historic proportions with Houston, he’s a safe bet for pinstripes. Whither Bernie Wiliams? He’d DH, with Jason Giambi becoming a full-time first baseman. Yikes.

Then there’s the rotation. They’ll probably make another play for Randy Johnson, but they still don’t have prospects to satisfy Arizona, or any other team wanting to facilitate a three- or four-way deal. And let’s not forget that Johnson is 40. A front-line of Johnson, Brown, and Mussina would clock in at a combined age of 113. Pedro Martinez? It’s a nightmare scenario for Red Sox fans, but don’t forget that the entire team, the entire fan base, and even the mayor all hate his guts, making a move to the Bronx unlikely. Matt Morris? A possibility, but he’s not quite a #1 starter anymore. I’m guessing they’ll throw way too much money at Eric Milton, to atone for having once traded him for Knoblauch.

So assuming Beltran signs for around $100 million, that’ll be five players on the team (A-Rod, Jeter, Giambi, Brown, and Beltran) in the nine-figure club. With Sheffield, Mussina, Williams and Rivera all in the $10-15 million a year range, and Posada, Matsui, and Vazquez not far behind, that’s a lot of big contracts on one team. What if they start feuding? What if one or more of them goes off a cliff, Roberto Alomar-style, and suddenly ceases to be a superstar? (Some would say Giambi already has.) And worst of all, how long until the inevitable Jeter/A-Rod feud finally rears its head?

In other words, what if this All-Star team in the Bronx turns out to be dramatically less than the sum of its parts? After all, there’s a precedent in recent sports history for a team losing despite having exponentially more talent than their opponents. It was in Athens last summer, and they called it “Team USA.” And there’s another right in the Yankees’ hometown — the New York Rangers, who have done nothing in the past half-decade except sign over-the-hill big names — and haven’t sniffed the playoffs in years.

It may not even be next year. But eventually, there will be a season when the Yankees, say, win 90 games but finish second to Boston, and miss the wild card by a game or two. And the more heartbreaking the loss, the more desperate George gets for a quick fix. Witness last year — when after Pettitte announced his departure, Steinbrenner was so obsessed with getting back in the game by the end of the news cycle that he made the ill-advised Brown trade later that night.

Eventually, Joe Torre will decide he can take no more, and resign/retire, and there’s no way his replacement will be as strong a manager as he is, so George may resume his firing-happy ways. And while Steinbrenner now says General Manager Brian Cashman’s job is safe, it seems almost inevitable that a less-brainy executive will eventually replace him.

As I’ve probably made clear, I’m not a Yankee fan. But as even uber-Sox fan Bill Simmons admits, baseball is more interesting when they’re in the picture. Following four years of failure to win a championship by teams built to do exactly that, the Yankees may not be out of the picture quite yet. But with the team now pursuing an organizational strategy without any precedent for success in any sport, that day is closer now than at any time in living memory.

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