When an actor in Hollywood takes on an iconic role, the biggest concern for that person is the possibility of becoming typecast—in other words so identified with that role and character that audiences, and more importantly movie producers, lose the ability to see the actor as any other character. The late Christopher Reeve, who starred in four separate Superman movies in the 1970s and into the 1980s, is perhaps the poster boy for this particular professional affliction.
The New York Yankees, as many would agree, have been typecast as the Evil Empire for many years now, ever since George Steinbrenner took the reigns in the early 1970s and began upending many of the norms associated with professional sports team ownership. Prior to that the Yankees were commonly referred to as the IBM of the baseball world—quietly efficient, incredibly business-like and almost impossible to beat.
Part of the Evil Empire perception was derived from the Yankees' propensity to loom over virtually every free agent signing process. The organization would lurk in the background and then insert themselves into things at just the right moment, ensuring that the best-laid plans of many opposing general managers would ultimately go awry.
The phrase itself was first applied formally to the Yankees in 2003 by Boston Red Sox president Larry Lucchino, who was annoyed that the Yankees had outbid for the services of the recently defected Jose Contreras. This came after the Yankees had won almost as many titles over the previous seven years (four) as the Red Sox had won in their entire history to that point (five).
With all of this as backdrop, it would not have been foolish to think that the Yankees may have been playing opossum heading into the 2011-2012 offseason, when they said they'd be pursuing nothing but pitching, pitching, pitching.
At the time there were a number of position players who the team could have pursued via free agency or the trade route, and while the team certainly needed help with their pitching staff—and still do, many would argue—it would have been no surprise had Yankees GM Brian Cashman decided against repelling down the sides of buildings in favor of devising a way to get a Matt Kemp, Carlos Beltran or perhaps even a Prince Fielder into a Yankee uniform.
We know now that neither Kemp nor Beltran will be coming to the Bronx, and the chances of Fielder being in the Yankees lineup at any point in the near future—or ever—seem incredibly remote at best. This leaves no truly compelling targets for the Yankees to pursue in terms of positional impact players, and so the lineup that could not sustain any consistent attack in losing to the Detroit Tigers in the 2011 ALDS will return for the 2012 season essentially intact.
The addition of Jesus Montero as the DH, of course, might prove to be the necessary jolt the team will need offensively over time; however, as a rookie he will be tested daily to see if he is fact the kind of force many project him to be.
Where does this leave the Yankees heading into the season? Well, as a result of the organization playing against type for the entire offseason, the Yankees will find themselves hoping against all hope that they receive throwback performances from some of their core players.
If this does not transpire, and the starting rotation performs as expected—which is to say roughly 60 percent of the time, considering it includes A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes—then the Yankees might very well see a tremendous drop off in win totals year over year.
In real terms, only Robinson Cano can be counted on to deliver offensively as he has over the past few seasons. Cano is in his prime and perhaps one of the top-five offensive talents in all of baseball, certainly in the top 10.
Conversely, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher all return with varying questions marks next to their names. All of these players have issues due to some combination of age, injuries, signs of decline or simply the lack of a track record to bank on. Russell Martin and Brett Gardner will also be part of the mix, however, anything above what they've produced in the past would be a welcome surprise, not by any means an expectation. Again, Montero could be the linchpin to it all.
The Yankees did, of course, lead the league in many offensive categories in 2011, and so it will not be as if they will be rolling out the Seattle Mariners lineup in 2012. They will continue to be able to hit mediocre pitching consistently, and they will likely put up numbers that appear very healthy when the various analysts do their thing.
These are the Yankees, though, and this is New York. So the only statistic that has historically mattered to the front office and fans has been how many titles they've won at the end of the year. If it's anything less than one, there's a problem; or at least that's been the story out of Tampa and the Bronx for as long as can be remembered.
This complete lack of apparent interest in improving their offense heading into 2012 is, therefore, significantly un-Yankeelike. Not specifically because it's their offense, but because it's an element of the ball club that cannot be considered a lock to perform as needed when the time comes—whether that's in October or in the months leading up to October trying to secure their spot in the postseason in a stacked American League.
Realistically, the Yankees will be scoreboard watching all year, if not in actuality then certainly in a figurative sense. There will be a minimum of five, perhaps six additional American League teams (Boston, Tampa, Detroit, Los Angeles, Texas and perhaps Toronto) with legitimate designs of a postseason spot. And of those five or six teams, the Yankees cannot say that they have a definitive advantage over any of them from both an offensive and pitching perspective. That includes Toronto, if Brett Lawrie and some of their late-season acquisitions pan out as the organization hopes.
Tampa and Detroit will pitch better, without question. And it stands to reason that all of the remaining teams will hit at least as well as, if not better than, New York. When you add in the fact that it's likely that Texas and LA will also pitch better than the Yankees, and that Boston may also if some of their pieces begin to fit, you begin to realize that the Yankees may be entering 2012 with a much reduced chance of making the postseason, much less capturing a 28th title.
These realities, when put together, seem to add up to a larger reality. Specifically, it would appear that the New York Yankees, against all odds, are not in fact living up to any version of their Evil Empire reputation. Not in terms of offseason activity and certainly not in terms of their usual ruthless approach to fielding a team.
They appear, in fact, to be regrouping, steering towards a strategy that will lessen payroll (and the luxury tax implications that go along with it) and provide them with the financial and human assets to pursue select free agents and/or trade for high end performers in the coming years.
If the Yankee organization is in fact regrouping then it will truly be a wonder to behold. It will mark a reversal of roughly 40 years worth of full steam ahead, often regardless of whatever obstacles existed in the waters up ahead. It remains to be seen, however, if this approach will bear the kind of fruit that Yankee fans have grown accustomed to.
While the Yankee organization appears well-stocked in terms of young arms the reality is that they do not have an abundance of positional players that can impact the lineup over the next two or so seasons. This is not necessarily so due to a lack of talent throughout the organization but rather to the fact that the Yankees are married to many of their veterans—especially to both corner infielders (Rodriguez and Teixeira)—for what seems to be another millennium or so. This limits trade and free agent strategies tremendously and also keeps young talent from breaking through to the big team.
As a result, the Yankees cannot, for instance, seek to trade a Mark (Five More Years On My Contract) Teixeira to make room for Montero at first. This would have been a mechanism to ensure that both Montero and catching prospect Gary Sanchez could be in the lineup without either of them using up the DH slot.
If Teixeira returns to form, then the issue is moot, of course. However, if Teixeira continues to decline offensively (especially as a left-handed hitter), then the team will be left with fewer options with which to improve offensively.
Swisher comes off the books at the end of 2012 (or perhaps at the trade deadline?), which frees up some options. However, it may not even be likely that the Yankees will look elsewhere for a right fielder, as Cashman appears to be smitten with the bubbly postseason underachiever. Cashman's affection could all be an elaborate marketing campaign, of course. But even if that's the case, the Yankees cannot get much in return for Swisher, as he's considered a beneficiary of the lineup he's in rather than a force in his own right.
In the end, it is not solely the 2012 Yankees that will find it harder to make the postseason. Long-term contracts have hamstrung Cashman's ability to supplement the team offensively, and so the organization will either have to hope its young pitching is as good as they expect it to be or at least good enough to bring back some bankable talent via trade.
The Yankees will never compete with Pittsburgh or the pre-2011 Marlins for the title of Least Likely to Care About Winning vs. Profit. But the fact remains that they appear to be taking some sincere steps towards austerity. For the cynics out there, yes, it will be the Yankee version of austerity.
Regardless, it will be interesting to see how the organization compensates for this shift in strategy both on and off the field over the coming seasons. Title No. 28 is just 162 games away every year, of course, except somehow it feels longer than that already if you're a Yankee fan. Strange days to say the least.