Trying to retool an aging roster while also attempting to compete for playoff spots and championships is one of the most difficult balancing acts in sports.
That's where the New York Yankees and general manager Brian Cashman find themselves this winter.
While star players like Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton—both of whom could have helped the Yanks—were available on the free-agent market, Cashman has tried to patch cracks on his roster with the baseball player equivalent of duct tape.
If the Yankees ever needed a transfusion of young talent from their minor league system, this would be the year for it. The Yanks have openings in right field, the left side of the infield and at catcher that would ideally be filled by developing prospects. Instead, those holes are being plugged by one-year stopgaps.
Rather than sign Hamilton or bring back Nick Swisher, the Yankees are set to re-sign 39-year-old Ichiro Suzuki to play right field.
Ichiro was productive in his 67 games with the Yanks, batting .322 with a .794 OPS, five home runs, 27 RBI and 14 stolen bases. But he's not exactly the biggest prize on the free-agent market.
With Alex Rodriguez probably out until July while recovering from hip surgery, the Yankees signed 33-year-old Kevin Youkilis to be their fill-in third baseman. Once A-Rod returns, Youkilis will likely become something of a utility player, helping out at third base, first base and designated hitter.
Youkilis was the best free-agent third baseman available, but that says more about the market than his current skills. The Yanks were hoping to fill that position with a platoon of Jeff Keppinger and Eric Chavez, but were outbid for both players.
When was the last time the Yankees lost out on a player because of money?
Keppinger and Chavez weren't the only ones that signed elsewhere for more cash either.
Catcher Russell Martin took a two-year, $17 million contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates. That may have been a smart decision by Cashman, given Martin's .211 batting average and .713 OPS. But when a player spurns the Yankees for the Pirates, we are living in a new era.
Expecting the farm system to produce players who could fill each of those holes in the same season is asking for too much, of course. That would take either an amazing coincidence or more likely result in someone being rushed to the majors before he's ready.
Austin Romine might be the one young player who breaks through for the Yankees next season. With Martin's departure, he could be the starting catcher. But he was limited to 31 minor league games this year while recovering from a back injury.
According to Baseball America, the Yankees' top two prospects are outfielders Mason Williams and Slade Heathcott. But Williams ended this year in Single-A Tampa. He's likely two to three years away from the majors. The same goes for Heathcott.
Catcher Gary Sanchez also finished this year with Single-A Tampa. He's not going to be playing at Yankee Stadium for a while. Outfielder Tyler Austin is also probably a couple of seasons away from being counted on by the Yankees.
Perhaps the biggest blow for the Yanks' minor league system was the downfall of top pitching prospects Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances.
Banuelos suffered a serious elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. Meanwhile, Betances had an awful season, pitching so badly that he was demoted from Triple-A to Double-A. His future is looking doubtful.
Either of those young arms could have helped the Yankees' starting rotation during the season if they had pitched effectively. But more importantly, one or both might have been used to make a trade for help the Yanks desperately needed.
Could either of those pitchers have been dealt for a veteran starter during the last two months of the season?
What if they helped yield a player like Justin Upton, someone who would be more valuable next year while also bringing some youth to an aging lineup? (As it turns out, the Yankees probably couldn't have gotten Upton, since the Arizona Diamondbacks wanted a shortstop in return.)
To be fair, two prospects that would have been Yankees by now were dealt away in recent years. Austin Jackson is now the center fielder for the Detroit Tigers, having been traded for Curtis Granderson. Jesus Montero is with the Seattle Mariners, swapped for Michael Pineda.
Perhaps Cashman is taking the right approach with his patchwork moves this offseason. After all, the Yankees finished the regular season with the best record in the American League.
It all just fell apart at the same time during the postseason with A-Rod becoming impotent at the plate (on a bad hip, it was later revealed), along with Swisher, Granderson and Robinson Cano slumping badly.
Were the Yankees victimized by bad luck or has an aging roster finally begun to deteriorate?
If it's the latter, most general managers might start to trade off those older veterans for some prospects to replenish the minor league system.
However, paying top dollar for aging players hurts them here as well. What other team would take the remaining five years and $114 million left on Rodriguez's contract? How about the $90 million Mark Teixeira is owed over the next four years?
The Yankees have re-signed Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera to make sure the pitching is solid. The lineup scored 804 runs, second in the AL last season, Even with less firepower, there should be plenty of offense to get by.
But how much longer can the Yankees keep doing this?
Is it just about getting under the $189 million luxury tax threshold for 2014, then becoming big spenders again after that season? Or does Cashman need to start thinking more seriously about restocking the farm system and trying to make his team younger before it crumbles even further?
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