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Will Experience/Leadership or Father Time Win out in Yankees' Age War?

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Will Experience/Leadership or Father Time Win out in Yankees' Age War?
Al Bello/Getty Images

This will be it. This will be the year when the New York Yankees are finally undone by their age. Their collective geezerness will finally get the better of them.

They won't just miss the postseason. They'll miss it by a mile. Having gotten the gist, they'll then blow up their roster and move on with a full rebuild that they've been avoiding for years. The rest of baseball will celebrate the demise of the Evil Empire. There will be Ewoks and everything.

...But we say this every spring, don't we? 

We do indeed, and the Yankees always respond by coming out on top once again. They've missed the postseason only once since 1995, and that was when they won 89 games in 2008. They of course then went on to win the World Series in 2009, seemingly just to prove a point.

That the Yankees have managed to maintain success with eternally aging rosters is a sign that Brian Cashman knows how to pick veteran players. It's also a sign that immeasurable things like experience and leadership count for a lot, and the Yankees are always well stocked in those departments.

If their average age is any indication, the Yankees will have as much leadership and experience as ever in 2013. ESPN.com has their average age at 28.5 years old, which ties them for the highest in baseball. They should continue to play like a bottle of fine wine rather than a bottle of vinegar.

...Still, there's no escaping that big question: Just how old can a team get before it's too old?

The Yankees' 2013 roster is custom-designed to find out. It was old to begin with, and Cashman didn't go out of his way to inject some youth into his roster throughout the offseason.

Just take a look at the key free agents he signed, via MLBTradeRumors.com:

Name Position Age
Matt Diaz OF 34
Travis Hafner DH 35
Hiroku Kuroda SP 38
Andy Pettitte SP 40
Juan Rivera OF/1B 34
Mariano Rivera CL 43
Ichiro Suzuki RF 39
Kevin Youkilis 3B 33

The average age of the players in the above table is 37. Conventional wisdom says you want to avoid players that old, not collect them like so many stamps.

Of particular concern is the way in which Cashman failed to make the Yankees offense any younger. The New York Post crunched the numbers and determined that the average age of Joe Girardi's projected Opening Day lineup is an MLB-high 32.9 years old. 

Old age didn't hinder the Yankees offense that much in 2012. They broke the franchise home run record with 245 long balls, and they finished first in MLB in OPS and second in runs scored. 

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Even Robinson Cano could only muster just one hit in 18 at-bats in the ALCS.

However, this same high-powered offense managed only six runs and a .488 OPS in the four games the Bombers dropped to the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS. Before that, they managed only 16 runs and a .611 OPS in five games against the Baltimore Orioles in the ALDS.

There are two logical explanations for this. One is that the Yankees just happened to face very good pitching, which is very, very true in regard to the sweep at the hands of the Tigers.

The other is that older bones become sorer bones come October. That looked to be the case with the Yankees, as their hitters oftentimes looked gassed in both the ALDS and ALCS. The beginning of the end was signaled when Derek Jeter's already balky left ankle gave in during Game 1 of the ALCS.

That the Yankees' old offense couldn't hack it in the postseason in 2012 isn't a fluke. Just take a look at the average batter age of the last 13 World Series winners, courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com:

Year Team Average Batter Age
2012 Giants 27.8
2011 Cardinals 29.3
2010 Giants 29.5
2009 Yankees 30.4
2008 Phillies 30.1
2007 Red Sox 30.2
2006 Cardinals 29.6
2005 White Sox 29.5
2004 Red Sox 30.6
2003 Marlins 27.7
2002 Angels 28.5
2001 Diamondbacks 31.9
2000 Yankees 31.3

It's been over a decade since a team last won a World Series with an average batter age over 31, and none of the last three championship teams featured an offense with an average age over 30.

Yet here the Yankees are in 2013 looking to win the World Series with an offense that features an average age of nearly 33. That doesn't bode well for their chances of winning the World Series.

Even making it to the postseason will require traveling a perilous road in 2013, as the collective age of the Bombers offense comes with an alarming number of potential pitfalls.

Will Jeter's ankle hold up despite surgery and his 38 years of age? Even if it does, will he be able to post a high BABIP again even though his age says he shouldn't be able to (Dan Szymborski of Baseball Think Factory wrote an interesting piece about that in January)?

Elsewhere, what are the Yankees going to get out of their third basemen? If Alex Rodriguez is even able to return in 2013, he may not be good for much on two surgically repaired hips. Kevin Youkilis showed signs of life in 2012 with the Chicago White Sox, but he hasn't played in over 130 games since 2009 and his production is definitely trending in the wrong direction.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Ichiro's BABIP with Seattle in 2012 was .279.

Mark Teixeira's production is also trending in the wrong direction, as his OPS has declined in each of the last six seasons. Ichiro's production was in sharp decline last year before he rebounded to hit .322 with the Yankees, but his .337 BABIP spike may not be sustainable. Travis Hafner hasn't been an impact hitter in years, and he's played in more than 100 games only once in the last five seasons.

Whereas the Yankees' success in the late 1990s and early 2000s was based on their pitching, their success ever since 2004 has been based around offense. They're used to finishing either first or second in MLB in runs scored, failing to do so only once in the last nine seasons.

That was when they finished 10th in baseball in runs scored in 2008 and missed the postseason. Their offense could be similarly disappointing in 2013, in which case they'll need to revert back to being a pitching-oriented contender in order to grab their customary postseason berth.

The bright side is that—on paper, anyway—the Yankees have the pieces to do that.

It often feels like he doesn't get the credit he deserves, but CC Sabathia is one of the league's true pitching greats. Even though he was limited to 28 starts by elbow issues in 2012, he still delivered 200 innings, a solid 3.38 ERA and a league-best 4.48 K/BB.

Hiroki Kuroda was a godsend in 2012, pitching 219.2 innings with a 3.32 ERA. The Yankees will be looking for more where that came from, and they'll take another sub-3.00 ERA from Andy Pettitte.

The back end of the Yankees rotation is better than most. Phil Hughes quietly worked a career-high 191.1 innings in 2012 while compiling a career-best 3.59 K/BB. Ivan Nova struggled in his 28 starts, but there's still hope for him based on what he did in 2011 (16-4 with a 3.70 ERA over 165.1 innings).

The Yankees bullpen, meanwhile, is not overly deep, but they'll be fine if David Robertson takes care of business as usual in the eighth inning and Mariano Rivera returns to form in the ninth inning. 

The Yankees' pitching went through a gauntlet run in 2012, as the club dealt with injuries to Sabathia, Pettitte, Nova and Rivera and suffered through inconsistent performances from others. It's therefore impressive that the club managed to tie the Philadelphia Phillies for 11th in the league in team ERA.

If things go well in 2013, the Yankees' pitching should do even better than that. If so, they'll be able to get away with a down year from their offense better than they did in 2008 when they finished with a 4.28 ERA.

...But, just like with their offense, there are very real potential pitfalls that could throw the Yankees' pitching for an even worse loop than the one it was thrown for in 2012.

Sabathia's elbow may be a ticking time bomb after logging about 1,400 innings since 2007. The Yankees are kidding themselves hoping for over 30 starts from Pettitte, as he hasn't made that many starts in four years. Though they're hoping for Nova to bounce back, it doesn't bode well for them that he had the highest opponents' slugging percentage of any qualified starter in 2012 (see ESPN.com).

Elsa/Getty Images
Only three 43-year-old relievers in history have made as many as 60 appearances in a season. The last to do it was Jim Kaat in 1982.

Then there's the Rivera question mark. Nobody wants to bet against him—me included, for the record—but he'll be attempting to do something truly unprecedented for his age. A typical season for him calls for at least 60 appearances and at least 30 saves, but no 43-year-old reliever in history has ever done that before in a season. Factor in his knee surgery, and you've got an iffy situation.

Combine the offensive pitfalls with the pitching pitfalls, and you get a huge list of things that could go wrong with this year's Yankees club. It's doubtful that all of their worst nightmares will come true, mind you, but some will. It's a long season, and the baseball gods are cruel.

Experience and leadership will be of paramount importance if the Yankees end up traveling on a rocky road in 2013, but depth will be just as important. The Yankees are going to need players to step up and perform if their established stars go down with injuries or just plain can't hack it.

And therein lies another concern: The Yankees don't have a ton of depth. Their best young players are all in the lower levels of their farm system, and they could really feel the losses of veteran role players like Eric Chavez, Andruw Jones and Raul Ibanez. They produced some big moments in 2012, and they had enough years of service between them to significantly bolster the club's collective experience level.

The Yankees also don't have much starting pitching depth beyond Nova. They have David Phelps, but after him the next best starter on their depth chart is Michael Pineda. He's still months away from returning from the shoulder surgery he had last year.

Bullpen depth could also be an issue, particularly if Rivera goes down. The Yankees had Rafael Soriano to turn to when Mo got hurt in 2012. They won't if he goes down again in 2013, and Robertson didn't prove to be much of a closer when he was given a chance to close games in Rivera's stead.

Bill Madden of the New York Daily News wrote over the weekend that you have to go all the way back to 1992 to find a spring in which there were lower expectations for the Yankees. I'm also not the only one writing about their age concerns, as Tyler Kepner of The New York Times and Jon Morosi of FoxSports.com have also weighed in on the subject.

There are always skeptics out there when the Yankees open camp, but this year the bad vibes feel realer than ever. This has the feel of a year when Father Time will finally look at the Yankees and say, "Enough already."

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

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