When Can We Realistically Expect the New York Yankees to Contend for a Title ?
With their "Core Four" now reduced to one, the end of an era that brought five world championships in 17 seasons is upon the New York Yankees.
Since Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter first appeared in the Bronx in 1995, the team has missed the playoffs just once (2008) and has won less than 90 games three times (not including this season).
On the cusp of experiencing a rare October-less season, how soon will the team legitimately be in contention for their 28th title?
The current version of the Yankees is a shell of their recent predecessors. Plagued all year by injuries to key players and the underachievement of those brought in to fill the gaps, the team could see their lowest win total since the abbreviated 1995 season.
Many changes lie ahead for the Bombers. Already Pettitte and Rivera enter the final week of their careers, and it is doubtful Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Lyle Overbay, Chris Stewart or Travis Hafner will be back. It is likely the club will make free-agent offers to Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson, but their return is not a sure thing.
Even manager Joe Girardi's contract is up at the end of the year, and while GM Brian Cashman has alluded to re-signing him, an offer has yet to be made.
In house, the Yankees prospect for the future is limited at best. Following this year's trade deadline, Bleacher Report ranked all 30 MLB farm systems and had the organization sitting 14th. That is consistent with other publications such as Baseball Prospectus (14th), SB nation (14th) and FanGraphs (10th).
That isn't to say that the team doesn't have young, up-and-coming stars. Gary Sanchez is a 20-year-old catcher who is rated third among the club's top prospects by Baseball America. Also in the top five are outfielders Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams and Tyler Austin.
Those future Bombers don't solve all of the Yankees issues though.
The turnover in pitching may be the most immediate of concerns. CC Sabathia suffered through his worst season as a Yankee with a career-high 4.78 ERA and his lowest win total (14) since 2006.
Hiroki Kuroda briefly stepped into the "ace" role for the club during July when his ERA for the month was a microscopic 0.55, but as summer turned into fall, his performance steadily declined and he struggled with a 5.41 ERA over his last 10 starts.
Most seasons the Yankees would seek their answers via free agency, but a highly publicized self-imposed budget of $189 million for 2014 may put a damper on hopes for a quick return to dominance.
The question is how strictly do the Yankees stick to that number? Yes, they want to avoid the luxury tax, but do they sacrifice a season and risk alienating their fans at the cost of doing so?
Highly rated free-agent pitchers this offseason include James Shields, Jon Lester, Ervin Santana, Tim Lincecum and yes, Yankee fans, A.J. Burnett.
Ironically, their first order of business on the free-agent market will be one of their own. Robinson Cano, the All-Star second baseman, is in the driver's seat when it comes to demanding a salary. As the team's premiere hitter (hitting .314 with 27 HR and 105 RBI) he'll be looking for something in the five-year, $25 million range.
The questions entering 2014 far outweigh the answers for the Yankees, and it seems probable that they won't reverse their decline right away.
There is hope.
The owners are, after all, Steinbrenners. It's in their blood to compete at all costs, and the very thought of fielding a substandard product has to make them cringe. Hal Steinbrenner, the team's managing general partner, did leave an opening when he alluded that the $189 million was not set in stone.
Chances are that the club's activity in the free-agent market will fall somewhere between aggressive and disinterested. Look for them to retain Cano (they have to right?), find a catcher to productively hold down the fort until the youngsters develop and land at least one mid-to-high level pitcher to help CC anchor the staff.
It would not be surprising to see the team re-sign Mark Reynolds as he's given them quality at-bats and provides flexibility in being able to play both first and third base.
Overall, the team will be better in 2014. The degree to which they improve depends upon whether they decide to eat a luxury tax or avoid one. A decision to stick with what they have means next year will only be a continuation of the disappointment of 2013.
Regardless of the direction they choose, the worst case scenario for the organization still means a return to baseball's elite in 2015.
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