If you thought this was a challenging season for the New York Yankees, just wait.
The club's 2013 campaign—fraught with crippling injuries, an ever-aging roster and about as much A-Rod as anyone could handle—came to a close over the weekend, with the team from the Bronx falling short of the postseason for only the second time in 19 years.
Typically, such an outcome would be considered a disaster in New York, where seasons are marked not by wins but by rings. But because of the way everything began falling apart before the games even started—and the way things ended with fond reminiscing as longtime Yankees greats Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte walked away—this year's result could be seen as surprisingly good rather than shockingly bad.
With the organization facing a long winter filled with numerous questions and unknowns, though, the tenor may soon change. After all, this is the New York Yankees we're talking about—the team that has been the most successful in the sport, both over the past two decades and across Major League Baseball history.
And yet, despite all of the good times, this franchise has, believe it or not, endured some meager days, too—periods of playoff-less droughts interspersed between the Octobers and the 27 titles. In fact, prior to this most recent run powered by the "Core Four," the Yankees failed to make a single postseason appearance from 1982 to 1993, and the same thing happened from 1965 to 1975, before the "Bronx Zoo" days began.
That's two extended eras in which the vaunted Yankees experienced double digit-long gaps in their playoff résumé, both of which also came immediately following prolonged stretches of success.
After reaching the postseason five out of six years from 1976 to 1981—including four trips to the World Series—the Yankees of the mid-1980s fell into a funk after captain Thurmon Munson's life was tragically cut short, stalwarts like Graig Nettles, Lou Piniella, Bobby Murcer and Tommy John collectively hit their mid- to late-30s, Sparky Lyle was traded, Reggie Jackson left for the California Angels and manager Billy Martin started getting fired by George Steinbrenner just about every other year.
Going back further, the Bombers of the 1950s and 1960s—the Mickey Mantle-Yogi Berra-Whitey Ford era—dominated baseball, reaching the World Series all but twice over a 16-season span. But then by 1965 it came to a halt, as Mantle, Berra and Ford all hit the end of their primes (really, their careers) in a matter of a few years.
Both of those scenarios played out with core players lasting together for several seasons and being primarily responsible for the Yankees' achieving playoff berth after playoff berth and winning multiple World Series championships. Both of those scenarios also came to an end—practically all at once—and led to barren years in the Bronx where success and attendance dwindled for the better part of a decade.
Sound familiar? History, you see, has a funny way of repeating itself—and if the Yankees aren't careful, the organization may be about to enter into another dry spell.
To a certain extent, it was already apparent at the outset of 2013 that this upcoming offseason would be rife with changes and challenges, but now that the season is officially over, finality is kicking in and giving way to a sense of foreboding in New York.
There are a laundry list of questions, concerns, problems and issues that need to be addressed by the Steinbrenners, general manager Brian Cashman and the rest of the front office.
Rivera and Pettitte are already gone, and they may soon be joined by free-agents-to-be Robinson Cano, the second baseman who has been the team's best player five years running (but who is reportedly seeking in excess of $300 million), outfielder Curtis Granderson, who led the club in homers in 2011 and 2012, and right-hander Hiroki Kuroda, the top starter the past two seasons.
(For what it's worth, one-time top prospects Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain are also as good as gone, which only adds to the upheaval.)
Beyond that, there are significant injury- and decline-related developments surrounding lefty CC Sabathia, who is 33 and just muddled through the worst season of his 13-year career, first baseman Mark Teixeira, also 33, who played all of 15 games due to wrist surgery, and longtime shortstop—and captain—Derek Jeter, who will be 40 next June and managed to make it through exactly two more games than Teixeira did because of multiple injuries to his legs.
In case you're wondering, by the way, Sabathia and Teixeira still have about $76 million and $67.5 million, respectively, coming their way through 2016.
Things will change via free agency and trades, no doubt, but an Oct. 1 inspection of the Yankees' expected 25-man roster for Opening Day 2014 puts the following players as potential regulars under the age of 30 years old: right-handers Ivan Nova and David Phelps, reliever David Robertson, perhaps infielder Eduardo Nunez and possibly—although certainly not definitely—righty Michael Pineda.
If Rivera, Pettitte, Jeter and Jorge Posada made up the "Core Four," what's the nickname for that bunch—the "Flimsy Five?"
Oh, and did we mention that Joe Girardi, who has been at the helm since 2008 and helped guide the club to its most recent World Series championship in 2009, is not under contract for 2014 and there is much speculation that he may well wind up jumping ship to manage his hometown Chicago Cubs?
And let's not forget the walking controversy that is Alex Rodriguez, who may or may not miss all or most of 2014 (and beyond), depending on how his appeal of a 211-game suspension for being linked to the Biogenesis scandal plays out.
If you're looking within the organization for a way to counteract some of these looming losses in the immediate future, you won't find it. While the Yankees do have some talent in their farm system, much of it is in the low minors, meaning there's no cavalry of prospects ready to help in 2014.
What about free agency? That's been a route Cashman and company have gone with varying degrees of success in the past, but there are two problems on that front: One, aside from Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo, Brian McCann and maybe a Matt Garza or Ervin Santana, the upcoming class isn't chock full of worthwhile options; and two, the Steinbrenner ownership continues to claim that staying under the $189 million luxury tax threshold is on the must-do list.
For a club whose 2013 payroll was nearly $230 million, even with tens of millions coming off the books due to retirements and free agent departures, it would be tricky to bring in more than one big-name player.
So where does this leave the Yankees heading into the offseason and 2014? The state of the franchise is certainly at its most tenuous since the pre-dynasty days in the early 1990s, which means there's a lot of work to do and decisions to make to transition from the days of Rivera, Pettitte, Jeter and Posada to, well, whoever comes next as the face(s) of the franchise.
The good news is that any potential dry spell might not last quite as long as either of the past two have (i.e., 10-plus seasons), simply because the second wild card allows for an extra team to make the playoffs in each league every year. Of course, the Yankees play in the AL East, which remains the toughest, most competitive division in the sport.
Incidentally, the last organization to undergo such upheaval was none other than their arch rivals, the Boston Red Sox, who enjoyed a decade-long run of regular and postseason success in the 2000s only to face-plant a year ago when they finished in last place in the AL East at 69-93. As Boston proved this season, though, a turnaround can happen quickly—the Red Sox tied for the best record in baseball—but it took massive, sweeping changes rather than minor alterations.
That approach may soon be necessary to prevent the Yankees from stumbling, or worse, going through another extended playoff-less period. Contrary to popular belief, the past proves that it takes more than just pinstripes to bring about wins and rings.
Following the completion of a 2013 campaign that somehow went better than expected and yet also leaves so many questions and unknowns lying ahead, it's clear that the Yankees face real challenges—as they try to prevent history from repeating itself all over again.
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