Imagine an alternate world for the New York Yankees.
It's the All-Star break in 2014, Derek Jeter's still retiring at season's end and domestic beer still costs $9 at the Stadium.
But in this reality, they did not make the postseason in 17 of the last 19 years.
Imagine that from 1995-2013 they didn't win five World Series titles, and picture an '09 season where they hadn't backed up their first of two failed campaigns with immediate success.
Perhaps it's into this other reality that we could actually fit a scenario where—with the Yankees now at 47-47 after their second failed campaign, maybe heading toward a third—the front office might feel more comfortable blowing the whole damn thing up.
Because often the biggest hindrance to beginning a path of true soul-searching, self-improvement and accountability is one's own obscuring mask of past success and current adequacy. Seventeen out of 19 postseasons, right? And only five games back. And .500, but not significantly worse.
And it's the Yankees.
That's the issue. It's the perception of what the Yankees have always been and what they should be—rather than the acknowledgement of what they've become and what they now are—that may ultimately harm them in the second half of the season and in the future.
FanGraphs tells us the Yankees have an 11.3 percent chance of making the postseason. A fan on the corner, having just learned Masahiro Tanaka is out a minimum of six weeks, tells us the Yankees probably have no shot.
Now, a quick qualification, whether one views it as optimistic, fair or necessary to say this before continuing: Yes, both of those projections may prove horribly wrong if the Yankees' offense catches fire and some dark-horse pitching heroes (David Phelps, Shane Greene, Brandon McCarthy?) buoy them through a second-half surge.
This idea would be especially reinforced by the continued parity (feebleness?) of the AL East and some lucky breaks—like the returns and success of CC Sabathia and Tanaka coupled with more major injuries to contenders (think Toronto's sidelined Edwin Encarnacion).
But right now, consider the trends—or truth, or however you'd like to paint this picture: The Yankees are damn mediocre. In many respects, they're quite paltry. On the surface, $500 million bought them .500 baseball. Beneath, it's actually worse:
|Yankees 1st-Half Team Stats and Rankings|
If you choose to take the escapist route and claim injuries, misfortune and timing are the sole blame, I would mention that New York headed into the season without a true insurance plan—let alone any plan (if the sole "plan" was to stay under their $189 million threshold, they fell short of it).
On the back of a successful spring training, I wrote on March 27 in the season preview:
[E]ven with optimism continually rising, no team's 2014 outlook is more bipolar than New York's. Think about how stunningly dominant, effective and efficient this ballclub could be with all its pieces in harmony; yet think of how many unstable, moving parts could send the same club into a tailspin.
And in the face of potential embarrassment from (a) that tailspin materializing as they miss the postseason in back-to-back years, (b) declining attendance at new Yankee Stadium, (c) diminishing viewership for the YES Network and (d) being haunted by George "The Boss" Steinbrenner's angry ghost—no longer rolling in his grave, but banging on the lid of the casket—Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner only know how to be buyers.
This all raises the following two questions—it's the Yankees, remember: Would the front office realistically consider the classic fire sale of its older, expiring, movable parts in exchange for young talent? And isn't the cherry on top the fact that New York doesn't possess blue-chip young talent in their own farm?
OK, make that three questions: If they don't (really, since they won't) consider becoming sellers instead of buyers, should they?
Yes. At least partially. Because only continuing to buy is like wrapping gauze and smearing Neosporin on the chest of a patient with a leaky valve and collapsed lung.
Based on the notion that the Yanks' management and operations have yet to, and don't seem willing to, adjust with their own organization's markedly different foundation—and different power structure in MLB—yes, they should sell.
This argument should be looked upon, at the least, as a blueprint for the Yankees to begin their journey of self-refinement and enrichment. They should engage in some selling before the July 31 deadline; not using their refined brand of elitist history and their riches to buy their way out of what could be a debacle the next three months.
There is no magic cream, no quick-fix solution; neither by only buying the antidote off the top of the market nor by solely developing it within. Balance is the wise choice here.
After their winter spending spree, I noted in a February 10 Yankees spring training preview:
With or without true Yankee 'success' through overvaluing and overspending, they will still be one year delayed in setting into motion what could be a smarter long-term model. One that, in part, finds undervalued pieces from outside, and trusts the younger, unproven ones from within.
Halfway through the season, it's time to set that renewed model in motion. And better now than the first week of November.
The Overreliance on Buying: No More Core; the Shifted MLB Power Dynamic
There's no more validity in the "lost art" of buying as there is in a one-time "failed experiment" of buying. It's just that the identity of the Yankees and the rest of the league has transformed in a way that makes a strategy largely based on spending headed for failure.
Back in February, I led off that season preview by asking fans a simple though profound question: "The pinstripes and interlocking 'NY' look the same, but what about the new identity of the team as 2014 ushers in a new era? What does that change mean, and how would you begin to identify with the present state of the franchise?"
The idea was to consider what I called "[A] fault line forming in the Bronx since last season." It runs between the transformed, attractive team we'll see on the field and the shifted foundational pieces beneath the organization's surface, the most integral of which have been removed since Game 162.
It was to point out the possibility that their method of winter spending, as they'd always done, may end up biting them in their collective behinds if losing the foundational pieces—Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Robinson Cano, etc.—were not taken into account and sufficiently offset.
I argued, as I still do now in July, that while it should have been supremely important to fill the holes left by the most significant Yankees of the past 20 years, valuing positional depth and reliability would be as, if not more, vital than buying the top-tier free agents off the market and locking them down in the Bronx.
A few more premonitions from that preseason piece:
It's not that 2014 is suddenly the year of the rupture and the collapse at the epicenter, but it feels like there are tremors on the eve of camp because a number of anxious, cosmetic fixes were made to correct what went wrong in 2013.
Yet for all the signings this winter, and despite paying for what they see as the cost required to win, the Yankees could be entering spring training teetering on a fancy idea of success and a reality of coming up short. ...
That free will to spend is a pragmatic modus operandi when there's a working foundational structure already in place—take the 2008 spending antidote and the 2009 outcome. But this isn't 2009, and putting a flashy lineup on the field should translate to revenue but it may not translate to contention. ...
And still the Yankees could win 95 games in 2014.
They could capture the division crown and make a run in the postseason—and Yanks brass may look cunning by season's end. ...
This isn't meant to castigate or doom the organization; it's a reminder that things are simply different in the Bronx, and that there's a heck of a lot to consider about the larger trends.
What's the larger trend? While big spending is a large chunk of the Yankee identity, we shouldn't discount the core of Yankees around whom that spending occurred from the late-'90s through late-'00s.
Instead of trying to replicate it this winter, perhaps management could have accepted that Jeter is the only one left from that (yes, magic) run and begun to search for or build a new youthful core in conjunction with bringing in players in their primes, not past them.
On Thursday, Joel Sherman of the New York Post poignantly titled his column, "Core Four's Greatness is a Recipe Yankees Can't Keep Chasing." This isn't to say Sherman is five months late to the party. It's more to substantiate at baseball's midway point, through a few excellent points, how many of us may have been feeling about those larger, anxious trends months ago.
Here's what he wrote Thursday:
[W]hile a thick wallet is credited for much of the Yankees’ success the past two decades, I believe it misses the key factor, which also will not be replicated anytime soon, if ever again: The Yankees developed en masse five of their greatest players, and that group proved durable and capable of handling New York and October.
Really, with all that has been written and said about Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams, I do not think what they meant is properly assessed.
We are talking about 20 percent of a roster. And not just any 20 percent, but stars at catcher, shortstop, center field, lefty starter and closer. I don’t want to downplay how difficult it is to form a winning roster, but it is a lot easier to fill in the other 80 percent when you begin with that 20 percent at such key positions year after year.
But one of his keener undercurrents comes shortly after:
It is hard to keep even a talented group healthy, hungry and humming from one year to the next. So imagine the fortune of what the Yankees had. ... But because those guys showed up at the doorstep and stayed and prospered, it made everything else easier to construct around. Even the 2009 champion that was burnished by the purchases of CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett still was fortified by high-level results from the Core Four.
And, still, there's more to the "struggle" story in which the Yankees find themselves mired in 2014.
Simply: The system of power and wealth of MLB has changed, and the way teams scout, draft, develop, trade and spend has metamorphosed, too. Well, for most teams besides the Yankees.
I mentioned in the preseason preview:
We're in a new era in which the power structures of success have changed not only in MLB, but also within the longtime leviathan of the league, the Yankees. ...
Continuing the trend to throw cash at free agents, they've repeatedly failed to properly value the MLB draft, player development or real trust in the farm. And that's just one issue; one of the few unchanged aspects.
Sherman agrees that "The game has changed too much for any club to assemble that kind of consistent success for two decades. Having a financial advantage is less relevant today than ever for many reasons."
He credits the well-known proliferation of and advancements in statistical analysis with leveling the financial playing field.
More to the point, he sharply notes the influx of wealth into the game, illuminating how it has translated to the new landscape where "every franchise can sign its elite performers before free agency, so players on smaller-market squads who you could once envision just biding their time until they joined the Yankees...do not hit the open market, at least not in their primes."
Though it's a fair, almost defeatist point about the Yankees' inability to sign anyone they want, it misses two facts First, outside of Cano, the Bombers signed just about everyone whom they coveted most this winter. Second, through three months of underperformance they seem to have missed the mark on their mass half-billion-dollar, half-baked plan to contend.
As the game and horizon has changed, it's no longer smart to bring in the majority of your talent through free agency. More than that, it's just irrational to think that you can replicate the Core Four by signing four free agents in one single winter, with one of them past his prime and the second one passing through.
More to the Story than Injuries: The Failed Free-Agency Frenzy; the Farce of the Farm
From the jump, I mentioned the obvious discomfort of the Yanks' brass to "blow the whole team up" at a key juncture—several major injuries to several of the most important players; poor performance; aging veterans and expiring contracts—where that M.O. would be Plan A for many teams.
(A team like the 2014 Rays, on the other hand, has suffered from a team-wide slump for the first half; without major injuries and aging veterans, it's more rational to wait out the storm. They're 9.5 games out of the AL East lead, and David Price hasn't left...yet.)
The Yankees rotation has already taken care of blowing itself up, after all.
Sabathia? Knee. Degenerative. Remains out. Could be a bigger chance his career is over than the 11.3 percent of New York marching into October baseball. Sherman goes so far as to argue the Yankees would benefit most from the team deeming CC "physically incapable of playing" to get some insurance money for one of their priciest assets.
Ivan Nova? Elbow. Tommy John. Gone this season. May start throwing again by September.
Michael Pineda? 19.2 innings pitched since '11. Shoulder issues. Still out. Possibly returning in August.
Tanaka? Elbow. Partially torn UCL. Gone for now. Last-ditch effort of platelet-rich-plasma therapy to save his season.
And Hiroki Kuroda is far from an ace (97 ERA+, 3.91 FIP). He's also 39 and will be a free agent who may be contemplating retirement at season's end.
The position players are largely a disaster so far. And bless Chris Stewart: Brian McCann, the prized catcher, is hitting .239 with 39 RBI (83 wRC+, 1.1 fWAR, minus-7.7 oWAR) for all his stellar clubhouse leadership.
Carlos Beltran, who wanted to be in pinstripes years ago, is batting .219 with nine homers and 28 RBI this year (78 wRC+, minus-0.8 fWAR, minus-8.5 dWAR), and he's had knee and concussion issues.
Jacoby Ellsbury, plugged in the Bronx for another six seasons after this one, has six home runs and is on pace for his highest strikeout total of his career (105 wRC+, 1.9 fWAR), and via defensive metrics, he's been a liability so far (minus-5 DRS, minus-5.6 UZR/150).
No one was going to follow Robinson Cano beyond simple adequacy, and Brian Roberts' .241 and 89 OPS+ actually looks somewhat good (then again: 87 wRC+, 0.3 fWAR). That idea of platooning Eduardo Nunez (no longer a Yankee) with super-utility man Kelly Johnson (unfortunately still a Yankee) sounded nice this winter.
Until now, because Johnson might be one of the most uneventful players to ever take the infield in the Bronx—he's hitting .214 with six homers and 50 punch-outs (87 wRC+, 0.4 fWAR, 23.7 K%)—and, for the platoon romanticists out there, he's hitting lefties (.194, 113 wRC+) better than he's hitting righties (.218, 83 wRC+).
Moving down to the farm situation, the shortcomings of the Yankees system are well-documented and understood at this point.
We know that none of Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, MLB.com, FanGraphs or Bleacher Report see much value from Tampa and Staten Island all the way up to Scranton. We know Gary Sanchez has been the No. 1 prospect for a few years but has a great shot (.270/.339/.420, 60 K, 18.3 K%) to become the next Jesus Montero.
And to give plaudits to Yankees scouting and development for the sacrificial and somewhat life-saving performances by David Phelps, Vidal Nuno, Chase Whitley and Shane Greene would be overly simplistic.
No, that's largely lucking out on the only in-house options available. If they had better talent at the most significant position for any team—pitching...starting pitching—they likely would have come up with something better than Jeff Francis and Brandon McCarthy through trades this month.
They also wouldn't have felt the need to saturate the farm with pitchers in this year's draft, selecting five with their first five picks, 15 out of their first 21 picks and 13 of those 15 from the NCAA.
In other words, they not only were desperate for pitching, but for the most advanced, developed, MLB-ready pitching. Their top pick, Mississippi State's closer Jacob Lindgren, was praised for the talent capable of appearing and contributing this postseason for the Yanks.
But looking at the big picture, it points to the holes in the farm.
Sherman lends more perspective of his own, as well as some context:
[T]he only trick this pony knows is to spend. By winning all of these years, the Yankees have not had access to the top of the draft, and generally they have done a poor job of drafting and developing what was available. The sense around the sport is the Yankees’ past two drafts have been better and the system is improving.
And even if Lindgren becomes a key piece of the bullpen down the road, if Shane Greene sticks and if another dark horse (like Robert Refsnyder) breaks out in pinstripes, the Yanks still lack the depth or development team for sustainability.
"Still, there are not many ready-made solutions internally and the idea of losing enough to get a top-10 pick a few times is as palatable to the Steinbrenners as playing patty-cake with an alligator," writes Sherman.
Knowledge Trumps Power
None of this is to say the Yankees should move each and every one of their aging, expiring vets.
But to incessantly hear this type of definitive wording about remaining buyers until death from Cashman and Co. no longer seems most pragmatic—especially when stated upon learning Tanaka would take the injured starting total to four of five, per NJ.com's Brendan Kuty: "We'll continue to look at any options to upgrade ourselves, and I'll certainly present that to ownership. And until I'm told otherwise I'll continue the course of action."
Kuty highlights the biggest irony, describing how it appears "the team will remain trade market buyers despite — or maybe in spite of — Masahiro Tanaka's elbow injury."
Because what if, rather than buying in spite of losing him, they view his (and CC, Nova and Pineda's) absence as the reason to do some selling before the end of the month?
What if they reframed and reduced their reliance upon their financial power (which has seen some diminishing baseball clout) to work in unison with better knowledge—that is, better scouting, drafting, development and understanding of how to enter a season with real insurance and depth?
Maybe Cashman will keep searching for more bandages and ointments until the deadline, since they've come this far (to give credit where credit's due, they're still in the postseasons hunt).
And our patient with the leaky valve and collapsed lung can obviously still benefit from a few layers of gauze and Neosporin.
But only post-surgery.
Only in synchronicity—and balance—with other structural, foundational fixes.
"No one is suggesting the Yankees lower their payroll, but instead just re-imagine it," Sherman adds. "The Yankees keep trying to recapture the past, and that is not doing much for their present and it is potentially destroying their future."
Peter F. Richman is a New York Yankees Featured Columnist and Expert, as well as a B/R Copy Editor. For more NYY opinions, discussion, debate and analysis, feel free to reach out via Twitter: Follow @Peter_F_Richman