The One Punch Knockout and the New Yankees Reality

The Yankees are in the midst of taking an accumulation of punches that place their 2013 hopes on the precipice of ending in December. The organization isn’t used to that; the rest of baseball isn’t used to that; and the media isn’t used to that; and the fans are definitely not used to that.

Let’s look.

The losses

None of the players who have departed the Yankees this winter are irreplaceable on their own. Nick Swisher just agreed to a 4-year, $56 million contract with the Indians. Rafael Soriano is still on the market. Eric Chavez, Russell Martin and Raul Ibanez all went to other teams. Individually, each would inspire a shrug from the Yankees of old and they’d simply spend money or trade for other pieces to replace them. But when you combine the weak free agent market with the combination of Yankees’ needs and that they’re not spending any cash to fill them, you have a mess.

When was the last time the Yankees didn’t retain players that they wanted to keep? They wanted to keep Martin; they wanted to keep Chavez; they wanted to keep Ibanez. Martin went to the Pirates—the Pirates!!! Chavez to the Diamondbacks; and Ibanez to the Mariners. Three teams with nowhere near the spending power the Yankees are supposed to have, nor the historically winning environment. Yet all three are gone. While, on the surface, it may seem that the Martin departure was the most shocking and painful, leaving the largest hole, it’s really Ibanez’s decision not to wait for the Yankees to make their offer that signifies how far the Yankees have fallen both perceptively and in fact.

It strikes of pure Yankees arrogance to tell Ibanez to sit tight and wait without any guarantees that they’re going to make him an offer and expect him to do it. The days in which players will wait for the Yankees are over. Ibanez had a job offer in hand and likely significant playing time with the Mariners or he could’ve waited out the Yankees for an offer that might never come.

Can anyone blame him for walking? And do the Yankees have a backup plan for any of these departures?

The replacements and retentions

Ichiro Suzuki was re-signed because the Yankees were left with few options other than him. If you listen to GM Brian Cashman’s politely uninterested tone when he was asked if Ichiro was going to be back, and amid the hemming and hawing, you hear everything but the word he really wanted to say—no. Eventually, though, they not only brought Ichiro back, but they gave him a two-year contract.

Cashman, who wants power hitters, is now faced with Ichiro in right field and Brett Gardner in left. These are not power hitters. Jason Kubel is available from the Diamondbacks and has one year remaining on his contract. As flawed a player as he is, he’s a power hitter that would fit neatly into the current Yankees’ lineup as something other than a fan-placating addition or 38-40-year old former star signed with an unsaid prayer that they have enough in the tank to get them through 2013. That said, Kubel is a platoon player who is at his best against righties. D-Backs GM Kevin Towers isn’t giving Kubel away, and considering what Ibanez took from the Mariners ($2.75 million) and what Kubel is due ($8.5 million), they’d have been better off keeping Ibanez. Defensively each is as bad as the other.

Who are they getting to fill the remaining holes at DH and catcher? A.J. Pierzynski signed with the Rangers on a one-year contract and the Yankees didn’t even make an offer to him. Francisco Cervelli is currently at the top of their depth chart at catcher. They’ve signed Kevin Youkilis to replace the injured Alex Rodriguez at third base, and they don’t have a bench.

These are the Yankees? Piecing and patching and praying?

And the talk that the Cashman tends to make big moves late in the winter sounds more desperate and hopeful than expectant.

The veterans and the human element

Will the Yankees’ players realize where the season is going if they’re at or below .500 in June or are far out of playoff position? Will they choose to live to fight another day?

The concept that they’re the Yankees and they never quit no matter the circumstances is convenient to the narrative, but is totally ignorant of the human element involved with older athletes who have their money and may not have the stomach (or the available “helpers”) to spend the last four months of a season mounting a heroic comeback.

Age is not a factor to be dismissed. Because the Yankees’ stars have such accomplished resumes, it’s reasonable to expect a certain minimum/maximum level of performance, but with age comes a natural decline. Players who are in their late-30s/early 40s and are coming off serious injuries as Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera are and as A-Rod will, can’t grind it out and put up the same effort on a nightly basis they did when they were 10 and even 5 years younger. Drug testing making it impossible to take amphetamines or any other form of chemical assistance renders a 40-year-old to being a 40-year-old with the accompanying aches, pains and inconsistencies.

If those veterans see the season is shot in July, they’re going to bail just as they did in the ALCS. What’s the difference between doing it three months earlier if continuing to push is little more than postponing the inevitable?

“Everyone wants to be a Yankee”

Yes. Everyone wants to be a Yankee as long as they pay the most money. When this chapter of Yankee history is fully written in a decade or so, the first domino to tip over in the Yankees downfall wasn’t the 2012-2013 winter and the failure to retain their free agents or to make significant improvements with younger players; nor will it be the $189 million payroll mandate to be met by 2014. It will be the winter of 2010-2011 when Cliff Lee shunned the Yankees and instead chose to sign with the Phillies.

Prior to Lee, when was the last time the Yankees avidly pursued a player, offered him the most money and were turned down? Greg Maddux comes to mind. Before that, who? When did the Yankees refuse to overpay to get a player they wanted even if that player was indifferent about being a Yankee and would’ve gone elsewhere if he had a choice like CC Sabathia?

First it was Lee. Then it was Carl Pavano right after Lee. Now they’re reduced to losing out on Martin, Chavez and Ibanez.

Players wanted to be Yankees, but it wasn’t because they were longing to play in New York, or they wanted to win a championship, or that they were hypnotized (as the Michael Kay wing of mythmaking would assert) by the pinstripes and “rich tapestry of history.” It was because of money.

It’s quite simple. Offer the most money, the players will come and say that they always wanted to be a member of whatever team it was that offered them the most money. When Bobby Bonilla did it with the Mets in the winter of 1991-92, he was called an opportunistic liar because he didn’t really want to be with the Mets. When Sabathia did it, he didn’t come for the money. He was concerned about the reputation in the clubhouse of being dysfunctional and miserable.

That concern was assuaged and he signed. Oh, and the Yankees paid him the most money.

With each passing day the Yankees new truth becomes clearer and clearer. Because they don’t have the cash to spend now, the players aren’t coming. As a result, this is the team they’ve put together—one that had it been built in 2005, would’ve been similar to the 1998 team that won 114 games and is considered one of the best in history. But the players they have today are not the players they were eight years ago. Those results are going to show on the field. Then they’ll show up in the newspapers with critical columns followed by disinterest; it will in the stands with empty seats; and on TV and radio with hosts reminiscing of the good old days or ignoring the Yankees completely.

Like a sculpture, it’s not the first chip that does the damage, but an accumulation. The Yankees cumulative age, lack of funds, and diminished reputation are chipping away at what they were. The foundation has been decaying for years. This is the end result. If it looks bad now, just wait until the season starts. Then the crumbling infrastructure will be obvious to all and the “it’ll all be okay,” delusion prevalent now will be mercifully end.

Reality has a way of sorting itself out.

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