American League Contenders Remaining Schedules and Playoff Scenarios

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This is not about playoff possibilities as in a team losing the last seven games of the season with the team pursuing them winning the last seven to forge an inexplicable comeback. Nor is it about unrealistic scenarios. It’s about evenhanded reality and viable opportunity.

Let’s take a look.

New York Yankees

Schedule: 4 games at Blue Jays in Toronto, Sept. 23, 24, 25, 26; 3 games vs Red Sox at Yankee Stadium, Oct. 1, 2, 3

How they’re playing: The Yankees righted the ship after the beginning of September when a collapse looked imminent. If the Yankees somehow fall out of the division lead or the playoffs entirely, it won’t be due to a prototypical collapse as we saw with the Red Sox last season.

What they need: 5 wins would pretty much guarantee the division title. They do not want to find themselves looking at the scoreboard on Monday and wondering what the Angels, A’s, Rangers, Orioles and whoever are doing.

What will happen: The Blue Jays want to get the season over with and are playing like it. They showed nothing against the Yankees last week and the only reason they won two games against the Orioles this week was because the Orioles didn’t capitalize on what the Blue Jays were repeatedly handing to them.

CC Sabathia is pitching well and the Yankees were able to rest Rafael Soriano and David Robertson.

The Yankees are going to the playoffs, but could still blow the division and it wouldn’t be due to a collapse.

Baltimore Orioles

Schedule: 3 games vs Red Sox in Baltimore, Sept. 28, 29, 30; 3 games at Rays in Tampa Bay, Oct. 1, 2, 3

What they need: To have a chance at the division title, they’ll have to go 5-1 and hope the Blue Jays and Red Sox want to stick it to the Yankees and show up to the games trying to win and not get them over with so they can go home, and that the Red Sox and Rays would also like to stick it to the Yankees to the point that they don’t go all out against the Orioles.

All possible I suppose, but unlikely.

4 out of 6 wins should get them in.

What will happen: The Orioles will take care of business against the Red Sox and Rays and get at least those 4 wins and hope the nightmare scenario that I’m going to discuss doesn’t happen in the AL West. If they’re eliminated, the Rays may not even pitch their main starters in those last three games and if the Orioles lose 1 or 2, they’ll have no one to blame but themselves. The nightmare scenario affects the Yankees as well.

Tampa Bay Rays

Schedule: 3 games at White Sox in Chicago, Sept. 28, 29, 30; 3 games vs Orioles at Tampa Bay, Oct. 1, 2, 3

What they need: The Rays have won 7 straight, have to sweep the White Sox—who are fighting for their division title—and hope they’re still alive when they get to Monday against the Orioles. Very, very difficult.

What will happen: The Rays will be done by Monday and have to decide how hard to push to keep up the “integrity” of the pennant race in those last three games. I have a hunch Joe Maddon will play to win without overstressing his young arms.


The Nightmare Scenario

I’ll examine the AL West all at once.

Texas Rangers

Schedule: 1 game vs Athletics in Texas, Sept. 27; 3 games vs Angels in Texas, Sept. 28, 29, 30; 3 games vs Athletics in Oakland, Oct. 1, 2, 3

Oakland Athletics

Schedule: 1 game vs Rangers in Texas, Sept, 27; 3 games vs Mariners in Oakland, Sept. 28, 29, 30; 3 games vs Rangers in Oakland, Oct. 1, 2 ,3

Los Angeles Angels

Schedule: 1 game vs Mariners in Anaheim, Sept. 27; 3 games vs Rangers in Texas, Sept. 28, 29, 30; 3 games vs Mariners in Seattle, Oct. 1, 2, 3

The Rangers are leading the American League in wins with 91, but their division lead is now at 3 games over the A’s and 5 over the Angels. Their problem is that they’re playing two teams that are chasing them. The A’s and Angels have a sense of urgency that I don’t get the impression that the Rangers have had recently. Their playoff spot is not assured as the division winner or as the Wild Card. For them it would take a collapse to miss the playoffs, but it could happen.

Let’s say the A’s win today over the Rangers then beat on the Mariners this weekend. And let’s say that the desperate Angels who are taking every game like a playoff game and have 4 remaining with the playing-out-the-string Mariners win 6 of 7 including 2 of 3 vs the Rangers.

What if we get to Monday and the A’s are either tied with the Rangers or a game behind and the Angels are 2 out with 3 to play? There’s a possibility that the Rangers will enter Monday with 92 wins; the A’s with 91; and the Angels with 89. What if the A’s sweep the Rangers and the Angels sweep the Mariners? The Rangers and Angels would be tied. What if the Rangers sweep the A’s and the Angels sweep the Mariners? The A’s would be either out or hoping that the Yankees or Orioles came undone.

Because the AL West will simultaneously be beating on each other and the Mariners when they’re not beating on each other, the Yankees and Orioles are relatively assured of at least a playoff spot and have to determine who’s going to win the division. But the Rangers could very easily find themselves on the outside looking in with the A’s and Angels either passing them entirely or face the hell of a one-game playoff prior to the Wild Card play-in game.

What will happen: The Rangers will survive and hold onto the division. What will be most interesting will be how they try to manipulate which teams are in the playoffs. Of all their potential playoff opponents, the last ones they want to see are the Angels. If the Angels somehow make it in—relieved to have salvaged a season that looked shot in August and on a blazing hot streak with a deep starting rotation and star bats—they could conceivably make the playoffs and blow everyone away.

The team the Rangers presumably fear least is the Yankees when considering that they’ve beaten them before, the Yankees have rotation questions, and worry as to whether Soriano can handle the post-season. But the Angels have massive obstacles to overcome and it might be too late.

The most probable scenario: The Yankees win the AL East; the Orioles and Athletics take the Wild Cards; the Rangers win the AL West.

Of course, as the last day of the 2011 season showed, this is all subject to change at the whim of the Baseball Gods, closers who can’t close, non-contending teams that want to have company in their misery (see the Red Sox of Boston) and massive managerial blunders.

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American League Contenders Remaining Schedules—Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles

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The Rays were expected to be here and the Orioles weren’t. Yesterday I looked at the Yankees schedule, now here are their two competitors in the AL East.

Tampa Bay Rays

Rays vs Orioles, Sept. 11-13 at Tampa; Oct. 1-3 at Baltimore

This is being seen as a benefit for the Yankees because the two teams in hot pursuit are playing one another six times while the Yankees supposedly have the “weakest” schedule of all the contenders. On paper, that may be so, but this Yankees team isn’t very good. They’re playing Steve Pearce at first base for the next two weeks (and I suspect that the “good” news on Mark Teixeira was a best case scenario; I doubt we’ll see Teixeira again as anything other than a pinch hitter this season). They’ve made a big show of recalling prospect Melky Mesa. Mesa is 25 and batted .230 in 33 games in Triple A. This is your savior. They’re anticipating the return of Andy Pettitte with the memories of 15 years ago swimming in their panicky heads. If the Yankees were at full strength, the weakness of schedule would be relevant, but they’re not, so it’s mitigated to a large degree.

As for the Rays and Orioles, one of the teams is going to win at least 2 of the 3 games this week. If it’s the Rays, they’ll come into Yankee Stadium this weekend looking to overtake the Yankees; if it’s the Orioles, they’ll still be right on the Yankees’ heels or will have caught them.

The Rays and Orioles have split their 12 games against one another so far. The Rays have a decided pitching advantage and the Orioles are trying to piece their offense together after losing Nick Markakis to a broken thumb. Their starting pitching is short. The Rays are going to pass the Orioles by the time the season is over.

Rays vs Yankees, Sept. 14-16 at Yankee Stadium

The Rays have their pitching set up for this weekend. David Price will pitch against CC Sabathia (whose diminished fastball was the impetus for the dustup between Yankees manager Joe Girardi and Joel Sherman of the NY Post). I would expect Pettitte to pitch Saturday against James Shields, and Alex Cobb will go against Hiroki Kuroda on Sunday.

By Sunday night, the Rays could be in first place in the AL East with the Yankees tied with the Orioles and Angels for the second Wild Card spot and behind the Athletics.

Rays vs Red Sox, Sept. 17-20 in Tampa; Sept. 25-26 at Boston

I’m not accusing the Red Sox of laying down for the Rays and Orioles and playing hard against the Yankees, but the players who remain from the Yankees-Red Sox wars from so long ago know that if they’re able to significantly damage the Yankees’ playoff hopes—and everyone had better understand that if the Yankees don’t win the division, they’re not making the playoffs—they’re going to do everything possible to make it happen. The compromised Red Sox are an awful team, but they haven’t forgotten that the Yankees didn’t play their regulars in their final series with the Rays in 2011 and that contributed to the Red Sox being bounced from the post-season and sent them into this downward spiral.

Put it this way: the Red Sox would prefer to see anyone other than the Yankees in the playoffs this season and their play will reflect it. The front office would prefer it as well.

Rays vs Blue Jays, Sept. 21-23 in Tampa

The Blue Jays are playing hard down the stretch and the two clubs split a four-game series in Toronto a week-and-a-half ago.

The Blue Jays record is bad, but they can hit the ball out of the park and have two talented starters in Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero, plus Carlos Villanueva who should’ve been in the starting rotation from the beginning of the season. This isn’t a gimme series.

Rays vs White Sox, Sept. 27-30 at Chicago

Either the White Sox or the Tigers are going to win the AL Central and neither team—barring a catastrophe on the East or West Coasts—is making it to the Wild Card play-in game. The Tigers have shown zero consistency in 2012, but they have a weak schedule through the end of the season. It may not matter though. If they don’t run off a winning streak, the AL Central race could be over by the time the Rays come to Chicago to play the White Sox. Then the Yankees are going to be really desperate. No one in baseball wants to help them and they’re increasingly incapable of helping themselves.

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Baltimore Orioles

The two series against the Rays are discussed above.

Orioles vs Athletics, Sept. 14-16 at Oakland

The A’s are continuing their run toward the playoffs. It’s at least as surprising as that of the Orioles, if not more. They have a deeper starting rotation, a good bullpen, and can score with the Orioles. The A’s are now ahead of the Yankees, Orioles, and Rays. They’re currently playing the Angels, who’ve launched themselves back into contention as well.

There’s an opportunity for the Orioles to make up ground on the Yankees and/or Rays and the Athletics this weekend.

Orioles vs Mariners, Sept. 17-19 at Seattle

The Mariners can’t hit, but they have a lot of starting pitching and would like to finish the season at .500. That said, I would expect the Orioles to go into Seattle and take at least two games.

Orioles vs Red Sox, Sept. 21-23 at Boston; Sept. 28-30 in Baltimore

The Red Sox don’t like the Orioles, but they hate the Yankees. We might see a lot of young players getting a “look” vs the Orioles that won’t get a “look” vs the Yankees.

All’s fair.

Orioles vs Blue Jays, Sept. 24 (doubleheader)-26 in Baltimore

That’s four games. The Orioles are 9-5 against the Blue Jays this season and the Blue Jays also wouldn’t mind whacking the Yankees out of the playoffs. They might choose to “look” at some youngsters just like the Red Sox.

The team in the driver’s seat here is the Rays. If they have a record of say, 16-6, they’re going to win the AL East. For the Orioles, they’ll have to win 13 games and I don’t know if they’re going to. 11-11 is more likely and if that’s the case, that would mean that they didn’t help the Yankees against the Rays or the A’s.

Either way, the schedule that’s being portrayed as the Yankees’ lifeline, is anything but.

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American League Playoff Contenders Remaining Schedules—New York Yankees

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Baseball is unlike any other sport in that the sheer number of games and individualism within a collective is more important than anything else. By that I mean there’s not an offensive line dominating a defensive line; a hot shooter taking over the game; or a legitimate home field/court advantage. It’s baseball. Any team can beat the hell out of any other team; any closer can give up a game-tying homer; any pitcher can make a mistake to the worst hitter in the opposing lineup and cost his club the game; any manager can bring in the wrong player in the wrong place at the wrong time and lose.

This is why when desperate and panicky fans examine their teams schedule and start checking off wins, it’s a blind, baseless example of faith with no foundation.

With that in mind, let’s look at the schedules of contenders and analyze based on fact and not fantasy and laziness.

Let’s start with the New York Yankees

Yankees vs Red Sox, Sept. 11-13 at Boston; Oct. 1-3 at New York

The Red Sox are gutted, overmatched, and doing just enough to maintain appearances of “trying” while not being fully invested in the outcome. They care about their performance and perception, but knowing that the season is almost over and drastic changes are coming to the club’s construction, they’d just like to get 2012 over with.

The Red Sox are fielding a terrible lineup, but the Yankees haven’t been scoring much either. Jon Lester is starting the opening game of the series, followed by Aaron Cook and Felix Doubront. Hiroki Kuroda, David Phelps, and Phil Hughes are scheduled for the Yankees. There’s not a distinct advantage and the Red Sox might get a boost from putting a dent in the Yankees playoff hopes.

The final three games of the season may mean the difference between the Yankees winning the division, getting one of the Wild Cards, or missing the playoffs entirely. If the Red Sox can win two of the six games, that might be enough to severely harm the Yankees’ chances.

Yankees vs Rays, Sept. 14-16 in New York

The Rays are younger, healthier, and deeper. They’ve been in this position before and come through. With the Yankees concerned about CC Sabathia and waiting for Andy Pettitte (I’d expect him this weekend), it’s not a guarantee that they’re going to get vintage performances from their warhorses. What the Yankees will have to watch is whether the Rays and Orioles battle to a standstill in the six games they have remaining beginning tomorrow night and finishing on the last three games of the season. If one is eliminated by October 1st, it could be a big problem for the Yankees in those last three days.

Yankees vs Blue Jays, Sept. 18-20 in New York; Sept. 27-30 in Toronto

It’s laughable that Mike Francesa and his Yankee-centric guests are looking at the schedule and ticking off wins that they haven’t gotten yet; it’s more laughable that they’re suggesting that the Blue Jays—the team that won 2 of 3 in New York two weeks ago—is going to lay down at the Yankees former might. The Blue Jays have several attributes that should be of concern: they can run; they can hit the ball out of the park; and they have a couple of talented (though inconsistent/slumping) starting pitchers in Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero.

These are not games against the Houston Astros that they can count as wins. Four of those seven games could be pitched by Romero/Morrow. The Yankees are not winning them all.

Yankees vs Athletics, Sept. 21-24 in New York

It was the four-game sweep at the hands of the Athletics in Oakland that began this swoon that’s culminated in September panic, group therapy sessions, tantrums, and confrontations. Now the A’s are fighting for one of the Wild Card spots and are close enough to the top of the AL West to keep it interesting. They have young pitching from top to bottom, power and speed. And they know they can beat the Yankees because they waxed them in four straight in July.

The A’s are going to be watching the Rays and Orioles as closely as the Yankees and they’re playing the Yankees. If things go a certain way, the Yankees might be behind the Rays; behind the Orioles; behind the A’s; and behind the Angels by the time that A’s series is over.

Yankees vs Twins, Sept. 24-26 at Minnesota

The Twins are awful. It’s looking like the Yankees are going to have to sweep that series. Sweeps on the road are not as easy as they’re made out to be and the teams have split the four games they’ve played this season.

To essentially guarantee a division title, the Yankees have to go 16-6. That’s highly unlikely.

To guarantee one of the Wild Card spots (and remember it’s a 1-game playoff and not a ticket in), they have to go around 14-8.

My most likely scenario it a 13-9 run making their playoff spot dicey and probably coming down to the last 3 games against the Red Sox.

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Anatomy Of A Yankees Swoon

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The Yankees, their fans, and the media that covers them on a daily basis are all wallowing in denial, excuses, self-pity, delusion, and desperation. The team itself still has time to save its season, but they’re well on the way to joining the Red Sox and Mets in the lore of historic and embarrassing collapses that, for the Yankees with their payroll and superiority complex, will surpass those of teams past.

Let’s take a look at what’s going on with the Yankees and the likelihood of steering out of this spiral.

Injuries and lack of depth

This is the batting order they presented last night against the Rays:

1. Derek Jeter-SS

2. Curtis Granderson-CF

3. Nick Swisher-1B

4. Robinson Cano-DH

5. Alex Rodriguez-3B

6. Raul Ibanez-LF

7. Jayson Nix-2B

8. Chris Dickerson-RF

9. Chris Stewart-C

And pitching, Freddy Garcia.

This is the starting lineup for one of the latter days of spring training, not for a pennant race in September against a younger, faster, healthier Rays team in direct pursuit. On the heels of journeyman Steve Pearce batting cleanup, Eric Chavez having to play almost every day after A-Rod got hurt, Ibanez playing too much, Swisher having to play first base in place of Mark Teixeira, and using Garcia and David Phelps in the starting rotation, is it any wonder the 10 game lead has been extinguished?

No one wants to hear about injuries. No one wants to hear whining about the umpires or a “woe is me” lament. No one cares about the Yankees problems. They’re scouring the bargain bin for the likes of Pearce and Casey McGehee and expecting to move along smoothly without a hitch. A 4-A player doesn’t stop being a 4-A player just because he puts on a Yankee uniform.

Non-issues become problems when the team’s losing

Cano’s repeated incidents of nonchalance weren’t an issue when the team was winning, so it can’t be referenced as one when they’re losing. The Yankees let Cano’s jogging around go because there wasn’t much they could do about it and it was okay with a 10 game lead. Now that the lead is gone, it’s not okay? It doesn’t work that way. Jeter runs out every ground ball, why can’t Cano?

In a similar vein, manager Joe Girardi wasn’t scrutinized heavily for his occasionally strange strategic decisions when the team was star-studded and rolling unstoppably toward another division title with an eye on the World Series. Once the decisions actually make a difference not just in a game, but in the standings and the team is in danger of falling out of the playoffs completely, there’s ludicrous speculation about his job security if they complete this collapse.

Girardi, like most of the other 2012 Yankees, has never been in this pressurized situation during the season. In 2008, it was known by September 1st that, barring a miraculous comeback, they weren’t making the playoffs. In 2009, they won 103 games. In 2010, the biggest decision they had was whether or not to try and win the division or accept the Wild Card. In 2011, they coasted late in the season and played a lineup similar to the one they’re currently playing and allowed the Rays to sweep them and overtake the Red Sox (something I don’t hold against them).

Now they have to play and they have to win. When Girardi was in a pressurized situation of the post-season in 2009 and his maneuvers were important, he was found wanting. He made odd and panicky pitching changes and ill-thought-out lineup and in-game moves. That Yankees team happened to be talented enough to overcome Girardi’s overmanaging and win the title.

I don’t blame Girardi for this stumble, but it’s now that he has to maintain control of the ship and not grip the handles too tightly, but his volcanic eruption last night that resulted in an ejection and his snippy replies to questions in post-game press conferences indicate a growing tightness that will permeate the team.

Personnel gaffes

The Yankees and GM Brian Cashman have made it clear that they no longer intend to purchase every star on the market to have at least 2 players who could be or have been All-Stars at each position. They want to get under the luxury tax when the draconian measures to restrain salaries come into effect and it shows on the field. They didn’t pursue Cliff Lee when the Phillies were listening to offers on him; they didn’t make a substantial package available at mid-season to get Justin Upton; they weren’t avidly chasing any of the available players who might’ve been able to help them drastically. Instead, they traded for Ichiro Suzuki and got him for nothing. Ichiro can still catch the ball in the outfield and steal a base, but he’s hitting identically with the Yankees as he did with the Mariners: lots of singles and no on-base skills with an average hovering around .270.

These in-season acquisitions come after consecutive winters in which they wasted money (Pedro Feliciano); signed fill-in veterans and scrapheap denizens (Russell Martin, Ibanez, Andruw Jones, Chavez); and gave away assets (Jesus Montero) for literally nothing (Michael Pineda and the “key” Jose Campos).

This is not to suggest Montero would be a significant contributor to the Yankees in a Yankees uniform—he’s been okay learning on the job behind and at the plate with the Mariners—but he was something other teams coveted; they could’ve traded him for a known commodity rather than going the cheap and “controllable” route with Pineda.

Hiroki Kuroda was a great signing.

The Yankees vaunted young pitching that they developed with it in mind that they wouldn’t spend tons of cash on other teams’ abused arms? That’s not working either. Phil Hughes is an okay big league pitcher, but he’s a 3rd or 4th starter that you can find on the market. Joba Chamberlain is a bottom-line disappointment. Ian Kennedy wasn’t good for the Yankees; they received Granderson for him making it a win. Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos, Campos, Pineda—where’s the next Andy Pettitte? A Yankees’ pitcher they brought through their system and turned into a top-flight starter?

Seeking solace

Teams, fanbases and media members who’ve experienced a collapse have all done the same things. They look at the schedule; they lean on one another looking for positive reassurance; they repeat the mantra of “Everything’s gonna be alright” with the unsaid, “Isn’t it?” as an addendum.

Mike Francesa had Yankees beat reporters Sweeny Murti and Mark Feinsand on as guests and it was something of a sycophantic think-tank in which the schedule was seen as the Yankees friend and the three discussed not what the consequences would be if the Yankees missed the playoffs or that increasingly real possibility, but how many games they would recover and win the division by.

Michael Kay sounds so disconsolate that he can barely stomach a third piece of chicken parmesan.

Fans are clutching each other as if they’re in a prayer circle looking towards the heavens wondering why the Baseball Gods that have smiled so consistently on the Yankees hath forsaken them.

It’s not a conspiracy. They’re just not very good.

Meteorology

It wasn’t a stand-alone instance that the Mets and Red Sox collapsed in 2007 and 2011. There was a perfect storm that assisted greatly in the fall from the playoffs. The Mets kept losing to the Phillies and blew their lead, but would’ve made the playoffs if not for the Rockies ridiculous hot streak in September that launched them from also-ran to the World Series.

The Red Sox had a blazing hot Rays team chasing them and the Yankees who didn’t play their regulars in the last series against the Rays.

Now the Yankees, even with the extra Wild Card available, are in an American League with 8 teams for 5 playoff spots. If they fall from first place, there’s a good chance that falling from playoff position will come immediately after.

Studying the schedule is meant to be a calming device, but it’s not. Referencing games against the Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Twins is a stretch as well. Mets and Red Sox fans can tell Yankees fans all about the futility of studying the schedules during a swoon such as this. The 2007 Mets consistently lost to the horrific Nationals; the 2011 Red Sox were undone by the then-terrible Orioles; the Yankees lost 2 of 3 to the Blue Jays just last week and the Red Sox would see vengeance and a salvaging of their dismal season by taking part in the Yankees downfall.

The Yankees can’t count on other teams helping them to get them into the playoffs. They have to win a few games themselves—something they’re not doing and with this lineup, may not be capable of doing.

Clinging to the past; reaching back for the stars

This Yankees team finds itself chained to a past that’s not going to return. Still reliant on Jeter to be the star; waiting for Pettitte to return and save the day; blaming their stumble, ridiculously, on the loss of Mariano Rivera—they haven’t replaced them and are finding out how truly hard it is to do so with hardened veterans who’ve been through the battles and come out on top.

Rafael Soriano has been at least as good as Rivera would’ve been during the season, so the absence of Rivera is not a viable reason for the way they’ve played. The idea that Soriano’s shift to the closer’s role hindered the set-up area is ignoring how thoroughly unreliable Soriano was as a set-up man.

While Jeter has had a renaissance in 2012, that can’t last forever. What are they going to do then?

What are they going to do when Pettitte is retired and stays retired? If Rivera can’t be as effective as he was prior to his knee injury or can’t come back at all?

They don’t have ready replacements as was the intent when they “developed” their young players and the players they have now are feeling the heat they never expected to feel to make the playoffs when they joined the Yankees.

Sign free agents? They’ve openly said the vault isn’t as open as it once was and they’re on the hook for a ton of money for A-Rod, Teixeira and CC Sabathia for the foreseeable future. Make trades? Does anyone want those prospects who’ve leaped backwards and been hurt this season?

There is no endless dynasty. The Yankees of the 1960s came undone because they failed to adapt to the draft and their stars got old all at once. The same things that happened to other teams that collapsed like the Mets and Red Sox are present with this Yankees team and they’re not so easy to gloss over when the team doesn’t win. In fact, they become more stark; they become the foundation for a slide that takes years to recover from.

I happens to everyone. And whether the Yankees recover from this in time to make it to the playoffs and even win while there, that’s not going to stop the inevitable reality. This is a sign of the beginning of the end and it will be pointed to as such when things really come apart, sooner or later.

Right now it looks like sooner.

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