The Yankees can’t rely on old players forever, can they?
One explanation for the the New York Yankees' last few seasons is that they have been living in a magical cocoon.
Back in 2007, I made what I thought was a very reasonable argument that with key performers like Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Alex Rodriguez on the wrong side of what are generally understood to be the peak years for a baseball player, the Yankees would need to find replacements for them quickly. With Posada and Rivera up for new contracts after 2007, Rodriguez likely to opt out after the same season, and Jeter's deal set to run out after 2010, it seemed unlikely that the Yankees were going to look like the Yankees for much longer.
But the Yankees disagreed, signing them all to new contracts that still, now, have years to run, with the exception of Posada's deal.
Two years later, in 2009, the Yankees won the World Series. In 2010, won their division before losing in the American League Championship Series.
In 2011, all four continued to play key roles on the team that won 97 games during the regular season before losing to a younger Tigers team this week in the first round of the playoffs. In their decisive 3-2 loss in Game 5, Jeter, Posada and Rodriguez all started, and Rivera pitched the final frame.
And now, after all that, well ... it really is time for the Yankees to stop relying on their old players.
The thing is, their options are somewhat limited. Assuming the team picks up the options of both Robinson Cano and Nick Swisher, the Yankees have $171 million in contracts already committed in 2012 to 11 players: Rodriguez, Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, A.J. Burnett, Jeter, Rivera, Cano, Rafael Soriano, Swisher, Curtis Granderson and Pedro Feliciano. (Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that if C.C. Sabathia opts out of his deal, the Yankees will re-sign him, and he'll make roughly the same amount of money in 2012).
Of that group, only Cano will be in his 20s next season. Rodriguez, Burnett, Jeter, Rivera and Feliciano will all be at least 35. (Feliciano likely won't pitch at all next year after rotator cuff surgery in September.) Add in expected arbitration filings, raises and renewals for Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova, Brett Gardner, Boone Logan and David Robertson, and the Yankees have around $180 million in likely commitments for 2012.
The veteran group is no longer performing at age-defying levels. Rodriguez played in just 99 games this year, posting a pedestrian 116 OPS+. Jeter, though he rallied in the second half, put up below-average offensive numbers and played poor defense at shortstop.
Since the Yankees have consistently stayed at around $210 million for their payroll, that doesn't leave a ton of room to add free agents. That's less of an issue for the Yankees this offseason than it might usually be, with most of the top free agents poor fits for the team. If we assume that Derek Jeter will remain at shortstop, then that leaves the Yankees out on Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins.
The two best free agents are Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, but they both play first base, occupied by Teixeira, still owed $22.5 million for each of the next five years. Pujols can also play third, but Rodriguez plays there. Both can DH, but the aging Rodriguez will probably need ample time there, while young Jesus Montero can play the position when he isn't catching.
And while the Yankees need pitching, the best free agent will be C.J. Wilson of the Rangers, a converted reliever who will turn 31 next season and appears destined to be overpaid in A.J. Burnett/John Lackey fashion.
So what's a G.M. with the biggest payroll and the highest expectations in the league to do?
A few common-sense moves will help the Yankees maximize what they have. First, Alex Rodriguez needs to be the full-time D.H., now. He's clearly breaking down, but the Yankees owe him $143 million, including $29 million in 2012, so they need to get whatever they can from him.
Jesus Montero needs to be installed as the everyday catcher. Not only is he a good bet to be one of the best hitters at the position immediately, he'll be one of the best hitters the Yankees have immediately. This should not be a Posada/Joe Girardi hand-holding situation like the one the Yankees had in the late '90s. This should be 130-140 games of Montero, with a true backup behind him.
To replace Rodriguez, the Yankees should sign free-agent third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, at what will probably be around three years and $20 million. He will be 29 next year, putting him in the same age range as Cano, Granderson and Swisher, while his OPS+ of 110 this year and 109 last year suggests a production on par with Rodriguez's 2011, but far less chance of a dropoff due to age.
And the real way to solve the logjam is probably by making a deal to move Mark Teixeira. Some other team probably won't take him for the full value of his contract, but if the Yankees pay, say, half, throw in a prospect, a team in need of a first baseman could take on Teixeira for $11.25 million per year over the next five years and give up a pitcher. The Cubs will be trying to sign Albert Pujols, but if they fail, a Teixeira deal packaged with say, Manny Banuelos could bring back Matt Garza. Garza, 27, is heading into his final year of arbitration, and would give the Yankees a second strong starter to pair with Sabathia.
With the spot cleared by Teixeira's deal, the Yankees can go out and sign Fielder. Why Fielder over Pujols? Fielder is much younger, just 27, and pairs nicely with Robinson Cano and the other new core in terms of peak years production.
That produces a 2012 lineup that looks like this: Montero-Fielder-Cano-Encarnacion-Jeter-Gardner-Granderson-Swisher-Rodriguez. The starting rotation? Sabathia-Garza-Hughes-Nova-Burnett. In an ideal world, Dellin Betances would receive that fifth spot, but Burnett's contract (and Betances' relatively short time at Triple-A) mean A.J. probably gets one more year. He's not the worst fit at fifth starter, either, though obviously he's an overpaid one.
As for the bullpen, the late-year rally by Rafael Soriano and year-long dominance by David Robertson should mean that it remains one of the team's great strengths. Boone Logan is a fine middle reliever, though a lefty specialist like free agent George Sherrill would be a solid addition. Finding back-end depth shouldn't be a financial priority, however.
And, notwithstanding the age argument that applies to everyone else, the closer remains Mariano Rivera. Rivera's performance remained dominant, and he actually improved his strikeout rate by two per nine innings. At age 41. The Yankees have no need to figure out who is replacing Rivera until he decides to quit.
These changes don't solve the aging problem of the Yankees all at once, but they do shift more of the team's emphasis from players in their late 30s to players in their late 20s and early 30s. It has to happen soon. Really.