I admit it. When the Yankees got upset by the Tigers in last year’s ALDS, I really thought they might find themselves out of the playoff picture entirely for the next few seasons. Not for any long stretch, mind you — they are the Yankees, after all — but at least until they made a few changes to their aging, stale core. After all, the foundation of the offense that once rested on the shoulders of declining hitters like Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira was clearly sagging. Long-time faces of the franchise were entering (or should have been past) their sunset years; Derek Jeter has never been much with the glove, and now his hitting was going downhill as well as he approached 40, and even the great Mariano Rivera couldn’t be expected to keep this up forever, could he?
As the 2011 edition of the Yankees saw their season end in the first round of the playoffs, those were all fair questions at the time, or so I thought. I should have known better. One game removed from the All-Star break this season, the Yankees (53-33) are right back where they’re so used to being: on top of the toughest division in baseball. Of course, that’s not exactly newsworthy. Since 1994, the Yankees have failed to finish first in the AL East exactly five times. That’s five teams in a span of 19 seasons in case you wanted to see how the math breaks down on that.
But finishing first in the AL East is a bigger accomplishment now than it has been in the past. It used to be a given that the Yankees were guaranteed for the playoffs, and anyone who wasn’t a fan of the storied franchise would probably have sneered while acknowledging that statement, making a crack about the bloated payroll in the process. Yes, the Yankees have money, but you can’t blame them for simply playing baseball in a big market. Furthermore, while money does come with its advantages, it absolutely does not negate the necessity of having talented personnel in the front office positions. There have been plenty of general managers that could have built a terrible organization with an annual payroll of $200 million or more. In the ever changing climate of today’s game, all teams simply must exercise caution when going after free agents no matter how much money you have. To be successful, an organization, even a rich one like the Yankees, cannot build a roster strictly from the free agent pool. It also must establish an international presence as well as churn out a steady supply of young, homegrown talent that eventually turns into cheap production at the major league level. If the Yankees weren’t doing that, they’d be the worst embarrassingly wealthy franchise in all of the sport.
So give them credit for continuing to stay atop an increasingly powerful division despite the constant need to make adjustments. This year especially, the Yankee offense cannot rely as much on a Teixeira (.830 OPS) or A-Rod (.784 OPS), both of whom are aging and hitting like mere mortals these days. The team’s captain is still producing quite well for a shortstop, but his walks have all but disappeared in the later stages of his career (6.1% this season, a career low), and almost all of his production is tied up in batting average. Even Curtis Granderson has taken a step back from the offensive numbers he put together a year ago. In fact, the everyday Yankee lineup does not have one hitter putting together superstar production this season except for the second baseman whom every Kansas City resident now hates: Robinson Cano. In a big way, this has become Cano’s team. As a whole, though, the offensive unit is devastating; they lead the AL in OPS (.797) and are fourth in runs scored (418).
As good as the offense has been, you can’t forget to give credit to the pitching for doing its part to keep the Yankees on top. Yankee pitchers have contributed an even 12.0 WAR on the season according to FanGraphs, and that number is fourth in all of baseball. Thanks to the emergence of Ivan Nova (1.4 WAR) and the reemergence of Andy Pettitte (who has made a habit of alternating between retirement and mound dominance whenever he feels like it), the rotation is as deep and reliable as ever, and the bullpen is simply outstanding, even without the services of a certain legendary closer with the best cutter, well, ever. Rafael Soriano has done a serviceable job in terms of replacing Rivera as the team’s closer, although anyone that thinks his 1.56 ERA is staying put is delusional. His FIP is almost a full run higher, and his xFIP is over two runs higher. Even so, he leads all Yankee relievers with 1.1 WAR, and his peripherals are fine. David Robertson and Boone Logan are shouldering their respective loads as well, and as a whole, the Bronx bullpen is missing a ton of bats; their 9.11 K/9 mark is third in baseball.
So I don’t have any problem saying I was wrong after writing the Yankees off following last season’s tough first round defeat. I still think the offense needs to have a few of its parts swapped out (of all the players who have received 100 or more plate appearances with the team this year, only Cano and Russell Martin are under 30, and just barely at that), but the minor league system is near the top third in baseball according to several pundits, and there are plenty of hitters in the pipeline. Sure, they have issues. The long-term contracts to Teixeira and Rodriguez are looking dubious at this point, and the end is nowhere in sight for either player, but then again, that’s one area where having money does solve a potential problem for most teams. The Yankees can afford to pay a worthless player big money because they have a bottomless pit to draw from. As long as they can integrate a few new young players into the mix as they gradually phase out the legends one at a time, it’s not a smart idea to bet against them as I did going into the season, and it won’t be a smart idea in the future, either.