The New York Yankees’ proud tradition of excellence has been preserved in this century only at great cost and with decidedly mixed results. Since closing out the last century with 4 WS titles in a 5 year span, New York has had to settle for just three AL titles and one WS crown in the 13 years since. A windfall for some franchises, but not for the Yankees.
As they did last year, the Yankees are again significantly outperforming their Pythagorean projection, a feat of legerdemain that can seldom be preserved for extended periods. It’s likely that the Yankee players will need to perform much better the rest of the way if New York is to avoid its first losing season since 1992. After the jump, more on what ails the Bombers.
As most of our readers are aware, the Yankees open their wallets every year and add one or two or more veteran players to replace the veterans they have decided to part ways with. While that perception might incline one to the view that there is significant turnover in the Yankee lineup each season, all the free agent signings often amount to just noise as New York has actually had fairly stable lineups, at least by today’s standards. Here are the players to log qualifying seasons at each position since 2001.
[table id=226 /]
So, most seasons, the Yankees have had players in at least 6 positions who turned in qualifying seasons of 502 PAs. And, in many instances, they’ve had the same player repeat for at least a few seasons led, of course, by team captain and franchise icon Derek Jeter. That changed in a big way in the disaster of 2013 when injuries contributed to emergency replacements at most positions. New York is healthier this year but their lineup is sporting new regulars at 4 positions, plus Alfonso Soriano appearing in his first full season since his return to the AL. If you look closely at the table above, prior to this season there have not been more than two lineup positions in any season filled by a player in the first full season of a stint as a Yankee, much less four or five new regulars. The big turnover this year has produced very modest results thus far, with six players currently at 85 OPS+ or worse in 125+ PAs. That has resulted in a team OPS+ of only 94 and a team OPS ranked 10th of 15 AL teams. With more than one-third of the season completed, New York has compiled only 4.6 batting WAR, on track for an even worse result than last year’s 13.4 and projecting to much less than half of the 29.9 WAR in of 2012.
Part of the reason for the underwhelming results this season is the age of the Yankee roster, averaging almost 33 years a man. That, of course, is nothing new as can be seen by the table below. It’s the same table as the one above except that it only shows seasons by players before their age 30 season.
[table id=227 /]
A rather different picture, wouldn’t you say? Yet, if filling your lineup with old guys has worked before, why not so much the last two years? Last year, the answer was that injuries forced the Yankees to use second tier or lower players like Lyle Overbay and Vernon Wells for far more innings than their performance would normally warrant. This year, two of the Yankee marquis players (McCann, Beltran) have started slowly, another (Roberts) is of that second tier yet looks poised to top 300 PA for the first time in 5 years (probably by the A-S break), while Jeter soldiers on gamely but without showing that he is close to regaining his pre-injury form of the 2012 season.
Jeter and Ichiro have already become just the eleventh pair of teammates (excl. pitchers) with 50+ games in their age 40+ seasons, and just the 3rd pair to reach that 50 game plateau in their team’s first 65 games (the others are Ty Cobb and Eddie Collins in 1927, and Barry Bonds and Omar Vizquel in 2007). Ichiro, to his credit, has improved from a 76 OPS+ age 39 season to stand at about 100 OPS+ this season. The odds, though, are not with him to maintain that performance for the whole season as no player with a qualifying season (modern definition) of OPS+ below 80 when aged 39+ has ever had more than 99 PA in a subsequent season of 100 OPS+ (Jimmy Dykes holds that “record” with his 105 OPS+ season in 1938). Jeter’s start this season has been less auspicious and he is currently on pace to record just the eighth age 40+ qualifying season (modern definition) with OPS+ below 80. His -5 Rfield already makes the 40 worst age 40+ seasons and is tracking to finish among the worst 5 such seasons with an Rfield total below -14.
So, that’s what ails this year’s team. More generally, though, what distinguishes the past two Yankee seasons from the others of this century is the absence of a core of two or three elite-level players, previously provided by Jeter, A-Rod, Cano and Posada. But that elite core is gone and, as the Yankees themselves have shown, free agency nearly always serves to just complement such a core, not to create one where none exists.
The coming departures of Jeter and Ichiro (and A-Rod) will free up more roster spots for the Yankees. Question is, will they continue to fill them with age 30+ veterans commanding mega-millions. Or will they perhaps adopt the model of most other teams by introducing capable younger players like rookie Yangervis Solarte. I said younger rather than just young as Solarte’s 26 years will most likely significantly limit his long-term value. Still, the Yankees will take what he has to offer as Solarte is on pace to become just the 7th Yankee rookie with a qualifying 120 OPS+ season, and the first since Thurman Munson in 1970. Even just keeping his OPS+ at 100 would make Solarte just the fourth such Yankee rookie since Munson, following Jeter, Cano and Hideki Matsui. How many more players like Solarte the Yankees will be able to field remains to be seen.