Yankee Blues: when money can’t buy success

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.

2001Jorge PosadaTino MartinezAlfonso SorianoDerek JeterChuck KnoblauchBernie WilliamsPaul O'Neill
2002Jorge PosadaJason GiambiAlfonso SorianoRobin VenturaDerek JeterBernie Williams
2003Jorge PosadaJason GiambiAlfonso SorianoDerek JeterHideki MatsuiBernie Williams
2004Jorge PosadaAlex RodriguezDerek JeterHideki MatsuiBernie WilliamsGary Sheffield
2005Jorge PosadaJason GiambiRobinson CanoAlex RodriguezDerek JeterHideki MatsuiBernie WilliamsGary Sheffield
2006Jorge PosadaJason GiambiRobinson CanoAlex RodriguezDerek JeterMelky CabreraJohnny Damon
2007Jorge PosadaRobinson CanoAlex RodriguezDerek JeterHideki MatsuiMelky CabreraBobby AbreuJohnny Damon
2008Jason GiambiRobinson CanoAlex RodriguezDerek JeterJohnny DamonBobby Abreu
2009Mark TeixeiraRobinson CanoAlex RodriguezDerek JeterJohnny DamonMelky CabreraNick SwisherHideki Matsui
2010Mark TeixeiraRobinson CanoAlex RodriguezDerek JeterBrett GardnerCurtis GrandersonNick Swisher
2011Mark TeixeiraRobinson CanoDerek JeterBrett GardnerCurtis GrandersonNick Swisher
2012Mark TeixeiraRobinson CanoAlex RodriguezDerek JeterCurtis GrandersonNick Swisher
2013Robinson CanoBrett GardnerIchiro Suzuki
2014Brian McCannBrian RobertsYangervis SolarteDerek JeterBrett GardnerJacoby EllsburyAlfonso Soriano

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.

2001Jorge PosadaAlfonso SorianoDerek Jeter
2002Alfonso SorianoDerek Jeter
2003Alfonso SorianoDerek JeterHideki Matsui
2004Alex Rodriguez
2005Robinson CanoAlex Rodriguez
2006Robinson CanoMelky Cabrera
2007Robinson CanoMelky Cabrera
2008Robinson Cano
2009Mark TeixeiraRobinson CanoMelky CabreraNick Swisher
2010Robinson CanoBrett GardnerCurtis GrandersonNick Swisher
2011Robinson CanoBrett Gardner
2012Robinson Cano
2013Brett Gardner
2014Yangervis Solarte

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.

20 thoughts on “Yankee Blues: when money can’t buy success

  1. 1
    David P says:

    Yankees have scored 4 or fewer runs in 11 straight games, their longest such streak since a 12 game streak in 1991.

  2. 2
    Voomo Zanzibar says:

    What’s all the more alarming is that Solarte is only getting a shot because they half-unexpectedly lost both the their 2B and 3B during the offseason.

    While they are doing a halfway-decent job at developing pitchers, 5 of their 8 position players (and 4 of their backups) are free agents. Meaning, guys with a marquee name that got big Yankee money when they were past their prime.

    I’ve despised their business model since 2001, and yet I am life-committed to scanning the scores with tension/hope 162 days a year. Ugh.

    • 3
      brp says:

      I don’t think you’re going to get a lot of sympathy as a Yankee fan. The two teams I follow regularly have never even appeared in a WS in my lifetime.

      • 4
        Voomo Zanzibar says:


        Right right right right right.
        Those of us born in The Bronx don’t deserve sympathy.
        I think I heard that one before.

        Luckily for me, I’m not reaching out on the internet in “Voomo” persona seeking sympathy.

        I do, however, have an endless fountain of sympathy for you brp, for being aligned with chronically crappy baseball teams. Insert smiley face emoticon.

        • 5
          brp says:

          I didn’t say you don’t deserve it, just that you probably aren’t going to get it.

          Find the upside to lean years: they kill off fairweather fans.

  3. 6
    mosc says:

    so… I don’t get it. The point is the yankees should be using more replacement to average level home-grown young players? That would make them a better team? Or are we just in a different universe where above average major leaguers under the age of 30 can be had for peanuts.

    Like, if they had just traded away Cano for say, Darwin Barney or Gordon Beckham as last year’s trade deadline ended they’d be in better shape now. The cardinals are supposed to be the antithesis of the yankees strategy right? You think they’re sticking with Kolten Wong instead of a free agent out of preferring unproven youth? They feature Halladay, Peralta, and Bourjos last I checked.

    Teams don’t use the yankees model because they CAN’T, not because they don’t want to. Beltran got a qualifying offer from the Cardinals, they very much wanted him back despite already Craig, Jay, Halladay, and top prospect Traveras. The reason they are using Kolten Wong in the first place is because they couldn’t afford to keep Beltran and traded away an infielder (freeze) to get another outfielder (Bourjos). If money is no option, you telling me they prefer Bourjos + Wong to Freeze + Beltran going into 2014? They did it to cut costs. The costs they cut they used to buy a shortstop from Detroit. Money is the limiting resource in not using MORE free agents like Peralta and Beltran.

    The first place Giants have homegrown players but their outfield? 100% 30+ year old free agents driving their offense. You don’t go with young unproven players with limited success in the majors on your opening day rosters because you WANT to, you do it because you can’t afford to do anything else.

    Now, Sometimes you get guys who step up and do great (Solarte) and other times you get proven guys who seem to have lost it (Beltran) but every team would rather have the second one.

    • 8
      Voomo Zanzibar says:

      That all makes sense. But where the Yanx seem to have lost the thread is in OVER-relying on buying the proven talent.
      And the team gets older and older.

      Is Zoilo Almonte ever going to be Carlos Beltran?
      Probably not, but we’ll never know, not in pinstripes at least.

      Is Carlos Beltran ever going to be Carlos Beltran?
      Definitely not.

      And it doesn’t matter how rich the team is, the fanbase in every city wants homegrown players. The Yankees have a place called Monument Park devoted to the concept.

      The 2014 Yankee lineup has Brett Gardner and the ghost of Derek Jeter.
      All the rest are mercenaries (and Solarte).

      It is far more fun to be an Astros fan right now.

    • 9
      mosc says:

      2009 they brought in Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher, CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett out of the main 14 (9 bats and 5 starters). Alex Rodriguez, Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, and even a returned from Houston Andy Pettitte were all recent acquisitions as well. Together they make up 8 of the 14 regulars. Considering the 5th starter spot was a complete hodgepodge (13 regulars), they really only had Jeter, Posada, Melky, Cano, and Jobba as your 5 traditionally grown up regulars. I’d also point out that even two of those guys were international free agents which is a real different system today. On top of that Jeter and Posada had both long since run out of protected years and were essentially just retained free agents. Only Jobba was a “core” young player brought up through the draft the last time they won and he was used as a relief pitcher during the post season in favor of a 3 man rotation.

      You can very much buy yourself a world series. You just need to get what you pay for and of what you bought. You can’t help but look at the yankees who would be in the play-in game at this point as a serious contender if they get any kinds of returns out of a bunch of guys who were all-stars in 2012: Jeter, Sabathia, and Beltran. You make those guys above league average players and the Yankees look like a rock solid team.

      • 11
        Voomo Zanzibar says:

        Right, one World Series.
        One out of the last 13 years.

        After moving away from a system that won 4 out of 5.

        And I’m speaking to what works, but also to what feels good as a fan. Something about free agents doesnt feel as good as homegrown.
        Or players traded-for players, for that matter.

        In 2000, the Yankees had 5 homegrown position starters,
        aged 26-31 at the End of the championship run.

        And 4 who were traded for.

        Their ages when acquired:
        31 Brosius
        30 O’Nneill
        29 Knobs
        28 Tino

    • 12
      Doug says:

      “Or are we just in a different universe where above average major leaguers under the age of 30 can be had for peanuts.”

      It’s not a different universe. Those players can be had for “peanuts” (at least at the outset) if they’re developed by the team. Unfortunately for New York, only Cano and Gardner fit that bill among players debuting in the past decade and having a qualifying season with the Yankees.

      While the Yankees have the financial wherewithal to rely exclusively or almost exclusively on UFAs, doing so loads the team with aging players on the downside of their careers, with the related risks of sudden performance declines, injuries, speed and defense limitations, etc. It’s a lot to be compensated for by just skill and experience, especially when there’s no core for the UFAs to complement.

      • 14
        David P says:

        What’s interesting is that the 76-78 Yankees “dynasty” was built almost entirely via trades. The only home grown players were Munson, White, Guidry (77-78), Beattie (78) and Clay (77-78). Free agency was new and while the Yankees were certainly at the forefront – signing Hunter, Jackson, and Gossage – the FA market was fairly bare at that point.

        The rest of those teams were built via trades. And they tended to be young, with most of the players acquired in their 20s. Perhaps free agency killed the ability to acquire young talent via trade?

        • 18
          Doug says:

          Free agency may not have killed trades for young talent, but it has made them more infrequent.

          To forestall losing their stars to free agency, teams are increasingly locking up their young talent long-term before they become FAs. So those players get FA-style money and the team doesn’t have to compete with other suitors. Generally a sound strategy for the “can’t miss” stars, but a riskier one for those players whose future prospects may be less certain.

          Top-notch talent is often available via trade only on a “rental” basis, in advance of free agency. Still, that is a viable option for a player who is still young enough (late 20s) and which the buying team feels confident they can sign long-term. But, of course, no guarantees of that, which is why the buyers are often reluctant to offer up enough to pry those players from the sellers.

          So, that leaves the diamond-in-the-rough players that only astute scouting can identify. These can usually be acquired cheaply so a team can afford to indulge if they really think the player’s talents are truly under-appreciated by the other team. Of course, you may end up inadvertently parting with your own diamond-in-the-rough players when making those trades, so need to be careful. A better option would be to instead part with an older player, and to do so before his declining value becomes too obvious.

  4. 7
    Brendan Bingham says:

    On outperforming Pythag… This year it seems the Yankees have the perfect recipe for pulling off this feat: below average hitting and wildly variable quality among their starting pitchers. When Tanaka pitches, the team almost always wins, but often by only a slender margin. When Kuroda or one of their three fill-ins starts (thanks to injuries to 60% of their expected rotation), wins are much less frequent, and a blow-out loss is not an unusual outcome. As a result, the team is now three games above .500, despite having scored 25 runs less than they have allowed.

    • 10
      mosc says:

      Starting pitching variations are the reason pythagorean run totals don’t always work. As I frequently complain about with Koufax, the marginal value of a run varies greatly depending on the scoring environment. You take the value of a run when a number 5 starter is out there vs the value of a run when a number 1 starter is out there and they’re going to be quite different. I agree, the perfect storm for pythagorean imbalance is having really good and really bad starters while facing less variation yourself.

  5. 13

    Major League Début teams for Yankees with their numbers retired:
    1 Mgr B.Martin — Twins, as mgr
    3 B. Ruth — Red Sox
    4 L. Gehrig — Yankees
    5 J. DiMaggio — Yankees
    7 M. Mantle — Yankees
    8 B. Dickey — Yankees
    8 Y. Berra — Yankees
    9 R. Maris — Indians
    10 P. Rizzuto — Yankees
    15 T. Munson — Yankees
    16 W. Ford — Yankees
    23 D. Mattingly — Yankees
    32 E. Howard — Yankees
    37 Mgr Casey Stengel — Dodgers as mgr
    42 M. Rivera — Yankees
    42 J. Robinson — Dodgers
    44 Re. Jackson — A’s
    49 R. Guidry — Yankees

    Jeter started playing with the Yankees; Torre started managing with the Mets. Of the 15 players with numbers retired for playing for the Yankees, only three started elsewhere. (For the nine Cardinals players, three started elsewhere.)

    This seems to suggest that homegrown may be better.

    • 17
      Doug says:

      On my rudimentary home-grown analysis piece a while back, the Yankess came out pretty middle of the pack. But, as you’ve shown, they have a knack for getting the most out of their homegrown players, a trait that continues with Jeter, Posada and Cano.

  6. 15
    Mike L says:

    The Yankees began to change philosophy from what rebuilt them in the 1990s after the 2001 season. They stopped looking for valuable players, like O’Neill, Brosius, and even Tino when they first traded for him, and started looking for superstars. The problem for them was that the extra cost, both in players in a trade and in raw dollars and contract years, didn’t justify the incremental step up in performance. The Giambi deal was an example. Giamb was clearly better than a 32 year old Tino, but Tino still was a productive player. They could probably have signed Tino for two years instead of Giambi’s, and at a third of the annual cost. Giambi played less that 900 games in seven years and accumulated about 22bWar. They got greedy again with Jeff Weaver when they really didn’t need him, in the process giving up Lilly, and Weaver turned into a complete head case. They kept biting on shinier and shinier baubles, paying out immense and stupid deals (CC’s and Tex, for example) where they got good early production (as in the Giambi signing) and then got saddled with older/injured players. The Yankees had their chance this last offseason to stop, but, after looking at their books from 2013, felt they had to spend more. Now, they are stuck. They aren’t going to be a seriously good team in the near future.

  7. 19
    Voomo Zanzibar says:

    No reports of Ichiro injured today.

    Alfonso Soriano in Right Field vs Mark Buehrle.
    Ichiro on the bench.

    vs Mark B:

    Ichiro. 59 PA
    Soriano.47 PA

    .421 .424 .474 .897

    .200 .213 .422 .635

    • 20
      Voomo Zanzibar says:

      ……..Reverse hex activated!
      Soriano with a ribby single in his first at bat.
      Well done Voomo.
      Guess this is why Girardi is wearing the pinstriped executive jockstrap.

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