The Yankees committed almost $500 million to new players before 2014, yet their record actually got worse. Their first multi-year playoff drought of the wild card era seems likely to stretch to three years in 2015. The Yankees, as usual, have the flashy names and the gaudy payroll, but they again won’t have the elite-level production to go with it. Almost all of their important players are over 30, making them prone to injury and increasingly less likely to rediscover their youthful primes all at once.
The Yankees have two starters on contracts worth more than $150 million, and neither is a safe bet to hold up all season. CC Sabathia, 34, made only eight starts last season because of knee injuries, and it could be that the traits that made him such a highly respected ace — always taking the ball, willing himself deep into games — have irreparably worn him down. With Masahiro Tanaka, it’s all a matter of his elbow: Tanaka, 26, was every bit as good as advertised last season, until a partial UCL tear cost him most of the second half. Uncertainty clouds his immediate future. Michael Pineda has been prone to injury, but with his lethal slider, he’s overpowering when available. As the Yankees await Ivan Nova’s return from Tommy John surgery, which he underwent last April, they will see what they get from Nathan Eovaldi, the hard-throwing righthander they acquired from Miami in December. Eovaldi’s high-octane fastballs have yet to match his production, but he’s only 25 and worth a long look. The veteran Chris Capuano is his opposite in every way: a lefthander who relies on guile.
The Yankees have spent the last few years trying to hit Andrew Miller in the American League East, and they gave up on solving him when they signed the former first-round pick to a four-year, $36 million contract. It was a smart way for the Yankees to use their payroll advantage on a mid-level star who carries less risk but can still make a major impact. Miller and All-Star Dellin Betances both struck out over 100 hitters last season and will form a nasty bullpen endgame for the Yankees, no matter which one ultimately ends up as the closer. Justin Wilson, a hard-throwing lefty with control issues, joins the middle relief corps with right-handed strikeout specialists David Carpenter Adam Warren and versatile long man Esmil Rogers. The swing-and-miss stuff of the Yankees’ relievers will make the bullpen the team’s strength.
The good thing about Derek Jeter’s replacement at shortstop, Didi Gregorius, is that he is only 25 years old and is a high-impact defender with a strong arm and the kind of range Jeter never had. The bad thing is that he’s already with his third team and could not stick as the starter for the woeful 2014 Diamondbacks. Gregorius is a left-handed hitter with decent pop, but he struggles to hit lefties and projects to be, at best, a .240-.250 hitter. Brendan Ryan, another smooth defensive player, is also a light hitter but will start for Gregorius against lefthanders, at least sometimes. At second base, the Yankees brought back Stephen Drew on a one-year deal to solidify the position after trading Martin Prado to Miami. The team also will try and determine if prospects Jose Pirela or Rob Refsnyder can be the long-term answer. Pirela, 25, has played every position but catcher and pitcher in the minors, but he has played second more than any other spot and hit .305 with 42 extra-base hits and 15 steals at Class AAA last season. Refsnyder, 24, had never played above Class A before last season but hit .318 at the two highest minor league levels.
Mark Teixeira started his Yankees career by finishing as the runner-up for the AL Most Valuable Player Award and making the final putout of a World Series championship. That seems like a long time ago. Minor injuries nag at Teixeira, who turns 35 in April, but he still managed to come back from a serious wrist injury and make 508 plate appearances. The Yankees’ best hope is that the further removed Teixeira gets from his wrist trouble, the more closely he’ll resemble the feared slugger of old. But just in case, they have Garrett Jones to help out. Jones, the former Pirate and Marlin whose power will play well at Yankee Stadium, will play first base when Teixeira needs a rest or a day at DH. Across the diamond, the Yankees brought back Chase Headley on a four-year contract. They loved him in the field, at the plate and in the clubhouse last summer, and if Headley can match his Yankees on-base percentage (.371) with decent power and solid play in the field, that’s enough. His switch-hitting is also appealing to the Yankees. On Headley’s days off, Alex Rodriguez could spend some time at third. The Yankees won’t over-expose Rodriguez in the field, though, so he’ll get most of his playing time at designated hitter and some at first base.
While Jacoby Ellsbury’s on-base percentage slid to an unacceptable .298 in the second half, the Yankees were mostly pleased with the first season of his extravagant seven-year, $153 million contract. Ellsbury excelled in center field and teamed with left fielder Brett Gardner to form a dangerous slashing tandem atop the order, with respectable power and game-changing speed. Right fielder Carlos Beltran, however, was a bust in his first season in the Bronx, unable to perform as he did in St. Louis because of a bone spur in his elbow that required surgery on Sept. 30. Beltran should be healthy now, but he turns 38 in April, and the rigors of everyday duty in right field might be too much to withstand, especially for a player the Yankees signed through 2016. The Yankees need to play him at DH as much as possible, but other creaky veterans need time there, too.
The Yankees like to perpetuate the narrative that Brian McCann figured things out in the second half, but the numbers don’t back that up. He had a better slugging percentage after the All-Star break, but he hit just .221 with a pitiful .274 on-base percentage — both figures even worse than they were in the first half. The Yankees plainly need a lot more to justify their five-year, $85 million investment. It paid off with a steady hand behind the plate and a team-leading 23 homers, but the .286 OBP made McCann, on the whole, an offensive liability.
If only the Yankees could use three or four players at DH, they’d have a much better chance of holding up through the season. Teixeira still has value in the field, although his body could use the occasional rest at DH. Beltran, with his surgically repaired elbow, could also use more time here. But as long as Rodriguez is on the team, he should get the bulk of the playing time at DH. If A-Rod stays away from performance-enhancing drugs, he’s going to need a natural way to heal that crumbling body every day. Beating it up by playing in the field won’t help, so DH looks like his best spot.
Joe Girardi usually knows how to juggle a roster of veterans, but he hasn’t been able to cajole a successful playoff push since 2012. That’s hardly his fault, though, since neither of his last two teams had any right to produce a winning record, given their meager statistics. Even so, a third straight year out of the playoffs can’t be good for Girardi’s job security, even in the more rational world of Hal Steinbrenner. General manager Brian Cashman made deft deadline moves last summer, proving his worth to Steinbrenner, but the Yankees’ biggest organizational advantage remains their ability to spend on free agents or afford to take on other teams’ unwanted contracts.
The Yankees always have hope, because most of their players have, at one point in their careers, ranked among the game’s best. The question is whether they can do it again. Don’t bet on it. It’s increasingly a young man’s game, and if the Yankees continue to rely on the overpaid and over-the-hill, they could be stuck on 27 championships for a long time.
2015 Prediction: 4th in AL East
CF Jacoby Ellsbury (L) Success rate of 84.6 percent on steals is second among active players, trailing only Carlos Beltran.
LF Brett Gardner (L) His 17 HRs were a career high, but .327 OBP was lowest since 2008 rookie season.
RF Carlos Beltran (S) With 373 HRs, trails only Mickey Mantle, Eddie Murray and Chipper Jones among switch-hitters.
C Brian McCann (L) Hit only four of his 23 homers on the road in unimpressive Yankee debut.
1B Mark Teixeira (S) Still owed $45 million for next two seasons after batting just .216.
3B Chase Headley (S) Has just 26 HRs, 99 RBIs since his 2012 breakout (31 HRs, 115 RBIs) with Padres.
DH Alex Rodriguez (R) Will collect $6 million when he hits sixth HR of the season to tie Willie Mays on career list, with 660.
2B Stephen Drew (L) Back with Yankees after hitting just .150 in 46 games following July 31 trade from Red Sox.
SS Didi Gregorius (L) Substantial upgrade over Derek Jeter in the field, he must learn to hit lefties to fulfill offensive potential.
2B Rob Refsnyder (R) Should get a shot to play after a .297/.389/.444 slash line in three season in the minors.
C John Ryan Murphy (R) Strong second half at AAA gives the 2009 second-round pick from Princeton the inside edge for backup job.
OF Chris Young (R) Small sample, but Yanks loved what they saw after he flopped with Mets.
SS Brendan Ryan (R) Great glove, but bat was worse than Yankees expected, at .167.
1B Garrett Jones (L) Veteran has hit at least 15 homers in each of his last six seasons, including 27 with Pittsburgh in 2012.
RH Masahiro Tanaka Two-start cameo in September wasn’t enough to quell fears about troublesome elbow.
LH CC Sabathia Has a 4.87 ERA in last two seasons, but expects to be healthy after knee surgery.
RH Michael Pineda Fragile but dominant, with a .208 opponents’ average in 41 career starts.
RH Nathan Eovaldi MLB hitters can handle his heat; he led National League in hits allowed last season (223 with Miami).
LH Chris Capuano Veteran had six quality starts in 12 tries for the Yankees late last season.
RH Dellin Betances (Closer) Exactly 50 percent of his outs came via strikeout (135 of 270).
LH Andrew Miller Fastball and wipeout slider make him a devastating late-inning weapon.
RH David Carpenter Acquired in early January, Carpenter gives the Yankees another strikeout specialist in the bullpen.
LH Justin Wilson Durable and tough on lefties, but high walk rate is worrisome.
RH Adam Warren Full-time relief role suited Warren, who held lefties to .178 average.
RH Esmil Rogers Before he was hit hard in season finale — four ER in 0.1 IP — had a 3.28 ERA for Yanks.
Beyond the Box Score
MVP shutout One way to measure the Yankees’ lack of 2014 impact was in the voting for the AL Most Valuable Player. Not a single Yankee got even so much as a 10th place vote from 30 members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. The last time the Yankees were completely shut out of the MVP vote was 1992, their last losing season. The Yankees also had no pitchers listed on any Cy Young Award ballots.
Stability at the top Only two general managers have been in their current jobs longer than the Yankees’ Brian Cashman — Brian Sabean of the Giants (1996) and Billy Beane of the A’s (1997). Cashman, who took over as GM in 1998, isn’t going anywhere soon. Despite missing the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, the Yankees re-signed Cashman to a three-year contract in October. “We know from our fan base’s perspective that we need to do better than we’ve done for the past two years,” Cashman says. “I say that for myself as well. Being in my chair, I’m responsible for it all — offense, defense and pitching. I’ve got to find a way to get our fan base back to enjoying October sooner than later.”