When the Yankees faced Toronto ace Roy Halladay last night, they did so with a massively depleted lineup. Derek Jeter is battling an oblique pull; Jorge Posada and Jose Molina are both on the DL; Xavier Nady is attempting to rehab a severely strained elbow ligament; and Nick Swisher may or may not be recovering from a bruised elbow.
Halfway through the game, Hideki Matsui found himself out of the game. He had felt a cramp in his right hamstring, and the Yankees made the prudent move of protecting their DH. In came Swisher; out went Matsui. Yankee fans just sat back and shook their heads. While this team is, on average, not that old, their key pieces are mostly on the wrong side of 30, and it’s beginning to show.
Already, this year, in addition to Nady and the two catchers, the Yankees have played for an extended period of time without their All-Star third baseman, their left-handed set-up reliever, their right-handed set-up reliever, and their back-up infielder. Their other left-handed reliever — Phil Coke — is battling a sore back, and their number two starter wasn’t up to strength after suffering a freak accident last June.
For a $200 million team, it’s hard to make excuses. After all, if the Yankees are investing so much into their starters, shouldn’t they have a viable Plan B for when the starters go down? Last night, in the comments to Joe’s game recap, a few of us got into a discussion about the Yankees bench. Some fans claim Brian Cashman didn’t build enough depth into the team. Others — as I do — feel that the Yanks have suffered through more injuries than any GM would expect and that it is impossible to have a Plan B that replaces a third of your team.
This debate hinges on the bench and its proper place on the Yanks. When the season started, the Yankees’ bench was projected to include Melky Cabrera or Brett Gardner, Nick Swisher or Xavier Nady, Jose Molina and Cody Ransom. Swisher or Nady would provide the pinch-hitting pop. Gardner and Melky would be the late-inning defensive specialists or, in Gardner’s case, the speed off the bench. Molina would more than adequately back up Posada with stellar defense, and Ransom would ride the pine while spelling Jeter and A-Rod. The best laid plans, indeed.
Six weeks into the season, the bench now resembles a list of never-will-bes and has-beens. Francisco Cervelli and Kevin Cash are the team’s two catchers. Brett Gardner plays sparingly. Angel Berroa and Ramiro Peña are the go-to infielders of last resort. Injuries will decimate any team, and the Yankees are no exception.
Should Brian Cashman, then, be held responsible? He could have had Mark DeRosa for $5.5 million or Mark Grudzielanek, say the detractors. But the truth is that these players aren’t bench players. DeRosa starts for the Indians, and Grudzielanek wants a starting job. For all of their money, the Yankees can’t shell out $10 million or more for guys who will, in an ideal world, play once or twice a week.
A bench is a bench because these players aren’t starters. If they could play every day, they would be somewhere else, making more money and enjoying more playing time. That’s just a fact of baseball life.
But — and this is a significant but — the Yankees are not a young team, and it’s showing. Matsui, Damon, Jeter, A-Rod, Posada and Molina are all well past 30. So are Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and A.J. Burnett. While the Yanks have some young players, they are a team relying on age, and age breaks down.
Over the next few years, the Yanks will have some opportunities to shed age. Pettitte, Damon and Matsui are free to go this year, and Jeter faces a controversial free agency the year after. Posada is under contract through 2011, and Mo through next season.
With these potential departures, the Yankees have to find a way to get younger. They have A-Rod until he’s past 40, and Teixeira and Sabathia into their late 30’s. As long as these older players are still here and still getting paid $20 million, the Yankees will face the dangers of age-related injuries. Pulled hamstrings and sore obliques are here to stay, and maybe the Yankees should think about spending more to beef up Plan B and C in the coming seasons. Otherwise, age will make it difficult for the team to win.