When the 2009 Yankees won the World Series, they did so by defying history. Their catcher was a 37-year-old who homered 22 times and posted an OPS+ of 133 while playing just 111 games; their third baseman, 33, hit 30 home runs with an OPS+ of 147 while missing 38 games; their short stop, 35, had a career year with a .334/.406/.465 batting line. In fact, no team since the 1950s had captured a World Championship with a short stop that old, and the Yankees played as though age meant nothing.
Seemingly as retribution for the magical October of 2009, Father Time has come roaring back with a vengeance this year. Jorge Posada, who just turned 39 yesterday, might have tied his career high with 3 stolen bases, but his other numbers aren’t looking too pretty. He’s played in just 85 of the team’s 119 games, and he’s caught only 451.1 innings, over 120 fewer than Francisco Cervelli. His triple slash line — .253/.361/.451 — is great for a sometimes-catcher, but he’s probably going to post full-season lows in home runs and batting average while his slugging and OBP are well below career norms. After last year’s stellar season, his injury-plagued 2010 has been a disappointment.
Meanwhile, on the left side of the infield, the Yanks are facing similar problems. A-Rod, battling tendinitis in his hip and now a calf strain, is hitting just .265/.334/.486 with 21 home runs and is on pace for career lows in his rate stats. His streak of 30-home run seasons, currently at 12, is in jeopardy. Derek Jeter has stayed healthy this year, but he’s batting just .279/.341/.387, well off his career .315/.385/.455 line, and his only home run since June 12 was an inside-the-parker that happened when David DeJesus broke a finger. Not surprisingly, Jeter and A-Rod are rated below average defensively as well.
The only group of people more in denial over aging baseball players than the players themselves are fans. We don’t like to hear that Derek Jeter, a Yankee since I was 12, is getting old. We don’t want to see Jorge Posada break down as the wear and tear of being a 39-year-old catcher begins to take its toll. We don’t want to admit that Alex Rodriguez might be mortal. Yet, we can’t deny it. As Andy Pettitte’s groin lingers, as A-Rod’s legs cry out for regular rest, we see these stalwarts getting older. What though are the Yankees to do?
For the Bombers, this trio of position players presents the organization with a crossroads of sorts. Since 2004, the Yanks have been about Derek and Alex and Jorge with a cast of supporting characters. Now, it’s time for the supporting characters to take center stage. The younger guys — Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson — are good enough to be stars in their own rights. Cano, who has slowed lately, is having an MVP-caliber season from second base, and after a horrendously slow start, Mark Teixeira leads the Yanks in home runs. Swisher has flirted with a .300 batting average and a .900 OPS for the last few weeks, and even Curtis Granderson is showing signs of life.
But larger questions loom. A-Rod is under contract through 2017, and the Yankees have to figure out a way to restore him to health. He needs regular rest but hasn’t gotten it. Derek Jeter’s contract situation is the looming albatross around the organization’s neck. Can the Yankees give him a long-term deal for top dollar when he isn’t worth the money on the field or the commitment in terms of years? And what of Jorge Posada? Will he have the dignity to retire after 2011 when his contract up or will the Yanks again be confronted with a face-off between sentimentality and nostalgia on one side and the reality of age on another?
This month, we’ve seen a malaise envelope the Yankees as they’ve staggered through a 7-9 stretch of play. They’re still in first place; they still have a solid lead on a playoff spot; they’ve still scored more runs than any other team in baseball. Yet, Father Time is knocking, and if it isn’t the quite the last gasp for the older players, the end is nearing. No one likes to contemplate that looming baseball mortality.