Postseason or no postseason, Yankees need to make big changes this winter

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Barring some kind of Derek Jeter farewell tour miracle, the Yankees aren’t going to the postseason this year. They’ve dug themselves too big a hole without enough games remaining to climb out of it. That’s life. They’re not going to play in October because their play from April through early-September says they don’t belong there. If you’ve watched them at all this year, you know how hard it is to envision them stringing together enough wins to jump three teams and make up five games in the second wildcard race.

Now, even if the Yankees do somehow manage to sneak into the postseason, this year needs to be something of a wake-up call for the team’s decision makers. I mean, last year should have been the wake-up call, but instead the Yankees doubled down on the only thing they know how to do: spend money. They tried to spend their way back into the postseason — spend their way back in while letting their best player and one of the five best in the world walk away, remember — and it failed. Miserably. They’re probably going to lose more games this season than they did last year despite their offseason spending spree.

The season is close enough to being over that we can say, with certainty, the first year of the Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran contracts were disasters. There aren’t enough games left on the schedule to change that now. The Jacoby Ellsbury and Masahiro Tanaka deals have worked out more than fine, at least until Tanaka’s elbow started barking, but McCann and Beltran have not. When you sign a 30-year-old catcher to a five-year contract, you’re doing it under the assumption Year One will be the best. Year One is over now and the Yankees aren’t getting it back. It’s gone. Beltran’s deal is less damaging because it is shorter term but it still hurts. A lot.

For decades the Yankees conducted business the same way they do right now. They bought the best free agents available (or tried to, anyway) and by and large it worked. Free agency started in 1975, they won titles in 1977-78, had more wins than any other team in the 1980s, and dominated baseball in the late-1990s and 2000s. When you’ve got more money than every other team and you can simply buy the best players, why wouldn’t you do it? That’s the advantage of being based in New York.

That financial advantage is shrinking, however, and it has been since the luxury tax was implemented back in 2003. Aside from last year’s $228M outlier, the Yankees have had an Opening Day payroll in the $180M to $210M range since 2004. The average Opening Day payroll of the other 13 AL clubs (not counting the new-to-the-AL Astros) has steadily risen from roughly $60M to just over $100M during the time. Keep in the mind that MLB’s biggest payroll increases over the last few years belong to NL teams — the Dodgers, Giants, and Nationals, specifically. The payroll gap between the Yankees and everyone else isn’t what it once was.

Furthermore, free agency itself has fundamentally changed as teams lock up their best players to long-term extensions years before they’re eligible to hit the open market. The days of landing an in-his-prime star every winter are gone. It was only six years ago that the Yankees were able to pluck a 28-year-old CC Sabathia off the market to satisfy their pitching needs. Nowadays? Forget it. There’s a reason Masahiro Tanaka landed the fourth largest pitching contract in baseball history without ever playing an MLB game. His age. Impact players in their prime are no longer available for just money.

For years we’ve justified huge money long-term contracts by saying you’ll live with the ugly part at the end for the immediate return now. Well, the Yankees have hit the ugly part. They’re at the ugly part of their long-term deals with Sabathia, Alex Rodriguez, and Mark Teixeira. McCann and Beltran didn’t provide the immediate return either. That has left the team not just with unproductive players eating up a big chunk of the payroll, but little flexibility to replace them. Realistically, what are the Yankees going to do with Teixeira? Nothing. They’re going to grit their teeth and run him out there until his contract ends. That’s the only option.

The Yankees are caught in a cycle of relying on free agency to remain in contention. When the 2008-09 Sabathia/Teixeira free agent class started to fade, there was the 2013-14 Ellsbury/Tanaka class. The Bombers missed the postseason last year and responded the only way they know how, by spending money. The players they invested in did not provide the desired impact — back to the playoffs! — and that means the Yankees are going to do what now? Agree to another $400M worth of contracts this winter? That only continues the cycle with no guarantee of a return to contention, as we’ve learned this year.

Free agency is no longer a one stop shop that can turn a team around in a winter. That doesn’t mean it isn’t useful, it obviously is, but it can’t be everything for the Yankees going forward. Not anymore. The game of baseball has changed these last few years but the Yankees have stayed the same and they’re being left behind. The standings don’t lie. The farm system needs to be more productive, the free agent signings they do make have to be better, and the trades have to be smarter. Remember when they added Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson, both smack in the primes of their careers? Those moves were awesome. Taking on a bunch of money to get Vernon Wells? Not so much.

Personally, I believe the Yankees need to do a better job of focusing on depth, from the top of the roster to the very bottom. No more bad players. No more Brian Robertses and Ichiro Suzukis, who we all know aren’t going to work out the day the contract is signed. Those types of moves have to stop. I know it’s much easier said than done. Believe me. Also, the Yankees should absolutely bury the competition whenever another Tanaka or Jose Abreu comes along. That’s where you flex your financial muscle in free agency. Not tacking on a third year so you can outbid the Diamondbacks for 37-year-old Beltran.

I don’t believe any team with a huge payroll should ever have to endure a prolonged rebuild and, frankly, even if the Yankees wanted to tear it all down, they have little to move anyway. They’ve painted themselves into a corner and getting out won’t be easy or particularly pretty. There is a very strong likelihood things will get worse before they get better. Is Brian Cashman the man to turn things around and get the Yankees back on track? I don’t know but I really have a hard time believing he is at this point. He’s been running the show for an eternity and a different voice may be in order. That doesn’t guarantee improvement, mind you. A new GM could make things even worse, especially if ownership brings in a figurehead GM they can walk all over.

Look up and down the roster and there are five, maybe six players I can buy as being part of the solution and the next great Yankees team: Tanaka, Ellsbury, Dellin Betances, Michael Pineda, Brett Gardner, and maybe Martin Prado. I’d add David Robertson to that group if he wasn’t due to become a free agent in a few weeks and I can’t bring myself to include McCann in that group after the season he’s had. The Yankees’ entire team-building philosophy is going to have to change if they want to get back to being a perennial contender because the game is telling them it has to change. Their old way of doing business is painfully outdated and this winter is the time to start getting back up to speed, postseason or no postseason.

Update: Martin Prado headed for MRI on tight left hamstring

11:20pm: Prado has been preliminarily diagnosed with tightness in the hamstring, the Yankees announced. He’ll head for an MRI next.

10:43pm: Martin Prado left tonight’s game with a left hamstring injury, according to the army of beat reporters with the team. He will see the doctor tonight. No word on the severity or anything like that, but we’ll find out soon enough.

Red Sox hammer Greene, Yankees drop series opener 9-4

So much for starting the homestand off on the right foot. The Red Sox clobbered the Yankees by the score of 9-4 in Tuesday night’s series opener, New York’s fourth loss in their last five games. The Yankees are now 24-29 against the AL East this year, including 9-20 in their last 29 intra-division games.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Shane Slammed
Shane Greene is one of the few reasons the Yankees can even pretend to still be in the race for the second wildcard spot. He’s been really good since coming up just before the All-Star break. But Greene got destroyed on Tuesday night, allowing six runs on six hits and three walks in only three innings of work. Five of the nine base-runners reached in two-strike counts, which gives you an idea of how much he was struggling. Batters had a .175 OBP in two-strike counts against Greene coming into the game.

There’s no real mystery about what happened here. Greene was simply catching way too much of plate and giving hitters plenty of pitches to hammer. The box score says 38 of his 67 pitches were strikes (57%), but that doesn’t say anything about the quality of his pitches, which were awful. Even a few of his outs were hard hit. What can you do? Greene picked an unfortunate time to have his worst start in the big leagues. Now he has to shake it off and get back to where he was before Tuesday. The Yankees are falling out of the playoff race but he’s still competing for a 2015 rotation spot.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Fifth Inning Fight
Aside from Martin Prado‘s solo homer in the third inning, the Bombers didn’t put up much of a fight against Joe Kelly in the first four innings. The homer was their only base-runner in those four innings, in fact. That all changed in the fifth thanks to a patented 2014 Yankees rally that could have been a whole lot bigger if they were able to get out of their own way.

Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and Prado opened the inning with back-to-back-to-back singles — McCann bunted to third to beat the shift — but the end result was runners at second and third with one out and no runs scored. Beltran got a poor read on Prado’s hit over the left fielder’s head and was only able to advance to third. Prado, thinking it was an easy double, took a big turn around first only to see McCann standing at second. He was caught in a rundown for the first out. Beltran got a bad read but ultimately Prado has to know what the runners in front of him are doing.

Anyway, the Yankees ran themselves out of a bases loaded situation there but Chase Headley drew a walk following Prado’s single to re-load (?) the bases. Kelly then walked Francisco Cervelli to force in the team’s second run. Jacoby Ellsbury lined out to short for the second out and Derek Jeter grounded out weakly to short for the third out … until Joe Girardi challenged and it was overturned, scoring a run and re-loading the bases. Jeter hit the ball so weakly that he was able to beat it out. I’m not joking.

That set things up for Brett Gardner, the number three hitter du jour and the team’s best player pretty much all season. He saw five pitches from Kelly, all outside the zone, swung at one of them, and was called out on strikes. Strike three was such an awful call. Here’s the strike zone plot, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

Brett Gardner Joe Kelly

Terrible. The only actual strike in that at-bat was a strike because Gardner swung at it and missed (pitch four). YES showed an overhead angle and strike three was in the other batter’s box. Home plate ump Tim Timmons had a pretty crappy zone all night (strike zone plots) but that call took the cake. Gardner slammed his bat, slammed his helmet, and got himself ejected. That only compounded the problem. I know he was mad and rightfully so, but he’s way too important to get himself thrown out of a September game with his team fighting for a postseason spot. Four hits, two walks, two runs. 2014 Yankees.

Last Four Innings
After that self-stifled fifth inning rally, the game pretty much flew by. Esmil Rogers replaced Greene and served up a solo homer in the fourth, but otherwise he and three other relievers (Rich Hill, Adam Warren, David Huff) combined to retire 12 of 13 Red Sox batters from the fifth through eighth innings. Chaz Roe allowed two runs in the ninth. I’ve already seen enough of him to know whatever the Yankees gave the Marlins was too much. The bullpen more or less held up its end of the bargain until Roe showed up.

The offense never came, of course. It never does. The Yankees had runners on base in the sixth (one-out walk by Beltran), seventh (Prado reached on an error and Headley walked, both with no outs), and eighth (two-out walk by Teixeira) but couldn’t score. McCann banged into a double play to end the sixth, Cervelli banged into a double play to short-circuit the seventh, and Beltran flew out to end the eighth. McCann hit a garbage time solo homer off the shell of Koji Uehara in the ninth for no apparent reason.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Leftovers
The Yankees had seven hits as a team. Prado and McCann had two each while Jeter, Headley, and Beltran had one each. Two of the seven (Jeter and McCann) were infield singles and another (Beltran) was a ground ball with eyes. Really knocked it around on Tuesday. Teixeira, Beltran, Cervelli, and Headley (two) each drew walks. There’s your offense.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, managed to pick up 12 hits as a team even though five of the nine players in their starting lineup went hitless. Mookie Betts (three hits), Yoenis Cespedes (three hits), Daniel Nava (two hits), and Xander Bogaerts (four hits) did all the damage.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings
The box score and video highlights are at MLB.com. FanGraphs has some other stats and the updated standings are at ESPN. The Yankees are now five games back of the second wild-card spot and FanGraphs puts their postseason odds at 4.7%. They were only 3.5 games out of a playoff spot after 136 games last year, before they committed $500M+ to free agents.


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next
The Yankees and Red Sox will continue the series Wednesday, when Hiroki Kuroda and Anthony Ranaudo square off. RAB Tickets can get you in the door if you want to catch that game or any of the other seven games left on the homestand. There are only 16 home games left this season, you know.

Game 136: Rivalry

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

Yay, Yankees-Red Sox. Yay. The rivalry has definitely lost some luster through the years and that has been especially true this season, with the Red Sox quickly falling out of the contention and the Yankees slowly fading in the standings. Is it better to burn out or fade away? I’m thinking fade away. I prefer to have a September baseball game make me feel something other than complete indifference.

Anyway, the Yankees start a nice nine-game, ten-day homestand tonight, and they’re going to need to win about seven of the nine games to have a chance at the second wildcard spot. That probably won’t happen, but that’s okay. It’s worth a try though. Boston is out of it and they’ve been playing terribly of late, so let’s start the homestand off on the right foot. Here is the Red Sox lineup and here is the Yankees lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. SS Derek Jeter
  3. LF Brett Gardner
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. RF Carlos Beltran
  6. DH Brian McCann
  7. 2B Martin Prado
  8. 3B Chase Headley
  9. C Frankie Cervelli
    RHP Shane Greene

It is crazy hot and humid in New York. The sky is nice and blue, but I wouldn’t exactly call this weather comfortable. It’s like standing in soup. This evening’s game will begin at 7:05 pm ET, and you can watch on either YES locally or MLB Network nationally. Enjoy the game, everyone.

Updates: In case you missed it earlier, the Yankees called up eight players now that rosters have expanded in September … tests came back clean on Masahiro Tanaka‘s sore arm and he has been diagnosed with fatigue … Ellsbury’s big week earned him AL Player of the Week honors.

Tests on Tanaka come back clean, scheduled for bullpen this week

Tests on right-hander Masahiro Tanaka‘s sore arm came back clean, Joe Girardi told reporters. The doctor said it’s just fatigue. Tanaka has been working out at Yankee Stadium these last few days and he played catch this afternoon. He is scheduled to throw a bullpen session sometime later this week. Worth repeating: the tests came back clean. Exhale.