This excellent article by BP founder Rany Jazayerli is really quite interesting. Only a serial denier on the level of a Joe.T could fail to be moved by it.
December 17, 2013 12:00 AM ET
The New Normal
By Rany Jazayerli
Once upon a time, there were two great teams in the American League East. But one was greater: In 1998, the Boston Red Sox won 92 games, the second-most in the AL … and finished 22 games behind the New York Yankees, who won 114. That was the first of eight consecutive seasons in which the Red Sox finished second in the AL East while the Yankees finished first. It became an immutable law of baseball, right up there with "each team has 27 outs" and "closers shall not pitch in tie games." No two teams in major league history have ever finished 1-2 in as many consecutive years.
The Red Sox ended their World Series drought in 2004, but they didn't break their streak of second-place finishes until 2006, when they finished third, a single game behind the Toronto Blue Jays. The Sox really disrupted the natural order the following year, winning the division for the first time since 1995, relegating the Yankees to wild-card status, and then winning the World Series for good measure. The Yankees completed a counterrevolution in 2009, again winning the AL East ahead of the Red Sox, and then taking the World Series.
If there was a wrinkle in the Established Order of Things in the AL East as recently as a year ago, it came from the Red Sox, who in 2012 finished last for the first time in 20 years and lost their most games (93) since 1965. The Yankees, meanwhile, won the division again.
As I chronicled before last season, however, the Yankees were on the precipice of collapse. They finished in third place in 2013, missing the playoffs for just the second time in 19 years. The Red Sox, having made a convincing case that Bobby Valentine was the worst manager of the 21st century, delivered the best regular-season1 and postseason record in baseball after being freed from his clutches.
After winning their third World Series in a decade, the Red Sox appear well positioned to keep their success going. They're not a particularly old team. Last season, David Ortiz was the only lineup regular older than 32. Dustin Pedroia, one of the best second basemen in baseball, signed an extraordinarily team-friendly eight-year, $110 million extension. Boston's farm system is one of the game's best: Jackie Bradley Jr. is ready to take over in center field for the departed Jacoby Ellsbury, while phenom Xander Bogaerts, who started every game of the World Series after playing just 18 games in the regular season, is slated to replace Stephen Drew at shortstop. The melding of money and talent, the "$100 million player development machine" that former Boston GM Theo Epstein talked about more than a decade ago, continues unabated in New England.
Things in the Bronx are … not as great. As tempting as it might be to label 2013 a fluke and say the Yankees will soon return to winning 94 games every year, as they did in 11 of the previous 12 seasons, the evidence points in a different direction. Last season wasn't a fluke; it was the new normal for the Yankees, and nothing they've done this offseason changes that. If anything, the moves the Yankees have made this offseason seem guaranteed to perpetuate that reality.
Let's start by talking about the 2013 Yankees, because to understand how difficult it will be for the Yankees to return to glory, we need to understand how deep of a hole they've dug for themselves. We need to understand that last season's Yankees were both disappointing and incredibly lucky.
The 2013 Yankees won just 85 games, ending their major league–record streak of 17 consecutive years with 87 or more wins. But it could have been much worse. It should have been much worse. The Yankees were outscored in 2013 for the first time in 21 years. Their run differential was minus-21; in the last 85 seasons, they've delivered a worse run differential just five times.2
The Yankees were not a good team in 2013. Their Pythagorean record, an estimate of what their win-loss record should have been based on their runs scored and runs allowed,3 was 79-83. They won 85 games and stayed on the fringes of the playoff race for most of the year because of their incredible performance in one-run games, in which they were 30-16.
Success in one-run games comes down to two parts luck and one part bullpen. Luck, as the Baltimore Orioles showed the last two seasons,4 is fleeting. As for the bullpen: The Yankees just lost the greatest reliever in baseball history to retirement. Good luck replicating that record next year, gentlemen.
Despite playing in a park that's favorable to hitters, the Yankees finished just 10th in the league in runs scored. Age (Ichiro Suzuki was 39 and played like it), injuries (Mark Teixeira played in 15 games, Curtis Granderson in 61), the combination of both (Derek Jeter), and Shakespearean tragicomedy (Alex Rodriguez) rendered more than half of the Yankees' projected lineup useless, and the team had already punted on one of the other four spots when it let Russell Martin leave as a free agent so it could inexplicably play Chris Stewart behind the plate instead.
Even before the season began, things were so desperate that the Yankees traded for Vernon Wells — and then gave him more than 400 at-bats. Jayson Nix, Eduardo Nunez, and Lyle Overbay composed three-quarters of the team's primary infield. Of the nine players who batted the most for the Yankees in 2013, only two managed to post an OPS of even 700. The Yankees — the Yankees! — had just two everyday hitters who didn't stink. The Yankees knew they needed to add hitters this winter, and they've done that. The sheer amount of ground their lineup has to make up, however, is staggering.
Now, let's talk about those upgrades. A year after the Yankees were unwilling to beat the Pirates' offer to Martin of $17 million for two years, they've conceded that the rules of baseball do indeed require teams to field a catcher; now, they've committed $17 million per season to Brian McCann for the next five years. McCann is obviously a better player than Martin; McCann is one of the best-hitting catchers of the last decade and has led all active catchers in home runs since he debuted in 2005. As a left-handed hitter with a pull stroke, he's perfectly suited to the new Yankee Stadium. But he'll be 30 on Opening Day, and his last two seasons were his worst since 2007.
To shore up right field and DH, meanwhile, the Yankees signed Carlos Beltran to a three-year, $45 million contract. If you're looking for someone to criticize Beltran, you need to look elsewhere. In a fair world, Beltran is already a future Hall of Famer. He's an eight-time All-Star, the premier power/speed guy of his era (he's one of just eight players in history with 300 homers and 300 steals), and arguably the greatest postseason hitter of all time. He's coming off a successful two-year stint in St. Louis, and though he turns 37 in April, he may still have some gas left in the tank. But his speed and defense have been in decline for years, and he will give back some of the runs he produces if the Yankees make him play the field.
Finally, there's the Yankees' biggest signing: Ellsbury, whom New York has guaranteed $153 million to man center field for the next seven years. Ellsbury is an excellent defender and perhaps the best base stealer in the game (in 2013 he led the AL in steals for the third time, getting caught on just four of his 56 attempts), and he was one of the best players in baseball the one year he hit for power.
That's the main question with Ellsbury, though: How can we reconcile the player who hit 32 homers in 2011 with the player who hasn't reached double-digit home runs in any other season? It wasn't just homers, either; he hit 46 doubles that year, but has no more than 31 in any other season. The Yankees are banking on their ballpark being conducive to more homers, and they might be right. But even if they are, there's also the fact that in two of the last four years, Ellsbury missed more than half the season with injuries. Like McCann, he'll be 30 during the 2014 season. He'll likely be an excellent player for several more years, but like the other free agents the Yankees signed — and like most free agents, period — he has probably already delivered his best season.
There's nothing wrong with any of these signings in isolation; all three guys are above-average players at positions of need. All three make the Yankees better. But their impact will likely be dampened by the player the Yankees let get away.
The Mariners may or may not regret guaranteeing Robinson Cano 10 years and $240 million; there's no doubt the Yankees will regret Cano's absence in 2014.
By Wins Above Replacement, Cano was the Yankees' best player in 2013 (7.6 bWAR), and in 2012 (8.5), and also in 2010 (8.2). In fact, over the past four years, Robinson Cano has been the best player in baseball:
Best bWAR from 2010 to 2013
Cano does everything well. In seven of the last eight years, he has hit .300 and delivered more than 40 doubles. He has hit 25 or more homers in five consecutive seasons. He has steadily improved his plate discipline, now walking about 50 times a year under his own power, and he has never struck out 100 times in a season. He's an above-average defender at a key defensive position. And despite playing second base, where making the double-play pivot with an oncoming runner from the blind side shortens seasons and careers, Cano has stayed incredibly healthy. Over the last seven years, he has missed 14 games — total.
Cano was worth 7.6 Wins Above Replacement in 2013. McCann, Beltran, and Ellsbury were worth 10.4 bWAR combined. Losing Cano wipes out most of the gains made by signing the other three players, and while Cano will make $24 million in Seattle next year, the Yankees will pay the other three $53 million.
It's fair to ask how the Yankees, who never let their own premier players get away and who often spend a lot of money stealing away other teams' free agents, could let the Mariners outbid them for Cano. The Yankees are always the cuckolders, never the cuckolded. When faced with the choice between throwing a ton of money at Cano or a ton of money at McCann, Beltran, and Ellsbury, the Yankees of old would have done both.
In the last 20 years, the Yankees have never let a player remotely close to Cano's stature get away. The only two premier free agents who left were Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens, and both (a) were not nearly at Cano's level at the time, and (b) signed with Houston at least in part for family reasons.
The question is fair to ask, and the answer is fairly clear, even if it's hard to fathom: The Yankees didn't try harder to keep Cano because they don't have the money. Or, at least, they're choosing not to spend it. The Yankees, who have fielded a payroll in excess of $195 million for nine consecutive years, would like to keep their payroll for next season below $189 million, which would keep them under the luxury tax and reset their tax rate to the lowest level so that they'd pay less in taxes if they exceed the threshold in future years.