(The champagne bath could be harder to come by in 2013. Courtesy of The Daily News)
It's no secret by now that this offseason has been a strange one for the Yankees in many ways. They can be best described as being "actively inactive," focusing all their time and energy on re-signing their own internal free agents while staying far on the periphery of all other free agent and trade rumors. As I mentioned this morning, they've spent amounts of money right up there with the best of them, so it's not like they're completely sitting on their hands, but were it not for Alex Rodriguez's newest hip injury not a dollar of it would have gone towards a single player from outside the organization. This offseason marked the first big step towards the 2014 payroll goal, and to their credit the Yankees have stayed on the path of the cheap and short-term.
This strategy has not gone unnoticed by their AL East competition. Almost every other team in the division, with the exception of Baltimore, has been very active on the free agent and trade markets this offseason, picking up the slack and the players left for the taking by the Yankees electing to stand pat. It's been interesting to say the least, as recent attempts by other clubs to try to step up and grab the "biggest big spender" torch away from the Yanks have yet to return big dividends (see: both teams in Los Angeles). It's also a bit worrisome, as the Yankees' approach this offseason has opened a window of opportunity that every other team seems eager to jump through.
Pennants and championships aren't won in December, that much we know. But the collection of moves that have been made (and not made) so far begs the question, are the Yankees still considered the king of the hill and the top of the heap in the AL East? Should they be?
The latest edition of RLYW's CAIRO projections for 2013 were released recently, and that edition had the Yankees below 90 wins and right in the middle of a potential 4-way battle for the division crown. Those projections were updated again yesterday with the completion of the R.A. Dickey trade, and put the Yankees at 88-74, 2 games behind the Blue Jays in the division race. Of course projections are just that, and not a guarantee of anything, but they set a pretty realistic precedent for how things might change for New York this season in dealing with their AL East rivals.
For the last X number of years, it's pretty much been a foregone conclusion that the Yankees were going to finish 1st or 2nd in the division even on their worst day. That conclusion might not be so foregone in 2013, and it shouldn't be based on what has happened around the Bombers. While they've retained their older core in order to keep payroll flexible, Toronto and Tampa Bay have made trades and signings that make their lineups and rotations better and deeper for both the immediate and more distant futures. They've bolstered their talent pool with youth, diversity, and productivity while the Yankees have willingly let the water in their talent pool get stagnant. Even the Fraud Sawx's signings have been good in terms of adding talent to areas of need, although the dollars and years involved can be questioned.
And with there already being a void in the Yankee MiL system when it comes to upper-level, MLB-ready talent, the Yankees are going to have to rely even more on that aging core of players, players who continue to show signs of breaking down both physically and from a production/value standpoint. Their ace starting pitcher just had elbow surgery; their $180 million first baseman has done nothing but decline since the day he signed his contract; their $200 bajillion third baseman is one more injury away from needing to wear a Life Alert bracelet when he takes the field; and their franchise player may or may not be ready to play on Opening Day. The Yankees have gone from a collection of elite-level talent to a collection of elite-level names in the last few years, and that downward transition has been ill-timed with the new luxury tax avoidance edict set by ownership.
Which is not to say that Toronto isn't still full of health-related question marks in their rotation and lineup either. Or that Tampa still has a weak offensive lineup top to bottom. Or that Bahhston still doesn't have much of a starting rotation to speak of. Because all of that is true. And when it comes down to it, the Yankees CAN say right now that they have a very good starting rotation and bullpen, and a lineup capable of being very good even without A-Rod. But the gap between the Yankees and everybody else certainly seems to have been closed this offseason, and it could tighten up even more or disappear altogether by the time the calendar rolls forward a year. The drama we saw play out for the AL East title in 2012 could have just been a warm-up act for the 5-way free-for-all in 2013-2014.