Thursday, March 13, 2014

2014 Storylines: Bridging The Gap

(Where do we go from here, Hal?  Courtesy of the AP)

Championship or bust.  That's the mentality in Yankeeland.  It's a mentality that has served them incredibly well during the Steinbrenner Family Era.  Say what you want about the methods, but it's hard to argue with the results.  Consistent postseason appearances, a bunch of division titles and AL pennants, and more than a fair share of championships.  These aren't things that every other team in MLB can lay claim to over the last 40 years.

Last season, the Yankees deviated from that mentality.  Concern over dollars and cents overrode the desire to win, and a haphazardly thrown together plan to get the team payroll below the luxury tax threshold was the main focus.  The on-field results predictably suffered as a result and the Yankees were completely shut out of the postseason for only the second time since 1994.  Jarred by those results, the front office returned to their old ways this past offseason, spending big on the free agent market and reloading the team for another playoff run.

While it was an impressive spending spree, the overall strategy this offseason doesn't appear to be a full return to the "championship or bust" ways of the past.  Instead, it comes off as a more tactful strategy, one designed to straddle the line between championship contention and rebuild and bridge the gap between the last 5-year generation of Yankee teams and the next generation.

Consider the breakdown of free agent signings.  The big 3 (Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Masahiro Tanaka) were all up-the-middle players age 30 or younger who were considered the best available players at their respective positions.  The shorter signings (Carlos Beltran, Kelly Johnson, Brian Roberts) were for guys with various concerns attached to them (age, health, production) who came from shallow FA talent pools.  Those shorter contracts, while not necessarily the best immediate options, give the Yankee flexibility to search for better long-term solutions through the trade or future FA markets.  The Ellsburys, McCanns, and Tanakas of the world, by signing those long-term deals, establish themselves as foundation pieces moving forward.

In looking at the status of the current foundational guys on the team, the idea of this season as a bridge to the next generation comes into better focus.  Derek Jeter is turning 40 and in his final season.  Mark Teixeira is turning 34, declining, and starting to break down physically, likewise CC Sabathia.  Alex Rodriguez may never play baseball again.  There were more roster holes to fill this offseason than the Yankees could reasonably expect to fill in just 1 offseason.  Rather than reach for long-term possibilities at every spot, the Yankees focused on addressing key foundation spots with the best players available and allowed their current foundation the chance to prove it can stay productive.  It's not like Jeter and Teix and CC are complete bums.  If they can stay healthy and be better than last year, there's reason to hope that that and the production from the new foundation guys will be enough to overcome the other team weaknesses.

The other factor that plays into this strategy is the opportunity it creates for the farm system to finally step up and generate a player or 2 who can slide into these open or soon-to-be-opening roles.  The top group of prospects is mostly sitting at the 2 upper levels of the system, and who knows how quickly the next batch of lower level guys will move.  Maybe Eric Jagielo torches A-ball and finishes the year in Double-A.  Maybe Aaron Judge does the same.  Maybe Manny Banuelos and Michael Pineda are over their injury problems and they're going to be back on track as top-of-the-rotation arms by this time next year.  The decline and retirement of guys from the current foundation and the short-term solutions in place at some positions keeps the window of opportunity wide open for the farm system to contribute in a capacity more than just trade bait in the near future.

The more I think about it, the more I think this past offseason was a case of the Yankee front office trying to have its cake and eat it too with respect to the payroll.  They spent a ton of money on a lot of players, players that make the team better and give them a better chance at contending for a championship.  They also didn't overspend in terms of money and years to address every need and left themselves some financial flexibility moving forward.  They're still old, but they've gotten younger.  They're still not a favorite to make the postseason, but they're much more of a contender than they were last March.  They're still spending big to get what they need, but they're being smarter about it.

Essentially it's a rebuild on the fly, the first year of one at least, and the results of this season should provide a better roadmap for what needs to be done next offseason to complete the rebuild and move forward successfully.  Key foundation pieces like Tanaka, Ellsbury, McCann, Brett Gardner, and Ivan Nova are in place and a few more key foundation spots will be opening up soon.  If the older players holding down those spots this year have one more good go in them, this season could turn out better than most are expecting while still keeping the future and opportunity for further improvement in clear focus.

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