Reality finally seems to be catching up with the New York Yankees.
The scene is, by now, a familiar one: a team with a payroll north of $228 million desperately trying to cut costs, a disabled list making more money than the full 25-man rosters of some smaller market teams (the exact number depending on whether Mark Teixeira is off the DL from his ailing right wrist or, as looks might be necessary in the near future, back on it); a front office whose autonomy is in question after such terrible offseason moves as re-signing Ichiro Suzuki to a multi-year deal and actively trading for Vernon Wells. Up until a few weeks ago, the Yankees seemed to be getting away with it, thanks to hot starts from their offseason acquisitions and the general overall stability of their pitching staff. Since being swept in a four game home-and-home series with the crosstown Mets, however, the Yankees have dropped a series to Boston, swept the Cleveland Indians, taken 3 of 4 from the lowly Seattle Mariners, and then went 1-5 against the Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, wrapping up their road trip three games back in a division they last led 21 days ago.
Realistically, going 4-6 on a road trip -- even one that's mostly against the current Mariners and Angels -- isn't the end of the world or even particularly meaningful. If we move our end points around a bit, look at just, say, the month of June, the Yankees are 7-8 since June 1st, and if we include the full Boston series, which began May 31st, they're exactly .500. There are two general problems with this, however. The first is obviously that, while being .500 in such a span is acceptable for the fanbases of a number of teams, the New York Yankees are not one of them. The second -- which ties into the first -- is that they've looked like a confused, directionless team while doing so, in part because of the roster they're fielding.
New York reached almost their absolute nadir of lineup construction on Friday's game in Anaheim, when their starting nine featured Austin Romine behind the plate, Teixeira at first base in only his 14th game of the season, David Adams at second, Reid Brignac at shortstop, Jayson Nix at third, Vernon Wells in left, Brett Gardner in center and someone named Thomas Neal in right field. Robinson Cano was the designated hitter. Only Teixeira, Gardner, Cano and very tenuously arguably Romine were supposed to be starters going into the season -- the rest of those guys are converted bench bats, utility players, or injury call-ups. To a certain extent, the sheer quantity of injuries the Yankees have sustained make things like Jayson Nix, Everyday Player understandable. Even their planned superutility guy/temporary Jeter fill-in, Eduardo Nunez, is hurt (and was terrible even before getting injured). On the other hand, well, fans and writers alike aren't really too forgiving about the lack of depth given that this is a $228 million team.
It's worth noting at this point that sustained success as the Yankees have had -- constant postseason berths, a recent World Series win, a near-stranglehold dominance over their division for half a decade -- makes seasons like these more likely, if not inevitable. A common complaint has been to look at all the young players other teams are calling up -- Mike Trouts and Bryce Harpers, Matt Harveys and Gerrit Coles -- and wondering where those players are in the Yankees system, wondering why there's no next man up to replace the aging, injured superstars that populate New York's 25-man roster.
The simple response is that if you're a consistently good team, you are by definition not picking in the top half of the first round in the draft. And if you're not picking in the top half of the first round -- let alone the top five or ten -- you're not getting elite super-prospects. That's how things work. If the Yankees want super-prospects, there's a very easy way to get them: start losing a lot of baseball games.
More reasonably, some fans may wonder why the Yankees don't have guys like Marcell Ozuna or Jedd Gyorko, the former of whom signed with Miami (then Florida) as an international free agent in 2008 and the latter of whom was taken by the Padres at the top of the second round in 2010. International free agency, especially back when Ozuna signed, is a crapshoot; sometimes you get Robinson Cano, usually you get a kid that never makes the show. What really sticks in some people's craws, though, is the lack of success at the back of the first round. For a team that has had to adjust to consistently picking there, the argument goes, the Yankees have shown a fearful inability to do anything in that slot. Incidentally, the Yankees did draft Gerrit Cole at the back of the first round in 2008, but Cole did not sign and opted to go to college instead, eventually getting drafted out of the University of California by the Pirates in 2011, his junior year. This is part of a trend; the reason the Yankees don't have many first-round bats making the transition from the minors to the majors right now is that for the past half-decade, they've mostly spent those picks on pitchers -- current major leaguers Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy were all taken at the back of the first round late last decade, along with constant reclamation project Andrew Brackman, a lefty named Jeremy Bleich whose career has been derailed by shoulder injuries and Jeff Marquez, who was one of the guys who the Yankees flipped for Nick Swisher and, considering his non-career since then, seems to have been very useful to the Yankees in his own way.
This has changed recently. Since 2009, four of the seven Yankee first round picks (they got extra picks in the supplementary round this year due to the departure of Swisher and closer Rafael Soriano) have been position players instead of pitchers, including Slade Heathcott, one of their top outfield bats when he's healthy. However, picks at the back of the first round are by their very nature going to be high upside guys with a lot more risk associated with them than the elite, supposed-"sure thing" players taken at the very top of the draft, and recently the Yankees have had a lot more misses there than hits, and what hits they do have are pitchers. It's not like you need strong drafting in the first round to find good, useful players anyway, though it certainly helps -- Brett Gardner, for instance, was a Yankee third round pick back in 2005. But there is no impact player just lying in wait for the Yankees to call up for a reason, and that reason is that the Yankees are a dominant team that wins a lot of baseball games, and this is how baseball's vague approximation of parity works.
By this time next month, of course, the team could have Jeter back, maybe Granderson too, and so long as their pitching staff remains solid the Yankees should be right back in this thing. But that doesn't make their offseason approach any more laudable or the weak foundations of an aging, dominant team any less obvious. Still, I doubt the Yankees will be finding themselves in a position to be drafting the next Bryce Harper any time soon, and as far as their fans are concerned, that's probably a good thing.