By Neil deMause
There's still a lot of baseball left to be played, but if things continue as they are now, this could shape up to be a historic season. That's because if the schedule ended today, neither the New York Yankees nor the Boston Red Sox would make the postseason, marking the first time in the wild-card era that neither of the AL East's 800-pound gorillas would reach October.
It's been a pretty crappy year in both the Bronx and Fenway (and a correspondingly exciting one in Baltimore and Toronto), with injuries and disappointing performances aplenty, though Derek Jeter's farewell tour and the Red Sox' shiny new rings have helped take the sting out of the lack of on-field success. Beyond the losses and the multiple trips to the disabled list, though, the two teams look very different.
Boston's last-place ranking has largely been prompted by underachieving rookies -- new shortstop Xander Bogaerts and centerfielder Jackie Bradley both sport OBPs barely over .300, and slugging percentages not much better -- which, at least if you squint right, provides some hope for the future (especially if you add in top prospects like Mookie Betts, Blake Swihart and Henry Owens).
As for the Yankees ... oh, the Yankees. Their starting lineup features only the fifth 40-year-old every-day shortstop in MLB history, and their rightfielder is even older. Their best uninjured pitcher is, by comparison, a sprightly 39. Their only under-30 starting position player was traded last week for a guy on the wrong side of the Abbie Hoffman trust line, and who will be a free agent following the season regardless. The Yanks' farm system, meanwhile, was cited last winter by Baseball America for its "major deficiencies," and currently features fireballer Luis Severino, a few middling catcher prospects and not a whole lot else. Even for a team that hasn't incorporated a significant rookie into its lineup since Robinson Cano in 2005, this is pretty dire stuff.
Of course, this is nothing new for the Yankees, who have fielded relatively geriatric squads pretty much every year for the last decade or so. (The 2005 squad featured two 40-year-old starting pitchers and only one lineup regular under 29, and won 95 games and a division title -- then came back the next year and won 97 games and another division crown.) Writing off the Yankees is an annual tradition in sportswriting, as is writing the inevitable "aging Yankees make bid for one last title" follow-up.
Still, even the Yankees have been known to fall off a cliff. It happened in 1965, when the team followed its fifth straight World Series appearance by dropping to sixth in a 10-team league -- then didn't make the postseason again for another decade. Likewise, several years of questionable stopgap free agents (Andy Hawkins! Dave LaPoint!) culminated in total collapse in 1990, though that nosedive lasted only a few years -- and earned them a high draft pick in 1992 that they used on a certain young shortstop from Kalamazoo. Those years also coincided with the departure and decline of Yankee stars: Both Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris missed much of 1965 with injuries, and neither was the same again; 1990 saw the Yankees dispense with Dave Winfield while Don Mattingly's back went pop, leaving him the kind of enfeebled fan favorite that wasn't seen in the Bronx again until Jeter's current dotage.
And at least then, Mantle and Mattingly stuck around for a few years to sell tickets. The last two seasons in the Bronx, Mariano Rivera's and Jeter's farewell tours have helped keep fan interest alive, but if the Yankees continue to falter next year, pinstripe fans could find themselves rooting for laundry in a way that hasn't been the case since the Horace Clarke era. It's worth noting that all of the top sellers on the Yankees' web store are Jeets-related items (unless you count "Your Name Here"). The site's front page features Jeter, Brett Gardner, and new acquisitions Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran -- among whom only Tanaka was threatening to win over fans' hearts, before his elbow injury knocked him out of heartthrob competition. Compare that to the team across town, which will be welcoming back Matt Harvey in 2015 after his year off TJ surgery to go with young arms Zach Wheeler, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, and you can't help but wonder if the New York area's fan map may soon have to be redrawn.
Nothing against the Mets, but it's probably too soon to expect a massive shift of allegiances, or even wins, away from the Bronx and toward Queens. The Yankees' future may not be at its brightest, but there are still plenty of reasons to expect the team can rebound:
• It's way, way easier to buy new players than it used to be. In 1965, free agency didn't exist and the amateur draft had just been instituted, making it tougher for teams like the Yankees to throw bonus money at players to get them to sign. In 1990, free movement of players was just emerging from the collusion years; and within a short time, the Yankees would dip into their pocketbooks to acquire Wade Boggs and Jimmy Key, helping spark the next dynasty. Remember, plenty of people made dire predictions about the Yankees last year, and they responded by going on a shopping spree that landed Tanaka, Ellsbury, McCann and Beltran -- who have underperformed somewhat overall, but all could still play a role in the next successful Yankees team.
• They'll have more money to play with. The current Yankee payroll commitment for 2015 is $161 million, which sounds like a staggering amount, until you realize that the Yankees total payroll hasn't dipped much below $200 million in almost a decade. Jeter's retirement may remove an icon from the season-ticket sales campaign, but it also frees $12 million from the payroll; more importantly, they'll no longer be paying Alfonso Soriano, Ichiro Suzuki or Hiroki Kuroda (assuming they don't re-sign Kuroda), which will make available an additional $41.5 million to buy a passel of names from this list to replace Jeter and his current infield-mates with some players who can actually hit and field.
• MLB has changed the rules in recent years to prevent the Yankees from outspending everyone into oblivion, but it can't stop them; it can only hope to contain them. The luxury tax -- dubbed the Yankee Tax from the beginning -- may have provided more cash for league coffers, but the Yankees have happily paid the cost year after year if the alternative was failing to sign top free agents. And while caps on draft bonuses have hindered their ability to overpay picks to sway them out of college, the Yankees responded by signing 21 players in the international draft this year for $12 million in bonuses -- a move that will cost them an additional $10 million in penalties (and pretty much their entire ability to make international signings for two more seasons) But hey, it's only money.
• They're the Yankees. By which I mean not that they have a magical "pride and presence" wand that they can wave in order to turn dross into gold (though that would certainly explain some otherwise puzzling stat lines), or even that they have the cash to buy new players if the old ones fizzle, though that's certainly true as well. Rather, as we discussed last winter, the Yankees have a bigger incentive to win at all costs, thanks to all those pricey seats that would otherwise risk going empty. If the Marlins were to face a season with no stars and no hope of competing -- I know, it's hard to picture, but humor me here -- the front office would likely as not go, "Eh, it's not like we're going to make that much more selling tickets if we win." In Steinbrennerland, every nine-digit contract can be rationalized as a way of selling more $16 steak sandwiches.
In short, the Yankees are less in a crisis than at a decision point: They can keep shoring up their current aging roster through free-agent signings and hope that enough old guys exceed expectations that they can keep their heads above water in the AL East. Or they can decide to punt on a season or two, focusing on building young homegrown talent before throwing money at free agents to complement a new core.
Neither of those is an especially happy scenario, but at least Yankee fans can rest assured that (and Yankee haters can gnash their teeth because) baseball's economic structure still allows teams to spend their way out of their problems. Unlike, say, a hypothetical NBA team that lost its main drawing card -- now those guys would be screwed.
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Neil deMause is a Brooklyn-based journalist who has covered sports economics for Slate, the Village Voice, Baseball Prospectus and a bunch of other places you wouldn't remember. He runs the stadium news website Field of Schemes, and co-authored the book of the same name.