DETROIT -- Baseball's bizarre new reality in 2014 is most evident right here in the visiting clubhouse at Comerica Park, where a bunch of guys who barely know each other are suiting up to play a baseball game.
These are not the New York Yankees of old.
Heck, these aren't even the New York Yankees of April.
These are the New York Yankees of August, a club that was revamped, retooled and strangely revitalized on the fly. A club that -- despite torching 2012 Cy Young winner David Price to the tune of nine straight hits on Wednesday night -- we can call an "underdog" without irony.
"They did a good job of recognizing what's real," Chase Headley, the Yankees' new third baseman, says about the club's new concoction. "Sometimes in baseball, things can look a lot different than they are. Over the course of a season or half-season, numbers can really be skewed. I think they did a good job of identifying players they thought could help."
The new guys have helped, on the whole. Headley and his fluid hot corner defense. Martin Prado and his versatile, valuable bat and glove. Brandon McCarthy and his reclaimed cutter. Stephen Drew and his shift to second base.
All of these guys were struggling in their former homes, but the Yankees felt they were all worthwhile risks in the bid to keep faint hope of one last Derek Jeter October alive. And it certainly doesn't hurt that Michael Pineda came off the DL slinging 97 mph heat or that Masahiro Tanaka -- a one-man show in the season's first half -- is throwing a simulated game here Thursday with an eye on a September return.
The Yankees spent a good chunk of this season with 80 percent of their Opening Day rotation on the pine, their infield defense in disarray and their bats looking more like busts than "Bombers." But August has been kind enough to at least keep them in that crowded wild card conversation, where they sat two and a half games behind the Mariners for the second spot going into Thursday's action.
"We've had a lot we've had to deal with," says manager Joe Girardi. "A lot of people have walked through that door and put on the Yankee uniform. I don't know how many, but I know it's a high number."
Fifty two. That's the number. Including a franchise-record 31 pitchers.
And this brings us back to the central point about these Yankees and about baseball in 2014: Money can't necessarily buy you stability, which means money can't necessarily buy you victories, which means, at some point, you've got to make some truly sound analytical decisions if you're going to survive.
"The organizations that aren't as smart and don't capitalize on the things they need to just fall behind," McCarthy says. "The organizations that are consistently on top of new and evolving trends are the ones who keep staying there, year after year."
Well, we've known some variation of this theme for a long time, right? Moneyball in Oakland and The Extra 2% in Tampa Bay and whatnot.
But if the 2014 standings don't illustrate just how pertinent and pandemic this point has become, consider the excellent research the Providence Journal released earlier this week. The paper examined a decade's worth of payrolls and win totals and determined that the correlation between spending and winning has fallen so far in the past few years that you'd have a slightly better chance predicting playoff participants by using an alphabetical order of their home cities as you would using their salary totals.
The Yankees may illustrate this recent trend line this better than anybody else because they tend to spend more than anybody else.
In fact, from 2002-2013, the Yankees led the Majors in payroll. Every. Single. Year. These were their final American League results, based on regular season record:
2002: Best (tied)
2008: Fourth-best (missed the playoffs)
2013: Eighth-best (missed the playoffs)
So in a 12-year stretch of outspending everybody, the Yankees had the league's best record eight times and only missed the playoffs twice -- and the first of those absences would have been addressed had a second wild card slot existed, as it does today.
The Yankees made it all very simple: You may not be able to buy a World Series title, but if you were pulling in ridiculous revenues and applying them on an annual basis, you could buy your way to a postseason berth at a fairly frequent rate. Plenty has happened over the past decade, though. And in 2013 and again here in '14, we've finally seen the trends' effects on this franchise.
The crackdown on performance-enhancing drugs (including amphetamines, which are a bigger deal than people give them credit for) has revealed more natural aging curves. The proliferation of profitable local and national television deals has allowed even some of the smaller-market teams to lock up their young talent in its prime years. Revenue sharing spreads the wealth, a reality that has cost the Yanks more than $250 million since 2003. Additionally, caps have been placed on amateur and international spending -- changes that will take years to reveal their full effect.
Those aforementioned aging curves, more than anything else, are why the Yankees are where they are. Let's remember that a long, long time ago (as in, March) when the Yankees were still healthy and had the full complement of their payroll, it was entirely justifiable to be skeptical of them. On Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus gave them just a 30.8-percent chance of reaching the playoffs and just a 14.5-percent chance of winning the East, and those mathematical percentages felt correct.
The Yankees really did enter this season as underdogs, and the label was entirely self-inflicted. Because in 2014, if you're expensive, you're probably old and prone to strains and statistical setbacks.
Oh, sure, the Yankees had, for a short time, made attempts to curb their spending, to get under the $189 million luxury tax threshold for 2014. But ultimately, they couldn't help themselves, primarily because they didn't have the young talent in their system to fix things quickly. That eighth-best record in the AL in '13 simply wasn't The Yankee Way, and something had to be done about it.
So they committed $85 million to a 30-year-old catcher (Brian McCann) who had played just 102 games the previous season. They committed $153 million to a 30-year-old center fielder (Jacoby Ellsbury) who had played just 92 games combined in 2010 and 2012. They threw $45 million at a 36-year-old Carlos Beltran, just because they could. And they invested $175 million in Tanaka praying he would make a quick adaptation to American League while simultaneously praying their other nearly $200 million arm, CC Sabathia, could still eke out at least one more year of brilliance.
Tanaka was a gem, until he got hurt. Ellsbury has been solid, albeit inconsistent. McCann has been substantially more productive in the second half than he was in the first. All told, however, the Yankees haven't gotten what they paid for. For much of the year, they have been a bloated, injury prone disappointment, as was the case a year ago.
Look around their clubhouse now, though, and you get the sense they're finally getting the message about what it takes to build a winner in the current climate. They put a greater emphasis on their defensive effort and their flexibility when they added Headley, Prado and Drew. They paid more attention to McCarthy's FIP and pitch selection in Arizona than they did to his inflated ERA, and they bought low.
Basically, they targeted the kind of undervalued assets that small-market clubs use to survive, and that's allowed them to persevere, however tenuously, in the postseason picture.
Let's be clear about one thing, though: Money made this happen, too. The Yankees took on approximately $12 million in 2014 salary when they added Prado, McCarthy and Drew, and Prado is under contract for another $11 million each in '15 and '16.
"There aren't many teams that would have the flexibility to pick up all three of us in one window," McCarthy said. "So that might be unique to the Yankees. But there are still littler moves that keep happening. You can spend a lot of money, but it's making sure you're spending it properly."
On the surface, the Yankees appear to be figuring that out. Overspending in free agency is inadvisable. Overspending in the international market, as the Yanks did this summer when they flew past the cap to add talent to a depleted farm system, is a much more sensible for the long haul. And when you do add money to the Major League payroll, try to avoid overly long entanglements and put a value on versatility and adaptability.
Maybe the Yankees figured all this out too late to save 2014, but Girardi and the boys are sure giving it a shot here in the home stretch, and it's been interesting to watch. They have become the face of baseball's new fiscal reality:
Overlords in payroll, underdogs in reality.