Despite their four pennants and two World Series victories, the Mets have embraced the lovable loser narrative. This is a difficult thing to define; and clearly Mets fans to prefer their team to win, but the existence of this narrative, even though its relationship to reality is more tenuous, gives the Mets a more forgiving environment than some teams. This dynamic is, of course, exacerbated, by the more successful, wealthier and, according to most Mets fans, arrogant, team that plays in the Bronx. The Yankees are a great foil for the Mets. The Mets can explain away failure by saying they can never compete with the more wealthy and ruthless Yankees, but can also cultivate a following as New York's kindler and gentler team.
The Yankees now have a distinct combinations of comparative strengths and weaknesses. On the down side, they have few prospects who are close to being ready to contribute at a major league level, few good young players under team control and several older and less productive, but still well paid players. The Yankees, as is well known, have one enormous structural advantage, their deep financial resources. Opportunities to use this resource are changing, and in some senses, shrinking. There are fewer top level free agents available; and teams seeking to rid themselves of salary during the season are demanding prospects of the kind the Yankees do not have in exchange. Moreover, the latest round of playoff expansion means fewer teams view themselves as out of contention halfway through the season.
The toughest question facing the Yankees may be what they will do if Rodriguez comes back and plays well. While Rodriguez is a shadow of the player he was from 1996-2007, and is older, injury prone and overpaid, he is still a valuable player when he is on the field. Last year he managed to post an OPS+ of 113 while having a WAR of 2.3, batting .272 with 18 home runs in only 122 games. These are not great numbers, but they are useful, particularly for a team this is desperate both for a third baseman and a right-handed power hitter.
The 2009-11 Yankee infield stands out because of its balance. They had no star comparable to Lou Gehrig in his prime, which lasted from the mid-1920s, until he got sick in 1939, but all four players in every season were good to great. Teixeira, Cano, Jeter and Rodriguez all contributed to the Yankee offense in a way that cannot be said of Dent, Crosseti, Koenig or Dugan. With some luck, Rodriguez and Jeter will be back some time this year, and this foursome may take the field again. They may even play together a bit next year, but there best years together are clearly behind them. Those years, however, are by many measures the very best the Yankees ever got from their infield.
Describing a team as boring is subjective, but it is clear that at the halfway point in the season, the Yankees, despite their very good record, have not generated any buzz in New York. Last year fans watched Derek Jeter reach 3,000 hits and saw Mariano Rivera become the all time saves leader. This year they have seen Jeter pass Paul Waner on the hit list while Rafael Soriano has taken over as a good closer, but one about whom few Yankee fans care deeply. It is hard to think of any Yankee games which are even close to as memorable as Santana’s no-hitter, any one of several starts by Dickey, or even some of the early season Yankee-Red Sox games of recent years.
The Yankees inability to develop highly touted pitching prospects into quality major league starters is an organizational problem that probably involves scouts, minor league managers and coaches, big league managers and coaches and front office management. Solving this problem will not be easy and probably cannot be done simply by bringing in one pitching guru like the San Francisco Giants’ Dick Tidrow.
Cano’s place among Yankee second baseman is framed by the same question the Yankees will have to ask after 2013: whether or not Cano will, by that time, be in the decline phase of his career. If Cano can hit the way he did in 2009-2011 between 2012-2015, he will, assuming he stays with the Yankees, have a strong claim on being the greatest Yankee second baseman ever, with more games at the position than any other Yankee and offensive numbers comparable to Lazzeri and Gordon. There is, of course, no guarantee that Cano can achieve this. If he begins his decline after 2013 or 2014, he will probably be remembered as only the third greatest Yankee at his position; and the Yankees will find themselves with a contract that will be very tough to move.
Jesus Montero had been burning a hole in the New York Yankees’ pocket for about two years. Although he was a highly touted and anticipated prospect, who did not disappoint when brought up to the big leagues at the end of 2011, Montero had been mentioned in so many trade rumors since mid-2010 that it was no surprise when the Yankees finally pulled the trigger and traded him. It was, however, somewhat surprising that the Yankees managed get in return for Montero, not some highly paid veteran pitcher who was already in the decline phase of his career, or a top flight pitcher poised for free agency at the trade deadline, but Michael Pineda who is only 23 and one of the top young pitchers in the game. While Yankee fans may be sad to see Montero go, and anything can happen particularly with young pitchers, Pineda could be a very valuable contributor to the Yankees for several seasons.
This year’s World Series will be the second in a row in which neither the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox nor Philadelphia Phillies will be playing. The 2011 payroll for each of these teams was over $160 million; and in the case of the Yankees, well in excess of that number. No other team spent even $140 million on payroll in 2011. The Texas Rangers and St. Louis Cardinals had the 11th and 13th highest payroll, with each spending between $90-$110 million assembling their pennant winning teams.
The AL MVP race is beginning to look very interesting, not just because several players are enjoying excellent seasons, but because these players also represent different ways of viewing the award. There are three distinctive types of candidates among the players who are probably the four strongest candidates. Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista is a possible MVP due to having the best overall numbers in the league despite playing for a team that has not been close to the playoff hunt all season long. Justin Verlander may be the league’s best player this year, without whom the Tigers would not be heading towards the playoffs, but is a starting pitcher and very few starting pitchers win MVP awards. Adrian Gonzalez and Curtis Granderson are both the best players on playoff bound teams, but have numbers that are less impressive than Bautista’s. Thus, voting this year means not only voting for the best player, but making a decision about what the award means.
The Cliff Lee trade was an interesting trade not only because it worked out well for all three teams involved, but because it exemplifies the different kind of strategic thinking that is becoming the norm for different kinds of teams. Although the Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners were the only teams to move players, the New York Yankees were very involved as well. The Yankees offer of minor league prospects Jesus Montero and David Adams for Lee was initially accepted by the Mariners, before it fell through at the last minute when the Mariners accepted the Rangers’ offer instead.
Although the Yankees are on pace for another playoff berth with one of the best records in baseball, the team has had numerous injuries and a few slow starts, so some fans are beginning to worry and question recent decisions. The dominant view of their off-season moves is that they probably gave up too much for Curtis Granderson and were foolish to think Nick Johnson could stay healthy for a whole season. According to this view, Austin Jackson, who was traded for Granderson, and Johnny Damon who left via free agency are both posting good numbers and would have been useful to the Yankees.
In recent days the Red Sox and Phillies have improved their chances of stopping the Yankees from defending their championship. The Phillies came within two wins of winning the World Series in 2009 and by adding Roy Halladay, while losing Cliff Lee, have made the top of their rotation stronger. John Lackey gives the Red Sox one of the best and deepest rotations in baseball, while the signing of Mark Cameron helps offset the almost certain loss of Jason Bay; and Marco Scutaro will be a big upgrade at shortstop. Dumping Mike Lowell will also help the team. It seems likely that the Red Sox are not quite done yet this off-season and may add another corner infield bat. Other teams, notably the Seattle Mariners have made some big moves, in the Mariners case the acquisition of Cliff Lee and Chone Figgins, that may allow them to emerge as a strong contender in 2010.