New York Yankees: Sustainable Success?

Many fans in New York are probably still in shock over the Yankees’ early expulsion from the 2011 playoffs. The truth is, though, that the dynasty is waning. That’s not to say that it’s over, by any means, but the unstoppable juggernaut of years past has been affected by Father Time.

The majority of the players that make up the team’s core are over 30 years old, including C.C. Sabathia, Mariano Rivera, A.J. Burnett, Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Nick Swisher. Even Curtis Granderson, a breakout 2011 player, is already 30. Although it’s hard to fathom, within a few years Rivera, Posada, Jeter, and even Rodriguez will be retired from the game.

What does this mean for the Yankees? Is there an existing core of somewhat youthful players that the organization can use to rebuild – or perhaps renovate is a better word – its dynasty.

The Veteran Warriors

I become more and more convinced with each passing season that Rivera is a robot. The soon-to-be 42-year-old closer continues to dominate opposing hitters with his 92 mph cutter, which he threw 87% of the time in 2011. He’s been incredibly healthy, with at least 60 games pitched during the past nine seasons. Your guess is as good as mine as to when his batteries are going to finally run out but he may very well chose to hang up his spikes before his declining skills force him into retirement but it’s surely within the next few seasons.

I recently read in a New York paper that Jeter, 37, redeemed himself in 2011 with a bounce-back season. His WAR rating of 2.3 – the lowest of his career – would disagree. Sure, he hit for average at .297, but he displayed little to no power (.092 ISO) and has trouble getting around on a good fastball. He’s a very smart baseball player so there is no doubt that he can continue to perform at a slightly above-average rate for a few years to come but the days of thinking of him as a star player are over.

The youngest of the foursome at 36, Rodriguez has seen injuries chip away at his effectiveness on the field. Since 2007, he hasn’t played in more than 138 games and played in a career-low (since becoming a regular in ’96) 99 games in 2011. After 13 straight seasons of posting ISO rates of .200 or more, he dipped to .185 and his wOBA was the lowest of his career as a big league regular at .361 wOBA. Rodriguez is still a good baseball player when he can get on the field, but he’s not playing at the same star level that he once did.

Out of the quartet of tenured Yankees stars, Posada is certainly the first player to see his skills eroded to the point where he’s not really a useful everyday ball player anymore. The years of squatting behind home plate have taken their toll on the 40-year-old and he appeared in just one game as a catcher in 2011. He finished with a negative WAR at -0.4. Posada has no defensive value, he cannot hit left-handers and he posted a .233 wOBA away from Yankee stadium.

The Changing of the Guard

It’s hard to believe that the Texas Rangers organization once chose Joaquin Arias over Robinson Cano as a player-to-be-named-later in a trade. It’s a testament to the work that Cano has done to turn himself into a star player – and quite possibly the most talented player for the most powerful franchise in Major League Baseball. It also goes to show what being around quality baseball players like Jeter can do for a player’s career. Cano, 28, posted his second straight season with an ISO rate above .200 and produced his third straight 20+ home run season as a second baseman. With other performances on the team slipping in recent years he’s taken on the role of run producer and his driven in 100+ RBIs in two straight seasons, including a career high 118 in 2011. Add in the fact that he hits more than .300 each year and you have an offensive force to build around that should be able to maintain his output for quite some time – and quite possibly take a run at an AL MVP award – if he can stay healthy.

Mark Teixeira, 31, has not been the leading offensive force that the club thought it was getting when it signed him to a lucrative eight-year, $180-million contract. He’s signed through 2016 at $16 million a season. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a very good player but he hasn’t been the 5-7 win player that he’s paid to be, in part because of very low BABIPs over the past two seasons. On the plus side, he’s produced eight straight 30+ home run and 100+ RBI seasons. In New York, Teixeira is a very good second fiddle but he’s not a guy that you build the offense around.

Prior to the 2010 season I predicted (in writing no less) that Granderson, 30, would become a breakout star in New York. He didn’t make me look that smart last year but he finally realized his potential in ’11. He probably won’t ever hit for a consistent average, but any time you get a 40-20 season from a center fielder you’ll take it. A left-handed hitter, it’s expected that Granderson would hit well in his home park but he had an identical wOBA of .394 in New York and on the road. His ISO rate was .301 vs .280. As this was also his second seven-win season of his career, it seems unlikely that this was a fluke season; more likely it was the case of a good hitter maturing into a very good hitter.

Sabathia is a horse. The 31-year-old southpaw has pitched at least 230 innings for the past five seasons, and his highest FIP during that time was 3.54 (highest ERA was 3.37). He produced the second-highest strikeout rate (8.82 K/9) of his career in 2011 and posted his third seven-win season in the past five years. The issue with Sabathia, though, is that he can opt out of his contract this off-season and pursue a larger contract elsewhere. I find it hard to believe that he won’t be wearing pinstripes in 2012 but stranger things have happened and this remains a huge question mark that needs to be answered quickly, as it could shape the club’s entire off-season approach.

The organization has shed some young pitching talent over the past two years that it may have given up on a little too soon (Ian Kennedy, Tyler Clippard, Mark Melancon) but it wisely held onto David Robertson. Although pitchers such as Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes have had more hype, it could be Robertson, 26, who eventually replaces ‘Rivera The Robot’ in high-leverage situations with New York. The right-hander had one of the most dominating seasons by a reliever throughtout the Major Leagues in 2011. He posted a 1.84 FIP (1.08 ERA) in 66.2 innings and struck out batters at a rate of 13.50 K/9. He also improved his ground-ball rate almost seven percent to a career-high 46.3 GB%. One thing Robertson does need to work on is his control (4.73 BB/9). If he can continue to command his fastball-curveball combination like he did in ’11, the Yankees could have the best one-two punch in the late innings in the American League for the next few seasons.

The Other Guys

We’ve touched on the key players but the Yankees 25-man roster has a lot of depth to it. Outfielder Brett Gardner, 28, had a nice season but he’s a little over-hyped and is more of a complementary player whose key attributes are his speed and defense (which UZR absolutely loves). What he doesn’t do, though, is hit for average or power. With so much of his value tied up in his speed (both on the base paths and in the field), his skills will erode quickly once he starts losing a step or two.

Nick Swisher is a handy player to have on a ball club because he can play all three outfield positions (some better than others) as well as first base. He also gets on base a lot and is good for 20+ homers and 80+ RBI. At 30 years old, he should still have a few good years left in him.

Like Gardner, Ivan Nova’s success was probably a little over-hyped in 2011. Let’s ignore the win column since it’s a product of his environment and turn our attention to his FIP of 4.01 (3.70 ERA), strikeout rate of just 5.33 K/9 and hits-allowed rate of 8.87 H/9. None of those stats scream “No. 1 or 2 starter!” Unless he learns to better command his secondary offerings, Nova is probably a solid No. 3 or 4 starter in the American League, which would still be a valuable pitcher.

Chamberlain and Hughes have been two of the most talked about young Yankees pitchers in years and both have struggled – in large part due to injuries – to realize their full potentials. At this point, neither pitcher should be counted on to be more than complementary players.

The Future in the Bronx

For whatever reason, the New York Yankees organization has shied away from being a major player in the amateur player draft. Perhaps it’s because the club finds the international market to be more lucrative. Or perhaps the front office is tired of being burned on players such as Gerrit Cole, Andrew Brackman, and C.J. Henry. Or maybe the Yankees truly believe that their player development staff can turn coal into diamonds with raw athletes like Cito Culver, Mason Williams, Angelo Gumbs, and Greg Bird.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say the minor league system has fallen on hard times, but it’s definitely not the deepest in the Majors. In the past, and for quite some time, the organization was known for having one of the best systems in Major League Baseball. There are a few high-ceiling prospects but the majority of the players are probably future trading chips.

The two best arms are, and by a wide margin, starters Dellin Betances, 23, and Manny Banuelos, 20. Betances reached the Majors in 2011 but pitched just 2.2 innings. He spent the majority of the year in double-A and but struggled with his control (4.70 BB/9) in 105.1 innings. Those issues got worse during a small sample size in triple-A. He’ll need more work before he’s MLB-ready but may end up in the bullpen long term. Banuelos also struggles from control issues (4.91 BB/9 in AA) but is three years younger and has a higher overall ceiling. Like Betances, the lefty split the year between double-A and triple-A – but he did not pitch in the Majors.

Jesus Montero, 21, produced some mighty fine small-sample numbers for New York in 2011. You can bet prospective trade partners took notice of his .224 ISO and .328 average (.400 BABIP). It’s quite telling, though, that only three of his 18 appearances had him donning the tools of ignorance – including after the organization clinched the division title. There is already some renewed speculation that Montero will be used to acquire an arm during the off-season. Although his offensive ceiling is much lower than Montero’s, Austin Romine is more likely to be the club’s “catcher of the future.” He probably won’t wow with any one thing that he does, but the 22-year-old catcher should be a big league starter with at least average offense and defense.

Dante Bichette Jr. was the club’s top pick in 2011 and entered pro ball with questions surrounding his unique approach at the plate. The 18-year-old outfielder overcame the question marks to hit .342/.446/.505 in 196 at-bats. His BABIP was an unsustainable .410 but his strikeout (17.1 K%) and walk (12.5 BB%) rates were solid. With his background and pedigree, Bichette Jr. could move quickly through the system for a prep draft pick.

Conclusion

Out of the club’s star-powered quartet, only Rivera remains a true star player. It remains to be seen if Granderson’s ’11 performance was a one-year blip or a sign of things to come. The only true, proven high-level talent comes from Cano, Teixeira, and Sabathia, who could soon test the free agent waters. The organization has a lot of work to do and it remains to be seen if the Yankees’ bankroll can bring in enough talent to sustain the winning ways that fans have become accustom to. Repeat success from Granderson could go a long way to helping New York fend off the likes of Boston, Tampa Bay and Toronto in the coming years. This club just knows how to win and it will probably continue to squeeze out every ounce of available talent from the players on the field.

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Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.

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Brian
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Brian

Tex is not signed through 2016 at $16M a season…more like $22.5M a season.

Barkey Walker
Guest
Barkey Walker

even then, isn’t 22.5M a 4.5 WAR player, not a 5-7 WAR player

jessef
Guest

only if you expect Teixeira to play 150 games every season for the next several years

Antonio bananas
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Antonio bananas

Does it matter how much Tex is getting paid? That’s like if Bill Gates pays me 75,000 dollars for my car (definately not worth that much, not even 1/10th). The difference between 15 and 20 million a year for the Yankees isn’t much. They could afford a team payroll of 300 million if they really wanted to.