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Blasts from the Past - A New York Yankees preview

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A look ahead at the current AL East leaders

"What, did you all think I was gone? Silly everyone...."
"What, did you all think I was gone? Silly everyone...."
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

From 1995 through 2012, the New York Yankees put together a spectacular run of baseball. They made the playoffs 17 times in 18 seasons and won the World Series five times. It was a string of success so dominant that losing in the ALDS constituted a disappointing season. For the sake of comparison, was anyone here disappointed by the 2008 White Sox?

Fans of other teams may have drooled over the 100-win seasons and postseason success, but they sure did resent the way the Yankees put those teams together. They didn't need to make brilliant trades, develop players extremely well, or even get all that lucky. Rather, the Yankees could simply be the best by flexing their financial muscle. The free agent market during New York's incredible stretch was swimming with some of the best players in baseball who were eager to sign with the highest bidder. With significantly deeper pockets than every other team, the Yankees were happy to be that highest bidder. Winning ensued.

Yet, for the first time in 20 years, the Yankees missed out on postseason baseball for consecutive seasons in 2013 and 2014. It's a new era, and the rules have changed.

For one thing, the Yankees' capacity to outspend other teams has considerably dwindled. In 2005, New York had a $205.9 million payroll. The second-most expensive roster was that of the Red Sox, with a payroll that was 59 percent of that of the Yankees. Fast-forwarding to 2015, now there's not only a team (the Dodgers) with a higher payroll than the Bronx Bombers, but Boston's player expenditures are now over 85 percent of those of the Yankees. Further, six other teams have a payroll at least 59 percent of that of New York's, meaning that there's a total of eight organizations better suited to do battle financially than the Yankees' closest competitor ten years ago. Outspending rival teams isn't quite as simple as it used to be.

The 2011 collective bargaining agreement further compounded the problem for New York. The agreement restricted spending on amateur talent in the Rule 4 draft and regulated bonuses for international amateur players, essentially putting the Yankees on the same playing field as everyone else. Not only were the Yankees' greatest rivals catching up to them in payroll, but the league was now restricting the number of ways that New York could put their deep pockets to use.

Probably the biggest handcuff on the Yankees' ability to use their cash effectively, though, is the recent league-wide trend of signing young players to extensions. There's so much incentive for young players to gain financial security and for teams to gain cost certainty that such deals have become commonplace for talented players. The result is that many of the league's best players aren't reaching free agency until they're on the wrong side of age 30. Look no further than the cornerstones of the White Sox for an example. The Yankees won't be able to buy Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, or Adam Eaton until they're 31-33 years old, after which time their best years will be behind them.

Finally, the Yankees entered the 2015 season with a lot of money tied up in old players past their primes, much of which due to contracts signed long ago. $84.4 million of the 2015 payroll is tied up in 34-year-old CC Sabathia, 35-year-old Mark Teixeira, 38-year-old Carlos Beltran, and 40-year-old Alex Rodriguez.

And yet, despite the dwindling advantages and absurd amount of seemingly dead money, the New York Yankees are running away with the AL East and have the second-best record in the American League.

Part of the reason the Yankees have been able to pull this off is that a big chunk of that money wasn't all that dead. Sure, Sabathia has lost velocity and turned into a home run launching pad and Beltran's bat no longer carries his poor glove, but Rodriguez and Teixeira have found a fountain of youth this season. Both guys have an OPS floating around .900 and have been belting homers like it's 2005. These guys aren't just pulling their weight; they're carrying the offense.

The big boppers in the middle of the order have had quite a bit of help from perpetually overlooked Brett Gardner. Now 31, Gardner's no longer a kid buried amidst older sluggers, and he's actually picked up a respectable amount of power as he's aged to go along with his stellar on-base percentage and good baserunning ability. He's been a perfect fit batting directly in front of Rodriguez and Teixeira and right behind leadoff man Jacoby Ellsbury. Ellsbury can still hit for average and draw a walk, but he's no longer the prolific base stealer he once was and the random outbursts of power he once displayed are nowhere to be seen.

On the pitching side of the ledger, Michael Pineda has finally been giving the Yankees what they envisioned when they acquired him for Jesus Montero. Back in 2011, Pineda was a good number-two starter for the Mariners with a hard fastball. Now that he's lost a few ticks and has become more hittable, he's maintained good results by limiting free passes. The story is similar for Masahiro Tanaka, who hasn't quite been the same pitcher after partially tearing his UCL last season. Tanaka's control has been great, but he's allowed more than one home run per start this year. Hitters haven't been able to touch Tanaka's splitter or slider, but his sinker has been getting hammered.

Filling out the Yankees' rotation are Nathan Eovaldi and Ivan Nova. For years, Eovaldi has been something of an enigma as a hittable, low-strikeout, flyball pitcher that posts respectable ERAs by somehow keeping the ball in the park. This year, he's baked in a splitter to get more ground balls, and the lack of allowed homers finally makes some sense. Nova recently returned from Tommy John surgery and his 3.38 ERA is pretty much all smoke and mirrors. He's had a lot of trouble missing bats and seems like a shell of his pre-2014 self.

While New York's starting pitchers have been a modest strength, it's the bullpen that has truly impressed. Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller have been nothing short of incredible at the back of the bullpen, as only Aroldis Chapman has a better strikeout rate than either reliever.  Further, both have allowed extremely low BABIPs due to excellent stuff. When the Yankees have a lead late in the game, they generally keep it.

Star-divide

The phrase "adapt or die" was used by Billy Beane in the movie Moneyball to explain to head scout Grady Fuson that the Oakland Athletics needed to embrace the coming changes to the baseball landscape. The Yankees' competitive environment has thoroughly changed over the course of the past ten years, but if you look at their offense, you'll see that it's still largely composed of aging players on free agent contracts. No one considered the Yankees much better than average coming into the year, but they've had two old sluggers give them about four more wins than expected and a bullpen that has preserved about four more leads than average.  That's plenty to separate a team from the pack in a year in which teams are struggling to stand out. On the other hand, it's not a strategy I'd bet on in 2016.

Given the events of the past few days, even 2015 has begun to look somewhat dicey for the Bronx Bombers. The division rival Blue Jays have brought in Troy Tulowitzki and David Price. Plus, the Jays have gained two games in the standings in the last two days. To make matters worse, Pineda is heading to the disabled list with a forearm strain. The Yankees currently hold a six-game lead over the Blue Jays and Orioles, but recent events and trends render that advantage flimsier than it seems.

Predicted Record and Finish: 89-73, 1st place AL East

Probable Starting Pitchers

  • Friday July 31: Nathan Eovaldi vs. Carlos Rodon
  • Saturday August 1: TBD vs. John Danks
  • Sunday August 2: Ivan Nova vs. Jeff Samardzija

Probable Lineup

Pitching

1. Jacoby Ellsbury - CF

SP1. Masahiro Tanaka - RHP

2. Brett Gardner - LF

SP2. Nathan Eovaldi - RHP

3. Alex Rodriguez - DH

SP3. CC Sabathia - LHP

4. Mark Teixeira - 1B

SP4. Ivan Nova - RHP

5. Brian McCann - C

SP5. Trade Deadline is 4:00 PM EST

6. Carlos Beltran - RF

CL. Andrew Miller - LHP

7. Chase Headley - 3B

RP1. Dellin Betances - RHP

8. Didi Gregorius - SS

RP2. Chasen Shreve - LHP

9. Stephen Drew - 2B

RP3. Justin Wilson - LHP