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Identity Crisis - A New York Yankees preview

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A look ahead at the team that's in the AL East cellar

This is a 22-year-old player on the Yankees, which is one more than the maximum allowable amount.
This is a 22-year-old player on the Yankees, which is one more than the maximum allowable amount.
Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

For what has seemed like forever, hearing "New York Yankees" makes the mind wander to thoughts of veteran walks-and-power lineups befitting the nickname "Bronx Bombers". One thinks of rosters filled with a veritable retirement home of guys whose bats long outlasted the rest of their baseball skills, the Giambis, the Williamses, the Posadas, Abreus, Sheffields, Justices, Raineses, and Strawberrys, with some younger stars mixed in. With a payroll that could support multiple players of this nature, the Yankees succeeded for quite a long time.

Baseball has evolved beyond this sort of lineup construct and you can point to any of a number of reasons why. An era of run prevention increased teams' focus on defense. Contact hitting has become more valuable in a low-scoring environment. Harder-throwing pitchers and, depending on your world view, a decline in PED usage have been ushering older players out of the game sooner than before. The Yankees have enjoyed 23 straight winning seasons with their model. Now, a changing baseball landscape and dwindling competitive advantages are pressuring the most successful franchise in baseball history to adapt before the rest of the league passes them by. For the first time in at least two decades, the New York Yankees are facing an identity crisis.

Many expected 2015 to be the year that the Yankees would be forced to face the music, but they received surprising contributions from Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez, the three oldest regulars in the Yankee lineup. Beltran hit .292/.364/.513 in the second half as the Yankees fought for a playoff spot, which actually was enough to overcome the fact that the Yankees asked him to wear a glove. Teixeira belted 31 home runs in just 462 plate appearances, but the steadiest performance of all came from 39-year-old Alex Rodriguez, who stayed on the field for 151 games and cleared 30 home runs for the first time since 2010. The Yankees didn't have any major stars last season and needed all three of these guys to pull their weight. They delivered.

Alas, their Indian summer has not carried over to 2016 and it's a big reason the Yankees have found themselves in their current rut. Beltran and Rodriguez have on-base percentages hovering around .280 and Teixeira's not even slugging .300. These guys are now 36, 40, and 39 years old, respectively. With a quartet of 32-year-olds also in the everyday lineup, these Yankees bear a resemblance to those of years past in at least one way. However, now that they've got the third-worst wRC+ in the American League, it's clear a youth movement is sorely needed. The seeds have been planted, but it'll take time for such a transformation to come to fruition.

The first step in the process has been to get washed-up guys like Brian Roberts, Stephen Drew, and Derek Jeter out of the middle infield. The Yankees capitalized on the Cubs' crowded infield situation by trading for 26-year-old Starlin Castro to play second base. Castro had an up-and-down career with the Cubs but the Yankees have been getting the best of him. The walk-averse contact hitter has found Yankee Stadium to his liking and has shown some good power thus far this season.

To succeed Jeter, the Yankees acquired Didi Gregorius in a three-team trade following the 2014 season. Gregorius was a resounding success last year in New York as he led Yankee position players in fWAR by providing very good defense at shortstop while giving them just enough at the plate. Unfortunately, much like the elder statesmen of the team, Gregorius' bat has cratered this year. Weak contact is responsible for his .233 BABIP and he owns the third-lowest walk rate in the majors.

Gregorius' .597 OPS is hardly the biggest problem with the offense. Third baseman Chase Headley hit a home run in yesterday's game against the Royals. That was a significant event because it was Headley's first extra-base hit of the entire season. Worse still, Headley's formerly strong defense at third base has declined over the past couple years. Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury seems to have already hit the "underwater" phase of his contract. The 32-year-old is essentially an average offensive player at this point; he still has good (though no longer great) baserunning ability and can get on base at about a league-average rate but he won't come close to justifying a $21.1 million annual salary for the next five years.

Not all of the veterans have struggled. The Yankees have received some quality play from power-hitting catcher and volunteer sheriff deputy Brian McCann both at the plate and behind it. Plus, Brett Gardner has been turning in his usual, productive performance. The problem is, these guys are above-average complementary guys, not stars. They can't carry much deadweight by themselves, and certainly not the amount present on the Yankees' roster.

Over the next couple of years, we'll likely see some young players gradually replace the old guard. Corner man Greg Bird is out for the season with shoulder surgery but looked promising last season, and he'll hopefully be joined soon by power-hitting outfielder Aaron Judge and two offense-first players at defense-first positions in shortstop Jorge Mateo and catcher Gary Sanchez.

While the Yankees must wait for their future position players to arrive, younger pitchers have already taken over the starting rotation. With CC Sabathia on the disabled list, the Yankee rotation features five pitchers on the right side of 30. The leader of the staff is 27-year-old Masahiro Tanaka, who appears to be fully healthy after surgery on his elbow. The Japanese righty's most dangerous pitch is his splitter and he's been consistently among baseball's best at limiting walks.

Tanaka is backed by hard-throwing Nathan Eovaldi, whose fastball sits pretty consistently in the upper 90's. Eovaldi doesn't throw a changeup and instead relies on a slider and splitter close to 90 mph as his secondary pitches, with only an infrequently-used curveball to slow things down. Eovaldi's one of those guys the advanced metrics love, but his results never seem to catch up to his stuff or his peripherals.

Top prospect Luis Severino is another guy with electric stuff. Severino is primarily a fastball-slider pitcher and has had problems keeping the ball in the park. It remains to be seen whether he's had rough luck on fly balls or whether he just throws too many fat pitches. Regardless, Severino is loaded with promise and if his changeup can take a step forward, he could one day be the ace of the staff.

The Yankee rotation is far from dominant, but part of their plan is to ensure that any leads they get last until the end of the game. Their bullpen boasts the unbelievable three-headed monster of Aroldis ChapmanAndrew Miller, and Dellin Betances, Those three finished first, second, and fourth in the major leagues in strikeout rate last year, respectively. Opponents would do well to hold the lead after six innings.

Though the Yankees aren't quite cooked this season, in all likelihood they'll play out the string as an also-ran as they wait for the heavyweight contracts of their oldest players to expire. A minor rebuilding phase is probably on the horizon and the franchise's next competitive team will probably have a different texture than that of the past twenty years. That's just fine. Baseball has changed, and it's time the sport's most iconic organization evolves along with it.

Projected Record and Finish: 75-87, 5th place AL East

Probable Starting Pitchers

  • Friday, May 13: Chris Sale vs. Luis Severino
  • Saturday, May 14: Jose Quintana vs. Ivan Nova
  • Sunday, May 15: Miguel Gonzalez vs. Masahiro Tanaka

Probable Lineup

Pitching

1. Brett Gardner - LF

SP1. Masahiro Tanaka - RHP

2. Starlin Castro - 2B

SP2. Michael Pineda - RHP

3. Brian McCann - C

SP3. Nathan Eovaldi - RHP

4. Mark Teixeira - 1B

SP4. Luis Severino - RHP

5. Carlos Beltran - DH

SP5. Ivan Nova - RHP

6. Dustin Ackley - RF

CL. Aroldis Chapman - LHP

7. Aaron Hicks - CF

RP1. Andrew Miller - LHP

8. Didi Gregorius - SS

RP2. Dellin Betances - RHP

9. Chase Headley - 3B

RP3. Chasen Shreve - LHP