With season over, hard questions arise for Yankees in post-Jeter future
NEW YORK — In his 20-year major league career, Derek Jeter has never played an irrelevant game in the Bronx, which is to say, one after his team has been eliminated from postseason contention. Alas, that remarkable streak will likely come to an end on Thursday — if the Yankees' final home game of the season is played at all, in the face of a dauntingly wet forecast — as New York was eliminated from postseason contention with Wednesday afternoon's 9-5 loss to the Orioles. Jeter went hitless in four plate appearances, par for the course on a day in which the Yankees blew an early 3-0 lead.
The Yankees were still alive coming into Wednesday's game, albeit not enough to round up to 0.1 percent on the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds Report. At 81-76, they needed to close the season with five straight wins while praying that either the Athletics or Royals (both 86-71) lost all five, thus forcing a Game 163 play-in. That possibility had all but vanished by the time the Orioles had opened up a 9-3 lead, as the temperature dropped and the skies turned grey. The hard facts of autumn had arrived.
Should rain wash out Thursday night's game, Jeter's final plate appearance in the Bronx came in the eighth inning on Wednesday. He hit the second pitch from reliever Brad Brach to first base for an easy groundout, one that didn't stop the fans from cheering the Yankees' captain. They chanted several rounds of "De-rek Je-ter!" but no curtain call followed.
How the Yankees will handle Thursday's home finale, how Jeter will react to the outpouring of emotion and whether he'll play any of the final three games of the season when the Yankees travel to Fenway Park this weekend are issues that remain unresolved at this writing. Neither the shortstop nor manager Joe Girardi offered much insight beyond plans to talk sometime on Thursday. Those questions and their answers are dwarfed by the larger questions of where a team that has missed the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since 1992 and '93 despite annual payrolls in excess of $200 million goes from here.
The issues start in the rotation, where injuries wiped out four of the Yankees' five regular starters for huge chunks of the season. Among New York's big investments from the past winter, Masahiro Tanaka put himself into contention for the AL Cy Young and Rookie of the Year honors but was derailed by a sprained ulnar collateral ligament just before the All-Star break. Given a consensus that his tear wasn't big enough to automatically merit Tommy John surgery, he rehabbed his way back to activity. With one start remaining, has a 2.47 ERA, 9.3 strikeouts per nine and an 84-percent quality start rate — plus hope that he can stave off surgery.
CC Sabathia made just eight starts and was rocked for a 5.28 ERA before undergoing surgery to debride cartilage and remove a bone spur in his right knee. With two more years and at least $53 million remaining on his deal, the Yankees have to hope that the surgery will help reverse the 34-year-old lefty's trend of flagging velocity and decreased effectiveness. Meanwhile, Ivan Nova needed Tommy John surgery after just four starts, leaving Hiroki Kuroda as the last man standing from the team's original starting five, and first alternate David Phelps was limited to 17 starts before an elbow injury forced him to the DL.
With his top starters sidelined, general manager Brian Cashman had to bolster his rotation through minor leaguers and trades. A few moves in particular paid off nicely. Unheralded rookie Shane Greene has pitched to a 3.24 ERA with 9.1 strikeouts per nine in 14 starts and one relief appearance, and July acquisition Brandon McCarthy has posted a 2.89 ERA and 3.21 FIP after his trade from the Diamondbacks while remaining healthy enough to reach the 200-inning plateau for the first time in his career. All told, New York has used 13 different starters. It's a borderline miracle that the Yankees have allowed just 4.03 runs per game, seventh in the league but still not enough to prevent them from finishing with a negative run differential (-31) for a second straight season.
Cashman had to do the same kind of patching for his offense, which was left helpless by injuries and age-related decline. Marquee free agents Brian McCann (.235/.290/.411 with 23 homers thanks only to a September push) and Carlos Beltran (.233/.301/.402) floundered in their first seasons in pinstripes, with the latter headed for offseason surgery on his right elbow. Holdover Mark Teixeira has hit just .219/.318/.406 with 22 homers, a showing that provides little optimism for a going-on-35-year-old with two years and $45 million remaining on his deal.
Second baseman Brian Roberts failed to resuscitate his career and was released in late July, and Stephen Drew — acquired on July 31 in a rare trade with the Red Sox — has hit an impossibly awful .155/.224/.279. Alfonso Soriano, who summoned his early-career power upon returning to the Bronx last summer, was so lost at the plate that he was released in midseason, while Ichiro Suzuki (.285/.324/.337) hasn't avoided the ravages of age.
Then there was Jeter. There's been no fairytale ending for The Captain. Despite remaining healthy and climbing to sixth on the all-time hits list at 3,461, he has batted a career-worst .253/.301/.309. Hitting him second for most of the season didn't do much to help an offense that has wheezed its way to 3.87 runs per game, the league's third-lowest rate and the Yankees' lowest mark since 1990.
There were some bright spots amidst the struggles. Michael Pineda has delivered a 1.93 ERA across 12 starts, albeit in a season interrupted by injury and a suspension for using pine tar. In the bullpen, David Robertson stepped into the shoes so long occupied by Mariano Rivera and notched 38 saves with 13.3 strikeouts per nine, and Adam Warren showed himself to be a viable late-game reliever. More impressive has been rookie Dellin Betances, who has posted a 1.40 ERA with 135 strikeouts in 90 innings, a showing that has drawn comparisons to Rivera's great 1996 season in which he set up John Wetteland before taking over closer duties.
As far as the offense went — which wasn't far — Brett Gardner showed surprising power via a career-high 17 homers, and Jacoby Ellsbury remained healthy enough to play in 149 games with 16 homers, 39 steals and a 110 OPS+ (two points above his career mark). Those two were the team's only position players to top 3.0 WAR (3.9 and 3.3, respectively). Deadline acquisitions Chase Headley and Martin Prado, both acquired for minimal cost, upgraded the offense and topped 2.0 WAR in roughly one-third of a season. The latter, who's signed through 2016, hit .316/.336/.541 before an appendectomy ended his season.
But those few successes weren't enough to keep New York alive into October, and after missing the playoffs for the second straight season, the Yankees once again head into a winter with more question marks than there are World Series rings on Jeter's hands.
It begins with Cashman, and whether he wants to return for an 18th season, as his contract is up and his house (so to speak) is a mess. If he stays, he'll need to find not only a new shortstop — hitless wonder Brendan Ryan, who's under contract, doesn't fit the bill, and Drew flunked his audition — but also a new blueprint for the infield. Will the Yankees try the versatile Prado or rookie Rob Refsnyder (whom the team didn't even promote for September) at second? Can they actually count on Alex Rodriguez to handle third after a full-year suspension? Is Teixiera still viable as a mid-lineup force, and can the Yankees scare up a more appropriate backup than the likes of Kelly Johnson in case the injury bug bites again? Can they find a way to keep pending free agent Headley, whose bat has enjoyed a modest revival (.263/.374/.402) since being acquired?
Those questions will keep a general manager lying awake at night, but if anything, the rotation needs even more attention. Tanaka, Nova and Sabathia can hardly be penciled in for a combined 600-plus innings as they return from injuries. Barring incredible creativity via trade, they'll have to shell out for a workhorse such as James Shields or Jon Lester, consider retaining McCarthy and still hope that arms like those of Pineda, Phelps and Greene can help pick up the slack. Robertson is a free agent. They could let him walk and turn the closer duties over to Betances to save some money, but they'll still need a couple more reliable late-inning options, including a lefty.
The bottom line is that an era has ended for the Yankees. It's not just they won't have the familiar certainty of even the late-model Jeter at shortstop. After two playoff-free seasons, the harsh reality they face is that the relationship between their big bucks and perennial contender status isn't what it used to be.