OPPOSING CLUBS are sending Derek Jeter off to retirement with gifts so frivolous that it appears as if they were bought during a drunken SkyMall shopping spree. Among the parting gifts the Yankees shortstop has received are pin-striped cowboy boots, a pin-striped Gibson Les Paul guitar, a personalized bottle of Napa Valley wine, a set of golf clubs, a pin-striped paddleboard, a Stetson hat and, of course, a gold watch.
At least nobody had the gumption to present him with an October cruise, seeing that New York looks like a team that should be free that month. In fact, despite shelling out $438 million last off-season to free agents Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees are staring at the possibility of missing the postseason for a second straight year, something they haven't experienced since 1992 and '93, which just so happen to be the last two full seasons before Jeter's arrival. With 34 games to play at week's end, New York trailed first-place Baltimore by six games in the American League East, while 3½ games and two teams stood between the Yankees and the second wild card. The Bronx Bombers' 3.95 runs per game were third worst in the AL and the franchise's ninth worst since Babe Ruth arrived in 1920.
How in the name of Horace Clarke—the helmeted second baseman who symbolized the franchise's postseason drought from 1965 to '75—could this happen? The answer lies in how the Yankees climbed out of their last playoff drought and into the greatest dynasty of the free-agent era. They won 88 games in 1993 with 24-year-old Bernie Williams in centerfield and had a farm system loaded with future stars such as Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera, not to mention contributors like swingman Ramiro Mendoza. Young, homegrown talent would provide the backbone to New York's four World Series titles in five years, beginning in 1996.
The farm has been fallow ever since, with some exceptions from players who signed as international free agents, like Robinson Cano. In the 22 drafts after the Yankees picked Jeter in 1992, Brett Gardner is the only hitter they have drafted and signed whose cumulative Wins Above Replacement (23.3) with the team is better than a middling 3.1. Phil Hughes (56 wins) and Joba Chamberlain (24), both of whom the Yankees gladly allowed to leave as free agents last off-season, are the biggest winners on the mound for them out of the draft since taking Pettitte in 1990—though rookie reliever Dellin Betances was an All-Star this year.
The lack of homegrown players has forced New York to dive into two areas that have become enormously inefficient: aging players and free agents. According to baseball-reference.com, the 28 players who have come to the plate this season for the Yankees have an average age of 32.7, giving them the oldest lineup in baseball for the third straight year. There are nights when an Eagles concert seems less nostalgic than Yankee Stadium. New York is so old that just in the past two seasons it has used 11 players who were All-Stars nine or more years ago: Beltran, Jeter, Pettitte, Rivera, Soriano, Brian Roberts, Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, Ichiro Suzuki, Mark Teixeira and Vernon Wells. Last year the Yankees churned through 57 players, the most in baseball, and this year manager Joe Girardi has juggled 53, second to the 60 used by the Rangers.
What can they do? As the Phillies are finding out, turning around old teams is harder than turning around an ocean liner. The Yankees already have almost $143 million committed next year to eight players who will be between 31 and 39. They'll still need a shortstop to replace Jeter, a third baseman unless they re-sign 30-year-old Chase Headley, and starting pitchers in case Sabathia (knee) and Tanaka (elbow) can't return to form after significant injuries.
This old, dull team at least has enjoyed the farewell tour of Jeter, whose announced retirement plan during spring training has helped the Yankees to the majors' fourth-biggest per-game attendance increase. But imagine next year, coming off a possible second straight non-playoff season with the 39-year-old Rodriguez returning from a PED suspension and three previous seasons in which he averaged only 88 games ... and no Jeter?
Jeter has played in more than 2,700 games for New York, and the team has been mathematically alive in all of them but one (Sept. 26, 2008). He has been the most important player in the sport's greatest era of economic growth, an October fixture and a five-time world champion who, with the help of the expanded playoffs, has played in more postseason games than anyone in history. But unless the gasping Yankees summon a September rally, they will be sending Jeter to retirement with the most inappropriate gift: more meaningless games than he has played in his entire career.
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World-record time in the women's 1,500-meter freestyle by 17-year-old American Katie Ledecky at the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships, more than six seconds faster than her previous record.
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