The Party’s Over

by Jason Epstein
Yankee fans have few illusions for 2013.

Hating the Yankees is as American as pizza pie, unwed mothers, and cheating on your income tax. 

— Legendary Chicago columnist Mike Royko

Because their roster looked incomplete even before injuries began decimating its ranks, and because their solutions thus far have been half-baked, the Yankees will fail to reach the postseason for the first time since 2008 and just the second time since the 1994 players’ strike.

— Sports Illustrated columnist Jay Jaffe

Happy days may be here again, fellow Yankee-haters. The Bronx Bombers won 95 games last season and played in the American League Championship Series, but there is far less enthusiasm among baseball scribes about the club’s chances of returning to the postseason this year let alone winning their division. One projection system has the team finishing in third place with 84 wins; another places the team in fourth with 83.

Does the obnoxious passionate fan base share this view? For astute insights, two Sundays ago I chatted with three political experts familiar to NR readers who cheer for the club when they’re not breaking the latest sequester scoop: Guy Benson, Town Hall’s political editor; Robert George, associate editorial-page editor of the New York Post; and Rick Klein, political director at ABC News.

Below are extended excerpts from our e-mail conversation:

jason EPSTEIN: First question: The Yankees’ Opening Day lineup might make even a Met fan cringe. How did the now–No. 2 payroll in the bigs get to this point?

Rick KLEIN: I guess we have to blame it on the sons? Clearly this is being driven by the luxury tax and the Steinbrenner family’s newfound desire to make loads of money instead of mere gobs. They’re still spending big money, of course, but they’re not plugging gaps the way they used to. This is not George’s team anymore, and we have to adjust to that fact. I guess I’m more disappointed not to see some of the heralded prospects get a crack; if they were what we’ve been told to expect, we might be seeing some of them instead of going after Vernon Wells.

EPSTEIN: On that note, hold the presses: It appears as though the Yanks are indeed about to get Wells.

Robert GEORGE: All’s Wells that ends Wells? Um, not quite.

On the other hand, the team is working to shore up its pitching — by testing out Chien-Ming Wang in the minors! . . .

I’m not sure I would automatically blame the sons for how dreadful the lineup looks.

A lot of blame has to be placed at the feet of Brian “Mr. Lover Man” Cashman. Maybe he couldn’t have anticipated A-Rod and Mark Teixeira going down, but everyone knew the Jeter situation was serious. So, why not be more serious about keeping Russell Martin, who was a home-run threat and clutch RBI guy? Instead, Yanks let him go without a serious offer. And now we’re dependent on Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart at the catcher position?!?

That’s all on Cashman. Who also traded away Jesus Montero for an overrated pitcher with “issues” [Michael Pineda].

KLEIN: I have already weighed in in agreement. Their problem will be producing runs. The kind you get when a runner crosses, you know, home plate and stuff.

Guy BENSON: Oh, goodie. Another past-his-prime addition to the lineup. Wells averaged .222 at the plate over his two seasons in Anaheim.

EPSTEIN: The Brennan Boesch signing notwithstanding, Cashman keeps turning to over-the-hill players — heck, the Yankees reportedly even tried to convince Chipper Jones and Derrek Lee to come out of retirement – to replace those who are injured. What’s the rationale behind such efforts?

KLEIN: You mean that’s not the Yankee way? Again, it makes me wonder about the farm system. And the Cashman system, for that matter. What’s been lacking in the recent rounds of moves is any sense of strategy. They’ve been plugging holes with stale gum for a while.

BENSON: I always worry about pitching, but for the first time in memory, I’m concerned about the Yankees’ ability to score runs.

Overpaying for long-in-the-tooth former stars has become the Yankee way, but it seems like it’s getting worse. The strength of the Yankees’ World Series runs in the late ’90s and 2000s ran straight up the middle of the field: Posada, Jeter, Bernie — with guys like Pettitte and Mo [Rivera] anchoring the pitching staff. These guys were/are homegrown talent. With that generation retired or getting there, who’s next? Where’s that next core?

The Derrek Lee revelation is particularly bizarre. Here’s a guy who was rock-solid for the Cubs . . . in 2005, when he won the NL batting title. I was a sophomore in college in Chicago then. Now it’s eight (!) years later, and the Yanks are begging to pay him to come out of retirement? He batted .246 for Baltimore over 85 games in 2011, performed better for a short stretch in Pittsburgh after that, then left the game. Something is wrong if Derrek Lee figures into the Yankees’ front-office plans for the future. I don’t want to blow the Lee story too far out of proportion, but I think it’s symbolic of the larger problem.

GEorge: This sadly reminds me of the end of the late-’70s mini-dynasty. With no real strategy, management plugged holes with over-the-hill players — often trading away great talent off the farm system for damaged goods/past-prime players (à la the aforementioned Jesus Montero).

That, of course, was the height of Boss Mania — leading to an 18-year World Series drought.

Recall too that the drought ended only because George was suspended and Gene Michael had free hand to rebuild the farm system (Bernie, Jeter, Pettitte, Mo, etc.).

EPSTEIN: The Yankees haven’t experienced a losing season since 1992. How should fans too young to remember names like Mel Hall, Eddie Whitson, Andy Hawkins, and Brien Taylor prepare for the possibility that the bottom drops out in 2013?

GEORGE: After seeing those names listed, I’m rapidly thinking that this entire exercise is a sadistic venture on the part of Met fan Epstein to take joy in suffering of Yankees fans pondering the aimless late ’80s to early ’90s era. One interesting point about that period, though, is the year 1993 — the last time the Yankees and the Red Sox missed the playoffs. Considering how good Toronto and Tampa look in the East, that could possibly happen again in 2013.

BENSON: Whoa, I don’t remember any of those names. I came of age as a baseball fan in the waning years of the Mattingly era, so a losing Yankees season has literally never been on my radar. The question is, will fans fork over top dollars to see a lousy team in a nice new (and expensive) stadium? I think Mets fans have answered that question resoundingly over the last few seasons.

KLEIN: We didn’t know we were bad back then, or at least we tried to forget. This will sting more if they’re sub-par — probably like the post-Mantle, Shea years. Hurting more because we had so much plenty so recently.

GEORGE: Guy brings up a great point: There’s a whole generation of Yankee fans who’ve only known playoffs every single year and a World Series appearance every three years (on average). The team has only missed the playoffs once since 1995 — and they won it all the year afterwards. We could be heading into alien territory for many in Guy’s generation.

BENSON: And the 2008 playoff miss was sort of appropriate. A somber benediction for the old stadium. They certainly christened the new stadium appropriately the next year, though.

EPSTEIN: Yes, Robert, I am a long-suffering Mets fan who, in order to compensate, readily embraces schadenfreude. So if a playoff spot doesn’t materialize this season, would finishing ahead of the Red Sox give you any measure of comfort?

KLEIN: Yes. Yes. Also, yes.

BENSON: I tend to think that Red Sox fans fixate on the Yankees more than the other way around. New York fans’ primary concern is winning, and any torment that Sox fans may experience is just an added bonus.

That being said, Boston sucks.

GEORGE: To paraphrase an old Far Side cartoon: “It’s not enough that the Yankees do well, the Red Sox must also do very poorly.”

EPSTEIN: Now we can’t do this interview without including a hypo: Fast forward to a few days before the July 31 trade deadline. The club is one or two games under .500 and six games removed from the second wild-card berth. Cashman calls you looking for advice: Should he try to deal some of the regulars whose contracts expire at the end of the year?

BENSON: I’d say, “Thanks for the call, Brian. First off, I genuinely appreciate all the great memories and phenomenal teams you’ve helped construct, but the Yankees desperately need to get younger and faster. Don’t push the panic button and act rashly to salvage one season. The franchise needs an overhaul, so let’s think strategically and long-term. Also, as an act of selflessness, I’ve reduced my advising fee from the usual amount to season tickets for life. Leaving them at Will Call is fine.”

KLEIN: I’m with Guy on this. The Yankees franchise can no longer define itself by wild-card berths that would only lead to early playoff exits. Brian, you know what you have to do, which is build a new plan, one that will take a good chunk of years to come to playoff fruition.

GEORGE: Agree 100 percent.

The Yankees need to get younger and healthier on the entire infield except for second base (I include catcher). Outfield’s not much better. If they could get value for Curtis Granderson, I’d send him on his way. In fact, of the entire current lineup, Cano (who will be tough to sign) is the only must-keep. Otherwise, it’s sadly time for a five-year plan. Indeed, Jason and I had this discussion at the conclusion of the playoffs last year. I was hoping they would begin the overhaul then, instead of the stutter-step they took (and even that backfired, considering they would have been better off trying to retain Martin).

EPSTEIN: Should the Yankees go all out at season’s end to re-sign Cano, age 30, the current face of the franchise? What if the free-spending Dodgers, who look likely to need a second baseman in 2014 and beyond, offer Cano $225 million over nine years? What if it’s $250 million over ten years?

BENSON: Scott Boras is going to make this painful for the Yankees, but I think they need to re-sign him. He’s a bona fide star, he’s home grown, he’s popular with the fans. Do you really want to start a “five-year plan” without him? The problem with these ultra long-term deals is the prospect of diminishing returns. Part of the drill, I guess.

GEORGE: I’m going to play to Jason’s favorite stereotype of me and say, “I’m of two minds on Cano.” Considering that the pitching staff (including some young arms) doesn’t look too bad over the coming years, holding onto Robby might not be a bad investment. But ten years? No way. The A-Rod contract should be a valuable lesson right there. Try to keep him for the five-to-six-year range. If Boras balks at that, let him defect to the West Coast arms race (Dodgers vs. Angels). Something else to consider: Will Cano be as reliable/mature without having folks like Jeter and A-Rod around? He occasionally slacks off when the big brothers with the rings aren’t nearby to keep him in line.

KLEIN: I feel strongly that the Yankees need to re-sign Cano. This is less a baseball call than an emotional one, as the idea of players spending their whole careers in the Bronx resonates strongly, from Gehrig to DiMaggio to Mantle to Mattingly to Jeter. Cano is a special talent, and special talents should not be allowed to trade in the pinstripes. And hey, it’s not my money.

EPSTEIN: Let’s close our conversation with a lightning round:

1. Who is your favorite Yankee beat writer, columnist, or blogger and why? Do you ever wish you could do that gig in lieu of your current one?

2. Which would be worse: Re-living the same day over and over with a narcissistic groundhog in Punxsutawney, Pa., or locked in the radio booth with John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman during a blowout loss?

3. What is your predicted order of finish in the AL East?

BENSON: Sports writers are even more jaded and cynical that political writers, in my experience. I’m glad I can keep sports as a source of fun and escapism in my life, so I don’t see showing up at the ballpark as work. I don’t covet those jobs. Then again, I did four summers of play-by-play broadcasting in the Cape Cod Baseball League during school and really thought that was going to be my career path. I really love calling baseball, and miss it. If John or Suzyn’s job became available and it was somehow magically offered to me, I don’t think I could resist.

Option B. Blowout losses are terrible, but at least you’re at The Stadium in The Big Apple.

The AL East will be talented and wide open, and leave it at that. We haven’t seen a pitch thrown yet, so I won’t even try to list 1-to-5.

KLEIN: I like Tyler Kepner’s depth and fluidity — two qualities the Yankees’ lineup lacks, I might add. I would love to watch baseball every day, but I have a feeling I would hate writing about baseball every hour. So I made the right choice.

The problem with Sterling isn’t the meandering stories during blowouts — it’s the flat-out wrong calls. I can deal with him and Suzyn “bantering.” I can’t deal with, “it is high, it is far, it is . . . caught just shy of the warning track, to end the inning.” And there’s something endearing about the Yankees being down 13–1 and having Sterling tell you, “You know, Suzyn, if Gardner gets on here and the Yankees string together a couple of hits, you know, they’re two grand slams away from being right back in this ballgame. That’s baseball.” Besides, Sterling’s voice reminds me of childhood summers — so he’s by far the better option than Bill Murray’s endless day.

I don’t want to play the prediction game because it’s not fun this year. I will say the Yankees are at best the third-best, and might be the fourth-best, team in the division. But they will finish ahead of the Red Sox!

GEORGE: Forgive me for being a homer, but the Post’s Joel Sherman is my favorite N.Y. baseball columnist, period. He does a great job, clearly does his homework, and is well-sourced at different levels of the game (players, coaches, execs). Years ago, I would have entertained thoughts of following the Yankees around for a season or two. Now, I realize how much work there is involved and I’m quite happy to leave it to the professionals!

Is there a difference between a narcissistic groundhog and John Sterling?

Tampa
Toronto
Yankees
Baltimore
Boston

Not sure yet on whether Yankees can get the second wild-card. Haven’t completely game-planned the rest of the league as yet.

EPSTEIN: Thanks again for taking the time, guys. Enjoy Opening Day and good luck with the season!

— Jason Epstein is president of Southfive Strategies, LLC in Washington, D.C., and a contributor to NRO’s Right Field blog.

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