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Thursday, February 17, 2005

Yankee Go Home?

Or to the old-age home?

The New York Yankees are old.

Now, I like the Yankees, respect Joe Torre, admire their accomplishments. But if you look at this year's roster, the principal position players are all over 30, except for A-Rod, who is 29. You can look it up.

But I'll spare you that, by reciting the ages of those guys here (average age of the first 9 -- 33.44):

C -- Jorge Posada, 33
1B -- Jason Giambi, 33
2B -- Tony Womack, 35
SS -- Derek Jeter, 30
3B -- Alex Rodriguez, 29
LF -- Hideki Matsui, 30
CF -- Bernie Williams, 36
RF -- Gary Sheffield, 36
DH -- Ruben Sierra, 39.

And here's the pitching staff (or, in some cases, contenders therefor -- average age -- 34.08):

Kevin Brown, 39 (40 on opening day)
Tom Gordon, 37
Randy Johnson, 41
Steve Karsay, 32
Mike Mussina, 35
Carl Pavano, 29
Paul Quantrill, 36
Brett Prinz, 27
Mariano Rivera, 35
Felix Rodriguez, 32
Jaret Wright, 29
Tanyon Sturtze, 34
Mike Stanton, 37

What can you glean from this recital? Here are a few thoughts:

1. The Yankees' farm system is plum awful at turning out prospects these days. Is there really anything more to say? And the problem gets worse because the pressure to win in NYC is so great that it's really much harder to break in a rookie in the Bronx than, say, in Kansas City or even St. Louis. It figures that the Yankees probably are more reluctant to be patient with rookies than most other teams, given that the expectations are so high.

2. Players break down as they get older. People do. It's a fact, and you don't have to be Charles Darwin to figure that out. Sure, Jeter, A-Rod and Hideki are at their primes, but what happens if one of the other guys goes down for an extended period of time. I like Tino Martinez, but he'll suffice if Giambi cannot come back. Otherwise, the Yankees have little depth. There are some younger arms, but the core of the pitching staff suffers from the same issue as the position players -- age is creeping up on them. Fast.

3. It's hard to figure what Giambi actually will do, and it will be interesting to watch MLB this year in light of the new steroids policy across baseball to see which players will have down years. If any Yankees were users, well, a drop off could hurt this proud franchise (as it would any franchise).

4. The Yankees payroll only will grow, and it will become harder to win. If you're not developing players, it means you don't have good prospects to trade, which means that you'll have to do more on the free agent market in the ensuing years. Which means you'll have to spend more money to fill the holes in your roster, and free agents aren't always the right fit. The risks are huge. And given that the Yankees haven't won a World Series since 2000, the odds could well get longer.

5. Tons of pressure on a pitching staff that has some age issues of its own. The Big Unit is over 40 and Kevin Brown soon will be, Mike Mussina is over 35, and the two new additions -- Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright -- will face huge pressure in New York (see, for example, Ed Whitson and Javier Vazquez, not to mention Brown). The Big Unit has defied logic and orthopedics for his entire career, and Brown is stubborn enough to have a great season. I think he just might. Mussina is the stealth pitcher, he doesn't get his due, but he performs pretty well. I love Pavano and his attitude, but he hasn't had more than 1.5 good seasons since he's been in the majors, and he's had injury problems. I think he'll succeed; the Yankees need him to. I don't understand Jaret Wright at all and think he'll be lost without Leo Mazzone whispering into his ear (although Jason Marquis thrived in St. Louis after leaving Atlanta). Mariano Rivera's shield of invincibility got rattled last year. Felix Rodriguez is an enigma in a set-up role, and Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill were all but worn out at season's end last year.

It could well be that all of these huge names lead the Yankees to one (or two or three) more last hurrahs. But it also could be that you'll be watching many guys whose best days are behind them, especially if many break down at once. And in my book, unfortunately for the Yankees, the breakdowns are more likely to happen than the championship runs.

If you're a Yankee fan, you have to be happy with the moves your team made to improve in the off-season, especially with respect to the pitching staff. But you also have to wonder whether even King George can outwit Father Time.


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