New York Yankees: Core Four Represents Off-season Question Marks
Not only does the ALCS Game 6 loss to the Texas Rangers end the New York Yankees' quest to repeat as baseball's World Series champions, but it may also signify the end of an era.
No, not the end of a dynasty that some have spoken of, that would require more than one World Series title in 10 years to be spoken of in such terms. The last Yankee dynasty ended in 2001, or 2003 if you're generous.
The era in question would be that of the Yankees' "Core Four", the homegrown quartet of veteran players that have persevered in the Bronx, playing a significant role in the Yankees' five World Series titles since 1996. Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada are the first trio of players in American sports history to play together for at least 16 years, a tremendous display of loyalty in an era dominated by free agency and frequent player movement. The fourth member, Andy Pettitte, arrived in the Bronx during 1995 like the others, but spent 2004-06 pitching closer to home in Houston. Otherwise, it is likely that these four Yankees would have remained with the franchise for the entirety of their careers.
Yankee fans have long been able to count on Jeter, Mariano, Posada and Pettitte delivering standout performances throughout the regular season and then when the stakes were highest, in the crisp autumn air of baseball's postseason. Jeter, long-revered by Yankee fans as "Captain Clutch" or "Mr. November", holds a host MLB playoff records and has forged much of his reputation with dramatic postseason heroics. Mariano, considered by many to be the greatest closer the game has ever seen, is lock to join Jeter in the Hall of Fame once their playing careers conclude, and his postseason resume is one of the most impressive in baseball's history.
Andy Pettitte also stands a chance to join his teammates in the Hall of Fame one day. Though he has never possessed the dominant stuff or numbers of the top aces in the game, Pettitte has nevertheless had an outstanding career and owns another highly impressive playoff career, one that boasts the most career victories in baseball postseason history. His longtime battery-mate, Jorge Posada, is a top 15 all-time catcher, and will get his share of Hall of Fame consideration as well once his playing days are over.
That incredible shared history is likely something that we won't see again in baseball for quite some time. The manner in which players move between teams today makes it quite rare what this group of Yankees has accomplished together. This off-season may very well represent a turning point in the story of the Yankees' "Core Four" however.
With a devastating defeat in the American League Championship Series, comes a look toward the future for the Yankees. Constantly looking to evolve and improve their team, Brian Cashman and his fellow Yankee brass have some important decisions to make, and several significant determinations in regard to the "Core Four" with three of them at the end of their contracts. Even without the contract issues, the venerable quartet each come with their own set of questions as the Yankees head into a critical off-season.
The Yankee captain couldn't have chosen a less opportune time to have his worst season of his storied career. Playing the final year of his 10-year, $189 million contract, Jeter struggled mightily outside of approximately seven weeks of the season. After posting one of his best seasons in 2009, hopes were high for Jeter as he entered his contract year, but those hopes were never realized. He looked a step slower in the field, and his bat had trouble catching up to fastballs all year. Outside of a hot April start, Jeter looked nearly incapable of driving the ball, instead racking up a massive collection of weak infield ground-outs.
His line-drive rate was the lowest of his career, his batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage all career lows. He was impatient, swinging at everything, especially in the first half, and he found himself killing more rallies than starting them.
Even in the postseason, where we are accustomed to Jeter outshining nearly everyone, he produced a steady stream of ground-outs, and was unable to pull any Jeterian magic from his hat.
Still, unabashed Jeter supporters will tell you that it was the only bad season of his career, and that he will rebound next year, because that's just the way it is. Derek Jeter is a Yankee legend and he is their short-stop until he simply cannot do it anymore.
Some of that may be true, it may have simply been a down year. His uncharacteristic .270 batting average is actually only one point below Hall of Famer Joe Morgan's career average. Jeter could very well rebound and look like himself again, but it's never an encouraging sign to have your worst season, often appearing feeble and tired as you approach 37 years old. The established track record for players suddenly reversing decline at that age is short, especially after the end of the "steroid era".
Most players exhibiting a severe decline in production might be facing the end of the line with their team as their current contract runs out. But, this is Derek Jeter. He has been the face of the most recent Yankee dynasty, and even the highest profile player in Major League Baseball for a decade and a half. His sterling reputation both on the field and off, combined with his overall package of looks and charm have made him the most marketable player the game has seen for quite some time, if not ever.
All of these factors come into play when considering the Derek Jeter contract situation. As much as his actual on-field production, Jeter has long been revered for the intangible qualities he possesses, his leadership abilities and the grace with which he handles the pressures of New York.
The Yankees are well aware of his impact on their bottom line. Any trip through Yankee Stadium or the surrounding Bronx streets will assure you of the captain's popularity amongst Yankee fans. His jerseys are everywhere, from the old school fans that grew up with DiMaggio and Mantle, to the urban tough guys inhabiting the local neighborhoods, to little girls making their first trip to the stadium with their parents. Yankee fans, and there are many of them, love Derek Jeter.
Though out of a contract, there is no real fear that Jeter is going to ever don another uniform. There is the feeling that Jeter was born to be a Yankee, and to one day assume his place in the pantheon of career pinstriped heroes like Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra and Ford. Yes, I know Yogi had nine plate appearances with the Mets in 1965, but I'm not going to let that tarnish his stellar Yankee career.
As Jeter sits only 74 hits away from the 3,000 hit plateau, it stands to reason that he will reach it somewhere near the 2011 All-Star break. Since no Yankee has ever reached that mark, Jeter, already the all-time franchise hits leader, will undoubtedly achieve the feat in a New York uniform.
How to balance diminishing production with still undeniable value to the Yankee franchise? Jeter, though his numbers are declining, and no doubt his best days are behind him, will be paid as much for his intangible values, reputation and marketability as he will his baseball.
What is the appropriate amount to commit to a 36-year-old, singles hitting short-stop with limited range? Not only that, but how long do you let him trot out to the most important position in the infield, knowing that range and athleticism are prime attributes that top short-stops must possess to be successful? That question becomes even more complicated considering the Yankees have all three other infield positions locked up long term, and Jeter has never played an inning in the outfield.
We know Derek Jeter is not going to play anywhere but the Bronx, in all likelihood ending his career as a Yankee. However, the situation could become much more complicated than many realize when considering Jeter's future with the team. Everyone wants to see Derek Jeter play short forever, but history tells us that simply cannot happen. I don't envy Brian Cashman in this scenario.
Another modern Yankee legend that finds himself out of contract, Mariano Rivera, at age 40, just completed one his finer seasons in pinstripes. Seemingly defying the nature of time itself, Mariano is as spry and fit as ever, providing the stable foundation for the Yankee bullpen 16 years into his career.
Completing his three-year, $45 million contract, there are suddenly worries that Mariano might be done with pitching. He will turn 41 in little over a month, and though his competitive fire still burns brightly, Mo has nothing left to prove in this game.
We also know Mo isn't going to play anywhere else. A lifelong Yankee, the man is just as responsible for the Yankees' five World Series rings during his career as anyone. Without the dominant force at the end of all those playoff games, who knows how different history could have been?
Using primarily his trademark cutter to shatter bats along with oppositional hopes as he silenced late game offensive threats, Mariano has forged a reputation in many minds as the greatest closer the game has ever seen. His value to the Yankees has been readily apparent on the mound, but the depth of his impact reaches far beyond that. Mo has called upon his vast reserve of experience and knowledge to serve as a teacher and coach in the Yankee bullpen, imparting his wisdom on a variety of Yankee hurlers.
With no apparent replacement for Mariano currently within the Yankee ranks, it would appear that his formidable presence is still required by the team. Joba has not yet matured into the pitcher the Yankees envisioned, and free agent closers of Mariano's caliber simply don't exist. The Yankees have had their eye on Joakim Soria in Kansas City, but his contract runs through 2011, with three option years following that. He may eventually be a target, but for now he doesn't appear to be available.
It remains to be seen how much longer Mariano wants to pitch. After the World Series victory last year, he boldly proclaimed that he wants to pitch five more years. He has made no such claims recently though, and will return to Panama to ponder his baseball future.
One motivating factor could be the desire to wrest the all-time saves record from Trevor Hoffman. Sitting at 559, only 42 behind Hoffman, Mariano is clearly within striking distance. Though Hoffman is still active, he struggled through an abysmal season in Milwaukee, and could very well be considering hanging up his spikes. If so, Mariano would need just over a year's worth of saves to take his rightful spot atop the all-time leader board. Whether Mo cares enough about personal records to continue playing for that reason is another story.
The other aspect of his story is that he was still one of the top relievers in the game, even as he approaches 41 years old. In 38 save opportunities, he saved 33 games for an 87 percent success rate, just below his career average of 89 percent. Though his strikeout rates may be lower, his 1.80 ERA was the fifth lowest of his career, and his 0.833 WHIP was the second lowest he has ever posted. He may not throw as hard as he once did, but his experience and veteran guile make him a more intelligent pitcher, enabling to him to continually succeed on the mound, despite the rigors of time.
The Yankees need a closer, and they appear unlikely to let the legendary closer they've employed for 16 years go anywhere. Depending upon a few other factors, we'll have to wait and see how much money and many years the Yankees are willing to commit, but it seems highly likely that this successful partnership will continue for the foreseeable future.
Derek Jeter may be the captain, but Jorge Posada has long been considered the heart and soul of this Yankee team. More of a vocal leader that Jeter, Posada has helped steer the team with his toughness and determination, while playing a pivotal role in four world championships since 1997.
Posada, just turned 39 himself, and has seen better days. Though he is still under contract for one more year, he represents a significant question for the Yankees as they look toward next season.
His days as a regular catcher are clearly over, as he has only managed to catch 30, 100, and 83 games over the last three seasons, while also seeing significant time in the designated hitter role.
Jorge a standout offensive performer relative to his position, is likely a top-15 catcher of all-time. His potent bat, patient approach and switch-hitting abilities have made him a constant fixture in the Yankee lineup for years. Though never considered a strong defensive catcher, his offensive abilities always outweighed his deficiencies behind the dish.
Never a quick-footed catcher, Jorge has always had a problem with blocking balls in the dirt and throwing out attempted base-stealers. Those problems were highlighted this postseason, as the Rangers ran rampant on a powerless Posada. Of course, some of that blame has to go to the pitchers for failing to control the running game, but Posada's throws were weak and errant, allowing the Rangers to run at will, overwhelming the Yankees.
Clearly, the Rangers running game wasn't the sole reason for the Yankee loss to Texas, but it was a significant factor. The pitchers were never able to focus on pitching because any time a base-runner reached, it was almost a foregone conclusion that he was about to steal his way into scoring position.
During the regular season, Yankee catchers threw out a measly 15 percent of attempted base-stealers, good for last in all of baseball. League average was 28 percent, and the next closest team was Boston at 20 percent. Clearly, this is a weakness that needs to be addressed.
Though his bat still contains plenty of pop, and his patient approach will still allow Posada to reach base at a steady rate, it becomes difficult to envision Jorge catching very often in 2011. With Francisco Cervelli having a solid year as his backup, and a stable full of young catching prospects waiting in the minors, Posada may be best suited for a DH role in the upcoming year.
One position the Yankees are stocked at is catcher, with uber-prospect Jesus Montero nearly MLB ready, Austin Romine making significant strides, as well as youngsters J.R. Murphy and Gary Sanchez developing in the lower minors. If Montero's much-heralded bat is as lethal as reported, his time is surely approaching. His defense, always a weakness has reportedly improved greatly over the second half of 2010, and we may very well see his Bronx arrival sometime in 2011.
Posada, who hit 18 HR with 57 RBI, while posting an .811 OPS in 2010 could see increased time in the designated hitter role. His experienced switch-hitting bat could serve in the spot where the Yankees used Nick Johnson, Marcus Thames and Lance Berkman in 2010, allowing younger, more defensively inclined youngsters to take over handling the pitching staff.
Though his veteran presence is preferred by the Yankees in the postseason, his stubborn methods of dealing with pitchers has helped create a difficult situation at times with various members of the Yankee staff. It has been public knowledge that specific pitchers don't enjoy throwing to him, as he doesn't frame pitches, lazily blocks balls in the dirt and butts heads with hurlers over pitch selection.
It may behoove the Yankees to minimize his time behind the plate in 2011, handing the reigns to a duo of younger backstops. Of course, no one expects Posada to take that well when it inevitably occurs, but sometimes tough decisions need to be made, even when they apply to respected veterans in your squad.
The third member of the Yankees' Core Four to be out of contract is veteran left-hander, Andy Pettitte. A member of the Yankees since 1995, minus a three year stint in Houston, Andy is also the proud owner of five World Series rings. His contributions to those postseason odysseys have been significant, as he is the all-time baseball postseason leader in victories.
While his fellow members of the Yankee starting rotation struggled to varying degrees in the 2010 playoffs, Pettitte registered two good starts, winning one and losing the other, but lasting seven innings each time, and utilizing his vast experience to shut down two powerful offenses. His outings were the only starts that felt the least bit comfortable from the Yankee starting staff.
His participation in the postseason was never a sure thing, as Andy made a last ditch effort in the regular season's final weeks to get himself ready for the playoffs. He missed a full two months of the season due to a groin injury he suffered on July 18, and only returned on September 18, a mere two weeks before the playoffs.
Prior to his injury, Pettitte was enjoying one of the finest years of his career, going 11-2 with a 2.88 ERA through July 18. He only was able to make three starts after returning from his stint on the DL, to uneven results. The Yankees were holding their breath, praying that their most experienced hurler could contribute as they attempted to defend their 2009 World Series title.
Pettitte's triumphant return was a success on a personal level, but ultimately for naught, as the Yankees were thoroughly defeated in the ALCS, but through no fault of Andy's.
Despite his great season, it remains to be seen whether Andy wants to continue pitching. It is likely that the Yankees would welcome his veteran presence in the middle of their rotation, however he has been a threat to retire at the end of every season for several years.
Still a highly competitive hurler, Pettitte proved that he can still pitch effectively, but his desire has to be there. Always a devoted family man, Andy Pettitte has placed his fate in the hands of his wife and kids, and will only pitch if they still want him to.
He recently stated that he has nothing left to accomplish in this game, so the seeds of doubt over his return have been planted. When on the hill, there is little doubt as to the degree of his competitive nature, but one can fully comprehend the desire of a man to spend more time with his wife and children.
The Yankees may be ready to heavily pursue ace Cliff Lee after the conclusion of the World Series. That would seem to cast some doubt on the availability of a rotation slot for Pettitte, but if it came down to it, I'm sure A.J. Burnett's spot is not fully secured. I can tell you that nearly every Yankee fan I've ever met would personally help chip in for Burnett's contract if it meant they could move him to accommodate Andy Pettitte.
Not Quite the End Of An Era, But Getting There
In all likelihood, at least three members of the Core Four will remain in Yankee pinstripes for at least 2011. Posada will obviously stay for the coming season, and the overwhelming odds suggest Jeter and Mariano will sign new contracts to keep them in the Bronx for at least another few seasons.
Mariano will very likely be right where we expect him to be, anchoring the Yankee bullpen, providing security late in games as he has for years.
The time has come for Jeter and Posada to both take a serious look in the mirror, and realize that they aren't the dynamic young stars of their youth. Both Yankee leaders still have a valuable role to play with the only team they have ever known, but it may be evolving as the team needs to move forward without getting bogged down by nostalgia.
Andy Pettitte, as we have grown accustomed, will take his time to make his decision, and we very well may have seen the last of him on a mound. Sitting at 240 career victories, another season or two worth of wins would certainly garner him some significant Hall of Fame consideration when combined with his impressive postseason career. Pettitte has never been big on personal accolades, but that thought has to at least cross his mind.
Whatever happens in the off-season will have to wait a while to be revealed, but a season of change is surely approaching in the Bronx. Much of the uncertainty revolves around the Yankees' Core Four, and the manner in which change is handled will go a long way toward determining how successful the next few seasons are for the New York Yankees. No one wants to see history repeat itself and watch the dark days of the late 60's and early 70's return.