But there’s no reason to think the Yankees are in much danger of entering any sort of dead period. The main reason for this is actually a bit beyond their control; there’s not much danger of any team entering any sort of dead period, because it’s not nearly as difficult as it used to be to make the playoffs. With the extra wild-card team, the bar is lowered for any team to make “the tournament” (as it’s being called now), yet the standard for a successful season (making the playoffs) hasn’t necessarily been lowered. The Steinbrennerian days of “Win a championship, or this whole season is a failure!” are gone, unless you truly believe the Yankees are a joke of an organization because they haven’t won a title in three years. The Yankees, even with “subpar” years like this one, are still finding ways to get into the playoffs. And since the playoffs are largely a crapshoot (a one-, five-, or seven-game series tells you nothing about which team is “better”), the Yankees stand as good a chance as anyone to sneak in a title every few years or so. It’s not like they’re losing their financial and organizational advantages; now they’ll be rewarded even when things don’t go perfectly.
It’s worth noting that the Yankees’ organizational wisdom hasn’t faltered in the past few seasons; they’re just going through a natural transition. General manager Brian Cashman is restructuring the Yankees’ finances, making them less dependent on free-agent splurges like the Teixeira–Sabathia–A.J. Burnett spree three years ago and investing more in the foreign market, where the Yankees’ money can make a dramatic difference now that MLB changed the amateur-draft rules last year. (He’s also working to bring the Yankees under the tax threshold by 2014 so they can go back over it in the future; there’s an extra penalty for going over in successive years, so a year under essentially resets the clock.) Cashman knows that there’s only so much time and so many wins he can squeeze out of the current veteran roster, but rather than panic and double down by trying to buy his way out, he’s letting a still-quality team win now to give him the public-relations capital to lay a long-term foundation. Maybe it’ll work and maybe it won’t, but when you’ve made the playoffs seventeen of the past eighteen years, you’ve earned the benefit of the doubt. It also helps when the veterans you have are guys like Derek Jeter, who continues to defy any known aging curves—at the plate, anyway; in the field is another matter—as he searches for yet more World Series trophies through his late thirties.
More to the point: Who else in the American League East is going to stand in their way? The Red Sox are blowing up everything and starting over. (Again.) The Orioles are having a once-in-a-lifetime season and are sure to return to normal, or worse, next year. The Blue Jays were thought to be the next upstart challenger—a smart general manager and a potentially formidable payroll—but injuries and underperformance have them idling. The Rays still have the best brain trust in the game, but they remain in St. Petersburg, in that awful stadium, in front of a fan base that won’t support them, and have yet to win a title. For all the “problems” the Yankees have, they’re still the only team in the division—and, along with the Rangers, the only team in baseball—that can combine a smart front office with a huge payroll. Most teams have to go through a down period when they’re transitioning from one era to another. The Yankees never have to go through a down period. Heck, this is their down period.
So where does that leave them this postseason? Playoff randomness aside, the Yankees would seem to be in a good spot. Their rotation can’t match up with some of their best of the past decade, but it compares favorably to anyone else’s in the American League. (As always, Andy Pettitte is the postseason key.) The time off for injuries, notably Mark Teixeira’s, should leave the team fresher as the playoffs begin. And as old as many of its parts are, this is a lineup that’s still second in the majors in scoring. (Jeter, along with Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson, are the main reasons.) The Yankees have one of their weaker teams of the past fifteen years. They also have one of the best teams in baseball.