Pretty much everything that could have gone wrong with the 2012 New York Yankees’ season did go wrong. Michael Pineda, their premier off-season acquisition for whom they traded their most prized prospect, went down to an injury in the preseason and never pitched a game. Supposedly reliable starters like Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes underperformed. Alex Rodriguez has withered to the point that even the tax on his salary is more than he’s worth. The aging team was ravaged by injuries all year, from Brett Gardner to Andy Pettitte to CC Sabathia to Mark Teixeira. By the end of the season, they were regularly starting people like Steve Pearce, Casey McGehee, Chris Dickerson, and Jayson Nix. Oh, and lest we forget, they lost the greatest relief pitcher of all time to a= freak injury while shagging fly balls less than a month into the season.
Meanwhile, the Baltimore Orioles are having a season as charmed as any in baseball history. Despite being outscored by their opponents for most of the year—the Yankees haven’t been outscored by their opponents in twenty years—the Orioles were on pace as of this writing to win 90 games for the first time since 1997. (It’s actually the first time they’ll finish over .500 since then as well.) In a sport as complex as baseball, in which the 162-game schedule is supposed to minimize the effect of such things, one is always hesitant to ascribe causation to something as random as luck. But boy, have the Orioles ever been lucky. They’ve remained mostly healthy all season, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. In one-run and extra-inning games, a team’s record is arguably more a matter of good fortune than skill—to a greater degree than in other situations, anyway. If run differential is a measure of the best team, a team’s win-loss record in close games may be a measure of the luckiest. The Orioles? They’ve gone 27-9 in one-run games and a staggering 16-2 in extra-inning games, with those sixteen wins all coming in a row. (At press time, the streak was still going.) Had the Orioles won a league-average number of one-run and extra-inning games—had they had “normal” luck—they would have been just another .500 team. Instead, they’re the best Orioles team in decades.
So, to recap: Injuries, age, and poor fortune (but mostly injuries) have smacked the Yankees around all year, and the 2012 Orioles will go down in history as one of the most preternaturally, illogically blessed teams of all time. The Yankees, the way it looks now anyway, are still going to beat the Orioles by two or three games, win the American League East, and reach the playoffs for the seventeenth time in eighteen seasons. And they still have to be considered one of the favorites to reach the World Series, again. All of this when everything is going wrong and supposedly falling apart.
Since the Yankees’ last title in 2009, there has been a growing sense among baseball writers and analysts that we are approaching the end of the era of Yankees dominance. (The only thing that has kept this narrative from becoming more popular has been two consecutive years of implosion on Yawkey Way.) The excellent Keith Law of ESPN wrote last month that “their outlook beyond this season is cloudier than it has been for several years, maybe since the mid-nineties.” The Yankees, more budget-conscious than they used to be, have avoided some of the top-tier free agents on the market. This has made them a bit less fun to talk about (that they didn’t get in on either Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder last off-season felt downright unsporting) and other teams more fun to discuss as the next megateam … the next Yankees. The Los Angeles Dodgers, with Magic Johnson and a billion-dollar ownership group, is suddenly the franchise willing to buy every player; the Texas Rangers, with their two straight World Series appearances and whiz-kid general manager Jon Daniels (not to mention the formative glower of team president Nolan Ryan), are the new wonky Über-professional franchise piling up wins and revenue at an efficient, consistent level.
The Yankees, in a lot of ways, have become old news. A lot of this is because their players are, well, old. And expensive. It’s true that they’ll be paying three players (A-Rod, Teixeira, and Sabathia) more than $69 million in 2016, and that when they brought in Ichiro Suzuki, who has been surprisingly excellent, in July, the 38-year-old became the team’s ninth regular at or over the age of 35. (It’s like they’re the Knicks or something.) And their minor-league system, once lauded, has thinned out this year thanks to injuries and underachievement; Law had just three Yankees in his midseason top-50-prospects rankings, all of whom are still in Class A, years away from contributing. And the injuries have shown the Yankees’ lack of depth, particularly in the infield. Nix, for one, is just a year removed from being cut from another team, and now he’s being counted on to be a major contributor in a pennant race. You can see why some analysts, particularly if they’re as tired of the Yankees as the rest of the nation (often justifiably) seems to be, are ready to move on from this dynasty to the next.
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.
You can write to Leitch at firstname.lastname@example.org.