The crumbling of the Yankee Empire

The Yankees aren’t scary anymore. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, the Bronx Bombers were an evil empire, led by George Steinbrenner, that crushed the hopes of any team that dared challenge them. They were an all-powerful and deep-pocketed dynasty that had won five World Championships, seven pennants and 13 AL  East titles. But the Yankees have fallen from their pedestal.

In 2013, they failed to make the postseason for just the second time since 1995. This year, they are competitive, but are hindered by issues like age, health and an inability to hit in the clutch. In 2012, the team as a whole hit an astounding 245 home runs, though that number went down to 144 in the following year.

About two thirds of the way through 2014, they have managed just 101. For a club that has traditionally been home to legendary sluggers like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Mickey Mantle, that is shockingly few. There are many reasons that help explain the Yankees’ fall from greatness, but age and the lack of a good farm system in particular come to mind.

A team built on aging stars

Out of all the starting position players on this team, not one is under the age of 30. Derek Jeter has been one of the greatest players of all-time, but he is 40 years old and about to retire. Mark Teixeira, 34, has 19 home runs, but is batting just .229. A career .276  hitter, the last time he hit over .256 was 2009. 30 year old catcher Brian McCann was signed in the off season for $85 million, and is batting a disappointing .236 with 12 home runs. Even the usually consistent outfielder/DH Carlos Beltran, another free agent signing at 37, has just a .248 batting average. Finally, former ace CC Sabathia, 34, struggled mightily in his first eight outings, then underwent season-ending knee surgery.

New York really has only two standout players in their lineup this season. Outfielders Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury have both had wonderful campaigns, but they are each 30 years old. For now, they are in their primes, but players known for their speed as these two are typically prone to decline.

Aside from a performance standpoint, the Yankees will likely be paying these players like superstars when they are well past their primes. Teixera, Beltran, McCann, and Sabathia may never perform like they once did, but they will get paid between $15 million and $25 million per year until 2016, with the exception of McCann, whose contract runs through the 2018 season. Even Gardner and Ellsbury, who are signed through 2018 and 2021 respectively, will most likely start to decline long before they stop getting paid.

This sort of thing wasn’t a problem for the Yankees of the not-so-distant past. They spent whatever money was necessary whenever a hole needed to be filled, but those teams had in spades something the 2014 Yankees do not: young, homegrown talent.

A lackluster farm system

When the Yankees ruled over all of baseball, they didn’t depend solely on big-name free agent signings. Those teams were built around the Core Four (Derek Jeter, Joge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera) as well as star center fielder Bernie Williams. These homegrown players were truly the heart and driving force of the team. Today, all but one (Jeter) is retired, and he will hang up his cleats after the season.

If you take a look at the Yankees’ current farm system, it’s not just void of hyped top prospects; it’s relatively barren. Only two players, pitcher Luis Severino and catcher Gary Sanchez, are ranked in MLB.com’s top 100 prospects list. Both of them could turn out to be solid contributors at the major league level, but they have a lot to prove first.

Apart from these two, there is not a lot going on in the Yankees’ minor league system. Pitching prospect Manny Banuelos was once a highly regarded prospect, but his future is more uncertain after missing most of 2012 and all of 2013 because of injury. Overall, a lack of major league ready talent will continue to hurt this team down the road, especially as more pieces on the big league club begin to falter.

An uncertain identity going forward

For a long time, people knew exactly who the Yankees were. They were defined by the Core Four, especially Jeter, who many considered the face of baseball. They were also known as the team that would do whatever it took to win, regardless of money or damaged egos. Everyone loved to hate the Yankees, because they were simply the best — the franchise willing to bulldoze everyone else in its quest for greatness.

Today, it’s a lot more difficult to give the Yankees an identity. Last year, GM Brian Cashman expressed a desire to get the payroll under the the luxury tax threshold, $189 million. Then he went out and signed Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran to big free agent deals. But are any of the highly paid Yankees considered the face of the team? No matter how well he is playing right now, does any baseball fan think first and foremost of Brett Gardner when envisioning the team that has won 27 championships?

Right now, this team has no true identity. Aside from Derek Jeter, no one player leaps out and makes you think, “That’s what the Yankees are all about.” They have tried to cover up this problem by making a series of moves designed to guide them toward the postseason.

They picked up then quickly released the low-impact Jeff Francis as a possible help in their pitching woes. Before the trade deadline, they acquired guys like Brandon McCarthy (who’s played surprisingly well so far in pinstripes), Chase Headley, Martin Prado and Stephen Drew. The team also released Alfonso Soriano last month, a year after acquiring him.

These aren’t the big, sexy moves we’re used to seeing the Yankees make. Guys like these are not long-term answers, they are just supposed to help the Yankees make it through this season. And as for the future, the Bronx Bombers don’t really have any answers. For now, the Evil Empire has fallen.

Joe Setyon, sports editor of The Collegian at Grove City College, contributes to Three for Ten Sports as a baseball writer.

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