Yanks face challenge of transition in Jeter's final year
NEW YORK -- At some point last summer, the folks who run the Yankees reached a disturbing conclusion. Not only was the team lacking healthy bodies, it was not appreciated by the people who, for the better part of 20 years, had embraced all things in pinstripes. Indeed, the public's lack of acceptance of the 2013 Yankees went beyond that. To some degree, Yankees fans didn't like that set of Yankees.
Replacement players Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner and Ichiro Suzuki, hungry to extend or reverse their career paths, made the team competitive for a while. But they were Hessians, and though merely three games separated the Yankees from first place in mid-June, the faux four couldn't maintain. Moreover, a Yankees team masquerading as the "little engine that could" lacked appeal among fans who had become so accustomed to -- read spoiled by -- "real" Yankees. Even with Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera performing a swan-song duet, the 2013 Yankees didn't work.
And, then, they didn't win.
Now a restructured Yankees team is gathering in Tampa with hopes of recapturing the market's fancy as well as a place in the postseason without Pettitte and Rivera, with no sense of certainty about Derek Jeter and questions about Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia.
How much can the Captain provide between April 1 and his retirement six -- or seven -- months hence? At one time, he, Nomar Garciaparra, Alex Rodriguez, Cal Ripken, Alan Trammell and Robin Yount created an extended Age of the Shortstop in the American League. Now, the words "age of the shortstop" mean something quite different for the Yankees. Jeter turns 40 in June, and the position he plays is no less demanding than it was in 1996 when he took it over.
Even if he plays 120 games, how will that fly? How will the Bleacher Creatures and the rest of the support staff at Yankee Stadium feel about a starting eight that includes two "real" Yankees -- Jeter and Brett Gardner -- and a rotation that begins the season with Ivan Nova as the lone "real Yankee" certainty?
Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran and Masahiro Tanaka unquestionably bring talent to the Bronx, and McCann is the sort of in-your-face athlete who is likely to be embraced by fans -- see Carlos Gomez.
But none of the four has a Yankees pedigree. None has played in Columbus or Scranton/ Wilkes-Barre. Heck, Ellsbury comes from the enemy. How readily will they be accepted in the Bronx? Will the public afford them the benefit of the doubt it afforded the Core Four if April is unkind?
It can work; see Sabathia, Teixeira, Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez, Curtis Granderson, A-Rod, Nick Swisher, Raul Ibanez, Russell Martin and Eric Chavez. Those imports performed well for the most part, but they were pieces that were spliced into the pinstripes world while "real" Yankees still were filling primary roles.
The new Core Four won't have the luxury of playing with a full complement of members of the original -- and real -- Core Four.
Trust can become an issue in such circumstances. Will trust develop among members of a revamped roster? Will Teixeira come to trust Ellsbury to get the job done as Jeter once trusted Bernie Williams? Or as Jorge Posada once trusted Jeter?
Will the public trust the new players or the team as a whole? It lacked trust in the 2013 team. Rightly so.
The Yankees' marketing guys seemingly have some questions in that regard. They're promoting McCann, Ellsbury, Beltran and Tanaka. The on-hold recordings prompted by a call to the Stadium offices include sound bites extolling the new guys, delivered by unfamiliar voices. It's a tad strange.
But the club hardly can use bites from 2013 about Jeter and Teixeira. They combined for 116 at-bats last season. It certainly can't use Robinson Cano, the multi-millionaire Mariner, or Granderson, the Mets' offseason purchase. And the club would be more apt to use the likeness, voice or exploits of Ed Whitson than to use anything connected to A-Rod.
See how different his team is and how much it must rely on the new guys?
It was mid-season 2002 when Jeter first identified an inconvenient truth about the Yankees. "We're not the same team we were. ... This is not the team that won four World Series," he said, questioning the three R's of that group -- resolve, resilience and resourcefulness. And that group missed the World Series for the first time in five years.
The same words Jeter spoken then bear repeating, and they ought to be underscored and shouted. Indeed, the restructured group gathering in Tampa bears resemblance to neither the Yankees who won a World Series championship in 2009 nor the teams that won American League East championships in 2011 and 2012. And, after deciding they needed to surpass the $189 million luxury-tax line, the bosses have to hope the new group is unlike the 2013 team as well.
With Jeter's role -- and influence -- likely to be diminished and with trust an issue for any roster so dramatically revamped, the early weeks of the season may become quite challenging for these Yankees. Whatever aura existed in 2001 is as long gone as Brien Taylor.
The summer could be long, perilous and reminiscent of what happened to the Yankees teams of 1965 and 1982. They produced losing records after extended periods of prosperity. And those losing seasons initiated long periods without appearances in the postseason.
A collapse of that nature hardly would a proper send-off for a great player who never has been linked to a losing record in his 19 big league seasons. But even a second straight 85-77 season would be inappropriate for the Captain's last unless it led to a postseason appearance.
Even with their starting rotation and bullpen unsettled, the Yankees bosses believe they have spent wisely enough to ensure a season that extends beyond 162 games and creates a team their public can embrace. Perhaps they have. And perhaps Tanaka can go unbeaten again.
The club spoke cautiously about Tanaka on Tuesday when he made his first visit to the Stadium. It tried to limit expectations. The same strategy ought to be implemented as it pertains to the team. These are not your older brother's Yankees.