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Transition in the Bronx

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Transition is supposed to be rocky. It’s a shift from one thing to the next, and there’s an inevitable sense of uncertainty.

This winter, we’re learning what transition in the Bronx looks like.

The Yankees are stuck in a bit of a dead zone, somewhere between the dynasty they used to be and the dynasty they’d like to become. Past icons are aging toward retirement, and so the roster is in a state of flux. Baseball’s new collective bargaining agreement is about to take effect, and so the front office is adjusting its approach. The winter has been rocky, the future is uncertain, and the Yankees have responded with a series of one-year contracts to veteran players who have no future in the organization.

It’s their attempt to maintain success at a time of inevitable instability.

“We have been saying the same thing for 10 years,” one American League executive told Joel Sherman this week. [3] “‘They are too old. This is the year they fall apart.’ And every year they win 90-something games and make the playoffs.”

[4]When a smaller market team gets to this point, it might react differently. If the Yankees were the Pirates, maybe we’d see Ronnier Mustelier or Melky Mesa penciled into right field. Maybe David Adams or Eduardo Nunez would be projected to play third. Maybe David Phelps would be guaranteed a rotation spot. But the Yankees are the Yankees, and things are different here.

The Yankees best wave of position prospects — Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, Gary Sanchez, Tyler Austin — probably won’t arrive until late 2014 or early 2015. If things work just right, their high-end pitching prospects could arrive in individual waves: Michael Pineda in the second half of 2013. Manny Banuelos in 2014. Jose Ramirez soon after that. Then Jose Campos. Then Rafael DePaula. Then Ty Hensley.

For now, the Yankees have a ton of money tied to a handful of players, some of whom are paid like superstars without performing that way. Their best all-around player is about to reach free agency and sure to demand a massive contract. The franchise is fundamentally attached to a bunch of older players whose only real negative is that they’re old (there’s no reason to turn away from Andy Pettitte except that he’s 40 and clearly can’t help with the rebuilding effort).

And so the Yankees are stuck between yesterday and tomorrow, using today to bridge the gap.

For the time being, Pettitte can do the job as reliably as just about anyone available. Same for Mariano Rivera, Hiroki Kuroda, Kevin Youkilis and Ichiro Suzuki. These players aren’t going to help build the next great Yankees empire, but they might do enough to keep the team competitive and relevant in the short term.

The Yankees want to cut payroll going forward, and even if you disagree with the strategy, you can surely understand it. There are benefits to going above the luxury tax — better roster, better chance at the playoffs, easier to draw fans — but the new CBA made sure that there were also significant benefits to staying below $189 million, and the Yankees are choosing to take advantage of those cost-cutting rewards.

And so, they transition.

They transition to a new way of spending; not so reckless, but also not so overpowering.

They transition to a new way of roster building; without a big name at every position, but still hesitant to trust unproven players.

They transition to a new way of speaking; all about patience without conceding temporary defeat.

Whether this sort of evolution works in the short term depends on the ability of aging players to give the Yankees one more year of legitimate production. It depends on Pettitte staying healthy, Kuroda staying effective and Youkilis regaining some of the offense that he lost a year ago. It depends on Robinson Cano remaining a superstar, Derek Jeter remaining a shortstop, and Rivera closing the ninth inning like he’s always done.

Whether this sort of evolution works in the long term depends development and durability. It depends on Pineda coming back from shoulder surgery, Banuelos coming back from elbow surgery, and Phil Hughes gaining some consistency. It depends on Rodriguez becoming productive again, Cano becoming a Yankee again, and minor league prospects becoming big league hitters right on schedule.

Of course it’s rocky, and of course it’s uncertain  but this is what transition feels like. We’re learning what transition looks like in the Bronx.

Associated Press photos