Our next Pinch Hitter, Ray Marcano, has held a number of reporting and editing jobs during his journalism career. He now works in digital media, and he teaches digital media courses at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. Ray wrote that he got hooked on baseball and the Yankees when he was 6 years old and saw Mickey Mantle hit a home run in the old Yankee Stadium. His best Yankees memory: Aaron Boone’s homerun. “I was on the phone, talking to someone at work,” Ray wrote. “When Boone hit it, I yelled so loud the person I was talking to thought I had somehow badly hurt myself.”
Ray’s says he’s an unapologetic Yankees follower, but he has some concerns about these next few years. And that’s why he’s here.
There’s a lot of excitement among Yankees fans about the team’s prospects for 2014. After missing the playoffs last season, the Yankees have invested, so far, about $460 million in free agents. Who knows how much more they’ll spend to fill their remaining and significant holes — especially in the bullpen.
Some believe the spending spree makes a World Series run very possible for my favorite-ever sports team. But I think these Yankees more resemble the mid-1980’s Yankees — especially the 1988 team.
Those mid-80s Yankees were always good. They had stars — Hall of Famers even. They had decent pitching. They were willing to spend.
But those teams always fell just short of the playoffs. Three times, in the 1980s, the Yanks won more than 90 games. Even the fantastic 1985 team had the fourth-best record in baseball, won 97 games and – before the wild card — still fell two games short of the playoffs. The 1988 team won 85 games and finished just 3.5 games back of Boston.
But the 1988 team was filled with aging veterans past their prime, a worn and mediocre pitching staff, and no meaningful reinforcements in the minor leagues.
Don Mattingly was the best player in 1988 — a true star in the midst of an epic six-year run of batting genius (refresh your memory and check out his 1986 batting line). But he was flanked by, among others, Dave Winfield (36), Willie Randolph (an old 33) and Gary Ward (35, whom I forgot was on the team). Ron Guidry (38) and Tommy John (45!) were on the pitching staff.
The minor leagues? Forget it. The best prospect in the Yankee system in 1988 was probably Hensley “Bam Bam” Muelens, who went on to play 162 games in a seven-year MLB career and slugged a very yuch .353 for his career. For those of you old enough to remember Muelens, he was supposed to be the next Steve Balboni, or Brad Gulden, or Rex “Wonder Dog” Hudler, who had one thing going for him — a wicked awesome nickname.
Oh, wait, they all flamed out (as you can see, a Yankees farm system that stinks has been around for decades). One thing about those 80s Yankees. They were far better at holding on to duds than studs. They proved that by trading away Willie McGee (for Bob Sykes!), Fred McGriff (for Dale Murray!), Jay Buhner (for Ken Phelps!??!) and Doug Drabek (for Rick Rhoden, ugh). ALL WITHIN SIX YEARS!!!!!! This is, quite possibly, one of the most putrid front office performances in modern sports history (and I mean going back to chariot races).
Fast forward to 2014. Brett Gardner is the one (relatively) young, homegrown Yankees position player with skills — and he ain’t no Mattingly. By the time the season starts, Beltran will be 37, Soriano will be 38, and Ellsbury will still be injury prone, meaning any of them could break as easily as a dropped Christmas ornament. And, has anyone noticed we don’t have a first baseman? Teixeria, according to MLB.com, still has a stiff wrist, hasn’t started to hit against live pitching and will miss the first exhibition games of the year. Uh-oh. It should be unsaid but here it is anyway — there’s a gigantic difference between soft toss and a 94-MPH heater on the (brittle) hands. Eck.
The pitching? Tanaka could be some version of Darvish, but he could also be the Fat Toad. No one knows. We only know a precious few pitchers transitioning from Japan have had relatively successful MLB careers. CC lost weight, looks all GQ, but he’s still on the wrong side of a declining fastball. Kuroda will soon be 39 and coming off a really bad 2013 second half. Nova looks like — let’s not pretend, no one has a clue. The other guys competing for the fifth starter’s job couldn’t make the Rays or Cardinals rotation — on their AAA teams.
The farm system? Their No. 1 prospect, Gary Sanchez, may be making strides, but check this out: When Bam Bam was in his age 21 season, he hit 19 home runs, drove in 62 runs and hit a combined .238 in AA and AAA. Sanchez? His High-A and AA numbers during his age 20 season — 15 HR, 71 RBI and a .253 BA. Just sayin’.
And if anyone of the brittle Yankees goes down, here’s what we have to look forward to: Dean Anna; or Ronnier Mustelier; or Corban Joseph. Makes me long for Bobby Meacham or Andre Robertson.
There are big differences between then and now. For example, the Yankees don’t even have young players good enough to deal in stupid trades. They only have mediocre prospects and might not even be able to get useable retreads for them. (Who’s today’s Ken Phelps? That’s right, the Yankees had Vernon Wells last year). There’s also wild cards, but there are other teams that win regularly with strong farm systems (Oakland, Toronto) or may be climbing out of the also-ran doldrums by making smart signings (Cleveland, Minnesota). Even with the expanded playoffs, getting in isn’t so easy.
Maybe all of these numbers and the history don’t mean anything. But to me, it really does. The past is always a great indicator of the future. We could be in for another dark time — an aging, overpaid team with a mediocre farm system that is years away from producing anyone who can help, even a little.
Welcome 1989. The Yankees had losing records six out of the next seven years. I hope we’re not in for that kind of draught. But here’s one more number — the 2013 Yankees finished with 85 wins, tied for fourth place, 12 games behind Boston.
Associated Press photos