Sports Nut

Ding Dong, the Yankees Are Dead

Not so fast.

Are A-Rod and the Yankees finished?

Don’t cry for the New York Yankees, not that you were considering it. Yes, the team lost last night, making this the seventh consecutive season they’ve been dumped from baseball’s playoffs without a World Series crown. Yes, owner George Steinbrenner is squawking in the papers. We may well have seen the last of Joe Torre, the team’s deservedly sainted manager. But don’t think you’ve seen the last of the Bronx Bombers. Pundits have been proclaiming the end of the “Yankee dynasty” for so long that it’s become an annual rite of passage. After Monday’s series-ending loss to the Indians, ESPN’s Howard Bryant wrote that the “dynasty is over in New York, giving way to age and time.” Not so fast. While things seem to be at their worst, it’s time for the New York faithful to step away from the ledge and get some perspective: The state of our team is strong.

Despite the loss, the Yankees remain—by far—baseball’s most valuable franchise, and the team is only going to become more valuable over the coming years. The team’s sports network is worth as much as $3 billion—try to compete with that, Toronto Blue Jays. In the years to come, the riches will multiply still further. Next season will be the final one for the House That Ruth Built. The new stadium rising adjacent to it is, effectively, an enormous cash register. The team is already an attendance monster—more than 4 million again this year—but with fans flocking to the old park for one last time, the turnstiles should hum as never before in 2008. The House That George Built, set to open in 2009, will have fewer overall seats than its predecessor (remember, scarcity means higher prices), and a larger proportion of those seats will be at the more expensive field and luxury suite levels. The concourses, with their restaurants and tchotchke shops, are designed to liberate fans from the contents of their wallets.

With financial power comes power on the diamond. The Yankees may be the only team that can afford to purchase the services of Alex Rodriguez, who will seek to extend his annual salary into the $30 million range this off-season. The team also has the resources to re-sign its top free agents, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera, and re-up the contract of Bobby Abreu. Those three players alone could run a bill of more than $50 million per year.

The Yankees can afford those astronomical salaries not just because they will generate astronomical revenues through their facilities and media partnerships. For the first time in a decade, the team has developed a group of fine, young, cost-controlled players from within the organization—a youth brigade that should keep the team energized and near the top of the standings while providing the front office with flexibility. Consider this: The base salaries for starting centerfielder Melky Cabrera and All-Star second baseman Robinson Canó were less than $1 million combined this season.

The real strength of the team’s youth movement comes in its pitching staff. The rookie trio of Phil Hughes (age 21), Joba Chamberlain (22), and Ian Kennedy (22) will join a rotation that already features consecutive 19-game winner Chien-Ming Wang (27). Hughes, dubbed “The Franchise,” was 3-0 with a 2.73 ERA in September and came up big after relieving Roger Clemens in Game 3 of the Division Series. Kennedy breezed through the minor leagues this season with a 12-3 record and a 1.91 ERA, and continued his excellence in three late-season starts in the majors. And then there’s Chamberlain. In 24 innings following his August call-up, he struck out 34 while allowing just 12 hits, six walks, and two runs. Things were looking just as good in the playoffs—until he was swarmed by flying insects.

About that gnat attack. Fans of a religious bent might suggest some kind of greater force was at work against the Yankees this season. There were signs. Perhaps the team should have guessed its destiny back in April, when another rookie hurler, the justly unheralded Chase Wright, was pressed into the starting rotation against Boston and surrendered four consecutive home runs. Or at the beginning of May, when Hughes pulled a hammy in the seventh inning of a no-hit bid. But then, how do you account for A-Rod’s magical season? Or Jorge Posada defying everything we know about aging catchers and posting a career year of his own?

The more scientifically inclined will search their spreadsheets, study their data points, and review their equations to determine exactly what happened to this team, and where it was deficient. (Hint: the starting pitching.) I’m all for that kind of analysis, don’t get me wrong. I read Baseball Prospectus, and I know my VORP from my WARP. But modeling has its limits. The last time I checked, there’s no stat that predicts Pitching Effectiveness During a Gnat Attack. Baseball is a game of the happy, and sometimes unhappy, accident. The postseason will always be something of a crapshoot. Teams can improve their odds with intelligent oversight, but they will always be subject to the vagaries of fate.

The Yankees and their fans should know this by now. They need only think back to the beginning of this latest “dynasty,” to 1996, when they defeated the Atlanta Braves—by all rights the superior team—in the World Series. Or maybe they will think back to last year, when they entered the playoffs as the odds-on favorite, only to be wiped out in the first round by the Detroit Tigers, who in turn lost to the St. Louis Cardinals, the worst club in the tournament.

Looking ahead to next year, it’s hard not to be optimistic. When the team with the most money is also one of the best at acquiring and developing young talent, the future is bright. Remember, Yankees fans: There’s always next year. And the year after that, and the year after that …