When former Mets general manager Frank Cashen passed away earlier this week, there were reflections not only on the team that he built and maintained from 1981 to 1990, but what came immediately after: a bloated roster that featured an ill-matched, expensive congeries of veterans like Vince Coleman, Bobby Bonilla, Eddie Murray, and Bret Saberhagen. That team's misadventures culminated in a 59-103 disaster season in 1993, ironic given that its 72-90 season the year before had already earned the memorable book title The Worst Team Money Could Buy.
Not so fast. That Mets team cost a more-or-less league-leading $44.6 million dollars, but even accounting for inflation, that team isn't a patch on this season's roughly $200 million Yankees, a team that fell to .500 with Tuesday's loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. The Yankees aren't the most expensive team in baseball this year; at that price, they're bargain-basement compared to the Los Angeles Dodgers, but they're an easy No. 2, and that's the problem: the Dodgers are good. The Yankees are not. Given their -34 run differential, the Yankees have been lucky to break even. Take away Masahiro Tanaka's best-in-league performance and you wouldn't even know they existed.
It's wonderful. It's one of the best developments in baseball so far this year.
It can be taken for granted that this is a sentiment that Yankees fans will not find themselves in sympathy with; fans of all the ballclubs have a tendency to say, "My team, right or wrong," a sentiment that brings to mind G.K. Chesterton's quite sensible rejoinder that saying "My country, right or wrong" was tantamount to saying, "My mother, drunk or sober." That's another thought that probably won't find much love among the hardcore, and yet -- and I realize this is an unusual term to apply to a baseball team -- on an aesthetic basis the 2014 Yankees are appalling. With the exception of Derek Jeter, there is an almost total discontinuity with what came before, a baseball version of J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek" reboot with the soon-to-be retired shortstop playing the role of a legitimacy-conferring Leonard Nimoy.
Derek Jeter, walkin' away. (Getty)
If that pop-culture analogy doesn't work for you, then imagine the experience of being a Yankees camp follower and going to sleep with one family and waking up with another. Like David Byrne, you find yourself singing, "This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife." Or maybe you don't. Maybe your loyalties are flexible. You adjust quickly, take instructions. Told to root for Brian McCann, you root for Brian McCann. Or Jacoby Ellsbury. Brian Roberts. Yangervis freakin' Solarte.
The end of the reserve clause and the advent of free agency has long meant the possibility of radical change from season to season, and the Yankees have been the most eager practitioners of off-the-shelf team-building for almost 40 years. In its original form it was born of impatience. In this instance, it was born of incompetence. A similar approach worked in 2009 and led to a World Series victory. Given the absence of a dominant team in the AL East, it might work again, but the odds are it won't, as it didn't in so many other seasons. This is reassuring. The universe is egalitarian in its withholding; money can't always buy happiness. It can't even buy entertainment, necessarily, which, with the exceptions of Tanaka, David Robertson, and Dellin Betances, this year's roster largely is not.
Yes, it's a hell of a lot more entertaining than last year's Vernon Wells show, but that's setting a low bar.
In this plutocratic age of ours, the uncertainty surrounding the Yankees' postseason aspirations is reassuring. Researching the origin of the Theodore Roosevelt impersonator that showed up at the USA team games at the World Cup for a story on the ex-president's near-fatal journey through Brazil, I repeatedly came across the rich man's thoughts on his fellow rich men that seemed to apply here. "There is absolutely nothing to be said for government by plutocracy, for government by men very powerful in certain lines and gifted with the ‘money touch,'" he wrote in a 1913 letter," but with ideals which in their essence are merely those of so many glorified pawnbrokers." More famously, he said in a 1910 speech that would have gotten him drummed out of the GOP today as surely as it did the GOP then, "Our country... means nothing unless it means the triumph... of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him."
The Yankees don't show the best that is in them, they just spend. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. Spending is part of building a good baseball team. But a team that only spends lacks artistry, and it tries to patch over with green paper its failings in other areas, particularly player development. The Yankees have Jacoby Ellsbury stripped of his Fenway Park powers, Carlos Beltran in his dotage, Brian McCann, born, educated, and brought to the majors in Georgia, trying to justify his big-city contract, Alfonso Soriano looking like he needs reading glasses not because they necessarily wanted them, but because in June they reached for Andrew Brackman, Keremy Bleich, Slade Heathcott, Cito Culver, Dante Bichette, Jr., and so on.
Arguably, scouting director Damon Oppenheimer, in place since 2005, is the Yankees version of Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd. Tenure has triumphed over results.
Given their failures in June, the Yankees have one of the oldest teams in baseball history, one that will be comprised almost entirely of mercenaries once Jeter is gone. The exception, a beautiful one, is a good bullpen endgame, mostly homemade, and comparatively inexpensive. On the position-player side, there's Brett Gardner (already 30) waving a lonely hand to represent the post-Jeter farm system, and that's all. Perhaps last year's well-regarded draft class, which has third baseman Eric Jagielo and outfielder Aaron Judge (the latter in particular) doing very solid work at High-A Tampa, will eventually change that, but that won't happen this year and probably not the next.
That's if they're still in pinstripes -- the Yankees would likely have to consider moving one or both in any trade for a much-needed starting pitcher. The starting rotation currently ranks ninth in the AL with a 4.01 ERA and includes such pray-for-rain names as Vidal Nuno and Chase Whitley. Hiroki Kuroda seems like a ghost of himself, and no one knows what CC Sabathia will have left in the tank when he returns from rehabbing his knee, and anyone waiting at a bus stop for Michael Pineda had better hope that sucker is heated because they might still be there in December.
Flags fly forever (my flag, right or wrong?) and the division is close enough that all things being equal it would make sense for Brian Cashman to take his begging bowl to Chicago and camp out at Theo Epstein's door, hoping to get a pity Samardzija or a helping Hammel. Unfortunately, all things are not equal. First there is the ghost of Steve Trout, not just because he was a Cub, but because neither Samardzija nor Hammel have records of ace-like consistency, second because trading off what little youth the Yankees have would simply serve to perpetuate their reliance on greybeards who have already given their best to rival organizations.
On the scale of classic baseball errors of thought, there's being Ruben Amaro, Jr. because that's who you were born to be, and then there's being Ruben Amaro, Jr. by choice. A just theology would have the latter earning residence in a much lower circle of baseball Hell.
No, the 2014 Yankees aren't the worst team money could buy, but they may be the most tedious. Tanaka can only pitch every five days, after all. The great excitement of the second half will be seeing if they can somehow continue playing over their .450-.460 statistics, if their light hitting and weak rotation will finally drag them down to that level, or if someone in the 30-and-up brigade can find a second wind. At least one of them probably will, and it may even be enough given Toronto's 88-win pace and the two wild cards.
Still, that's not as exciting as what the Brewers are doing with $92 million or the A's with $75 million. Again, most Yankees partisans won't find anything to agree with in that statement, but then this team of imported old-timers is one only the most fanatical diehard could love.