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Yankees vs. Nationals: First-Place Teams Heading In Different Directions?

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Catcher Russell Martin #55 and CC Sabathia #52 of the New York Yankees talk after Sabathia gave up a RBI single in the top of the fifth inning against the Detroit Tigers during Game Five of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium
Catcher Russell Martin #55 and CC Sabathia #52 of the New York Yankees talk after Sabathia gave up a RBI single in the top of the fifth inning against the Detroit Tigers during Game Five of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium

There is an obvious setup for a Nationals/Yankees series, an obvious narrative. It's the changing of the guard. It's a meeting of two first-place teams, both coming off extended winning streaks, but you can dig deeper than that. It's more like an eclipse of baseball powers -- a spectacular event, but with only one team really moving forward.

The Yankees, see, are just hanging on, wringing every last drop of veteran blood from their aging roster. And doing it quite well this year. They're going to run into luxury-tax problems when they want to keep Curtis Granderson and/or Robinson Cano. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez will soon be fodder for all of our crappy and unused Jamie Moyer jokes. The team's best chance at a lineup cornerstone for the next ten years was traded for a pitcher with serious shoulder problems.

The Nationals are young and loaded with enviable talent, and they should be getting better and better as the years progress. Bryce Harper should get better. They have an impressive stable of under-30 pitchers, including the brightest young pitching star in the game. After this series, the Nationals will leave on a path of sunshine and pennants, while the Yankees will try for one last gasp before putting on high-waisted paints and yelling a lot during city-council meetings.

Except I'm not buying it. The part about the Nationals being set up well for the future makes sense, of course. It's hard to proclaim any team a dynasty before they've actually finished their first 90-win season, but they're good now, and they should be good for a while.

No, I'm not buying that the Yankees are heading for an age-related armageddon. I want to. Not in the sense of "Yeah, take that, Yankees!" but because my meager powers of deduction are telling me to buy it. I get that Jeter and Rodriguez are aging. I get that Mark Teixeira is in a decline, not a two-season slump, and he's owed a tremendous amount of money. I understand that if the Yankees are truly committed to staying under the luxury-tax threshold, they're going to need some serious finagling to keep Granderson and Cano.

But I've been one of the ninnies predicting the decline of the Yankees for the past ten years -- one of the guys who always paid too much attention to how many guys they had over 30. And here's what I see entering Friday's game: 37-25 and first place. Again. They're leading another playoff race. Again.

So I give up. When they need a center fielder, they develop a Brett Gardner into something much better than you expect. When they trade for a good player like Curtis Granderson, he turns into a slugging superstar. When they rush a 22-year-old with a career .331 minor-league on-base percentage, he turns into one of the best second basemen of his generation right away. And the players you expect to age, don't. And when they do, they do it gracefully.

That isn't to say that the Yankees are perfect. From Kei Igawa to A.J. Burnett, Lance Berkman to Nick Johnson, there are a lot of things the Yankees do that end in flames. They don't win the World Series every year. They don't win 114 games every year.

But there's always something. There's always a Cano. There's always a Gardner. There's always a Bartolo Colon or Ivan Nova or Andy Pettitte doing things you weren't expecting. There's always a Nick Swisher getting snapped up after his worst season, and there's always a Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon defying normal aging curves for just one more year.

You might mistake that last passage for one that catalogs the Yankees' unbelievable good luck. No, no. The Yankees aren't lucky. At least, I'm through trying to divine what's luck and what's not. The Yankees know something. If I knew what that something is, I wouldn't be driving a Corolla. The Yankees have figured out a way to keep aging stars healthy, or how to turn decent-to-good prospects into valuable major leaguers, or how to evaluate players better than most of their peers. They've figured out how to stay good for two decades now. They use a variety of different roster-bulding strategies. And they're always good.

They have a crapload of money, of course. They always have. That can't be ignored. They can afford a Mike Mussina or Teixeira, and they can afford to ride out the declining parts of the contract that would choke other organizations. That's a big part of their success to this point, but If the Yankees are really going to avoid the luxury tax, they have hard decisions to make. They have $125 million committed to six players in 2013, all of whom will be 33 or older, and they'll probably pick up the $28 million in options for Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson. That would mean $153 million with 17 roster spots left to fill, and a luxury-tax threshold of $178 million.

They'll still be good. When Jeter starts acting his age and hitting .250/.300/.300 with the defense of Bengie Molina at short, they'll just bring up Christopher Tamarez, and he'll hit for the league average. I just picked that name at random. He's 18, and he isn't doing anything remarkable in rookie ball. But he fits the paradigm. In four years, there will be a guy like Tamarez doing things to help the Yankees win. You don't know who he is right now. No one knows. But the Yankees are working on him.

I give up. The Yankees aren't a team at a crossroads, and this isn't a series of two franchises heading in different directions. It's folly to predict baseball several seasons in the future, but if I had to guess, I'd say the 2015 Nationals and Yankees will both be good teams. The Nationals because of their youth and the obvious reasons. The Yankees because of whatever in the hell they do.