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The Yankees' cloudy future

9/13/2012
CC Sabathia is showing signs of slowing down, which raises questions about the Yankees' future. Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

The New York Yankees' weak second half has focused attention on the age of the offense, even though younger players such as Curtis Granderson have been just as responsible for the team's struggles. They still may win the American League East despite the soft finish, but their outlook beyond this season is cloudier than it has been for several years, maybe since the mid-1990s. Their salary commitments for 2013 are significant, and while the team is often assumed to have the capacity to handle an infinite payroll, moving any of their large contracts without paying most of the freight would be nearly impossible. Their rotation is a weakness now and in the future, and that lineup is indeed getting old.

But the Yankees' primary problem isn't specifically the team's cost, or even the major league roster's age, but the fact that the farm system is not ready to provide players who are going to help the team in regular roles, either as everyday position players or as rotation members, in 2013 -- or even 2014.

Their top prospect coming into 2012, left-hander Manny Banuelos, missed nearly the entire season with what the team called a bone bruise in his left elbow. Right-hander Dellin Betances, their fourth-best prospect coming into the year, was so wild in Triple-A that the team had to demote him, and at this point his only likely value to any major league team is in the bullpen. Catcher Austin Romine, ranked eighth in their system, at least appeared to be close to helping the major league club in 2012 but missed much of the year with a back injury.

The Yankees' system isn't barren, but their prospect depth is almost entirely at Class A, much of it starting the year at low-A Charleston and finishing at high-A Tampa. Right fielder (and former third baseman) Tyler Austin is probably the closest to major-league ready, an advanced hitter for his age who should grow into some more power; after spending April through August in A-ball, he's unlikely to see the majors before September of next year. Catcher Gary Sanchez has the highest upside of the group, but his defense behind the plate, while much improved over 2011, is still a work in progress. Centerfielder Mason Williams needs to improve his ability to work the count and get on base, although he's a very good defender and has the other tools to be a potential star. Sanchez, Williams, Slade Heathcott and their other prospects at and below single-A are all a good two years away from the majors, which also means their trade value is limited.

As a result, the Yankees will have to fill any significant holes on the major-league roster with players from outside the organization, either through free agency or by trading a large chunk of the prospect depth they do have. Their incumbent catcher and right fielder are free agents, and they probably need a caddy for their third baseman, who's still reasonably productive but can't be counted on for a full season. And that all assumes that Brett Gardner, whose injury this year probably cost the Yankees two wins, can return to form next year.

That inability to solve existing problems is far worse on the pitching side. Their lineup may be aging, but their biggest question mark of all for 2013 is in the rotation. At the moment, the Yankees' 2013 rotation would be comprised of CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, David Phelps, Ivan Nova, and Michael Pineda, who should probably legally change his middle name to "If-Healthy." The first four members of that rotation have combined for just over 7 wins above replacement in 2012, per FanGraphs, half of it from Sabathia, who will fail to reach 30 starts in a season for the first time since 2005.

Nova has the best stuff of the starters besides CC and If-Healthy, but all of those three young starters have been homer-prone this year, partly a function of the home park but more a reflection of their flat four-seamers, a pitch that's easy to hit in the air if it catches a little too much of the plate because it doesn't sink, cut or tail like other varieties of fastball. The team has tried to get Hughes to work with a cutter, but the pitch isn't that effective and he still struggles to pitch side-to-side. Nova has the most potential to improve, and Hughes has some upside remaining as well, but a realistic outlook wouldn't peg either starter at more than 2 WAR next year. As a result, even a full, effective year from Sabathia wouldn't make that a championship-caliber rotation on paper, and, hypothetically, it could be the fourth-best in the division if the Yankees stand pat this offseason.

The path of least resistance would be to re-sign Hiroki Kuroda to another one-year deal; he'll be 38 but has performed at his usual level, throwing more breaking stuff to make up for a slight loss of velocity on his fastball. Even if they retain Kuroda, I'd still expect the Yankees to be significant players in the free-agent starting pitching market, probably leading with Ryan Dempster and/or Edwin Jackson. Signing two of those three, or trading for a comparable pitcher, would put the rotation in the top half of the league, pushing Phelps to a swing role and giving the team depth it didn't have coming into 2012 while (one would hope) ending Freddy Garcia's career in pinstripes.

They do have some areas of strength aside from the aging lineup core. Gardner's return gives them two major-league caliber center fielders, meaning they could even trade Granderson to try to fill other holes or add prospect depth for a future deal. Mariano Rivera's return strengthens the bullpen significantly, and the farm system is producing potential big-league relievers, with Mark Montgomery probably next out of the chute. They have the deepest pockets in baseball (although the Dodgers are entering that gated community), and can likely afford to add pitching from outside even as they have to pony up to re-sign Robinson Cano, who is eligible for free agency following the 2013 season.

But if those pockets aren't bottomless, and if the age of the roster turns out to be a bigger issue in 2013, they don't have the internal depth to patch those holes, and the large contracts they do currently have are extremely tough to move, making their margin for error this winter a lot smaller than it normally is.