On the last weekend of the 2013 season when the Yankees faced off against Houston, it would be easy to conclude that the 51-111 Astros were the most disappointing team. But it's not that simple.
The Astros weren't expected to compete this year, not with a rookie manager, new ownership, league and players, most of whom should have been in Triple-A, and a season-ending $8 million payroll, less than a third of what the Yankees paid Alex Rodriguez. And A-Rod is only one reason why the Yankees actually had a worse season than Houston.
With a $257 million payroll - including a luxury tax payment of $29 million - the Yankees were expected to contend in the American League East. For the first five months of the season they did contend, due in large measure to skillful roster moves by General Manager Brian Cashman and adroit lineup manipulations by manager Joe Girardi. But the team faded down the stretch, finishing 85-77, 12 games behind the first place Red Sox. A-Rod was out for most of the year recovering from his second hip surgery in three years along with other physical maladies that are the bane of aging athletes.
Derek Jeter, the heart and soul of the Yankees for the past 19 years, appeared in only 17 games this season after suffering a broken ankle in last year's playoffs. First baseman Mark Teixeira was out for all but 15 games with a wrist injury. Centerfielder Curtis Granderson played in only 60 games during an injury-plagued season. An assortment of other injuries decimated the team, forcing Girardi to play mix and match with a lineup that wasn't much better than the one the Astros fielded on most days. But that's the good news.
The 2013-14 offseason is shaping up to be Cashman's biggest challenge - or nightmare, if you prefer - in his 16 years as the team's general manager. Mariano Rivera, the greatest relief pitcher in the history of the game and an even better human being, is retiring after 19 seasons. Andy Pettitte, a stalwart of the pitching staff for 15 seasons, is also hanging up his cleats. The day after the season ended A-Rod began his appeal of a 211-game suspension for violating MLB's joint drug agreement. Even if he's successful, there is more than a little doubt about whether he will be physically able to complete his contract which has four years and as much as $118 million, including potential bonuses, remaining.
A-Rod's dead money may impact the Yankees' ability to re-sign Robinson Cano, the free agent second baseman who has reportedly asked for $305 million over 10 years, the same deal the Yankees regret giving A-Rod. The team has vowed to reduce payroll below the luxury tax threshold of $189 million in 2014, a one-time opportunity under the latest CBA to lower their penalty rate from 50 to 17.5 percent which would save the team tens-of-millions of dollars in future years.
Girardi is also a free agent. He has talked openly about leaving the Yankees, possibly for a seat in the television booth. If he wants to stay in the dugout, his hometown Cubs may come calling with an attractive offer. The challenge of managing a team in rebuilding mode might not sound attractive to a successful big league manager like Girardi. But if the pay is the same in Chicago, the bright lights and pressure - not to mention the incessant drama - of New York may not be the attraction they once were if the Yankees themselves are in transition.
All is not hopeless in the Bronx. Last year the Red Sox were coming off a disastrous season, finishing last in their division with a record of 69-93. But after a winter that saw the team welcome former pitching coach John Farrell as the new manager and add a number of high character players, the Red Sox finished this season tied for the best record in baseball.
Can Cashman emulate what his Red Sox counterpart, general manager Ben Cherington, did in Boston? Time will tell. The only certainty at this point is the uncertainty his team is facing. With lower expectations in Houston, the Astros not only had a better season than New York, they begin the offseason in better shape than the Yankees.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and is a contributing author to the Business of Sports Network and maintains the blog http://sportsbeyondthelines.com. Jordan can be reached at email@example.com.