By ALEX PUTTERMAN
College Contributor Network
With much attention paid this year to Derek Jeter's impending retirement, a bigger-picture Yankees storyline was slightly obscured: the team wasn't very good.
The Bronx Bombers are a long-shot for the playoffs, thanks to a lifeless offense that's 14th in the American League in runs scored, 11th in batting average and 13th in OPS, despite playing half their games in a wildly hitter-friendly ballpark.*
*(all stats accurate as of Sept. 26)
There's no indication 2014 is a blip. The Yankees missed the playoffs last year and feature a lineup of 30-somethings at some stage of decline. Five years after the franchise's most recent World Series title, New York is finishing up its worst two-year span since the early 1990's.
That was the end of an extended stretch of underwhelming seasons. This could be the beginning of another one.
How did they get here?
The composition of the current team really dates back to the winter of 2008-09, in the months after the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time since 1995.
With the Steinbrenner family's self-expressed "World Series or bust" mentality applying constant pressure on a franchise that had suffered eight years without a title, ownership went shopping. The Yankees signed Mark Teixeira (eight years, $180 million), CC Sabathia (seven years, $161 million) and A.J. Burnett (five years, $82.5 million) and traded for Nick Swisher.
The results were immediate and impressive: New York won the 2009 World Series and made the American League Championship Series two of the next three seasons.
But even the best long-term contracts assume big returns in the early years to compensate for tailing production on the back end. In 2009, Teixeira, Sabathia and Burnett all produced up to snuff (as did fellow high-cost Bombers Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, among others) but things began to fall apart soon thereafter.
It all happened pretty fast.
Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui moved on to other teams, then retired. Burnett struggled, then was traded. Swisher left as a free agent. Rodriguez got injured, then suspended. Jeter battled a broken ankle and old age. Sabathia suddenly struggled to get outs. Teixeira broke down. Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera retired.
The Yankees entered the winter of 2013-14 in a similar situation to the one they had faced five years earlier: coming off a postseason-less year with holes all over the roster.
Ideally, the team would have called on some fresh, young players to plug into their lineup and pitching rotation. But alas, the Yankees' farm system was relatively barren and had been for some time. In fact, in the nearly 20 years since the Jeter/Pettitte/Rivera/Posada/Bernie Williams wave of talent reached the majors, New York had produced and hung onto only one star in Robinson Cano, one very good player in Brett Gardner and several solid contributors in Phil Hughes and Dave Robertson.
So, when it came time to replace the production of the previous generation, there were no cheap, young players to call on.
The predicament was complicated by the Yankees' brass' hope of culling salary under the $189 million luxury tax threshold before the 2014 season, which would immediately save them from paying the increased tax and also allow them to minimize repeat-offender tax bumps in subsequent years.
Without cost-controlled youngsters to ease the checkbook, the team that had once had no budget was suddenly on a tight one.
It's not entirely clear how and why the offseason unfolded the way it did, but the Yankees let Cano, by far their best player, walk -- presumably to avoid another dangerous long-term contract that would force them over the luxury tax threshold.
But after that austerity measure, the Yankees spun around and gave out dangerous long-term contracts to Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Masahiro Tanaka and an expensive shorter-term deal to Carlos Beltran.
In the end, New York lost its best player in Cano, went over the tax threshold they once seemed dead-set on staying under, and still entered the season with one of baseball's worst infields and question marks in the rotation.
The results haven't been all bad in 2014, but the team will almost certainly miss the playoffs for the second year in a row. And it's not getting much better.
What happens now?
The Yankees have the following players under contract beyond next season (years not including option years, pre-arbitration and arbitration-eligible players not included), via baseballprospectus.com:
1B Mark Teixeira through 2016
SP CC Sabathia through 2016
RF/DH Carlos Beltran through 2016
2B/3B/OF Martin Prado through 2016
3B Alex Rodriguez through 2017
C Brian McCann through 2018
LF Brett Gardner through 2018
SP Masahiro Tanaka through 2020
CF Jacoby Ellsbury through 2020
That's a lot of contracts. Without delving too deep into options at each position, the Yankees seem to have one massive hole, at shortstop, and a bigger problem elsewhere on the diamond: big-money guys without big-money production.
Rodriguez, Teixeira, McCann, Beltran and Sabathia are all locked up long-term and will, with the possible exception of Rodriguez, almost certainly factor significantly into plans for the next two seasons.
Beltran and Sabathia have been roughly replacement-level players this season (and, in Sabathia's case, dating back to last season), while Teixeira and McCann have been worth only about 1.5 wins above replacement (WAR) apiece this year, according to baseball-reference.com. Rodriguez remains a total question mark.
Presuming that quintet continues to play and play relatively poorly, the Yankees will likely be receiving sub-standard output from a large chunk of their regulars.
Even if all else goes right and New York acquires an All-Star shortstop in the near future, Tanaka comes back fully healthy from injury, and several of the team's myriad decent starting pitching options pan out, the team will be in trouble because of those bad contracts.
The Yankees' farm system had a pretty good year in 2014, but there are no obvious reinforcements coming immediately. All short-term deficiencies will be addressed through free agency and trades.
Nine months after the Red Sox won the World Series with a team full of buy-low bargains, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman inspired confidence with several shrewd moves in July. But unlike the 2013 Red Sox of Pedroia, Ellsbury, Ortiz and Lester, the Yankees don't have a core around which to place the cheaper pieces.
Instead, they have a lineup of guys whose best years were last decade.
But those contracts are on the books, and unless the Yankees are willing to bench their high-priced, past-prime players and acquire some high-priced, mid-prime players, there's nothing to be done.
Some Yankee fans dream of a trade for a franchise-changing superstar -- maybe Troy Tulowitzki or even Giancarlo Stanton -- but the Yankees don't have the assets to acquire someone of that caliber.
If ownership is willing to pay huge luxury tax sums, New York can pursue, Max Scherzer, James Shields or Jon Lester in free agency in the hopes that another big contract will bump the franchise from non-playoff status to World Series contender. But one pitcher is unlikely to make that dramatic a difference, and even if the Yankees' were inclined to push aside one of its incumbent hitters, position-player options will be limited this winter.
The Yankees are destined for a down period, the type every other team goes through every few years, and this time there's not much they can do about it.
Alex Putterman is a junior Journalism major at Northwestern University and sports editor of the Daily Northwestern student newspaper. He has fairly eclectic interests but loves baseball above all. Follow him on Twitter: @AlexPutt02