25Q/25D: Have the Yanks lowered the bar?

Debby Wong/US Presswire

Is simply getting to the playoffs good enough for Hal Steinbrenner's Yankees?25 Questions, 25 Days: Day One

Pitchers and catchers report to the Yankees' Tampa complex on Feb. 19, which means there are now 25 days to the start of spring training.

That also means there is just enough time for ESPNNewYork.com to explore 25 key questions about the 2012 Yankees before we get this thing rolling. Each day between now and the 19th, either Andrew Marchand or myself will tackle an issue lingering over the team from the disappointing end of its 2011 season.

And we’ll begin with one that has been bugging me since the curious reaction to the Yankees' five-game loss to the Detroit Tigers in the ALDS, namely:

Has the bar been lowered on Yankee expectations?

Truthfully, if the Yankees hadn’t had their Friday the 13th rampage, when they rose from the dead of winter to acquire starting pitchers Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda, I would have said definitely.

Now, I’m saying definitely maybe.

Because even if there is no formally written Mission Statement -- and for all we know, there very well might be -- there can be no argument that when George Steinbrenner was running the team, there were only two kinds of Yankee seasons.

The ones that end with a parade in the Canyon of Heroes, and the ones that end with players, manager and front office executives paraded into the Valley of Career Death.

This one certainly looked like an example of the latter, especially when the high-priced Yankee offense came up empty in a 3-2 defeat in Game 5, at home, no less, with the highest paid, highest profile and most highly touted Yankee, Alex Rodriguez, striking out in two key situations, including to end the game.

The Yankees, and specifically, The Boss, used to have a word for a season that ended like that. The F-word. “Failure.’’

But this year, no one in the Yankees hierarchy -- not manager Joe Girardi, nor GM Brian Cashman, nor team president Randy Levine, nor even The Boss’ kid, Prince Hal Steinbrenner -- got past the letter “D.’’ For “disappointment.’’

"You can run that series again, and maybe it comes out different," Girardi said. "We're a hit away from moving on. That's baseball.’’

"Tonight, if we were one at-bat better, we might win the game," Mark Teixeira said.

"I think this team got stronger and mentally tougher along the way,’’ Cashman said, “And showed themselves as a formidable opponent for a world championship."

Hal Steinbrenner issued a statement expressing his “disappointment,’’ but made no threats and handed out no pink slips.

Even Levine, the organization’s pit-bull-in-residence in the post-Boss era, took a softened approach. "We are the Yankees," he said. "That is the way The Boss set it up. When you don't win the World Series, it is a bitter disappointment and not a successful year.’’

Now, is this a more rational way to approach defeat? Of course it is.

But is it The Yankee Way?

It never has been, at least not for the 38 seasons of Steinbrenner’s reign.

That is why the Yankees’ offseason only contributed to the feeling that suddenly, just getting the playoffs may be good enough for the new regime.

Teixeira (.167, 0 HRs, 1 RBI in the playoffs), Rodriguez (.11, 0 HRs, 3 RBIs) and Nick Swisher (.211, 1 HR, 1 RBI) all escaped the Boss-like fury that would have come down on them in years past. In fact, the Yankees picked up Swisher’s $10.25 million option for 2012, despite his career futility (.169. 4 HRs, 6 RBIs in 38 postseason games) in October.

Just as telling, the Yankees didn’t even glance in the direction of Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder or C.J. Wilson, the cream of the free-agent crop. They showed no interest in foreign phenoms Yu Darvish or Yoenis Cespedes. They waited until just about the last second before pulling the trigger on the Pineda deal, and refused to budge on Kuroda, a pitcher Cashman has coveted for years, until his price came down to a comparatively reasonable $10 million.

And repeatedly, we were told that the Yankees payroll, which has hovered around the $210 million mark for the past four seasons, wold be coming down, not going up, with the goal of getting under the $189 million threshold by 2014 to avoid having to pay the despised luxury tax.

On the same day he issued his “bitter disappointment’’ speech, Levine may have offered a clue as to the team’s real expectation level when he said this: "We had the best record in the American League. We had a lot of great moments between Jeter and Mariano. We had a very strong regular season."

It sounded eerily similar to Omar Minaya’s defense of his Mets after their epic 2007 collapse: “We spent more days in first place than any other team in the league.’’

It used to be that the only day being in first place mattered was the last day of the season. The real season, the one that ends with the final game of the World Series. To The Boss, the Yankees were either the greatest, or they were garbage.

Do you get the feeling, as I do, that for the Yankees nowadays, being merely very good is considered good enough?

Your turn: Weigh in below in the comments section.