Print and Go Back ESPN.com: BlogsColumns [Print without images]

Friday, December 14, 2012
Is 'good enough' enough for Yanks?

By Wallace Matthews
ESPNNewYork.com

The New York Yankees got a little balder, a little grittier, and yes, even a little younger on Friday afternoon.

But here we are, 10 days from Christmas Eve and less than two months removed from when pitchers and catchers will report and they still haven't gotten any better.

They made the signing of Kevin Youkilis to a one-year deal as a stopgap replacement for Alex Rodriguez official on Friday, which plugs a hole but does nothing to solve a very real problem.

True, Youkilis is 3½ years younger than A-Rod, but not even in his best season could even the most rabid Red Sox-lover/Yankees-hater make the case that he has ever been anywhere near as good.

Brian Cashman
Brian Cashman hasn't made any moves to make the Yankees any better than they were in 2012.

What Youkilis is, is a somewhat lesser equivalent for the rather mediocre player Alex Rodriguez has become over the past three seasons, as age, injuries, and probably, the ravages of steroid abuse take their ever-mounting toll.

And while he will be a more than adequate fill-in for A-Rod, that is not what the 2013 Yankees need if they have any hope to be better than the 2012 Yankees were.

But this is what it has come down to for the new Yankees, the Hal Yankees, the "fiscally responsible'' Yankees for whom Good Enough seems to have replaced Winning Is Second to Breathing as the official team motto.

So far this winter, the Yankees have re-signed 37-year-old Hiroki Kuroda, 40-year-old Andy Pettitte and 43-year-old Mariano Rivera. They are about to re-sign 39-year-old Ichiro Suzuki.

And now, they have added Youkilis, at 33 a comparative teenager.

On the conference call to introduce Youkilis to the Yankees media Friday afternoon, I asked Brian Cashman if he felt he had made his team any better this offseason.

His answer, presented in slightly edited fashion below for length and clarity, spoke volumes about the mindset within the Yankees organization these days.

"I think it's too early to say that we've gotten better or not,'' Cashman said. "Last year this team won 95 games and we had a ton of injuries. We're still putting the team together for 2013. So I'm not in the position to honestly do a comparison yet. ... Obviously we need to finalize and finish off, bring another outfielder into play here. ... We've got more work to do. The bottom line is, tomorrow's not Opening Day. We've got a lot of time on the clock here to continue methodically putting this thing together and hopefully putting something together that really has a chance to put us back to where we were last year, which is win the division first and foremost and compete for the title.''

Cashman made the further point of reminding us that several times, key parts were added in January or even during the season. And his point about there still being time for the Yankees to add the players they need to honestly consider themselves better than they were last year is a valid one.

What concerns me, and should concern you, is the continuing reference to the team having won 95 games last year and finishing as AL East champs.

That is a far cry from what used to be said around here, that any season that ended without a parade down lower Broadway was nothing short of a failure.

That philosophy may have been unrealistic and even arrogant, because the number of random events that can affect the course of a baseball season, injuries included, is mind-boggling.

But at least that way of thinking made you believe the organization wanted to win it all as much as the fans wanted to see the Yankees win it all.

Now, when the stated position of the New York Yankees is that the team is satisfied with 95 wins and a division title with "a chance to compete for the title,'' it seems like a completely different organization.

This, of course, may not be the personal position of Brian Cashman, who is as competitive as any team executive I have ever covered. And part of a GM's job description has always been taking bullets for ownership.

But clearly, somewhere within the Yankees organization lives the belief that a team that won 95 games is good enough, even if it barely escaped the ignominy of a first-round playoff exit and couldn't manage to win a single game in the American League Championship Series.

There really is no other explanation for the Yankees' passivity in this year's free-agent market, even to the point of forcing Russell Martin to sign with Pittsburgh because the Yankees never bothered to bid on his services.

Kuroda, Pettitte and Ichiro all were valued contributors to last year's team, and Mariano, of course, needs no one to justify his presence on the roster.

And Youkilis is a solid player who will adequately fill the vacancy until -- or is it if? -- A-Rod returns over the second half of the season.

But where, exactly, will the 2013 Yankees improve on the 2012 version?

Kuroda had a terrific season, and Pettitte appeared on his way to one before he broke his leg in late June. Rivera is incomparable, of course, but can anyone realistically expect him to be better than Rafael Soriano was last year, when he converted 42 of 46 save opportunities? At his age, and coming off serious knee surgery, the Yankees will be thrilled if he is merely just as good.

And even then, it wasn't enough. As terrific as Soriano was in the regular season, his services were barely required in the postseason, and because of the Yankees offense's inability to establish late-game leads, he never appeared in a save situation.

As for the offense, it adds Brett Gardner, a threat on the bases, and loses Nick Swisher, a threat to hit the ball out of the park. As great as Ichiro has been throughout his career, he can't even hope to try to replace the 24 homers Swisher hit for the Yankees last season.

Derek Jeter had a great season, but he, too, is coming off a serious injury, a broken ankle, and his next birthday will be No. 39. Is another .316 season too much to ask of him at this point?

Which brings us to third base, which will be manned for at least half the season by Youkilis, who despite his relative youth played the same number of games as A-Rod last season (122) while battling a hernia as well as back and hand injuries.

"I passed my physical, which is good,'' he joked on a conference call Friday. And he said he felt confident he could handle the load of everyday third-base play until A-Rod comes back.

But his numbers in 2012 were similar to A-Rod's in 2013 -- 19 homers and 60 RBIs versus 18 and 57 -- but he hit 30 points lower and his on-base percentage was 20 points lower. So assuming similar production -- Youkilis has been declining in recent years -- the Yankees get no better there.

Nor are they likely to improve at catcher, where right now the candidates are Chris Stewart, Francisco Cervelli and Austin Romine, and the bench will be minus Eric Chavez, at least.

The truth is, given the weight of the contracts Cashman is already saddled with combined with the pressure of the $189 million payroll limit looming for 2014, there doesn't seem to be all that much opportunity for the Yankees to get any better.

Re-signing Kuroda and Pettitte and Mariano and presumably, Ichiro, preserved the status quo. Signing Youkilis may have set it back a notch.

With two months left before the start of spring training, the Yankees need a game-changer, the kind of trade that makes you stop and say, "Hey. That team just got better.''

But they don't seem to have that kind of move in them this winter.

Worse, they don't seem to believe they need it.