Commentary

Tex's message for Yankees: Uh-oh

Slugger's admission that aging players don't get better is bitter pill for Bombers

Updated: February 7, 2013, 3:54 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

Yankees pitchers and catchers don't report to spring training until Tuesday, but first baseman Mark Teixeira provided a reality check that went too unnoticed last week amid the bombshells exploding around Alex Rodriguez's latest PED scandal.

Teixeira admitted something that basically runs contrary to the Yanks' risky modus operandi this season: He said he's reconciled himself to the fact that at his age, it's probably unrealistic to expect him to perform at his previous levels.

Considering Teixeira will be only 33 this season -- which makes him the youngster among Derek Jeter (38), Andy Pettitte (40), Mariano Rivera (43), Ichiro Suzuki (39) and whatever combination of Kevin Youkilis (soon to be 34) and A-Rod (37) the Yankees have at third base -- this is not a reassuring endorsement of the way the Yanks' roster is built.

[+] EnlargeMark Teixeira
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsMark Teixeira says he's overpaid and on the decline. He's not the only Bomber who could say that.

Especially since the way Teixeira went on to explain himself to the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Barbarisi sounds absolutely right. And Yanks general manager Brian Cashman -- the same man who insisted last season that a player's age isn't important, it's if he's "good" -- actually agreed with him in the same story.

"I looked at the first six or seven years of my career, I was in my 20s, it was easy," Teixeira told the Journal. "I wasn't searching for the right formula. To think that I'm going to get remarkably better, as I get older and breaking down a little bit more, it's not going to happen. ... Maybe I'm slowing down a tick. Eventually you start, I don't want to say declining, but it gets harder and harder to put up 30 [homers] and 100 [RBIs]. ... I'd love to get back to the player that I've always been. But if I hit .250, .260, instead of .280, so be it."

It was an extraordinary interview, if not the kind that inspires hope the Yanks can somehow be world beaters. And Teixeira didn't stop there. He also said that being on the "backside" of his career -- his word -- makes it hard to justify the eight-year, $180 million contract the Yanks gave him in 2009.

"You're not very valuable when you're making $20 million," Teixeira admitted. "When you're Mike Trout, making the minimum, you are crazy valuable. My first six years, before I was a free agent, I was very valuable. But there's nothing you can do that can justify a $20 million contract."

Teixeira is hardly the only Yankee who could say that. This always looked like a transitional season for the franchise. It's one of those years in which they're caught between holding on to the past and planning for the future, and they have to risk juggling a few chain saws. The Yanks are hoping for the best and crossing their fingers that the 2013 season doesn't turn out for the worst.

Teixeira just acknowledged it more honestly than anyone else among the Yanks has been willing to do so far.

He cut through the understandable mythology that still stubbornly swirls around the longtime stars on this team -- no one more than Rivera -- and didn't lapse into the same old tired talk about how guys usually play up to the back of their baseball cards and blah-blah-blah.

The reason Teixeira is worth listening to is that he isn't the sort of player you can accuse of looking for excuses or an out. Not after the lengths he's gone to play hurt or sick for the Yanks in the past. He's a committed player, a thoughtful hitter, one of the most physically fit players on the team. And yet even he had to admit -- as Cashman also did -- that three straight years of seeing his batting average decrease, and a failed attempt to redo his stroke, convinced him there are some physical realities that no amount of hard work will erase.

If you apply that very reasonable logic to the rest of the team, it's hard to disagree.

Or avoid thinking, "Uh-oh."

The Yanks have always been a franchise that's trafficked in nostalgia. It's part of the team's DNA. But it's been a while since they've relied on so many everyday players who are past their primes.

That doesn't mean they're useless. It just means that asking so many aging veterans to play such significant roles is a risk. Jeter, Pettitte and Rivera -- like Teixeira and A-Rod and Youkilis -- have all broken down in recent years. Brett Gardner is younger and more dynamic and comes cheap, but he's had trouble staying healthy too. And don't forget, the Yanks insist they're not going to spend their way out of trouble anymore.

That means Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson have to continue to be the iron men of the team. But both of them are free agents after this season, meaning the Yanks' two best younger players will be looking for enormous contracts -- the same sort of long-term deals Teixeira and A-Rod and Sabathia now have, handcuffing the Yanks' flexibility. The Yanks can't over-rely on power to win since they let Russell Martin and Nick Swisher walk, and A-Rod is out for a while after hip surgery. Cashman signed 35-year-old Travis Hafner as his lefty DH. But will Hafner stay healthy for a change? Recent history says no. The Yanks will have to manufacture more runs in 2013, something they couldn't do enough of a year ago.

The Yanks' older players and pitchers could all be "good," to borrow Cashman's word. But good enough? Dynamic enough to even contend in their own beefed-up division, let alone get by other AL powers like the Tigers or Angels or Rangers?

Teixeira was just saying at least in his case, he doesn't see himself ever being the same because of his age. And Cashman basically agreed.

Spring training hasn't even begun. But there's reason to say "Uh-oh," all right.

Finally -- the truth.

Johnette Howard is an award-winning writer and author who previously worked for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Newsday. She contributes general sports columns to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com.

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