The Yankees are doing very well this year up to this point, half a game behind the Future World Champion 1927 Yankees, I mean the Red Sox, in the American League East. However this season goes, there is going to be a lot of decisions for the Yankees to make in the near-future that are very important. The key guys that the Yankees have built this team around and had success with for the last 15 years are getting old and soon going to be leaving, and they're going to need some new guys at key positions in the future. I think there are three things the Yankees need to focus on as they go forward.
1. Focus on PItching
PItching wins pennants. Yes, you need an offense but if you don't have pitchers you aren't going anywhere. In 2004 when the Yankees lost the entire pitching staff except Mike Mussina, they found themselves facing an elimination game with a 38 year old Kevin Brown pitching against the Red Sox. I've forgotten how that turned out. In 2008, after Chein-MIng Wang and Joba Chamberlain went down to injury and Andy Pettitte was faltering down the stretch, again Mike Mussina found himself the only reliable one in the rotation- Yankees missed the postseason. In the years in between those seasons the Yanks had 1 or 2 reliable pitchers per season at most. Their league-best offense carried them to the playoffs, and in 2007's case some no-name Centaur called Alex Rodriguez hit 54 home runs and drove in 156 runs and hit a bunch of game winning hits to carry them to the playoffs. But if you don't have pitching, you aren't going to go far in the postseason. In 2010 the Yankees had only 3 reliable pitchers and Phil Hughes faltered in the ALCS. Again we know how that turned out.
For the future the Yankees need a reliable pitching staff, both in the rotation and the bullpen. They've been much better at doing that recently, focusing on the staff for 2009 and this offseason as well. While this offseason the bullpen plan hasn't exactly worked with injuries to 4 guys who were supposed to be important guys out of the bullpen (and 3 done for the year), they had the right idea. They have a good core at this point for a good pitching staff as well. Rivera can pitch as long as he wants (though he's probably done after next year), but they have Robertson and Joba to be very reliable relievers in the future. Some moves need to be made there but they have a good couple guys to build around in the pen. As for the rotation, again they have a nice few guys to build around. CC Sabathia is signed for a while, and if he opts out he needs to be resigned immediately. Phil Hughes once he gets healthy is still young and still should continue to improve and be a nice guy to have in the rotation long-term. If there's a spot where the Yankees should ever spend big money, the starting rotation is that spot. The Yanks need a reliable pitching staff, and if they have one they're going to compete. Always. Look at the Tampa Bay Rays, who lost everything this offseason but still has a strong starting rotation. They are 3.5 games out. A strong starting rotation is very important.
2. Use the System
I realize that the Yankees have an enormous payroll, make a ton of money and can go out and buy whichever free agents they want. But I like the idea of building a team using your farm system to try and build the core of your team. Thats what they did in the '90s, and they won 4 championships in five years and created a dynasty that lasted a long time. Another thing is, they have a lot of really talented, young players in the minor leagues waiting to come up. And even better- they play very important positions. Jesus Montero is a catcher, and the Yankees will need a catcher to succeed Jorge Posada for a long period of time. Even better? Jesus Montero is good. His defense is improving to the point where it is at least as good as Posada's was, and his offensive potential ceiling is as a 40 HR guy and as a number 3 hitter on a championship team. He's definitely someone that should and will have a big future on the Yankees. Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos are also a couple of good prospects. Both are young (ManBan is only 20) and they're pitchers. If even just one of them reaches their potential then they can be a reliable pitcher in the Yankees rotation for years. Betances is more of an "A.J. Burnett" type pitcher. Great stuff, strikeout stuff. Throws hard, but has some control issues. Banuelos has a great changeup with terrific poise for a pitcher this young. He throws a ton of different pitches (all quality pitches), is left handed and is very good. I'd hope at least one of these guys has a bright future in the Yankees rotation, if not both.
Another guy in the system that I really like is Slade Heathcott. I love this kid. I've seen him play a few times and he's impressed me each time. When I've watched him he sort of reminds me of Brett Gardner a little bit. He isn't as fast as Gardy, but he still has excellent speed and promises to be a great base stealer in the future. He has a cannon for an arm and can play any of the three outfield positions. He also has a good eye at the plate just like Gardy does and has more power than GGBG has shown. I love watching the kid play and I love his attitude. He's very confident and he clearly has fun every time he plays. The Yankees are going to have open outfield spots in the future, and while this kid is a long way away he is only 20 years old and I think that in 2-3 years he's capable of being a starting outfielder for the Yankees. I really hope so anyways- I'm a huge fan of this kid.
One other position the Yankees may need someone at is shortstop. Derek Jeter is on his way to the Hall of Fame, is my favorite player by far and has meant so much to the Yankees organization. But his time is running out. He can't hit or run like he used to, and while he still makes the plays he should make at shortstop he doesn't have the range he used to have or the ability to make that jump throw. The Yankees have a few shortstops in the organization that have the potential to be a shortstop in the future for this team. One is on the team now- Eduardo Nunez. Nunez has all the physical tools and seems to have a pretty good bat with some pop. Defensively he hasn't proven he's a sure handed shortstop, but he has a lot of range and those simple fielding mistakes should become less frequent with more practice and playing time. The other is Cito Culver. Seeing as this kid grew up in the same area I grew up in and played for a school that my high school played every year, I have taken a big interest in this kid as well. People have been "unimpressed" with him so far, but remember that he's 18 years old. If his swing was perfect already then he's be in Bryce Harper territory (minus the power and the doucheness). He has plenty of time to work out his swing, but he has all the physical attributes, a great arm for a shortstop and decent range as well. I haven't seen enough of him to know how good a shot he has to be a Yankee, but they picked him for a reason and he's still 18 years old. He has time, so I'm rooting for this kid.
Now, I am NOT saying that the Yankees shouldn't ever spend money. They have a big payroll and a lot of money. But they need to use it smartly. Cash has been much better at that the past few years and I'm hoping that it continues to be that way. Just because they have the money doesn't mean they need to throw millions at every All-Star that becomes a free agent. If they have a definite need and there is a great option in the FA market, then absolutely they should go after him. But don't give up on the guys in the system, DON'T trade them. Let them develop and use them. Some of them are really good.
3. Get Younger
This sort of ties into using the system a little bit. The Yankees are currently an older team with a lot of older guys at important positions. While this year it's working fine and they're in first place, the older guys are still at a higher risk of injury and are in some sort of decline. Jeter is an entirely different player than he was pre-2009. I continue to hope that he turns it around, but he hasn't shown anything thus far. Posada, while he has gotten hot lately isn't the same hitter he used to be and is no more than a DH now. He's never going to catch a game again. Getting younger is a good thing. As much as it would hurt, I would not bring back Posada for next season even if he doesn't retire like I expect him to. Not unless he accepts some sort of bench role- pinch hitter off the bench and backup first baseman/part time DH or something like that. Aging players like A-Rod and Jeter need regular DH days to help keep them healthy and sharp, so having a guy who's job it is to DH could make it difficult. Looking toward the future, it's time to get younger at multiple different positions. Shortstop is obviously one, catcher is another. Also, the starting rotation is another place where younger players would hurt. The Yankees have guys in the system who can fill those spots. If they want to go into the trade market or the FA market, try and stay young. Don't trade top prospects for 33 year olds in the last years of their prime. Don't go out and sign 34 year old free agents to huge deals. Those are the type of things they shouldn't do.
Position-wise it's kind of difficult to predict what will happen in a few years. But it's fun to try and see what it may look like. So for each position I'll go through and give the current ones, and then some possibilities for what it could look like in the next few years.
Current- Russell Martin and Francisco Cervelli
Future Possibilities- Russell Martin probably isn't the Yankees long-term answer at the catching position. Jesus Montero is the top prospect who should be sharing time with Martin now, but either way I think Jesus is the future starting catcher. Other possibilities incase Montero is traded or doesn't work out is Gary Sanchez and Austin Romine. As for Cervelli, the Yankees have other catchers in the system who are all better than him, but are all probably starters on other teams. So if Montero works out I could see those other guys possibly being traded with Cervelli remaining the backup. I like Cervelli and the energy he brings behind the plate. He calls a good game. He's struggled this year but he's a better player than what he's shown so far and I think he's a fine backup.
Current- Mark Teixiera
Future Possibilities- Tex is signed for a long time, so he's got that spot locked up for a while. He's not getting traded and he's not going anywhere, so there's no future here. He is the future. Though it's possible Montero gets moved to 1B after his contract is up if Jesus isn't working behind the plate (I think he will though).
Current- Robinson Cano
Future Possibilities- Robinson Cano. It had better be, anyways. Scott Boras is now his client, so it's going to take a lot of money to resign him, but it needs to be done. He's the best second baseman in the league, he's a terrific defender and a great hitter with power. And he's still young and just entering his prime.
Current- Alex Rodriguez
Future Possibilities- Alex Rodriguez- Here you go
Current- Derek Jeter
Future Possibilities- There are a lot of possibilities, I really have no idea who the shortstop is going to be in a few years. For now it's Jeter, for next year it's Jeter and maybe even the year after that. But he can't play there forever. Cito Culver is a possibility, as is Eduardo Nunez. There are trade possibilities they could also look at- one that I like is Elvis Andrus but I don't think thats too likely. But there aren't very many realistic free agent shortstops coming in the next few years (unless you are one who thinks Reyes is a possibility).
Current- Curtis Granderson, Brett Gardner, Nick Swisher
Future Possibilities- Gardner should be on the Yankees for a long time. He's an elite defensive outfielder with a pretty good arm, a great eye at the plate and the fastest player in the league (or one of). Granderson I would not be opposed to signing to an extension after his contract runs out, though not for too many years. A huge extension with a lot of money would pay him at 36+ years, something that I want the Yankees to try and avoid doing in the future. Swisher probably isn't the long term answer for the Yankees in the other outfield spot. I see the Yankees picking up his option for next year, but after that I don't see him getting extended, so thats at least one outfield spot if not two open in the future. Again, I love Slade Heathcott and I want to see him starting in the Yankees outfield one day. Other than him there are some FA possibilities that the Yankees could look at if they wanted to. Matt Kemp is a FA after the 2012 season, and Cody Ross and Jason Kubel are both FA after this season and both guys I would possibly look at for short-term if Swisher's option isn't picked up. Kemp would be an expensive one, and I'd look at him if Granderson went elsewhere. But please, Brett Gardner stays on the Yankees!
Future Possibilities- Colon and Garcia obviously have no long-term future in the Yankees rotation. A.J. Burnett's contract is up after the 2013 season and I don't expect the Yankees to resign him. Not should they, unless he agrees to a short-term deal with a big paycut. CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes should both obviously be in their future plans, and I'd throw Ivan Nova in there as well. Nova has really impressed me this year so far. He has great stuff, keeps the ball down in the zone and has been much better of late as far as getting deep into games. He's still young and I'd like to think he has a chance to be in the Yankees plans for the future. Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances are options for the future as both are pitching pretty well in Trenton. I expect both would be called up to Scranton before the end of the year and both will probably start the year in AAA next year. Another one I'd look at is that kid from Japan, Yu Darvish. The last pitcher the Yankees got from Japan is now the holder of multiple Scranton WB records, but Yu Darvish is something different. He's incredibly young and has great stuff that would translate very well to the major leagues. He's definitely a guy it may be worth spending money on to bring over here. Matt Cain, by the way, is also a free agent after the 2012 season. You can't ever rule a star player out of coming to the Yankees when they are free agents.
Those are just some things to look forward to in the future. I'm still looking forward to this years team as well. Half a game out and winning lots of games, despite the state of the roster right now is a very good thing. Hope it continues.