During the off-season, Brian Cashman did his best Verbal Kint impression, as he was the man with the plan. Cashman preached patience and continuously stated that the team could contend with the roster as constituted. The team’s vacancies (at designated hitter, third-base, and catcher) were filled with second-tier free agents (Travis Hafner, Kevin Youkilis) or in-house players (Chris Stewart, Francisco Cervelli). With the exception of re-signing four players who were not realistically going to sign elsewhere (Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda, Ichiro Suzuki, and Mariano Rivera), the Yankees largely ignored the free agent market due to the belief that a solid pitching staff combined with an aging but productive lineup was enough to reach the postseason. However, as Mike Tyson once quipped, "everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."
The metaphorical punch to the Yankees’ mouth this season was not landed by an opponent; rather, it came in the form of the injury bug. When the majority of the projected starting lineup was lost to injuries, Brian Cashman must have felt like Hannibal Smith about halfway through an episode of The A-Team. Due to the injuries and the alleged directive from ownership to keep payroll in check, the Yankees were trapped without the prospect of receiving legitimate backup from the minor leagues. Cashman had no choice but to create a major league roster from the spare parts lying around the major leagues.
Cue up the theme song and proceed with the montage!
Cashman went to work by seemingly acquiring every available castoff and has-been (Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells, Brennan Boesch, and Ben Francisco). The Yankees were signing players who were unwanted by teams like the Rockies (Reid Brignac, Chris Nelson) and the Cubs (Brent Lillibridge, Alberto Gonzalez). Two players who were never intended to even be on the forty-man roster – Jayson Nix and David Adams – wound up as the starting left side of the infield.
Much like the A-Team roaring out of a warehouse in a tank fashioned from scraps of metal and used car parts, the Yankees’ jury-rigged roster took the American League East by surprise and won ten of the team’s first sixteen series (and one split of a two-game series with the Cleveland Indians). On May 25th, the Yankees had a run differential of +29, had the second best record in the American League (30-18), and led the East Division by one game.
If this Yankee season really were an episode of The A-Team, it would have concluded on that date with a snarky one-liner and a happy ending. But, there was no freeze-frame and the credits did not roll. Instead, the Yankees had four more months of baseball to contend with.
The reality is that Cashman’s collection of castoffs was never intended to be a season-long solution; it was meant to be a stop-gap. If the team could somehow scratch and claw its way through the first two months of the season, reinforcements were scheduled to start arriving by June. With the exception of Derek Jeter (who suffered a setback in April), the plan initially appeared to be falling into place as Curtis Granderson returned from the disabled list on May 14th and Mark Teixeira and Kevin Youkilis were set to return by June 1st. Unfortunately, Granderson broke his pinky and by June 15th both Teixeira and Youkilis had been lost for the season.
Without the regulars returning to the lineup, the bubble rapidly burst on the 2013 Yankees as June was simply a disaster (the team batted .223/2.90/.330/.620 and scored the fewest runs in the major leagues during that time). To really put into perspective just how bad the offense was in June, one needs to look no further than these two facts: (1) the team’s run differential was -34, which was good for last in the majors and (2) the Yankees scored 2 or fewer runs in 44% of the games played. And, if the Hindenburg of an offense was not enough, just to put a bow on it, the pitching staff decided to nose-dive as well, posting the second worst ERA in the league during June. By July 1st, the team was 6.5 games out of first.
In July, the Yankee offense was decidedly middle-of-the-pack but, buoyed by a terrific bullpen and the strong work of Kuroda and Ivan Nova, the team actually finished the month with a winning record (14-12). Apparently proving that the gods too are fond of a joke, the Yankees ended July with two encouraging wins. On July 28th, Jeter (who was just activated from the disabled list) and Alfonso Soriano (who was just acquired from the Cubs via trade) slugged home runs to lead the Yankees to a storybook win over the Tampa Bay Rays. Two days later, the Yankees staged an eighth inning comeback win against the Dodgers. Many fans (and members of the media) viewed these games as potential momentum builders for the season’s stretch run.
The warm and fuzzy feelings generated by those games dissipated quickly. After losing two out of three games to the lowly San Diego Padres (which included a particularly lethargic effort on Sunday afternoon), Pettitte turned in one of the worst performances of his career last night (giving up 11 hits and 7 earned runs in 2.2 innings) as the Chicago White Sox – a team that was 19 games under .500 entering the game – effortlessly beat the Yankees. Couple this loss with the announcements that Jeter was headed back to the disabled list and Alex Rodriguez was returning to the team despite being suspended through the 2014 season, and one thing has now become clear: this is officially a lost season for the Yankees.
With the division long since out of reach, the "glass-half-full" crowd has shifted focus to the wildcard race, where the Yankees are only four games out of the second wildcard spot. Given what appears to be a manageable deficit, these fans are operating under the false pretense that a playoff berth is still a realistic possibility. In actuality, Baseball Prospectus calculates the Yankees’ chance of reaching the playoffs to be 2.8%. While this report is not necessarily determinative (for example, on August 5th of last season the Orioles were only given a 5% chance of making the playoffs), there are some very real numbers which support the conclusion that the Yankees will miss the playoffs this season.
During the last ten seasons, the teams winning the wild card averaged 94 wins. In order to reach that win total this season, the Yankees would have to go 37-14 the rest of the way, which would amount to a .725 winning percentage. In the history of the franchise, the Yankees have played .720 baseball or better over the final 51 games of a season only four times (1932, 1939, 1977, and 1978). In other words, the four game deficit is illusory as the Yankees are much further from a playoff spot than the wild card standings suggest.
It is now apparent that whatever plan Brian Cashman and company had for this season is obviously never coming together. On Sunday, Derek Jeter seemed to sum it up best when he declared that "[t]his whole season has been a nightmare." Perhaps Jeter is right; instead of The A-Team, maybe this season is best analogized to an episode of The Twilight Zone.