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The Yankees, Aging, and the Enablers of the AL East

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Derek Jeter and Raul Ibanez: in the Mr. October of their professional lives.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Derek Jeter and Raul Ibanez: in the Mr. October of their professional lives. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Back when the whole PEDs-in-Baseball scandal hit (if indeed it has ever stopped), one of the histrionic arguments popular was how the juicers like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds had made a mockery out of the sacred record book. One of my responses to this was that the record book has always been compromised. Think of Babe Ruth and players of his time: they played not against the best players America had to offer, but the best white players. They played only day games, got to bat against tired starters in the late innings, went their whole careers without seeing a slider, and played in an eight-team league in which, in any given year, two to three teams weren't making a serious effort.

It is this aspect of competitive balance that still applies today. In Ruth's 1920s, the deadweight teams were most often the post-scandal White Sox and the Red Sox. Boston, quite literally bankrupt, often had rosters full of players who were not of major-league quality. Connie Mack's A's also fielded a few teams that met that description, though they improved throughout the decade, finally emerging as a powerhouse as the 20s turned into the 30s.

Yesterday, in the comments to my column about the Yankees at Baseball Nation, a reader took me to task for "crying wolf" about the ever-older Yankees roster. This got me thinking, as yes, the age of the team is an issue I have written a great deal about. The Yankees keep gambling on veteran imports in lieu of promising prospects and keep winning, making the postseason year after year, with the notable exception of 2008. Yet, as I explained in a response to the reader, the more I think about it, the more I'm not sure that they've wholly overcome the deficiencies that come with age, or if they have, they have been aided by a moment in the history of the AL East where things were just soft enough that they could do so:

…I do write about aging teams a lot, because it’s an important consideration in team-building and maintenance. And even though the Yankees make it to the postseason most every season, I’m not so sure I’ve been wrong about it. After all, the AL East was a two-team division for a long time. The Orioles were lost until this year, the Rays a joke until 2008, and the Blue Jays have been stuck in this weird .480-.520 twilight zone since the early 1990s. Thus the only competition for the postseason was the Red Sox, and the Red Sox were a very mixed bag under their previous ownership and GM Dan Duquette, not really getting organized until the early 2000s.

The Yankees have always spent enough that they could succeed under those conditions, but they also have lost in the first round in five of nine tries since 2001,in part because the regular-season record has been distorted. That’s just a theory, and one that I haven’t fully done the research on (I also think Brian Cashman learned some valuable lessons after Kevin Brown/Carl Pavano/Jaret Wright and pals and has emphasized a better quality of pitcher since then), but on the whole the Yankees HAVE suffered for their all-consuming embrace of veterans, even if it seems as if they have somehow been immune to a force that has ended many a great run over the decades.

I know that being in the AL East distorts team records; the same Blue Jays team that wins 82 games playing regularly against the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays might go to the postseason if placed in the AL Central. I think this says more about the quality of the ALC than it does about the quality of the Jays; in their long stay on the treadmill they have had some good offenses and a few excellent pitching staffs (see 1997 and 2008), but never both at the same time. The Yankees deserve credit for what they’ve done. I’m not trying to take that way, but rather trying to understand why the inevitable ravages of age have actually been fairly evitable. The difference in the conditions between competing in the AL East and competing in the postseason seems to be the most likely explanation.