The biggest offseason moves for the New York Yankees in the last 20 years have been defined by one word: evil. The franchise that earlier this year secured the trademark rights to the Evil Empire moniker has left small-market teams and New England fans gnashing their teeth or calling for a salary cap nearly every winter. Nine years ago, it was Alex Rodriguez and his record-setting contract coming to the Bronx; in 2009, the Yanks signed the free-agent power troika of C.C. Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett and went on to win their only World Series since 2000.
This season, the Bombers' biggest free-agent acquisition brought to mind a different word: desperate. The Yankees announced Tuesday that they had traded for aging Los Angeles Angels outfielder Vernon Wells, one of the worst everyday players in all of baseball by nearly every metric. The trade was immediately derided by sports-media members nationwide, who alternately described Wells as washed up or terrible. The New York Post's Joel Sherman, the closest thing the New York press has to a Dick Young type these days, weighed in on the trade:
The Yankees will say this is not panic, but rather just a front office reacting to the problem in front of them. But there is—at the least—the whiff of desperation here.
[Yankee executives] see the possibility that this could be a fourth- or even a fifth-place season considering their plight and the overall strength of the division.
The brass is right to be concerned. The AL East is the most competitive it's ever been, and with nearly $100 million in pinstripes starting the season on the disabled list (Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, and Phil Hughes), the Yankees will enter Opening Day with the worst active roster of the five teams in their division.
The result is an unfamiliar phenomenon for Yankee fans who grew up in the 1990s: low expectations. For once, the Yankees are expected to miss the playoffs. And it's an oddly liberating experience.
It's difficult to play every game, every series, every season with a target on your back. But when George Steinbrenner was in charge, he made sure the target existed with his bombastic comments (remember spring training with The Boss in the mid-'90s?) and even more bombastic contracts. The Yankees paid Roger Clemens $28 million to come out of retirement for one season in 2007. They shelled out a $250 million extension to A-Rod that will go down as the worst contract in the history of sports. They wasted $60 million on pitchers Carl Pavano and Kei Igawa (11 combined wins in eight seasons for the Yanks), shrugged and spent another $240 million on Sabathia and Burnett. And that was just between 2005 and 2009.