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.
Then George Steinbrenner died of a heart attack in July 2010, and his eldest son Hal wrested control of the team away from younger brother Hank, the genius behind the A-Rod extension. Since then, the Yankees have practiced small-ball at the negotiating table as much as they have relied on the longball on the field. This offseason, they let top free agent Josh Hamilton go to the rival Angels without even considering making a play for him. They let October hero Raul Ibanez, the man responsible for maybe seven of the 2012 Yankees' 10 best moments, sign with the Seattle Mariners for $2.75 million. Try to imagine anything remotely like that happening while the elder Steinbrenner was alive.
The cost cutting was prompted by Hal Steinbrenner's desire to get the Yankees' payroll under the $189 million luxury-tax threshold that kicks in next year, thereby saving the franchise tens of millions in revenue-sharing payments. But a threadbare offseason and a nonexistent farm system meant the Yankees had to stay healthy to contend for the postseason, a long-shot proposition given the advanced age of nearly every starter. Now half the starting lineup is on the shelf and the season hasn't even started yet.
The result is a Yankee team that is expected to struggle to reach .500 for most of the season and be eliminated from playoff contention by early September. For the Yankee faithful who were born after 1985, this is an unthinkable scenario. The last time the team finished below .500 was 1992, the Stump Merrill era, before Jeter or Mariano Rivera had played a game in pinstripes. Even when the Yankees underperformed, they were still an elite team. The one time since 1995 that the Yanks have missed the playoffs was 2008, when they went a more-than-respectable 89-73 but finished third in a loaded AL East. This year, 89 wins would be a miracle.
The lack of weighty preseason expectations has been surprisingly refreshing. The Yankees will never be cast in the role of Rocky, or David, but at least no one is mistaking them for Goliath. The freedom of no expectations can often be a boon to sports teams—just ask Florida Gulf Coast University. Sure, opponents could revel in the Yankees' relative lack of talent and feast on them in sweep after sweep. Or they could tense up at the first sign of trouble and choke because is the onus is on them to beat the Bronx Bombers, not the other way around.
The Yankees may yet end up with 70 wins, a disgusted fan base, and a fired manager in Joe Girardi, whose seat is a little hotter than it was last season. But if they do make the playoffs, it'll be all the more sweet because so many people thought they'd fail.