New York Yankees fans don't often use the word "hope." It's not that we have an issue with undue optimism; it's just that in the last 18 seasons there's rarely been a need to rely on hope as our sustenance. When your team finishes in first year after year, you stop hoping and you start expecting. Anything less than a World Series championship is a failed season. Fail to make the playoffs, and the year becomes an utter abomination. How lucky have we been over this time? In the only season in which the Yankees did not play October baseball (2008), the team still finished with 89 wins, which would have been enough to secure a postseason berth in other divisions.
Every year we hear it -- the team is old, the players are in decline, the other teams in the division are younger and therefore better -- and every year the Yankees stave off the worst consequences. This season, though, confidence does not run as high. It's not just that Derek Jeter's ankle is bothering him or that Mark Teixeira has a wrist injury or that Alex Rodriguez won't play at least until the All-Star break or that Curtis Granderson will miss at least a month or that the team replaced Nick Swisher with the much-maligned Vernon Wells. It's that all of these things have happened together, leaving the Yankees with an Opening Day lineup that includes just one of their star infielders (Robinson Cano).
A feeling of frustration predominates. If the team, despite its best efforts, just wasn't good enough because it was too young or was too hampered by being a small-market team with a limited payroll, that would be one thing, but that's not the feeling here. The Yankees aren't a small-market team and they aren't inexperienced. If the Yankees struggle, it's because the wounds are self-inflicted.
Most teams might be able to get under a $189 million payroll without making any tremendous sacrifice, but the Yankees can't suddenly pretend that the contracts of Rodriguez and Teixeira (among others) don't exist. The front office built a team that offered little roster flexibility and would be dependent on the successes of their big-money acquisitions. It worked in 2009, but that's now four years ago, and happened in that time.
Four years ago, Jesus Montero was the poster child for a revamped farm system. Now Montero is playing for the Mariners -- part of a trade from which the Yankees have yet to benefit. Four years ago the idea that Francisco Cervelli would be an Opening Day catcher would have been laughable. Today it's a reality. The frustration isn't so much that Montero isn't a Yankee -- at the time the trade was made, the Yankees were in desperate need of pitching help -- but that the team could have re-signed Russell Martin for $9-10 million, or less than they'll be paying Wells this season.
So there's a very real possibility that we Yankees fans, especially those born in the mid-'80s or later, will have to learn what it's like to rely on hope instead of expectations. The best part of baseball, of course, is that no matter what's predicted on paper, the games still have to be played, and a lot can happen over the course of a season six months long. Who knows, maybe Wells will turn into a more than adequate replacement for Swisher. Stranger things have happened.