As we whittle away the last of the Core Four with Derek Jeter's retirement at the end of the season, the New York Yankees are about to face a new era with an old challenge. That challenge is that, frankly, their hitters are old.
Yes, an old challenge. It is not the first time the Yankees have had old hitters; however, their average age of 32.7 years is a franchise record (tied with 2012). Part of that has to do with Robinson Cano leaving, only to replace him with the older and less effective Brian Roberts. Part of it has to do with the way the Yankees do business. The proverbial Evil Empire, whom I do not fault for spending money in their attempt to win, tends to buttress its roster with free agents and the occasional international signing. Those free agents naturally tend to be older than homegrown prospects and short of an ill-conceived taxi cab ride here and there, those players also tend to remain in New York for a pretty long time.
The problem is that the Yankees are also entering a new era. It is not really news that many teams have been signing their young players to long-term contracts. The somewhat subtle side effect of all those signings is that they thin out the free agent crop. Looking ahead to 2015, the Yankees will have to find a replacement for Derek Jeter. In addition, they will likely need a replacement at second base for Roberts and third base if 26-year old "youngster" Yangervis Solarte sees his major league production eventually in line with his minor league OPS of .733. For better or for worse, Mark Teixeira is locked in at first base until 2017.
To address restocking three-quarters of their infield, their 2015 free agent options include Hanley Ramirez for shortstop or third base, Chase Headley or Pablo Sandoval at third and hoping the ball doesn’t get hit to second base. Internally, their options are limited; third baseman Eric Jagielo, the team's first-round pick in 2013, is hitting .256 with 10 home runs at Class A Tampa, but there isn't much after him. The ironic part is that this is a best-case scenario, assuming injury does not strike any other old Yankees hitters in 2014 and recreate the 2013 glory days of Lyle Overbay and Jayson Nix. Of course, the currently suspended Alex Rodriguez will be unsuspended, for what it's worth.
If the Yankees are patient enough to wait until 2016, they can always sign Ben Zobrist or Howie Kendrick to play second if they're available. What are the other infield free agents available in 2016? Ian Desmond, Rickie Weeks and David Freese. In other words, no star talent or anything closely resembling a Jeter or Cano. (Outfield is a little better, with Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Yoenis Cespedes in 2016 and, if you're really patient, Giancarlo Stanton, Carlos Gomez and Jay Bruce in 2017.)
The Yankees have paid to win via free agency and the result of winning is that they have lower first-round picks. They have not had a first-round pick higher than 20th since they took Carl Henry with the 17th pick in 2005. Remember him? I don't, probably because he was out of baseball by 2009. The Yankees have also done little in terms of trading for and then developing hitting prospects. While Brett Gardner and the dearly departed Cano are the only homegrown hitters worthy of a starting lineup spot that the Yankees have developed since Jeter, their AL East rival Red Sox have been able to develop hitters with similar draft positions to the Yankees -- Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and the new group of young talent in Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Will Middlebrooks.
Also, since young prospects have a chance of developing, it is possible that by 2016 Bogaerts and Middlebrooks will be better than the previously mentioned crop of infield options. If one of them does develop into a star, the Red Sox will have an edge on the Yankees. If one of them doesn't, the Red Sox can still supplement their roster with free agent signings. Winning teams from other American League divisions such as the Tigers, Rangers and A's have also followed suit, resorting to free agent signings to supplement the young hitters they have developed.
There is no real good reason why the Yankees have been unable to develop hitters while also dabbling in free agency. So far, though, they haven't. You need to squint real hard just to see a "Core One" in the minor league pipeline.
The Yankees are old but unlike other teams, they have not quite risen to the challenge of finding and developing players in a new era. This era, where their rivals are developing young talent and tapping the free agent market at the same time, is making the American League even more competitive while decreasing the ability for teams to replace departing stars. The Yankees need to follow suit or else their winning ways will go into retirement with Derek Jeter.
On the bright side, though, at least their draft pick position would improve.
Richard Bergstrom usually writes about the Rockies at RockiesZingers.com.