On the night the Yankees celebrated Mariano Rivera’s last appearance at Yankee Stadium, the Rays achieved something they had never done before: a sweep of the Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Nostalgia for Yankee greatness was everywhere in the Stadium. Derek Jeter accompanied Andy Pettitte to the mound to take Rivera out of the game. Pettitte took a curtain call because it was his last game at the Stadium as well. Jeter hit .190 during his injury-plagued 2013, but plans to play next year, when he’ll be 40. Despite having several future Hall of Famers on their current roster, it struck me that, with the possible exception of Robinson Cano, there was not a player in the Yankee lineup I would trade for their opposite number on the Rays.
With their plethora of former stars winding down their careers combined with young players who haven’t proved themselves yet, the Yankees looked like an expansion team and played like one. The Rays, fighting to keep their lead in the wild card, played like a team that was coming together at the right time. Evan Longoria and James Loney are hitting again, their veteran pickups Delmon Young and David DeJesus are making contributions, and the young starters and experienced bullpen are pitching with great confidence.
For the Yankees, Eduardo Nunez has improved his infield defense this year and has hit well. But he’s no Evan Longoria and will never be even close. The less said about 38 year-old DH/third baseman Alex Rodriguez, the better. The Yankees have to hope that A-Rod will be suspended, because if he isn’t and keeps playing at his current level they’re wasting a roster spot and large salary on him. I might take Cano over Zobrist at second, but not if I have to pony up $300 million over ten years, which is reportedly what Cano is asking for as he enters free agency.
It’s amazing, given the age of their lineup and their injuries, that the Yankees are over .500. But when you watch both teams on the same field it’s easy to see the Rays are on the rise and the Yankees on their way down. This year marks the sixth straight season the Rays had a winning record. They are well positioned to keep the streak going next year. Of course there are questions about the lineup–they may not be able to re-sign James Loney, for example. But Myers, Zobrist, Longoria, Escobar, and other key players are set. For the Rays’ pitching staff, the question is whether or not a young pitcher like Jeremy Hellickson can hold his job against competition from promising prospects like Jake Odorizzi, Alex Colome , or Enny Romero. At the end of the day, though, if he doesn’t perform, the Rays will have another promising young arm in his place and will look to deal him to help out another part of their roster.
The Yankees would love to have that problem. They don’t appear to have the minor league prospects and young players to replace their older players that are retiring or have lost their effectiveness like Vernon Wells and Ichiro Suzuki. Wells was a good player once, and Suzuki is a future hall-of-famer. But Wells has hit only 11 homers in over 400 at bats, and Suzuki is hitting .260 with a .296 on base percentage. The Yankees have some money to play with — Granderson’s contract is expiring and if A-Rod is suspended the Yankees may be able to use his salary to sign more free agents–or pay Cano what he wants. There’s also the possibility that the Yankees will spend like they used to in the free agent market. In past years, however, the free agents were always complements to the strong roster the Yankees already had. Now they would simply be desperate attempts to continue something that is already gone.
Based on what we’ve seen over the last three days, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Yankees’ streak of 20 straight winning seasons is finally broken in 2014. Meanwhile, with their strong roster and promising prospects on the horizon, the Rays’ streak of four straight 90-win years may just be getting started.