Yanks' core won't be easy to replace

The expected retirement of closer Mariano Rivera at the end of the season is a sign of even greater challenges ahead for the New York Yankees, writes FOXSports.com's Ken Rosenthal.

And you thought the 2013 Yankees were in trouble? The expected retirement of closer Mariano Rivera at the end of the season is a sign of even greater challenges ahead.

Rivera, sources say, will announce on Saturday that he is entering his final season. Over the next few years, the Yankees will need to replace at least two other cornerstones — left-hander Andy Pettitte and shortstop Derek Jeter — and maybe even their best current player, second baseman Robinson Cano, a potential free agent.

The problem, even after the Yankees remove their self-imposed payroll shackles in the fall of 2014, is that no club — not even the free-spending Los Angeles Dodgers — can simply buy up elite talent anymore.

The game is so flush with cash, even teams with modest revenues are signing players to long-term extensions, preventing them from hitting the open market.

Meanwhile, the new labor agreement limits spending on both domestic and international amateurs, depriving the Yankees and other wealthy clubs of a different competitive advantage.

It would be one thing if the Yankees were deep in young impact players with low service time or major-league-ready prospects on the verge of becoming stars.

Neither is the case.

The Yankees’ Opening Day roster could include six players with between zero and three years of service. Right-hander Michael Pineda, recovering from shoulder surgery, also is in that class. But right-hander Ivan Nova and infielder Eduardo Nunez probably are the best of the group, and neither is close to a star.

Right-handers Phil Hughes, 26, and Joba Chamberlain, 27 — once heralded prospects — now are potential free agents. Two of the Yankees’ other young veterans — outfielder Brett Gardner, 29, and Rivera’s potential successor, David Robertson, 27 — are free agents after the 2014 season.

And while Baseball America ranks the Yankees’ farm system 11th in the majors, most of the team’s best prospects are years away from New York, and precious few are top-caliber pitchers.

It’s not necessarily the recipe for a crash — the Yankees’ commitments for 2014 are a relatively modest $81.625 million, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. Staying under the $189 million luxury-tax threshold that season would enable the team to realize tens of millions in financial benefits. The Yankees, by their typical standards of excess, will be rather spry and lean.

But how much good will it do them?

Consider this list of players who could have been free agents after next season but already have signed contract extensions: First baseman Joey Votto, second baseman Ian Kinsler, third basemen David Wright and Martin Prado, left fielder Alex Gordon and center fielder Adam Jones.

The position players who still could become free agents after this season include Cano, catcher Brian McCann, first baseman/outfielder Corey Hart and outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson and Shin-Soo Choo. The class of starting pitchers — Tim Lincecum, Matt Garza, Josh Johnson, etc. — isn’t especially inspired, and won’t get much better in 2014-15.

One leading member of that class, Felix Hernandez, already has signed an extension. Another, Clayton Kershaw, almost certainly will agree to one with the Dodgers. A third, Justin Verlander, could reach the open market and seek a record contract, but by then he will be 31 with perhaps 2,000 innings under him.

The shortstop class in 2014-15 should offer more possibilities — Elvis Andrus, Asdrubal Cabrera, Hanley Ramirez, J.J. Hardy, Jed Lowrie. Third baseman Chase Headley and right fielder Nick Markakis also are eligible to become free agents that offseason.

And, of course, the Yankees always could swallow the contract of a player such as Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who is owed $114 million from 2015 to ’20. But in many of these cases, the Yankees would be adding players who likely are entering their decline phases, and isn’t that how the team got into this position in the first place?

Trading for a younger slugger such as the Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton would make more sense, if only the Yankees had the prospects to make such a deal happen. Alas, other teams can offer superior packages, and Stanton’s salary currently is affordable to all.

OK, but enough about the big picture; low-revenue clubs wish they had the Yankees’ problems. The mere prospect of replacing Rivera in ’14 will be daunting enough for New York, seeing as how we are talking about the greatest closer in history.

Rivera, 43, is the all-time leader in ERA-plus, that is, ERA adjusted to a player’s league and ballpark — for pitchers with a minimum of 1,000 innings. The average ERA-plus is 100. Rivera’s career mark is 206. The next best is Pedro Martinez at 154. Oh, and in 141 career postseason innings, Rivera’s straight ERA is 0.70.

His presence gives the Yankees an air of invincibility; his absence will leave the team vulnerable in an inning that Rivera has dominated since the early years of Bill Clinton’s second term. Sabermetricians like to say that most quality relievers can close, and to a degree that is true. But no one has ever closed like Rivera.

The Yankees will replace him, just as they replaced catcher Jorge Posada (well, at least initially), just as they will replace Pettitte and eventually Jeter.

None of it, though, will be easy.

Good players are hard to find, great ones even harder. And the Yankees, playing under different rules in a different baseball economy, no longer corner the market on premium talent.

Send feedback on our
new story page