They used to be known as the Evil Empire. Their minor league system produced little, and wasn’t even good enough to gather much major league talent in trades. Instead, under the watchful (by which I mean intrusive, meddling and ignorant) gaze of owner George Steinbrenner, they followed their run of success in the 1990’s by buying the best free agents available every year, outbidding everyone else, every time.
But it didn’t get them very far, except for increased levels of clubhouse toxicity and a close-up view of two Boston Red Sox World Series triumphs. They still made it to the postseason year after year, but just didn’t have the firepower to win it all once they got there.
Don’t look now, but the Yankees haven’t been major free agent players for several years and yet here we are in mid-August and they have a four game lead in the AL East fuelled largely by retreads, cheap imports and home-grown talent.
A look at some of their unusual suspects shows that these are not quite the Yankees we’ve come to know and hate:
Cast off by: everyone
The Phillies traded for Garcia after he helped lead the White Sox to World Series glory in 2005. Unfortunately it turned out his right arm was held together with a rubber band and they couldn’t ship him out fast enough. He should be several years into retirement by now but instead is part of the starting rotation and in his second year as a Yankee.
Cast off by: everyone (especially by the Dodgers)
How do you not offer a contract to a starting pitcher who’s just won 13 games for you with an ERA barely over 3? Best ask the Dodgers that question. But it wasn’t just them – Kuroda was on the market almost until Spring Training when the Yankees picked him for what constitutes chump change: $10m for one year. The rest of the league should be punishing themselves for letting the erstwhile Evil Empire pick up such a bargain right under their noses. This year, Kuroda has the lowest ERA and is joint tops in wins on the Yankees staff.
Cast off by: everyone (especially the Athletics)
The injury-prone Mexican poster boy was a roll of the decision-making toy away from retirement when the Yankees scooped him up off the street before last season to DH and provide cover for A-Ro(i)d. He proved himself healthy(ish), still no-one else wanted him and this year the Yankees have a $900,000 hitter hitting .295 with 13 home runs in only 210 at-bats. Great business.
Cast off by: everyone (especially the Braves)
The trouble with being prodigiously gifted is that making an effort doesn’t always come naturally. Just ask Miguel Cabrera (who’s learnt his lesson) and Hanely Ramirez (who hasn’t…so don’t bother asking him). When Jones’s performance dropped off as quickly as his waistline expanded after turning 30 he became dispensable, and while he’s not starting regularly for the Yankees he’s capably filled a roster spot for them.
Cast off by: everyone (especially the Phillies)
An OBP below .300 and a memory that goes back to the Reagan era isn’t a cue for a big contract, but the Yankees took a (cheap) plunge on the estimable veteran, who’s giving them power and a good attitude in left field.
Cast off by: everyone (especially the Dodgers)
The transition from franchise mainstay to trade bait happened all too fast for Martin as he lost his way at the plate for a while, and while he’s just holding the fort for one of the Yankees prospects to come through, he’s providing pop in front of the plate and leadership behind it.
They have been joined this season by fellow-castoffs Casey McGehee and Ichiro Suzuki, with McGehee being just as horrible as he was for the Pirates and Brewers, but with Ichiro at age 38, finding a new lease of life and productivity in the Bronx.
Some franchises seem to be obsessed with youth and cheapness over age. Others hide behind the career numbers put up by veterans and don’t like to play youngsters. And yes, the Yankees still have over-priced guys like Rafael Soriano, A-Ro(i)d and Texeira on their books, but they seem to have found a good balance of players and…dare I say it…the humility to taken on guys deemed worthless by almost everyone else.
Evil they ain’t, but they’re still an Empire.