I've been a Yankees fan since the early nineties, pre-Showalter, pre-Torre, pre-post-seventies-World-Series-victories days, and it seems to me they're as vulnerable as they've ever been. I like Girardi, I like the New Steinbrenner regime that doesn't look to scour out every single prospect for the possibility of Winning Right Now--but I think they are (dare I say?) approaching those dreaded Rebuilding Years.
Look at the facts: their best players, from Jeter to Giambi to Damon and Rivera, are all at the tail ends of their careers. Other players--Matsui, Abreu, Posada, Pettitte--are certainly in their declining years. The core around which they have to rebuild include the league's best player (ARod, of course), one of its best pitchers (Wang), a passable center fielder (Melky Cabrera), a hack-and-slash second baseman (Cano) and a passel of young arms who are still maturing. Two of their best hitters--ARod and Posada--are on the DL, along with several pitchers and Superutilityman Wilson Betemit, gutting their offense just when guys like Cano and Damon are finding their stroke.
What does this portend for the recent future? Well, with the dominant Red Sox, a talented Blue Jays squad finally coming into its own, and a surprising Rays' team growing out of its rebuilding years, they face the toughest division they ever have, no small potatoes in today's era of the unbalanced schedule. Their prospects for making the playoffs are the dimmest in recent memory; I'd even call them a medium-to-longshot to sneak in with the Wild Card.
In the longer term, I think their current stance is much more sustainable. Like the rest of the world, they're realizing that the money-and-talent pool isn't inexaustible, and living for the moment never leaves anything from the future. They've traded away so much of their farm talent through the years that only "can't-miss" prospects like Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy (two-thirds of whom are struggling or injured) still remain. There are more prospects behind them, but they're a year or two away, at least, and the Yanks must clear room for them by shedding some of their aging vets.
Still, they're reverting to a more traditional grassroots style than the charge-and-spend model that The Grand Capitalist George (Steinbrenner, not Bush) loved so much. By plowing his assets back into the team's farm system and paying big bonuses for draftees, they're insuring a stronger future, at the expense of winning now. And that's good for plenty of reasons.
There are the tangibles, such as the excitement generated by watching a player like Chamberlain develop, or even of watching a long-term signee like ARod rack up the records in pinstripes. There's the further touchy-feely aspect of having a team that "does it the right way," winning championships by building from within, and not spending money like a drunken sailor on shore leave.
For Yankees fans, it may finally be time to safely come out of the closet, where rooting for the Guys in Pinstripes doesn't feel like cheering for Goliath. Adversity can make a franchise good, but it can also revitalize a fan base. How many of us have known the ignominy of being a Yankees fan outside New York, where locals sneer at you for being a bandwagon fan (no matter how long you've been a Yanks fan)? Now we can finally feel like we're cheering for a contender, as in a team that must contend for its playoff spot, and not be handed it on a glided platter (Steinbrenner would never stand for silver when gold would suffice).
It may also be a chance for the "other" teams to enjoy their time in the limelight. I know my brother (a Rockies fan) and my dad (a D-Backs fan) will also welcome the decreased attention from baseball's biggest franchise; they're always complaining that the amazing accomplishments of Arizona and Colorado are outshined by the latest mediocrities from the Big Apple. Perhaps now they'll get their chance at the headlines, if New York really and truly falls off the baseball map, at least temporarily.
As for me, I'll just be happy to see some competitive baseball in the Bronx, to watch a Yankees game without the easy surety of a win, and to feel like the underdog. For once.