For the Yankees to treat 2023 like a forgettable season would be a grave mistake. That’s the temptation, right? Call it unlucky, Murphy’s Law run amok, and flush it away. A glitch in the 27-championship timeline. An outlier for baseball’s most successful franchise.
The Yankees can give a million excuses as to why they were imposters in pinstripes this past year. But to ignore the red flags of the last six months, the flashing warning lights en route to this mediocre season, is asking for a repeat of the Bronx disaster that resulted in the Yankees missing the playoffs for the first time since 2016 — and just the fifth October whiff of Brian Cashman’s 25-year tenure as general manager.
Consider the 2023 season an instructional manual, something the Yankees’ current front office (or whoever returns anyway) must go to school on if they hope to snap the alarming trend that sent them home again in October without a title — for a 14th consecutive year.
This is not a new development. The Yankees have made just a single trip to the World Series over the past 22 seasons, the one that resulted in their lone ’09 championship. Since that title, the Steinbrenners have spent $3.162 billion to get back to the Fall Classic. The result? An 8-10 record in playoff series, playing six games under .500 (31-37) during that stretch.
As for this year, it turned out to be the sum of all the Yankees’ fears, when Cashman’s big dice rolls went bust. The GM wasn’t wrong when he said back in August that everyone predicted the 2023 roster to be a “playoff-contending” team. Full disclosure: I had these Yankees losing to the Padres in the World Series. Guilty as charged.
Then again, I’m not paid $5 million a year to make sure that happens, and Cashman’s errors in judgement reached critical mass this season. It was a year that staggering underperformance meshed perfectly with the unreliable nature of a fragile roster, at a cost of $294 million — the most expensive payroll in Yankees’ history and second highest in the majors to the Mets’ $377 million.
What’s even worse? A large chunk of that was used just to get people back on the field from rehab. The Yankees had the third-most players on the IL this season (28) for a total of 2,106 days — third behind the Dodgers (2,266) and Angels (2,186). The price tag for all that lost time was $81 million, by far the most in the majors (the Angels were second at $67 million).
Paying all those players that much to not play is hardly a winning formula, and one of the biggest offenders was the free-agent lefty Carlos Rodon, who missed the first three months after signing a five-year, $162 million deal last winter. It was also difficult to explain the bizarre, delayed diagnosis of Anthony Rizzo’s concussion, an injury that turned the team’s early MVP into a puzzling non-factor.
Not a great look for a Yankees organization that supposedly revamped its entire medical and conditioning operation in 2019, but now it can just be added to the pile of debris Hal Steinbrenner intends to sort through at season’s end. Of course, when a $325 million player like Giancarlo Stanton is also one of the most injury-prone, that really runs up the meter. The same could be said for Aaron Judge, at $360 million, who missed 42 days to a toe injury — but at least he still hit 37 homers in 103 games.
“It’s been a struggle all year,” manager Aaron Boone said, “whether it’s keeping guys healthy, getting guys back or down performances.”
Ah yes, those “down performances.” Heading into the final weekend, the Yankees .226 batting average ranked 29th in the majors, a few ticks above the pitiful A’s (.224). Their .702 OPS was 24th overall, as was their 4.17 runs per game, tied with the Royals ($91M payroll).
The first-half offensive malaise prompted something that was once unthinkable for Cashman over the previous quarter-century: firing the hitting coach Dillon Lawson on the eve of the All-Star break. The Yankees have seemed to be more receptive to his replacement, Boone buddy Sean Casey, but the problems appear far from corrected. Judge suggested as much on the day the Yankees were officially eliminated from playoff contention, using strong language to describe what lies ahead this offseason.
“I got some ideas,” Judge said. “But it’s gonna take all of us. It’s going to be talking with everyone in the organization, all the way down through the minor league stuff, all the way up to the top. There’s a lot of stuff we gotta work on and improve, but there’s a lot of bright spots that we’ve seen with these young guys coming up. This is the time to build on that and start building that next foundation.”
Cashman was always going to remain part of that process, due to his unique relationship with Hal Steinbrenner, but the captain’s remarks certainly could be taken as a shot across the GM’s bow. And Steinbrenner’s pledged “audit” of the entire organization should put a number of Cashman’s data-driven lieutenants in the owner’s crosshairs. Last winter’s hirings of Omar Minaya and Brian Sabean, two scouting-based execs, seemed to be a nod to amplifying those types of voices, but it’s unclear how much they were actually heard this past season.
As for Boone, a Cashman favorite, the signs have been pointing to his survival. He’s pretty much done what the front office wants in acting as a conduit between the people upstairs and the clubhouse — executing the game plan as its drawn up in a collaborative effort — so none of the blame has been shoveled in his direction. But is there something missing when it comes to accountability in the clubhouse? When many of the dynasty era Yankees returned for last month’s Old Timers’ Day, they didn’t recognize the same DNA in this year’s group. The championship legacy had faded to some degree.
“I think now they coddle the players too much, they baby them,” said David Wells, an 18-game winner for the ’98 “Best Ever” champs. “And it’s up to your peers to make you better ... You don’t see guys getting in each other’s face. It’s not a personal thing. You’re here to win and that’s what you try to do. And that’s what I think, seeing it from my perspective, looking in, they don’t have that kind of camaraderie.”
That often is a byproduct of winning, obviously. And the 2023 Yankees didn’t do nearly enough to brew the type of chemistry Wells was talking about. As Judge stated last week upon elimination, this season was a “big failure” involving “a lot of stuff we gotta get figured out and get right for next year.”
But how far will Steinbrenner go to make that happen? After spending nearly $540 million on free agents last winter, more than any other team, is Hal going deep into his checkbook again to resurrect the Yankees? Money has always been the greatest strength of this franchise under a Steinbrenner, so that can’t stop now at this crisis point.
It’s going to take more than another influx of cash, however. A thorough examination of how the Yankees got here is a necessary start, and that’s surely been underway for a while now. Our advice to Cashman & Co: study hard.