When the first chapter is the climax, an author failed. The Yankees are the baseball equivalent to that statement.
In 2017 the then “Baby Bombers,” made it all the way to Game 7 of the ALCS, a true cinderella story. It was a team of kids, led by rookie Aaron Judge and a veteran pitching staff. The gut-wrenching Game 7 hurt, but it subsided quickly knowing that this was just the first chapter of the next Yankees dynasty.
Or so we thought.
They had an MLB roster with a lot of young talent (Judge, Severino, Sánchez, Greg Bird, Jordan Montgomery, etc.), Baseball America’s second-ranked farm system, and as little money on the books as at any point in recent memory. Alex Rodriguez’s and Mark Teixeira’s contracts had expired and CC Sabathia’s big-money years were over. The Yankees had young talent and money to spend. It was an exciting time.
We thought the big bad Yankees, the evil empire, were here to strike once again and dominate the sport like they have done in so many decades prior. And the immediate move to acquire reigning NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton just fueled to the fire. Until they for some reason pumped the breaks on payroll and big name acquisitions.
Yankees ownership, led by chairman Hal Steinbrenner, ordered payroll to come under the $195 million competitive balance tax threshold.
The Yankees lowered their CBT payroll by $31.2 million one year after going to Game 7 of the ALCS. Granted, the Yankees had a $193 million payroll in 2018 and that’s a ton of money, but a 14% reduction in payroll the year after getting this close to the World Series? That’s something that would enrage any fan, and it creates questions about ownership’s commitment to fielding the best possible team. Getting that close to a pennant is the time to go all-in, not scale back.
It was also argued getting under the CBT threshold in 2018 would put the Yankees in better position to pursue Bryce Harper and/or Manny Machado during the 2018-19 offseason. I suppose that’s true, but not only did the Yankees not sign Harper or Machado,and never even contacted Harper during free agency. One of the primary benefits of staying under the CBT threshold is lesser penalties for signing a qualified free agent, and the Yankees didn’t sign any qualified free agents that offseason. The purposes of getting under the CBT threshold was what, exactly?
The Yankees raised payroll in 2019 and again in 2020, but it was still below its 2016 level, and the Yankees went under the CBT threshold again in 2021. When the Yankees signed Cole in Dec. 2019, Steinbrenner said, “.” A year later the Yankees cut their CBT payroll by 14% to get under the threshold. Cutting payroll runs counter to whole “we need to win some world championship … plural” thing. The Yankees blamed the pandemic, but a) other teams raised payroll from 2020 to 2021, and b) their 2017-18 actions are a reason to doubt their stated intentions.
Also, because the Yankees have prioritized the CBT, they have structured several contracts in a way that lowered the player’s CBT number (CBT is based on the average annual value of the player’s contract) but were a negative for the team overall. When LeMahieu became a free agent after 2020, the going rate for an above-average 30-something infielder was four years and $90 million (roughly Josh Donaldson’s contract). They stretched the $90 million out over six years to lower LeMahieu’s CBT number from $22.5 million to $15 million, though he’s now signed through 2026 rather than 2024.
When the Yankees extended Aaron Hicks in Feb. 2019, the going rate for an above-average center fielder was five years and $80 million or so (Lorenzo Cain’s and Dexter Fowler’s contracts), and the Yankees stretched a five-year deal worth $70 million across seven years to lower the CBT number from $14 million to $10 million. New York released Hicks earlier this year and have to pay him through 2025 when a standard five-year contract would have expired after this season. These unwanted contracts will be on the books a lot longer than they need to be simply because the front office was trying to navigate ownership’s CBT mandate.
Thanks to Judge & Co., the Yankees returned to prominence in 2017, and ownership’s response was cutting payroll in 2018. And getting under the CBT threshold in 2018 has had no obvious on-field benefit. The Yankees have spent a lot — A LOT — of money on payroll the last two decades, but there was a significant reduction at a crucial time in 2018. The Yankees never put the pedal to the floor when the Tampa Bay Rays were regrouping and the Baltimore Orioles were a punchline, and now the AL East is much more competitive. The Yankees are the only team in the division with an arrow pointing down.
The problems start at the top. When the championship window opened in 2017, the first thing Yankees ownership did was reduce payroll. How they defend the decision to reduce payroll it is irrelevant. They did it and it is something that runs counter to putting the best team on the field. Cutting payroll intermittently meaningfully subtracted from New York’s World Series odds.
It was a reminder these are not the Yankees we grew up with.
Money Poorly Spent
Again, even with the CBT plans, the Yankees have spent a ton of money on their roster over the years. They have led baseball in payroll just once since 2014 (the 2020 pandemic season), though they’re pretty consistently in the top three. This year only the New York Mets have a higher payroll than the Yankees, who have a $291.0 million CBT payroll and a $277.7 million payroll in actual dollars. The way that money has been allocated is a problem, putting it mildly.
Last year’s Donaldson/Isiah Kiner-Falefa trade with the Minnesota Twins is perfectly emblematic of the Yankees’ problems. They did not want to sign a prime-aged free agent shortstop (namely Carlos Correaor Corey Seager), in part because the end of long-term contracts tend to be ugly, so they instead tried to thread the needle with Kiner-Falefa, who is a fine utility guy that gets exposed with everyday play, and Donaldson, a 36-year-old making big money. What they acquired in Donaldson was what they feared getting stuck with had they signed Correa or Seager: an aging player making big money.
Not only did the Yankees fail to address their shortstop need and assume the large contract of a declining player with the trade, taking on Donaldson’s contract allowed the Twins to sign Correa to what proved to be a bargain one-year contract. The Yankees tried to be the smartest team in the room and wound up with high-priced and ineffective players, allowing the other team to sign one of the game’s top players. Think the Yankees could’ve used Correa’s 138 OPS+ and 5.5 WAR in 2022? Yeah, me too.
Even when you look at the salary on the Yankees books this season, the production per dollar is asinine.
Outside of Judge who leads the everyday players in WAR despite missing half the season, and Cole who has been pitching at a CY Young level, everyone else has underperformed their salary.
he Yankees are paying impact player prices for guys putting up role player numbers, all of whom are on the wrong side of 30 and three of whom (LeMahieu, Rodón, Stanton) are signed through at least 2026. How are the Yankees supposed to build their roster around those guys the next few seasons?
I generally think Stanton is unfairly maligned — his CBT salary is “only” 43rd highest in baseball this year and the Yankees gave up nothing to get him in a salary dump trade coming off his NL MVP year in 2017 — and the Yankees made that trade knowing the end of the contract would be ugly. They did it to get the elite years up front, which they never quite got because of injuries, and the Yankees made matters worse by cutting payroll in 2018. Think about it: the Yankees added Stanton’s massive contract in 2018 and still managed to cut payroll by $31.2 million.
The lesson: sign elite in-their-prime players when they become available. Harper, Machado, and Seager hit free agency at ages 26-27, meaning their contracts came with peak years in bulk, and the Yankees passed on them in favor of stopgaps like Donaldson and Kiner-Falefa and a small army of ineffective left fielders. Correa too. Once he was willing to take a one-year guarantee for 2022, how do you not jump on it? The Yankees got cute and tried to cut corners when the obvious solutions were right in front of them, and they wound up with a bloated payroll anyway.
Regression in young talent
Remember those baby Bombers of 2017, yeah only Judge has exceeded expectations while everyone else is either out of the league or struggling to find a consistent role on a big league roster.
In the grand scheme of things, this is the single biggest reason the Yankees have been unable to get over the hump the last few years and are now at the beginning of what looks like a down period. So many of their young hitters and top prospects reached the big leagues, had immediate success, then stalled out or went backward.
Gleyber Torres has settled in as an above-average player who is short of being truly great, and that’s really it.
Bird, Miguel Andújar, and Clint Frazier were all highly regarded former top 100 prospects who had immediate success in the big leagues — Andújar finished second to Shohei Ohtani in the 2018 AL Rookie of the Year voting — but could not sustain it for one reason or another (injuries, etc.). Sánchez belongs in this bucket as well. He was one of the game’s best catchers from 2017-19, then everything just started to fall apart. Look at his career path:
Sánchez played through a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery in 2018 and he bounced back nicely in 2019. He was the 2016 AL Rookie of the Year runner-up, a deserving All-Star in 2017 and 2019, and then his game went backwards at an age (27 in 2020) when players typically have their best seasons. Sánchez has at least rediscovered some semblance of his old self this year (15 homers and 1.4 WAR with the San Diego Padres), unlike Andújar, Bird, and Frazier.
Not every prospect works out and not every young player can live up to the high standards set early in their careers. Look at the list of Rookie of the Year winners. It’s littered with players who had 1-2 great years to start their career, then petered out. When it happens once or twice, that’s baseball. When it happens three times, it starts becoming a trend, and when it happens with four good young players in a short period of time as it did with the Yankees, it’s time to ask what’s going on. The players deserve some share of the blame, they’re the ones on the field playing the game, but the Yankees have to look in the mirror too.
Making the same mistakes over and over
There are times it seems like the Yankees don’t hear themselves talk. For example, Boone refers to “lanes” for his relievers, meaning pockets of the opposing lineup where certain relievers match up best.. Finding situations and matchups that best use the skills of your relief crew is smart business and something every contending team does. The Yankees are not unique in this regard, and they’ve typically had very good bullpens the last 10 years or so.
The thing is, the Yankees have built such a right-handed dominant offense the last few years that their lineup has become one big lane for the opposition. The Yankees find lanes for their relievers yet seem unconcerned about lanes for opposing relievers. Repeatedly from 2018-22, their offense was shut down by hard-throwing righties in the postseason because they lacked the lefty bats to match up. Look at the starting lineups for their final games in 2019, 2020, and 2022 (the Yankees were one-and-done in the 2021 Wild Card Game):
|2019 ALCS GAME 6||2020 ALDS GAME 5||2022 ALCS GAME 4|
|1. 1B DJ LeMahieu, RHB||1. 2B DJ LeMahieu, RHB||1. CF Harrison Bader, RHB|
|2. RF Aaron Judge, RHB||2. RF Aaron Judge, RHB||2. RF Aaron Judge, RHB|
|3. 2B Gleyber Torres, RHB||3. CF Aaron Hicks, SHB||3. 1B Anthony Rizzo, LHB|
|4. DH Edwin Encarnación, RHB||4. DH Giancarlo Stanton, RHB||4. DH Giancarlo Stanton, RHB|
|5. LF Giancarlo Stanton, RHB||5. 1B Luke Voit, RHB||5. 2B Gleyber Torres, RHB|
|6. CF Brett Gardner, LHB||6. 3B Gio Urshela, RHB||6. 3B Josh Donaldson, RHB|
|7. C Gary Sánchez, RHB||7. SS Gleyber Torres, RHB||7. LF Oswaldo Cabrera, SHB|
|8. 3B Gio Urshela, RHB||8. LF Brett Gardner, LHB||8. SS Isiah Kiner-Falefa, RHB|
|9. SS Didi Gregorius, LHB||9. C Kyle Higashioka, RHB||9. C Jose Trevino, RHB|
That’s 24 individual lineup slots between the three years and 18 went to right-handed batters, with two of the other six going to late-career Gardner. And it’s not just that the lineup has been overloaded with righties. It’s been overloaded with similar righties like Judge and Stanton and Encarnacion and Voit and Donaldson. Righties with power who are prone to swinging and missing. One or two of those guys is fine, especially when one is Judge. But three or four or five? It’s too much.
It is confounding the Yankees have fielded such a right-handed heavy lineup despite playing their home games in Yankee Stadium, where the short right field porch is so inviting for left-handed batters. They rank 28th in plate appearances by left-handed batters this season and 27th since 2017. The Yankees continue to field such a right-handed heavy lineup even after the downside has been exposed year after year after year in the postseason. This is a major black mark on Cashman and the front office. An obvious multi-year problem is still a problem.
The Yankees have failed — repeatedly — to diversify their offense during the Judge era. Call it arrogance, call it ignorance, call it whatever you want (I lean toward arrogance more than ignorance because they’re obviously aware of the importance of matchups given their bullpen usage). The point is, this has been an ongoing problem, and there have been few attempts to correct it. The game is telling the Yankees this isn’t working and you have to change things, and they have not heeded those warnings.
Look at any of the 27 championship Yankees lineups and you will find a lineup littered with left handed contact and power hitters.
That 2009 lineup *French kiss*
Not sure why you throw away a century long blueprint in hopes of finding a new one.
Look, sometimes things just don’t go your way. An errant fastball broke Judge’s wrist in 2018 and he tore a toe ligament crashing into a small exposed concrete portion of the Dodger Stadium wall this season. The Yankees were planning an all-out pursuit of Ohtani when he first came over from Japan — they traded for the maximum allowed amount of international bonus money — and he was uninterested in the East Coast. He declined (respectfully) to even listen to their pitch. Severino got hurt (again and again), a rainout threw their rotation plans into a blender into the 2019 ALCS, so on and so forth.
Every team deals with bad luck though and I don’t want to make excuses for the Yankees, Yes, they’d have their share of bad luck, but their resources also mean they are better able to overcome that bad luck than most teams. Bad luck played only a small role in their current plight. They’ve been unable to finish off the development of their top young hitter prospects, they’ve spent poorly when ownership wasn’t randomly cutting back on payroll, and they have at best inadequately addressed their lineup imbalance, and at worst ignored it. The Yankees are where they are because they deserve to be here. They’ve stepped on landmine after landmine since 2017, many of them self-induced.
As the Yankees sit in last place, struggling to keeping their heads above 500, it seems likely they have “the worst loss of the season” weekly.
Whether they land a playoff spot or not, this season has to be an eye opener to the team builders and ownership. Their process and decision making is flawed which is wasting away the prime years of cornerstones Judge and Cole. The Yankees are on the cusp of wasting not one but two generational talents.