Back to the Future
By Mike Whiteman September 24, 2023 *** The Yankees are mathematically still in contention for a spot in the playoffs. Baseball-Reference gives the team a less than .1% chance of reaching the postseason, so it’s not much of a chance. I like that the team continues to play to win, while making priority to see what some of the younger players can do. However the team finishes the 2023 season, there is a crucial offseason coming up, one of the more important ones in recent team history. Many decisions are to be made about the futures of players and management alike. While the names are different than before, this is not the first time the franchise has been at the crossroads. I’d say that the most consequential offseason of my lifetime was after the 1992 season. The Yankees had finished 76-86, finishing fourth in the American League East. In contrast to today’s team, this was an improvement over an anemic 1991 season. Clearly through, this wasn’t where the franchise wanted to be, especially with the summer 1992 announcement that owner George Steinbrenner would be reinstated from his “lifetime” suspension in time for the 1993 season. Slow, steady improvement was never part of the Boss’s game plan, and standing on the outside watching his team toil in the lower half of the division certainly had him ready hit the ground running.
While Steinbrenner was sidelined, general manager Gene Michael and manager Buck Showalter were presiding over a change in personnel and in culture. Gone was the drama and the chaos; front and center was the new “Yankee way,” one which would eventually yield impressive results down the road. The 1992/93 offseason was the starting point of decades long era which put the Yankees squarely back on top as a premier sports franchise.
The first move of the fall was to deal outfielder Roberto Kelly to the Reds for outfielder Paul O’Neill. Kelly was a talented player who had been seen as a building block of the franchise at the beginning of the 1992 season, and trading him was a bit of a surprise. His star had faded and he was moved from center field late in year for youngster Bernie Williams. O’Neill was coming off a mediocre 1992 season, but was well regarded for his power and solid defense in right field. The dealing of Kelly also fully cleared the way for the 24-year old Williams to take over center field.
Then they acquired left-handed pitcher Jim Abbott in a trade with the California Angels. The lefty was coming off an 18-win season in which he finished third in Cy Young voting. Abbot was one of the most admired athletes in all of sports, overcoming a deformed right arm to become one of the better pitchers in baseball.
On December 10, they signed left-handed pitcher Jimmy Key as a free agent. Key had last been seen in the 1992 World Series, winning two games including the clinching Game Six for Toronto. The soon to be 32-year old was one of the best pitchers in Blue Jays franchise history and a tested postseason performer with a 3-1, 3.03 October records.
Less than week later, in a really interesting move, the team filled a hole with third base with Boston Red Sox great Wade Boggs. The five-time batting champion had a .338 lifetime batting average at the time, but was coming off a miserable .259 season. Boggs would be 35 years old in 1993 – was he finished? Dividends from these moves paid off immediately. The 1993 Yankees were 88-74, hanging close in the AL East race until mid-September. Key was the staff ace, O’Neill batted a career-high .311, and Boggs pushed his batting average back over .300 while winning a Silver Slugger award. Abbott had his struggles, but authored a no-hitter in September. The Yanks were the best team in the American League in 1994, took the AL Wild Card in 1995, and were World Series champions in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000. The roots of these great teams were forged in the cold days of 1992. What are some lessons from 1992 that could apply as the 2024 Yankees come into focus? First, the 1992 brain trust gave youth a real chance. Williams had his first exposure to the big leagues in 1991, and wasn’t particularly impressive in about half a season’s worth of work. He spent much of 1992 in AAA, taking over the starting CF position upon being recalled in August. In 1993, center field was his to lose, and his play in the first half looked like he wanted to lose it. Patience with the growing pains won over, as Michael withstood Steinbrenner’s pressure to deal Williams and was rewarded with .298/.360/.401 slash after the All-Star break. His position on the team now sealed, Williams went on to have one of the great careers in franchise history. On paper, I’d say the Yankees mini “youth movement” of late 2023 season is a bit mixed. Jasson Dominguez of course thrilled before his injury cut him down. Oswald Peraza is hitting .204. Austin Wells is batting .170. Estevan Florial .229. Everson Pereira checks in at .143. Before we get too discouraged, remember that Aaron Judge batted .179 in his 2016 cameo. Personally, I’ve seen signs of hope from Peraza and Wells, and hope to see them given opportunity to earn a job next spring. Florial has had his moments too. Culture and character were prioritized. When we think character with the 1990s Yankees, it started of course with Don Mattingly, The Captain, Donnie Baseball. Veteran acquisitions Key, Abbott, and O’Neill all were respected players who were known to play hard and were team oriented players. In a true “addition by subtraction” move, the team also let known clubhouse cancer Mel Hall go after the 1992 season. Today the Yankees do have solid player leaders – Aaron Judge, Anthony Rizzo, and Gerrit Cole come to mind. I’d certainly like to see the team pick up more players in this mold.
They got more left-handed. It is well documented that successful Yankee teams have historically had plenty of left-handed pitchers and hitters. Abbott and Key went to the top of the 1993 starting rotation. O’Neill, Boggs, and Williams (switch-hitter) balanced out the lineup from the left side. The planned 2024 rotation (at this point) includes lefties Carlos Rodon and Nestor Cortes . As stated many times in many outlets, this recent version of the Yanks seem to have eschewed left-handed bats. The last Yankee left-handed batter or switch-hitter with a .500 or better slugging percentage was Brett Gardner in 2019. Before him it was Carlos Beltran in 2016, and Mark Teixeira in 2015. The last really good Yankee left-handed hitter was Robinson Cano, who left the team after the 2013 season. They added players with postseason experience. Prior to the 1992 season, Gene Michael had signed Mike Gallego from Oakland, where he was an important cog in the three-time AL pennant winners. O’Neill had a World Series ring from the 1990 Reds. Key was an accomplished postseason performer. Boggs had a .308 average over four postseason series. Consider the Yanks’ high profile pickups since 2021: Joey Gallo – no postseason experience before being acquired Anthony Rizzo – seasoned postseason performer Jameson Taillon - no postseason experience before being acquired Corey Kluber – seasoned postseason performer Isiah Kiner-Falefa - no postseason experience before being acquired Josh Donaldson – seasoned postseason performer Frankie Montas – one postseason start before being acquired Harrison Bader – 28 postseason plate appearances prior to being acquired Carlos Rodon – one postseason start before being acquired As the Yankees look to new additions to the 2024 team, I hope they take postseason history into account. In the winter of 1992, Brian Cashman was an assistant to Gene Michael, and had a front-row seat for the rejuvenation of the franchise. Assuming that he’s retained by Hal Steinbrenner, lets hope he takes a walk down memory lane as he ponders his plan for an offseason that looks to be coming too soon.