How do you Define a Successful Season for the Yankees?
April Thoughts, by Cary Greene
Michael Jordan once said, “You have to expect things of yourself, before you do them.” Hal Steinbrenner would do well to take that quote to heart. Many old-school Yankees fans, myself included, expect that the Yankees' goal every season is to win a World Series championship, but under Hal Steinbrenner’s leadership, the Yankees championship drought has reached 13-years as the franchise has wilted in the postseason 10 different times.
Perhaps if Hal Steinbrenner truly expected himself to guide the Yankees to a World Series victory, he might be more willing to truly go for it, allowing Brian Cashman to spend whatever it took to achieve baseball’s version of the promised land. This offseason, the Yankees stopped short of exceeding the third tier of the CBT and the payroll was clearly mandated by Steinbrenner to stay below $293 million.
Cashman kicked a lot of tires this past offseason, looking at possible outfield upgrades like Brandon Nimmo (currently posting a .419 wOBA), Michael Brantley (.345 wOBA thus far) and others, while also looking at various trade targets like Bryan Reynolds (.343 wOBA), but Cashman was never able to contend for any of these upgrades.
In past offseasons, Cashman has also been stifled financially and acquiring players like Freddie Freeman, Justin Verlander or Corey Seager hasn’t been in the cards and Yankees fans can look no further than to the top of the organization as to where the yearly trepidation comes from.
Hal Steinbrenner’s primary goal is not really to win a championship. If it were, then the Yankees would have spent at a rate commensurate with the franchise being the most valuable franchise in the sport. The Yankees are valued at $6 billion and they generate a staggering $485-million in revenue - which is below the Dodgers $565 million and marginally ahead of the Red Sox ($479 million) and Braves ($443 million).
Since Jacob Ruppert Jr. purchased the Yankees back in 1915, the Yankees have never gone more than 14-years without a World Series win and that’s a record that this season’s Yankees could break if they fail once again in the postseason.
On paper, Hal Steinbrenner’s winning percentage looks terrific, at the time of this writing, the Yankees have gone 1,261 and 927 under his leadership, winning one championship and going to the playoffs 10 times under his tenure.
Meanwhile, Hal’s father George Steinbrenner went 3,204-2,492 (.563), but he won six championships and went to the playoffs 18 times in his tumultuous 36-year reign as team owner. The difference between George and Hal so far is that George was never afraid to do whatever it took to improve the Yankees chances of winning a championship. Meanwhile, Hal seems content to field a winning team. The legacy Hal is penning as we speak is one in which the Yankees are “good enough” to contend but never win.
No doubt my viewpoint has been obtusely established by this juncture of the article. I define a successful season by one single measure - winning a championship. That’s what I expect of the New York Yankees and I always will expect that. Having a good winning percentage, winning 95 or more games, making the playoffs – all those things do matter. But with each passing season in the past thirteen, that has ended ultimately in failure and was barren of a championship, the franchise has edged closer and closer to infamy. Hal Steinbrenner owns the Yankees and he’s in the process of writing his legacy with the decisions he makes.
It’s too early to assess the 2023 Yankees as it’s still only April. I often write that experienced baseball fans know that the first third of the season is a time for most team’s to assess what they’ve got. Then, as the MLB Trade Deadline approaches near the midpoint of the season, contending teams try to improve and non-contenders look to make deals that will help them in the future. From there, contending teams go about the business of engaging in pennant races and playoffs pushes and the non contending teams begin calling up prospects and getting them some big league reps.
The Yankees are in a very interesting place right now because the franchise appears to be engaging in a partial youth movement while being content to take more of a stopgap approach regarding filling the active roster. With an uber prospect like Jasson Dominguez knocking on the door and other prospects like Oswald Peraza, Trey Sweeney, Austin Wells, Everson Pereira all representing pieces the Yankees might count on as soon as some point this season or early next year - I don’t think Cashman will be hunting for star players to trade for this season.
Granted it’s still very early in the season, we’re not even out of April yet, but it appears the Yankees ship is sinking in their own division. The Rays have been the best team in baseball in the early going so far and the Blue Jays and Orioles are both eyeing the playoffs. The Yankees offense has sunk to “below average” status, as defined by their 99 team OPS+, which ranks the Yankees 17th in MLB.
What’s concerning is that the Yankees don’t have a slew of star position players out injured. The bottom half of the offense looks particularly bad thus far. Steinbrenner’s unwillingness to let Cashman round out the roster is turning out to be a glaring problem as the Yankees lack both production and balance. While it’s true that the Yankees overall pitching has been spectacular this April, it’s looking more and more like the offense is an area that needs improvement.
A brief glance at the lower half of the lineup’s individual production, using OPS as s measure, shows Jose Trevino (.557 ), Oswaldo Cabrera (.556) Josh Donaldson (.489 OPS), Isaiah Kiner-Falefa (.398), Willie Calhoun (.390) and Aaron Hicks (.347) all as players that are bogging the Yankees offense down.
Coming into the season, my biggest concern was the shortstop situation. I was ecstatic that the Yankees promoted Volpe and I think in time it will pan out to be a good call. In the meantime, Yankees fans ought to give him some leeway and realize that the growing pains associated with his situation are something we’ll all just have to be patient with. Volpe’s .636 OPS is encouraging, I think he’ll slowly acclimate kind of like Derek Jeter once did all those years ago - when he began his career with a .669 OPS across only 48 at-bats in 1995. The following season, Jeter posted an .800 OPS and the rest is history.
Would I have preferred Cashman to have signed Corey Seager two offseason’s ago? Yes and I would have expected him to slide to third base at some point in the middle of a long term contract. But that would have been a solution I could have endorsed. Would I have liked the Yankees to trade for Francisco Lindor three offseasons ago? Yes, that would have even been a better solution because the Yankees could have slid Gleyber Torres to third base once Volpe was called up.
It’s true that out of the gate, Volpe looks a bit overmatched, thus far his wRC+ of 87, 69 at-bats into his big league career shows a ton or room for growth (put kindly). I’m in favor of just giving him time. After two or three months, the Yankees can assess the situation. I’m confident that by then he’ll be starting to acclimate to big league pitching.
Yankees fans can enjoy watching Volpe evolve, he brings a lot of youth and energy to a team that badly needs a spark on offense and Aaron Boone hasn’t hesitated to bat him leadoff, which shows that the organization believes in Volpe tremendously.
Another assessment that is coming into focus is that the Yankees rotation certainly will be a lot stronger when both Luis Severino and Carlos Rodon make their ways back from injury. Clearly the Yankees have ridden Gerrit Cole and Luis Severino as much as possible in the early season thus far, but an added caveat to having two key members of the rotation out with injury, is that Yankees pitching coach Steve Blake has been able to assess whether or not Clarke Shmidt, Jhony Brito and Domingo German are each feasible starters - this primarily due to the mounting innings each has now thrown.
Of the three, Schmidt has been the least impressive, though he was very effective over five-innings in his last outing, but of course the Blue Jays created his demise in the sixth-inning. Brito has been inconsistent but a bit more impressive overall while German has been fairly serviceable as a fifth starter.
This season, the Yankees were supposed to have the most dominating starting rotation in MLB, but with Carlos Rodon (forearm strain) and Luis Severino (low grade right Lat strain) out for the time being and with Frankie Montas (shoulder surgery) shelved indefinitely as well, the Yankees have been forced to turn to their internal depth to hold the fort in early April. In my candid opinion, the Yankees will benefit in the long run from giving Brito and Shmidt innings.
Once Rodon and Severino step in, the Yankees suddenly look great on paper, but being great on paper and translating that to actual on-field performance are often two very separate things with Cashman’s Yankees. My concern is, can the Yankees rotation hold itself together? I think it’s a valid concern. Rodon has missed 427 days and counting since 2016, which makes it fair to characterize him as an often injured pitcher who happened to stay mostly healthy over the past two seasons, for the first time in his entire career.
Meanwhile, Severino has missed 514 days over the same time span. The Yankees championship aspirations this season really require a contributing Severino and Rodon. It doesn’t seem remotely possible that the rotation, as presently filled in, can deliver a championship. The Yankees need at least two more quality starters, which both Severino and Rodon each are, when healthy.
Thus far, the Yankees don’t look like a World Series team. The offense is lagging and the starting pitching does have pretty significant question marks. It seem to me to be a foregone conclusion that eventually, Cole and Cortes are going to need some help in the rotation and unless the offense picks up significantly, the Yankees will likely struggle as they seemingly always do of late, against elite postseason pitching.
The positional portion of the roster might benefit tremendously if one or two prospects can force their way into the mix. If Dominguez and whomever else can impact the team at or around the Trade Deadline, things could change on that front and it could give the Yankees a real boost. Since I believe the Yankees are still clearly assessing what they have, I’ll predict that as constructed, the Yankees are a few bats, a few starters and perhaps even a closer away from being a legitimate contender.
Therefore, what would define success for this team? I’m afraid the answer to that question, in my mind at least, remains pretty fixed. Cashman and Steinbrenner had all offseason to adjust this roster and yet not a lot happened. They brought back Rizzo and Judge and added Rodon but they simultaneously lost Taillon, Benintendi and Carpenter.
I’m just not sure the Yankees have what it takes to win a championship this year. They’ll likely contend, thanks in part to at least half of the teams in baseball being pretty terrible this season, but when the regular season dust finally settles, I think the Yankees will have an uphill climb if they want to win a championship. It would be nice if Hal Steinbrenner came out said, we want to win a world series and so we’re going to do whatever it takes!
In the meantime and short of Steinbrenner making a proclamation that he’s willing to back up, I expect the “good enough” culture to produce yet another season that the Yankees underachieving owner, general manager and manager will all very willingly accept. Do I think the Yankees will win more than 90 games, make the playoffs and get eliminated as usual? Very possibly, yes, this could be the narrative, barring a renewed sense of urgency from the Yankees brass, I think fans will have to once again watch some other, more all-in team win a championship.