The Kids Might Not Be Alright
by Lincoln Mitchell
October 6, 2023
Undoubtedly many Yankees fans view the 2023 season as disappointing, but that adjective understates the problem. The season was not merely disappointing, it was just bad, reflecting an organization that feels lost. Checking in on the Yankees at various points this season felt like touching base with an old friend only to learn that he was getting up at noon, starting drinking at 2PM, and was promising to look for a job “soon.”
2023 was one of those Yankees seasons like 1982 or 1965 when the wheels came off and it seemed like everything that could have gone wrong did. In both those previous cases, Yankees teams got old and could not keep up. In 1965, the team finished under .500 for the first time since 1925. Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were injured much of the year while Elston Howard and Whitey Ford began showing signs of age. The Yankees would not win a pennant for another decade. In 1982, the late 1970s championship team finally collapsed. Thurman Munson had died in plane crash in 1979; Reggie Jackson had gone to the Angels via free agency and good seasons by star players like Dave Winfield, Goose Gossage, Tommy John could not conceal the team’s many weaknesses. The team’s sub .500 record in 1982 was their first in almost a decade.
In 2023, many problems the Yankees had were predictable, and indeed predicted. Giancarlo Stanton, Josh Donaldson and DJ LeMahieu continued to age and were not productive. A freakish injury to Anthony Rizzo revealed the team’s lack of depth. Players like Isiah Kiner-Falefa got way too much playing time. Failing to address the longstanding problem in left field turned out, to the surprise of almost nobody, not to be a wise strategy. Aaron Judge continued to be an elite offensive player, but lost almost two months to injury. That was a bad break but, again, hardly a surprise. Luis Severino lost most of the year to injury and, as evinced by his frequently terrible pitching, was probably never fully healthy. Brian Cashman’s penchant for acquiring injured players continued to dog the Yankees as star free agent acquisition Carlos Rodon was limited to 14 starts and pitched appallingly badly, finishing the season with an ERA of 6.85.
At the beginning of the season, the Yankees starting rotation was viewed as one of the very best in baseball. Ace Gerrit Cole did his part and will likely win the AL Cy Young, but Rodon, Luis Severino, and Nestor Cortes combined for 12 wins with Severino’s 6.65 ERA only slightly better than Rodon’s. Only when compared to Rodon and Severino’s disastrous season does Cortes’s 4.97 ERA look okay, but Cortes was also hurt or ineffective pretty much the entire year.
Those are all reasons why 2023 was such a bad year for the Yankees, but unfortunately there is also reason to believe that help is not yet on the way. When the season began, the Yankees finally began to make some room for younger players. Anthony Volpe was made the starting shortstop; Oswaldo Cabrera was expected to see a lot of time in left field; Oswald Peraza was seen as poised to contribute in some capacity, while several other young players were not too far from making the team.
On the positive side, the Yankees commitment to younger players in 2023 was much bigger than in recent years. Players 25-years-old or younger got a combined 1,483 plate appearances, roughly three times more than in either 2021 or 2022, when the team was clearly too old. Unfortunately, very few of those players showed clear signs of being ready to make an impact at the big league level. The major exception to this was Jason Dominguez who slashed .258/.303/.677 in 33 plate appearances before he was shut down for the year due to injury. Dominguez is unlikely to be back before the middle of next season and will probably be limited to a DH role for the rest of 2024 after he returns.
Anthony Volpe’s season was something of a puzzle. Concerns about his defense proved overblown as he demonstrated that he is a fine defensive shortstop. However, Volpe failed to hit consistently, striking out in 28% of his plate appearances while hitting only .207 with a .283 on-base-percentage. Volpe’s combination of power, 21 home runs, and speed, 24 stolen bases, demonstrated what he could be, but unless he can add 40 or so points to his batting average, he will not be a true force at the plate. However, given that Volpe did all this in at the age of 22, with the right coaching, something that is not a given with the Yankees, Volpe could still develop into a better hitter.
The rest of the young players simply didn’t hit. It is still possible that Austin Wells, Peraza, or Everson Pereira will develop into solid major leaguers, but none of them hit enough in relatively extended opportunities in the last month or so of the season. Wells struggled to get on base, but hit with enough power to finish with and OPS+ of 97. However, questions still remain about his defense behind the plate. If Wells cannot remain as a full-time catcher, he will have to hit much more than that to be a contributor.
One way to see the struggles of the Yankees who were 25 or younger this season, including Dominguez, Volpe, Peraza, Pereira, Wells, Orlando Cabrera, Estevan Florial, and Ben Rortvedt, is that they slashed a collective .201/.274/.340. That is an OPS+ of about 72, and includes Dominguez’s OPS+ of 158. In other words, as a group the young Yankees his about as well as a sub-replacement level backup infielder.
This underscores just what a wasted season this was for the Yankees. In addition to squandering one of the few remaining peak years of both Judge and Cole, the Yankees failed to sufficiently develop the next generation of players. The youth movement may have begun in 2023, and for that we should be grateful, but although there is always potential, other than a now injured Dominguez and a season from Anthony Volpe that was equal parts promising and frustrating, there is little reason to believe the future has arrived in the Bronx.