Will The Yankees Party Like It’s 1995?
By Mike Whiteman 10/11/2020
For Yankee fans, this is a sad weekend. The baseball season is over much too soon, finished off in a devastatingly dramatic way, and there’s a strong feeling that a real opportunity has been missed.
We know these emotions. We’ve experienced them before. Remember 1995?
For those who may not recall, the 1995 season was supposed to be the one in which the Yanks retook their rightful place as the kings of baseball after a long dry spell. They were coming off of a 1994 season, sadly strike shortened, in which they were the best team in the American League. To this already formidable group, they added the 1993 Cy Young Award winner Jack McDowell and elite closer John Wetteland. Take it to the bank; 1995 season was going to be the year of the Yankees.
Things didn’t quite follow the script. After a shortened spring training when the teams returned to play from the labor strife, the Yanks shot out the gate with a 7-2 start, but then fell into a horrible slump, playing under .500 ball as late as September 5th. A 19-4 September run, including a 10-1 finish, clinched one of the new expanded playoff spots (the three division format was in its second season). Unfortunately, they didn’t make it beyond the upstart Seattle Mariners in the first round, losing a heartbreaking Game Five, and we all remember that horrible Edgar Martinez double down the left field line scoring Ken Griffey Jr.
Sound familiar? Coming off of a really good 2019 season, the Yanks made a splash by adding ace Gerrit Cole, who was going to put them over the top. After an abbreviated “summer camp” due to COVID, the Yanks got off to the expected great start only to fall into a midseason funk, followed by a late season revival to clinch a place in the 2020 expanded postseason. Unfortunately, the young, fun and hungry Tampa Bay Rays stood in the Yankees’ way and blocked their trip back to the Promised Land, crushing the dream in the form of Mike Brosseau’s Game Five homer off of closer Aroldis Chapman.
Going back to the to the Yankees’ 1995 story, there’s an important epilogue: they went on to win the 1996 World Series, beginning of one of the great dynasties in baseball history.
That period of extended Yankee success didn’t just happen. In the raw disappointment of the 1995-1996 offseason, there were some bold decisions the team made that would shape their fate for a generation:
1. They changed leadership: Manager Buck Showalter was greatly admired and appreciated by Yankee fans as his leadership was crucial to emergence from the dismal 80s/early 90s period of the franchise. He “resigned” (read: forced to by George Steinbrenner) and was replaced by Joe Torre.
General Manager Gene Michael transitioned to more of a consultant/scouting role after 1995, replaced by Bob Watson, the former Houston Astros’ GM and Yankee first baseman.
2. The made some unpopular moves: In 1996 Torre was not Joe Torre, Hall of Fame manger. He was Joe Torre, sub-.500 manager fired three times with one postseason appearance in fifteen seasons. His replacing the popular Showalter did not go over well. Remember “Clueless Joe”?
Catcher Mike Stanley had a .352 career slugging percentage when he was signed by the Yanks in a seemingly minor transaction prior to the 1992 season. “Stick” Michael must have seen something others didn’t, as Stanley transformed into an elite hitter, winning a 1993 Silver Slugger award and making the 1995 AL All-Star team. The 134 OPS+ catcher (during his Yankee tenure) was allowed to leave as a free agent after the season, replaced with a career 70 OPS+ glove first catcher named Joe Girardi.
3. They adjusted their style – The new Yankee management team of Torre and GM Bob Watson prioritized defense and pitching over the traditional Yankee power. Girardi was added specifically at the recommendation of coach Don Zimmer because of his defense and grit. They added pitchers Kenny Rogers, a 1995 All-Star with Texas, former Met legend Dwight Gooden and re-signed David Cone, who had been acquired in 1995 stretch run. They also acquired reliever Jeff Nelson, off of a 2.17 ERA season with Seattle, in a deal to fortify the bullpen.
The hire of the career National Leaguer Torre also impacted the on the field product significantly. In 1995 the Yanks finished near the bottom in the AL in stolen bases and sacrifice bunts. In 1996 they increased both, while not relying so much on the home run. In fact, the 1996 Yankees hit only 162 home runs as a team, well behind Baltimore’s league leading 257 dingers.
4. They moved on from icon – Don Mattingly’s illustrious Yankee career ended with his retirement after the 1995 postseason. The Yankees went out and picked up Tino Martinez from the Mariners, and Tino went on to become a fan favorite.
5. They trusted youth: Yankee legends Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera were not legends in 1996. Jeter was a 22-year old top prospect who struggled through Spring Training and Rivera a 26-year old with a career 5.51 ERA. In a decision that linked the fate of both, Yankee brass decided not to deal Rivera for infield help, deciding to go with Jeter at short. Of course, we now know that Jeter was the 1996 Rookie of the Year and Rivera finished third in Cy Young voting, developing as a devastating weapon out of the pen.
The Yankees appear to be a similar crossroads now. There are plenty of questions to be answered in the upcoming weeks and months. Among them:
Does Aaron Boone survive? He seemingly does but Brian Cashman is capable of managerial surprises (remember 2017).
What happens to DJ LeMahieu and Masahiro Tanka? Will the Yanks spend what it takes to retain the fan favorites going into their age 32 seasons?
Do the Yanks stay with the style of bludgeoning opponents with home runs? It seems to have worked fine in the regular season but has come up short in the postseason.
Have we seen the last of Brett Gardner in a Yankee uniform?
Are Deivi Garcia and Clint Frazier for real? Can they be trusted with key roles in 2021?
Yankee defense was brutal at times in 2020. Do they upgrade at the detriment to offense?
Do the Yanks spend on free agents? There look to be some players that would address areas of need.
This is the second season in a row that the Yankee season ended on a homer off of Chapman. Can he be trusted as closer going forward? Do they even have other options?
Stay tuned to Start Spreading the News throughout the offseason for your Yankee news and analysis!