The Yankees were perpetually old and doomed. Let me just click on a random year in Baseball-Reference and, oh, look at that. It’s 2012, and the Yankees won 95 games. Raul Ibanez was the starter in left field. He was 40. Andy Pettitte was on the team somehow, I don’t even, and he went deep in both his postseason starts. He was 40, too. Hiroki Kuroda was their best starter. He was 400.
And, lo, their cracks were visible. The 2013 Yankees finished with 85 wins, but they were a mess. Their Pythagorean record was 79-83, and the players who logged the most innings at various positions were essentially a brutal list of grievances. Jayson Nix. Lyle Overbay. Vernon Wells. Travis Hafner. Vernon Wells. All of them were over 30. All of them were on their way out of baseball. Big-ticket pitcher CC Sabathia was awful, suddenly, and that’s a thing that happens to aging pitchers. Even Mariano Rivera, excellent as he was, couldn’t last forever.
The 2015 Phillies lost 99 games, and the 2015 Yankees were going to lose 100. That’s just how the success cycle works. The contracts catch up with a team. The success catches up with a team, what with them drafting at the back of the first round, year after year.
The cracks widened in 2014. Derek Jeter was 40, but he played much older. Baseball Prospectus had their farm system in the bottom half of baseball. Baseball America was a little kinder, but not much. They finished with 84 wins, and their Pythagorean record was 77-85. They were noticeably worse at several positions.
This made it more annoying in 2015 when the Yankees did not lose 100. They won 87 games and made the Wild Card Game, but that was just a mirage. They were buoyed by dead cats bouncing, getting strong and unlikely seasons from Alex Rodriguez (39), Mark Teixeira (35), and Carlos Beltran (38), and eight of their nine lineup slots were typically filled with someone over 30. The only exception was Didi Gregorius, a slap-hitting shortstop, who was good for scouting reports like this:
At the plate, he has more work to do. He is relatively helpless against lefties, but he knows how to bunt
And that hardly seemed like the franchise cornerstone the Yankees needed. It’s why the next season, when the Yankees stumbled to a .500 record at the trade deadline, it was appropriate to feel cocky. They were finally going to rebuild. They traded away Andrew Miller. They traded away Aroldis Chapman. The No Runs DMC bullpen core was gone, and the Yankees were finally going to finish under .500.
Then they went 17-11 after the deadline.
[faint rumbling sounds]
Huh, look at that, it appears as if Didi Gregorius can hit a little bit. What a fine player.
[louder rumbling sounds]
Ah, and that farm system ranking sure improved.
[chandelier starts shaking]
Hrmmmm, and it appears that Gary Sanchez is hitting twice as many home runs as he was in the minor leagues.
[light bulb pops]
Aaron Judge is already 25, so he’s probably not going to amount to mgraaaaahhhhhhhhhhh
[windows blast in]
[Ted Nugent kicks open the door]
And BLAMMO, it’s not just that the Yankees are back in the ALCS, with a chance to win the whole danged thing, it’s how well they’re suddenly set up for the future. Now they have a young shortstop who should be better than most of his peers for a while. They’ve turned Aaron Judge from a “maybe Chris Carter with an extra 20 points of batting average, idk” into an MVP candidate. Gary Sanchez didn’t miss a beat. They used that farm system to nab long-term players like Tommy Kahnle and Sonny Gray. They proved adept at resurrecting careers, like those of Aaron Hicks and Starlin Castro.
And, perhaps as terrifying as any of the above, their recent post-Beltran-McCann austerity and ability to avoid nine-figure contracts will give them room to blow up the free agent market soon. Maybe this year.
All without the painful rebuilding the Phillies are going through. Without the painful rebuilding Yankee-haters have been waiting for since Jorge Posada was in his late-30s and still cranking dingers. Without ... well, without the pain that it almost feels like a franchise this successful deserves.
Instead, they’re here, they’re loaded, and they’re set up for the future. If you’re worried about the payroll, and how much money they’ll have, that’s understandable, but it’s how the Yankees avoided the complete rebuild in the first place that would scare me the most.
Aaron Judge was drafted 32nd overall in 2013, which means that most of the teams in baseball could have had him, but chose someone else. That makes it a sad what-if for fans of other teams. The Rays could have had him ... the Giants ... the A’s ... the Reds ... and all of those fans get to wonder what it would have been like to have Judge on their roster.
Except it doesn’t work like that. If the Giants had Judge, I’m not convinced that he would be an everyday player, much less an MVP candidate. The ability of all 30 teams to take six metric tons of hitting clay and mold it into an All-Star was not distributed equally. The Yankees did it, though.
Just like they did it with Gary Sanchez. Just like they’re probably going to do with Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier. And it’s not just limited to the hitters, considering that Luis Severino fell off the wall and shattered into a million pieces last year, but the Yankees were capable of calmly rebuilding him, piece by piece. They’re doing the kinds of internal and developmental magic that the Rays or A’s need to do to contend ... except they’re the damn Yankees, which means they can also afford to slap a Todd Frazier onto their roster when they need to.
Not every team can build an Aaron Judge from the kit they get in the mail, but the Yankees did. And it might be the scariest skill a rich organization can have. There have been missteps along the way (it took a different set of mechanics to rebuild Ivan Nova, for example), but they’re set up as well as almost any other team in baseball when it comes to the current roster, the organizational depth, the money they have to spend in the short term, and their ability to keep a roster together, like the Yankees are known for doing.
And it all came without the pain.
The Yankees probably deserved more pain.
Well, like Yogi Berra once said, deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it, and now we’re stuck in a reality where the Yankees cut in line. Of all the teams to cut in line, this sure seems like the most unfair, but at least they’re fun to watch. They’re in the ALCS again, which means they’re close to the World Series, which means they’re close to winning another World Series.
It all happened so quickly, and it’s not going to go away nearly that quick. Get used to the Yankees. They did not sign for the shipment of pain, and it was returned to sender. Some of it was already redistributed to the Twins and Indians. There will be much more to distribute in the coming years.