The Yankees Might Be Staring Down a Lost Decade

There hasn’t been a lot of smiling this season. Photo: Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last Thursday, as a light rain fell on Yankee Stadium, Gleyber Torres ambled to the plate. It was the bottom of the ninth, two outs, and the Yankees trailed by two runs. Shortstop Oswald Peraza led off first base. Torres, the second-best hitter in the Yankees’ ragged lineup, had homered earlier in the game and was plainly capable of heroics again. The Washington Nationals, perennial National League East also-rans since their shock World Series victory in 2019, were one team the Yankees could, in theory at least, still deflate.

But the fans didn’t seem to care. The possibility of a dramatic Yankee win couldn’t keep them from leaving, hundreds at a time, replica pinstripe jerseys streaming for the exits. It didn’t matter when Torres singled and Giancarlo Stanton, the $325 million albatross, scorched another single to make it 6-5. Harrison Bader, the light-hitting defensive whiz, lofted a long fly ball that safely settled into the glove of the Nationals’ center fielder. The fans beating the traffic were rewarded for their foresight.

The New York Yankees in 2023 are unlike any Yankee team in the last three decades. If nothing much changes in the final month of the season — and there’s little reason to believe it will — the Yankees will finish with their first losing record since 1992, the year their superstar slugger, Aaron Judge, was born. Plenty of players on the current roster weren’t alive at all in 1992. The Yankees are poised, too, to finish dead last in the American League East for the very first time since the divisional rounds and wild cards were established in the 1990s.

To listen to splenetic talk radio or hear any fan, really, assess the Yankees, a new dark age is already here. The legion of fans who have been calling for Brian Cashman, the Yankees general manager, to be fired for a better part of the last decade have never been more emboldened. Cashman’s Yankees haven’t played in a World Series (or won one) since 2009 and his few defenders, which have usually included me, can no longer point to the fact that he has always assembled very good to excellent teams, teams that reached the playoffs or at least won more games than they lost. At the All-Star break, this team was a mediocrity. In the wake of a recent nine-game losing streak, they are atrocious. Aaron Boone, the Yankees manager and another regular hate object for the apoplectic fan base, could be fired, though a recent report indicates he’ll return next year.

So what happens now? Is this the beginning of a long, dark epoch fans haven’t known since the late 1980s and early 1990s? Will this be like the late 1960s, when the great Yankee golden age gave way to a slew of sub-.500 teams? There are unsettling echoes of both eras. Like the 2010s Yankees, the 1980s teams were star-studded and usually competitive but could never reach a World Series. In 1985, they even managed 97 wins, but in a time before wild cards, that meant second place and a long offseason. Once the stars, like Rickey Henderson and Dave Winfield and Don Mattingly, aged or left in trades, the franchise collapsed. The nadir of the 1960s, meanwhile, came about because the Yankees, like today, had a rapidly aging core and a flock of prospects who never matured into actual superstars. Joe Pepitone, Tom Tresh, and Jim Bouton of Ball Four fame couldn’t replace Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, and a resurgent Baltimore Orioles team (sound familiar?) lorded over them for the rest of the decade. In the late 2010s, the “Baby Bombers” were celebrated enough to be the subject of a book: Today, only Judge has fulfilled his promise, and Luis Severino has been, for long stretches of the season, one of the very worst starting pitchers in Major League Baseball.

Analytically minded fans — the sort who look longingly at Steve Cohen’s Mets after they dumped Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer at the trade deadline for highly touted prospects — talk of a full-scale, post-Cashman rebuild of the likes the Houston Astros or Orioles painstakingly undertook. Years of losing and prospect hoarding can eventually unleash a juggernaut! Except the Yankees simply aren’t built to do that. Judge and Gerrit Cole, the Yankees’ $324 million ace, will be 32 and 33 next year, and there are only so many elite seasons the team can hope to enjoy from them before entropy takes its course. A rebuild will squander MVP and Cy Young seasons from both and their contracts are too large to be dealt away — not that the Yankees should consider it, because attendance would actually collapse.

Others believe the Yankees are too reliant on analytics, that they’ve left behind traditional scouting and failed to develop an enormous well of prospects like the Atlanta Braves, who, along with the Astros and Dodgers, have sat atop the rest of baseball for the last few years. It’s true that Cashman must be blamed for the Yankees’ lack of organizational depth. But it’s not like his rivals in the AL East — or anywhere, really — haven’t been relying on Ivy League graduates and mathematical savants to compete. The Tampa Bay Rays, perpetual contenders, care deeply about advanced, proprietary statistics. The general manager of the Boston Red Sox is a 40-year-old Yale graduate (he majored in Classics, for the record) who spent his formative years in Tampa.

The ultimate difference between 1992 and today — or 1965 and today — is the number of wild cards in the American League. None existed then, and three do now. The Nationals were a streaky 93-win team the year they won the World Series. The Philadelphia Phillies captured a pennant last year with 87 wins. As poor as the Yankees are playing now, they can still buy and trade their way to contention next year, and a farm system that was unable to bolster them in 2023 could soon bear fruit. The 20-year-old Jasson Dominguez, nicknamed the Martian for his otherworldly skillset, could be in the Yankees outfield in 2024 after a strong August at Double-A. The well-rounded Everson Pereira, who recently made his debut at 22, could be starting in the outfield even earlier. Anthony Volpe, handed the starting shortstop job for his rookie year, may never be another Corey Seager or Francisco Lindor, but he’s a potential franchise cornerstone with his ability to hit for power, steal bases, and draw walks.

A few free-agent signings could make the Yankees more competitive, though this will mean Hal Steinbrenner, the risk-averse scion, will have to push the team payroll higher. Cashman will probably not be fired — sorry, WFAN — because Steinbrenner is not interested in radically reimagining the organization. It’s not clear, as much as a fresh direction might be warranted, that the Yankees would suddenly be better off with an entirely new front office this offseason. Given that they are unlikely to sign Shohei Ohtani, who is said to prefer the West Coast and dislike New York (though $500 million for a left-handed slugger who could pitch again in 2025 is well worth it), they can focus on cheaper targets, like Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the star Japanese pitcher expected to head to the majors next year. For the price of Ohtani, both Yamamoto and Cody Bellinger, the left-handed Chicago Cubs outfielder about to hit free agency again, could be lured to New York. Neither will turn 30 until 2025. Eduardo Rodriguez, the Detroit Tigers lefty, may be another worthwhile target for the rotation.

The Yankees have fallen behind much of the American League. Fans have every right to their rage. What they must remember is that just like playoff appearances aren’t preordained, neither is futility. Franchises pivot quickly. A losing season in 2023 doesn’t mean absolute failure in 2024, 2025, or 2026. If the Yankees don’t treat this offseason like an emergency, though, the potential for a dark age will be much more real. After the Yankees missed the playoffs in 2008, they signed C.C. Sabathia, the best available starting pitcher, and Mark Teixeira, the best position player. In 2009, they were World Series champions. Does Steinbrenner have the appetite for that sort of spending spree? Can Cashman, in turn, be trusted to get creative? If not, it might be a long decade in the Bronx.

The Yankees Might Be Staring Down a Lost Decade