I got a text the other day from a friend: "The Yankees need to re-sign Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon."
It's a running joke between us, a reference to the 2005 season, when the Yankees were 39-39 on June 1, not looking very good, and Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon popped up out of nowhere to bolster the pitching staff. Small went 10-0 and Chacon went 7-3, the Yankees won 95 games and the team made the playoffs, like it had the previous 10 seasons. Of course, my friend is a Red Sox fan, so it's not so much a joke as his own personal and painful reminder that the New York Yankees always find a way. Always.
Except this season.
It became clear this weekend that the Yankees will not find a path to the playoffs in 2023 -- and, in fact, might not even find the path to a winning season. On Sunday, they led the Marlins 7-3 entering the bottom of the ninth. Clay Holmes and Tommy Kahnle faced eight batters, got only one of them out, and the Marlins rallied for an improbable 8-7 victory. "The mountain gets bigger with every loss," Holmes said afterward. "We have to put together some wins and string them together and get some momentum going."
Unfortunately, a series in Atlanta followed. The Braves pounded the Yankees 11-3 on Monday, shut them out 5-0 on one hit on Tuesday and beat them 2-0 on Wednesday. That loss dropped the Yankees to 60-61. It's the latest in a season they've been under .500 since 1995 (nine of the 26 players on the active roster were not yet born). "We're not showing up, that's what it comes down to," Aaron Judge said after the blowout defeat on Monday. "We need to take some personal pride," said manager Aaron Boone.
For once, the Yankees have no answers. Small or Chacon or Mike Tauchman or Matt Carpenter is not around to rescue them. The rotation is full of injuries. The bullpen is finally leaking. The offense is bad.
Some have rightfully pointed to the Yankees' lack of left-handed hitting, a major strategic flaw in the roster. The Yankees are next to last in the majors in plate appearances from left-handed batters -- despite the obvious reason to employ them and their status as a hallmark of Yankees success going back to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. (Yes, the Astros have the fewest, but the difference: Houston's right-handed hitters are better.)
Most problematic: For the second time in three years, the overall offense just hasn't been good. Among the regulars, only Judge and Gleyber Torres carry an OPS+ above league average. The Yankees were 10th in the AL in runs in 2021, first in 2022, 10th again in 2023. We all know what happened last season, but, shockingly, counting on Judge to remain healthy and hit 62 home runs every season probably isn't a reliable master plan.
Since July 4, when they were 10 games over .500, the Yankees are 12-23 and have been outscored by 51 runs. Over the same period, they are 28th in the majors in runs scored and 24th in runs allowed.
"It's been a slog," a frustrated Boone told reporters on Monday. "It's been a grind. It's not been how we drew it up."
They can forget the wild card. The Toronto Blue Jays, currently the third wild-card team, are 12 games over .500. If the Jays play .500 the rest of the way they would finish 87-75, so the Yankees would have to go 27-14 just to tie them -- and they also have the Seattle Mariners and Boston Red Sox to climb over. It's not going to happen -- and in fact finishing in last place in the AL East is more likely. But that's not even the worst part of this year's trajectory -- it could be the franchise's first losing record since 1992.
The Yankees' 30-year streak of consecutive winning seasons is an astonishingly impressive achievement in the ultracompetitive business of modern sports. The New England Patriots under Bill Belichick (and with Tom Brady) had 19 consecutive winning seasons from 2001 through 2019. In the NBA, the longest active streak is a mere 12 seasons by, believe it or not, the LA Clippers. The San Antonio Spurs had a 22-year run from 1998 to 2019 but have now suffered four losing seasons in a row. The Pittsburgh Penguins own the longest streak in the NHL at 17 seasons. Even Alabama football has had four losing seasons since the Yankees last had one.
Not surprisingly, a growing percentage of Yankees fans are not only calling for Boone to be fired but longtime general manager Brian Cashman as well. If the team does miss the playoffs and finishes with a losing record, Boone's seat no doubt will be hot, even though he has another year on his contract. That decision might rest more with managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner than Cashman. Who knows, Steinbrenner might not want to eat Boone's $2.75 million salary. After all, these Yankees now construct their business with some limitations on expenses -- although let's point out they still have the game's second-largest payroll in 2023.
That's why fingers are also pointing in the direction of Cashman, the team's GM since February of 1998 (who signed a new long-term deal this winter). The Yankees haven't won a World Series since 2009, but let's be fair here: While falling short of a title, the Yankees have had success in recent seasons, winning 99 games in 2022, 103 in 2019 and 100 in 2018. They've reached three American League Championship Series since 2017, losing all three times to the Astros.
Still, the majority of Cashman's big decisions in recent years haven't worked out, even if many of them were defensible at the time. Consider:
Trading for Giancarlo Stanton before the 2018 season. It was too tempting to resist pairing Stanton, coming off a 59-homer season with the Marlins, with Judge, coming off his 52-homer rookie season. Stanton had a 38-homer, 4.4-WAR season in 2018 but has produced less than 1.0 WAR in four of the next five, including 2023, when he's barely been above replacement level -- for a $32 million salary. The ripple effect of the Stanton trade makes it sting even more: With Judge and Stanton, the Yankees stayed away from pursuing Bryce Harper when he hit free agency after the 2018 season, even though Harper grew up a Yankees fan and had a swing tailor-made for the short right-field porch. Since 2019, Stanton has been worth just 4.8 WAR; Harper has racked up 15.8.
Giving Aaron Hicks a seven-year, $70 million extension in 2019 after one good full season in the majors in 2018 (and a good partial season in 2017). At the time, this made some sense since Hicks would be a potential bargain if he continued to play well. But he was an older player for a breakout season, turning 29 at the start of that deal. He battled injuries and played 100 games just once for the Yankees (hitting .216 in 2022) before they released him earlier this season.
Signing DJ LeMahieu to a six-year, $90 million contract in 2021 even though he was entering his age-32 season. LeMahieu was coming off two excellent seasons, finishing fourth in the MVP voting in 2019 and then third in 2020 after hitting .364 and leading the AL in OPS in 50 games during the COVID season. A reasonable signing given LeMahieu's production those two seasons, it was still risky given his age and, as we now know, a lot of players had fluky numbers in 2019 (due to the juiced ball) and 2020 (due to the weird short season). LeMahieu has been OK, but Cashman would probably like a redo on this one.
Trading for Josh Donaldson in 2022. Another bet on an older player -- Donaldson was entering his age-36 season in 2022 -- that didn't work out.
The Frankie Montas trade last year. Montas had missed a couple of starts with the A's with a sore shoulder, but Cashman traded for him anyway. He went 1-3 with a 6.35 ERA down the stretch, missed the postseason and will miss all of 2023 after shoulder surgery.
Needing a center fielder last year -- in part because Hicks was unproductive -- the Yankees traded solid starter Jordan Montgomery for Harrison Bader, even though Bader was on the injured list at the time. Bader has missed about 50 games this season and been a below-average hitter, while Montgomery could have been used in the rotation.
Signing Carlos Rodon to a six-year, $162 million contract. It's obviously too early to assess the long-term value here, but the first year of the deal has been a washout so far, with Rodon winning one game in eight starts with a 7.44 ERA. He's on the IL right now with a hamstring strain, although he could return next week.
Obviously, not every Cashman deal has backfired -- most significantly, Gerrit Cole has been worth the money. In part, Cashman was pushed to gamble on some of those older players because the farm system hasn't been productive enough. Deivi Garcia was supposed to a rotation stalwart by now, but he was placed on waivers last week (the White Sox claimed him). Luis Gil got injured. Others like Estevan Florial or Albert Abreu just didn't develop as hoped. Many were scattered to the winds in various transactions -- Ezequiel Duran, Garrett Whitlock, Luis Medina, Hayden Wesneski, Roansy Contreras, Kevin Alcantara, Thairo Estrada, JP Sears. The Yankees haven't really been burned too badly by any of those guys, but what were the returns?
This probably sounds more dire than it is. No matter what happens the rest of 2023, the Yankees will find a way to reshape things for 2024. A rotation with Cole, Rodon and Nestor Cortes is a good starting point, assuming better health from Rodon and Cortes. The lineup needs an overhaul, though, and the Yankees will still be on the hook for $64 million in salaries for Stanton, LeMahieu and Anthony Rizzo (who knows what he'll be able to contribute given his struggles with post-concussion syndrome). As it was at this year's trade deadline when the Yankees debated looking for help, the free agent market is thin on hitters -- well, you have Shohei Ohtani, but few insiders in the game forecast that happening.
But, that's all for the offseason, along with the futures of Boone and Cashman. There's plenty at stake for Yankees fans and Yankees haters alike in these final 41 games: Will the streak come to an end?