Analysis | The Yankees prove money can’t buy baseball happiness


NEW YORK — Strip away the pinstripes and the facade, the history and the city, and the situation the New York Yankees face is a lot less complicated than it may seem. For all the scrutiny the Yankees’ prominence invites, their circumstances often blur their reality. But nothing was blurry about the way their season ended Sunday night.

They were swept by the Houston Astros in an American League Championship Series that never, for one second, looked as though it would go New York’s way. The Yankees have not advanced to the World Series since 2009. Their most beloved player of this generation, Aaron Judge, is effectively a free agent. There is no core. There are pieces. There is no title. There is disappointment.

If these were not the Yankees, all of that would be just fine. They have not had a losing season since before almost everyone on their roster was born. They have not missed the playoffs since 2016. They remain the most prominent franchise in the sport. By the standards to which many teams hold themselves, they are aspirational.

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But by their own standards, they are failing. This team owned a 64-28 record after two drubbings of the rival Boston Red Sox in mid-July. And everything after that led downhill to a 99-win season and a grueling five-game set with the Cleveland Guardians in the AL Division Series, just to have a chance at the Astros.

“It’s an awful day, just an awful ending. It stings. It hurts,” Manager Aaron Boone said Sunday. “… So much goes into it and trying to climb to that top of the mountain. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to get there yet.”

The Yankees might as well have tried to climb that mountain with a broken leg, flip-flops and a half-bottle of champagne long since devoid of any of its fizz. While other teams around them improved down the stretch, coming together around trade acquisitions or simply coalescing into something greater than the sum of their parts as the season rolled along (see: Phillies, Philadelphia, or Padres, San Diego), the Yankees fell apart.

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“No one was expecting the Phillies to be where they are. They were not the best team before the playoffs. In the playoffs, something switched,” Yankees right-hander Luis Severino said Sunday. “… The playoffs change everything from the regular season. They change everybody. We need to find a way to do that.”

For years now, they haven’t found a way.

Maybe the answer is as simple as the one fans scream on talk radio and from the seats at Yankee Stadium: Maybe Hal Steinbrenner just isn’t spending enough. He told reporters in Tampa before the season that the Yankees cannot spend as freely as it might seem they should, as they seemed to in his father’s time. The coronavirus pandemic hit them, too. They pay a hefty lease. And while he didn’t say this that day, they also seem especially averse to crossing the luxury tax threshold year after year, something many teams try to avoid — but many teams do not have the resources the Yankees, from the outside, seem to have.

Then again, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, New York finished with the second-highest payroll in baseball every year but one since 2013 and will finish in the top three this year. So perhaps it is what the Yankees are doing with the money that is the problem.

To that end, the Yankees face a pivotal question this offseason: Their longtime head of baseball operations, Brian Cashman, is not under contract beyond this season. He has run the team since 1998, in the midst of the greatest October run in recent memory. But he has not led them into a similar era since.

If the Yankees wanted to overhaul, this might be a natural time to part ways with Cashman. One could argue he has done what many general managers cannot and kept his team winning, year after year, in a bruising division, under more pressure than any of his colleagues experience. One also could argue, particularly after the past week or so, that the Yankees are far from being the kind of annual powerhouse the Astros have become — or even the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves have become.

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But the Yankees, at least recently, do not feel as though they are as credible contenders as those teams are. Their minor league pipeline is not churning out the next generation of stars, at least not yet. They have success turning pitchers into better pitchers but not enough to build the kind of depth that allows them to have plenty of firepower left this time of year. Maybe top prospects Oswald Peraza, Jasson Dominguez and Anthony Volpe will be the next core. But they are not going to be that in 2023.

Similarly, the Yankees have not done a good job building sturdy major league rosters.

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When the Yankees needed to fill in around Judge and fellow towering slugger Giancarlo Stanton, they did so not with stars but with players who could do the job adequately. For example, instead of pursuing one of the many high-profile shortstops on the market last year, the Yankees traded for Isiah Kiner-Falefa — whose defensive struggles in the playoffs were not unforeseeable — and Josh Donaldson to play third base. Donaldson, 36, is no longer the MVP-caliber player he once was, and the Yankees did not plan for him to be that. But they could have had an MVP-caliber player in their infield were they willing to spend for it. They were not. He struck out 10 times in 13 at-bats in the ALCS and frustrated fans so much they booed him to the dugout.

After Game 4 on Sunday, as the players said their goodbyes, two-time batting champ DJ LeMahieu, who was unavailable in the playoffs because of injury, limped to the shower in flip-flops. Aaron Hicks, wearing a knee brace, crutched his way out of the room. Andrew Benintendi, another deadline acquisition who might have helped had he stayed healthy, slid quietly away. Injured relievers Zack Britton and Scott Effross were not present. Aroldis Chapman, who was left off the postseason roster after missing a workout, was not there, either. Boone spent part of his postgame news conference talking about the injury that pushed starting pitcher Nestor Cortes from the game.

“I think we have a lot of the right ingredients in there. I think there were a few really impactful people that weren’t able to play in this postseason that would have potentially been a real difference,” he said. “We got thinned out a little bit by injury. Again, everyone’s got to deal with that.”

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It’s true that injuries undermined the club later in the season. In fact, when explaining how they achieved such a dominant start, people around the Yankees often brought up their remarkable streak of good health. But injuries seem to hamper this team more than others because they do not build the depth to withstand them. Whatever depth they believe they have, it seems they need more.

And then there is Boone, the easy target of consternation who made multiple decisions this series that were not the obvious ones. Boone is not the reason the Yankees lost to the Astros. They are not close enough to the Astros — in terms of depth or talent — to have their manager make the difference.

But the undeniable truth with recent Yankees teams is that they are noticeably, undeniably devoid of joy. No Yankees team could ever live carefree — not in this city. But a tour of clubhouses would leave the Yankees as one of the quietest, most palpably taut groups in the game. They do not sit around their lockers and chat. They do not linger after games, at least not where reporters can see them. They do not joke much. They rarely smile.

They are Yankees, so they cut their hair and shave their beards and say what they’re supposed to say and fall in line. They do not, it seems, have any fun at all. Maybe no one can alleviate the pressure that comes with playing in New York. But it does not seem Boone has been able to shield them from it. He certainly does not seem to have been able to shield himself.

Whatever the reason, the Yankees finished another season trying to be better than they are, built on expectations without the weapons needed to meet them. The pinstripes, as they say, are heavy. And the Yankees, as constructed, are just not strong enough to carry them.

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