Yankees Lose, But Season Not A Loss

by Nicholas Cicale (@nickcicale)

The Yankees’ 2015 season crashed and burned in three hours last night, as they were shut down by the Houston Astros in the wild card play-in game. It was a bad matchup on paper, with Cy Young front runner Dallas Keuchel dominating the lefty-heavy Yankees lineup two previous time already in 2015 (16 shutout innings only allowing 10 base runners). While Yankees pitching did an admirable job against the Astros power-hitting bats, the Yankees offense was predictable useless, scattering three hits through the nine innings. The team looked helpless, swung at pitches aimlessly (Carlos Beltran and Alex Rodriguez had back-to-back 3-pitch swinging strikeouts to start the ninth inning), and just wasn’t suited for a one-game playoff. As a result, it was a boring and uncomfortable game to watch, and the once electric Yankees stadium crowd (wrongfully) let the team have it the final two innings of the contest, booing Brett Gardner to start when he came just short of hustling out a slow dribbler to first base.

Many will see this Yankees season as a huge disappointment, and a wasted opportunity after Tuesday’s loss. Some will feel betrayed and will blame the front office for not doing enough during the year to add a starting pitcher or a righty bat throughout the season. Some will feel let down and blame the players, who struggled down the stretch and lost seven of their last eight contest, or the manager’s strategy heading into the final game. And others will be angry and blame the new playoff system, as the team was on the losing end of a one-game series, but might have fared better if they had three or five games like the old days.

However, it’s easy to forget that seven months ago the Yankees weren’t actually expected to compete this season at all, and fans and analyst alike thought the team to struggle in what, in the preseason, looked like a stacked division. Manager Joe Girardi reiterated that in a somber press conference after the loss. “This is a club that fought all year long, and this hurts, because we didn’t get it done. All the question marks we had in spring training, we weren’t expected to get here.”

To start the season, it looked like it would have taken a slight miracle (I say slight because any team with a $214 million payroll has a chance to compete) for the Yankees to be in the playoff hunt with a roster of decaying, overpaid veterans, cheap and unexciting stop gaps, and a pitching staff led by a guy with a wrecked UCL. But it happened.

A lot of credit has to go to the organization for staying the course, both in the offseason and at the trade deadline. They could have easily thrown money at overvalued free agents to make a splash, or traded away their future to get an arm at the deadline for their unprecedented run, but they didn’t.  In an unexpectedly strong season, instead of selling out for one, ill-advised and highly unlikely run for a title, they stood pat, That was the right move.

After 2014’s crop of free agents didn’t work out as planned for the Yankees, the organization changed their philosophy heading into 2015. 2015 was a year to develop players for the next ten years, not just this one.  They focused on getting younger on the field, and built a farm system by holding onto their top minor league talent and stocking up on international prospects, and developing players from within. Despite their endless supply of money, the team decided to avoid a relatively a weak and older free agent class that didn’t have many players who filled the direct needs of the team.

The decision to pass on the upper echelon of signees–James Shields, Jon Lester, Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, Yasmani Tomas–who all underperformed their expectations and values in 2015, turned out to be the right call. The Yankees could have thrown another endless, backloaded contract at pitcher Max Scherzer, who was dominant for most of the season, but the team didn’t want to make the same mistakes they had in recent years, adding a contract that would be good right now but a burden in years four through seven. They didn’t envision the Yankees winning more than 82 games, and since the team wasn’t seen as a true contender, the front office knew they could buy cheaper, younger pitching in the coming years.

Instead, the Yankees made small, smart moves, that could help hold the team over for a year or two and also help build for the future. They resigned two productive and relatively undervalued players they acquired the summer of 2014 as stop gaps, adding an elite bullpen arm, and traded nothing for a young, defensively gifted shortstop with some offensive promise.

Chase Headley isn’t an overpowering bat, but he was a consistent part of the team’s order through the second half of 2014, and he was again through 2015, playing in 156 games and supplying above average defense at third base.

Chris Young signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract–pocket change for the team–to be a role player, and delivered a .327, .397. 575 slash line against southpaws, with 14 HRs and 42 RBI overall.  (For anyone jumping down Joe Gerardi’s throat for starting Young in the playoffs over Ellsbury against a dominant lefty pitcher, consider that Ellsbury’s numbers verses lefties were .253, .327, .325 in the same number of at bats, and Ellsbury had 7 less homers and 9 less RBI in 130 more season at bats. Young was the right choice.)

Didi Gregorious started the season off slowly on both offense and defense, but really settled in as the season progressed and finished with career highs in at bats, runs, RBI and homers, and a career best strikeout rate. His 3.3 WAR was 3.1 higher than Derek Jeter’s the season before, and it came at a price-tag of $553,000, not $12 million.

Finally, they brought in Andrew Miller, the perfect lefty compliment to flame-throwing righty Dellin Betances. Both had k/9 rates over 14, and combine for a 1.72 ERA over 145 innings, 46 saves, and only six total blown saves. It was money well spent on a contract that should be fruitful for the next three seasons.

And now, at season’s end, I think it’s pretty clear the the team’s initial goal–developing their young talent for the near future– was achieved, all while winning games, selling tickets and keeping their fans entertained into October, which makes the season a success. All three of the team’s big rookie call ups proved that they belong in the big leagues and should start 2015 as key pieces for the team, while other young acquisitions showed they were worth the time.

Rookie Luis Severino posted an ERA under 3 in his first 11 big league starts, and should line up as the teams second or third starting pitcher at the start of next season. Greg Bird was the Yankees most exciting player down the stretch filling in for oft-injured Mark Teixeira, and his 11 homers in only 157 at bats showed that he’ll be a solid option at fist, DH, and possible the outfield next season. And Rob Refsnyder successfully surpassed Steven Drew at second base. Also, future Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge crushed the ball in the low minors, settled into AAA nicely this summer, and should be Beltran’s replacement in 2017, if not right away. Gregorious established himself as a more than competent every-day middle infielder, while lefty reliever Justin Wilson was a a solid seventh inning arm all season.

Girardi played the cards he was dealt correctly all season, and made the right choices in the wild card too. Now, thanks to the team’s patients, it should all pay off.

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