What’s next for the Yankees after falling short in the AL wild-card game?
NEW YORK — The first day of the Yankees’ off-season had officially begun, and as Tuesday night tipped into Wednesday morning, one of the men who had arrived just as a previous generation of the team’s heroes was leaving put down his can of root beer and surveyed his cavernous and quickly emptying home clubhouse.
“This is probably the last time all these guys will be together,” said third-year relief pitcher Adam Warren. “It felt like a family this year more than any other. It’s sad to see it end.”
Indeed, a season that once had so much promise for New York—“there were times this year when it looked like this team had a chance” to win a World Series, said general manager Brian Cashman afterward—reached a thudding conclusion with a 3–0 loss to the Houston Astros in the American League wild-card game.
If 2015 will be remembered as the year in which sports' most successful franchise officially moved on from the Core Four era—this was the first season the team had played without Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte since 1994, when Warren was a six-year-old in North Carolina—it will also be remembered as one in which the Yankees overachieved in reaching the postseason after a two-year absence, yet underachieved by blowing a large AL East lead in the second half, limping into the playoffs and going down meekly against a club that wasn't even in the American League the last time the Yankees made the playoffs. They are a team in transition, still searching for an identity.
On Tuesday, New York included two players in its starting lineup—first baseman Greg Bird, 22, and second baseman Rob Refsnyder, 24—who made their major-league debuts earlier this season, offering a glimpse of a farm system brimming with possibility. The pitching staff was bolstered midseason by the arrival of another rookie, 21-year-old Luis Severino, who joins 25-year-old Nathan Eovaldi, 26-year-olds Michael Pineda and Masahiro Tanaka and 28-year-old Ivan Nova in giving New York an enviously youthful staff.
Yet the biggest storyline all season in the Bronx centered around the return of their 40-year-old designated hitter from a year-long PED suspension; and the biggest news down the stretch involved a pair of 35-year-olds. And while Alex Rodriguez provided what Cashman called a "pretty damn impressive" season that included 33 home runs, he slumped badly down the stretch, hitting .191 after the start of August with a .678 OPS.
In mid-September New York announced that first baseman Mark Teixeira, in the midst of a bounce-back season of his own, would be lost for the year because of a broken shin. On Monday, former ace CC Sabathia revealed that he would miss the postseason to enter rehab to treat an alcohol problem. And on Tuesday the Yankees’ season ended with three aging sluggers who still fill the 3-4-5 spots in their order and are still owed huge salaries—38-year-old Carlos Beltran, Rodriguez and 31-year-old Brian McCann—making the final outs in feeble fashion, two with strikeouts and the last via a harmless ground ball, to complete a night in which they went a combined 1 for 12.
Afterward, Cashman optimistically ran through his roster, praising the emergence of shortstop Didi Gregorius, the effectiveness of his bullpen, the resurgence of Rodriguez and the promise of his starting staff. Still, he said, “We have to add more weapons.”
Which ones they choose will be the topic that consumes the off-season. “The easy answer is pitching, pitching, pitching,” said Cashman, but the offense must also be addressed. Over the first two-thirds of the season the Yankees ranked second in the majors in runs scored and fourth in OPS. Over the final third, they were 11th and 20th in those same categories.
Cashman had infamously stood pat at the trade deadline—he said he passed on a chance to acquire second baseman Ben Zobrist, who wound up being traded from Oakland to Kansas City, because the asking price of Warren and Refsnyder was deemed too high—but he said Tuesday he had no regrets about that because, he said, “I didn’t have a place to put anybody.” Similar inaction hardly seems likely this winter.
For one, Zobrist is a free agent who may yet wind up in pinstripes. The same goes for slugging outfielder Justin Upton, who would supply the righthanded power New York so desperately needs. The switch-hitting Teixeira might help, but he hasn’t played a full season since 2011. With Teixeira, Beltran and Rodriguez still under contract and Bird making clear during his 11-homer debut in just 46 games that he belongs in the majors, it’s hard to see a clear roster spot for even for one of the team’s most promising young stars. Cashman admitted that it “would create a problem” to have too many players with not enough room to play them all.
A similar problem exists among the team’s pitching staff. Its youth and potential depth masks the struggles it endured. No one on the staff made even 30 starts and Tanaka, with an ERA+ of 114, was the only starter aside from Severino, a summer call-up, who had a mark better than league average. David Price and Zack Greinke (assuming he opts out of his current deal) will be available as free-agents, but the Yankees may be cautious about offering nine-figure contracts to pitchers, given that the last two men they did that for, Sabathia (a 4.81 ERA the past three seasons) and Tanaka, who has been pitching with a slight tear in his UCL, demonstrate the dangers of such a strategy.
Never was the club’s lack of a shutdown ace more apparent than on a night in which Tanaka, its $155 million import, couldn’t keep pace with the dominating performance of Houston’s Dallas Keuchel, a 27-year-old who makes barely half-a-million dollars but yet has already established himself as one of the game’s best pitchers. Tanaka was good on Tuesday, allowing two runs on a pair of solo home runs while striking out three and walking three in five innings. Keuchel was superb, holding New York to three hits and one walk while striking out seven in six innings on just three days’ rest.
It was the third time this year Keuchel had silenced New York’s bats, and it was the last in a two-month stretch of play that revealed the Yankees’ season to have been more mirage than magic. After peaking at 15 games over .500 and seven games up in the AL East on July 28, they went a meager 30-33 the rest of the way, and their total of 87 wins was just three more and two more than the two previous seasons, respectively, both of which ended after Game 162.
“It felt like we were 10 to 15 wins better than previous years, but we weren’t,” said Warren.
Houston, of course, is the perfect example of how quickly a franchise's fortunes can change. It won just 51 games in 2013, its first season after moving from the NL Central to the AL West, then quietly improved to 70 wins last year before going 86-76 this year. Long after the last out Tuesday, the Astros came back on the field for a team photo at the pitcher's mound, splashing champagne and beer, their cheers echoing throughout a mostly deserted ballpark. They were the picture of a team on the rise, a team of confidence, as evidenced by the bat flips Colby Rasmus and Carlos Gomez displayed after their solo home runs, and by a shirtless Rasmus flipping off the empty stadium.
When they had rushed the mound after securing their trip to the Division Series for a matchup with the Royals, New York's Brett Gardner stayed at the top of his dugout, staring out at the field with envy.
“You almost want to wake up and have that not be the reality,” he said later.
The reality for the Yankees is that the shortest October in franchise history had ended as soon as it began. Whatever comfort there was in the fact that at least there had been an October in the Bronx again had already been muted by the uncertainty of when the next October might arrive.