The New York Yankees are not used to this. Team general manager Brian Cashman is not used to this. The 82-80 down year that was 2023 marked their first postseason miss and first fourth-place finish since 2016, their worst record and largest division deficit since 1992 — when the AL East was seven teams and half the league. Unlike the 2016 dip, which Cashman cleverly twirled into a trampoline bounce-back to sustained contention, the 2023 season is being perceived, fairly or not, as the Yankees crashing into a ditch.
That was the tenor when Cashman — MLB’s longest-tenured and most decorated active executive — appeared before reporters at the GM meetings last week in Arizona and sharply, aggressively made the case that he would not be getting used to it. On the matter of whether the barrage of criticism was being lobbed fairly or not, Cashman left no doubt as to where he stood: Not.
"I'm proud of our people, and I'm proud of our process," Cashman said, per ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez. "Doesn't mean we're firing on all cylinders, doesn't mean we're the best in class, but I think we're pretty f***ing good, personally. I'm proud of our people, and I'm also looking forward to '24 being a better year than '23.”
Obviously, the word we can’t fully print got the headlines. So did his indelicate assessment of Giancarlo Stanton as, well, delicate. Yet in Cashman’s full comments, there’s unsurprisingly a more nuanced point. He was not claiming that the 82-80 Yankees team that limped out of the playoff race over the summer was pretty f***ing good. He was pushing back against a loud, multidirectional thirst for radical change, which becomes a more interesting conversation. Let’s engage with what he actually said and the merits of his arguments as the Yankees gear up for what appears to be a pivotal offseason.
First, Cashman’s actual assessment of 2023:
What went wrong this season?
"We only won 82 games, we didn't make the playoffs. I called it a disaster because it was unexpected, and it was a disaster. That roster on paper was a hell of a lot better than it played out.”
To his point, projection systems heavily favored the Yankees to be a postseason team entering the season, and the PECOTA system at Baseball Prospectus saw them as a 97-win AL East champion. A certain writer whose byline definitely is not on this column — no, sir — picked the Yankees to represent the AL in the World Series. Then, virtually everyone on the team except Gleyber Torres and Cy Young winner Gerrit Cole played less than expected (Aaron Judge, Jonathan Loaisiga), worse than expected (DJ LeMahieu) or, most troublingly, both (Carlos Rodón, Stanton, Anthony Rizzo, Nestor Cortes Jr., Harrison Bader).
“At this point last year, closer to the end of the winter, it was, 'This is a playoff team. This is a World Series-contending team,'" Cashman said. "In fact, maybe the best roster they've had to give them a chance to get to the World Series.' And the same people now are talking about roster construction, too much analytics and all this other stuff, which I get a kick watching that back and forth where, 'Geez, those are the same kind of people that actually liked what we did six months ago, and they're killing us for it now.'”
This part of Cashman’s complaint gets at the surround-sound cacophony of critiques an executive endures at the helm of a New York professional sports franchise. And he’s right, in many ways. His group made six straight postseasons with two AL East titles sprinkled in there prior to 2023. The 2022 club sprinted to the ALCS before running into the typical Houston Astros brick wall, despite a sagging second-half offense that Judge carried over the finish line.
But Cashman elides longstanding worries over the Yankees’ aging, physically limited core and the decisions to largely maintain that group and patiently wait for a wave of young talent instead of shaking it up or building a bridge with younger stars. Some of that talent arrived in 2023 — Anthony Volpe was underwhelming with the bat but made an admirable transition as a strong shortstop and baserunner. Jasson Dominguez briefly looked terrific in the second half before an injury abruptly ended his season. Neither was so convincing that they justified not making stronger pushes for Nolan Arenado, Carlos Correa or Bryce Harper in free agency.
So yes, Stanton and LeMahieu and Rizzo and Rodón and Bader looked like much better reinforcements for Judge and Cole last spring, when they were healthy and defined by their reputations, their past performance. The issue for the Yankees is the creeping sense — which for most did not begin in 2023 — that those reputations are changing. Rodón is seeking a mulligan. Bader is gone. And for the others, there’s more emphasis on the “past” than the “performance.”
Speaking of …
“We try to limit the time he’s down. But I'm not gonna tell you he’s gonna play every game next year because he’s not. He’s going to wind up getting hurt again more likely than not because it seems to be part of his game.”
Cashman’s realistic but harsh remarks about Stanton felt like an accidental reflection of the New York market’s critical crossfire. The 34-year-old former MVP and exit velocity king hasn’t played a full slate since 2018, and he’s under contract through at least 2027. That’s a problem for the Yankees, but one that executives almost never drag into the spotlight of their own volition. Stanton, after all, has never been accused of poor conditioning or lack of effort. He has just dealt with a series of injuries.
The barbs were particularly eyebrow-raising because Stanton’s agent, Joel Wolfe, is also representing Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the 25-year-old Japanese starting pitcher who is viewed as this winter’s best free agent not named Shohei Ohtani. Wolfe reacted to the Stanton comments with a statement that not-so-subtly referenced how athletes “foreign and domestic” should realize they can never let their guard down if they play for a New York franchise.
Giancarlo Stanton’s agent, Joel Wolfe, responds below to Yankees GM Brian Cashman saying of Stanton, “He’s going to wind up getting hurt again more likely than not because it seems to be part of his game.” pic.twitter.com/gZHlqy4cfY
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) November 14, 2023
How can the Yankees improve quickly?
Cashman, who said Thursday that he had smoothed things over with Wolfe and Stanton, scouted a Yamamoto no-hitter in person earlier this year, and one very clear way the Yankees could inject optimism into the team is by signing Yamamoto, likely by breaking their own MLB record for a Japanese pitcher contract in topping Masahiro Tanaka’s $155 million deal.
“We've made good decisions over the course of time. More recently, some of these things haven't been as good. I'm responsible for that. That's my call. And hopefully we'll be in a better position with some of the decisions we'll hopefully run into to improve the roster and improve where we're sitting at the end of '24.”
Yamamoto is one target. Obviously the Yankees will be making overtures to Ohtani. If the San Diego Padres make Juan Soto available, the Yankees are viewed as a well-positioned suitor, given their financial might to absorb a salary north of $30 million in his final year of arbitration and their ability to offer major-league-ready starting pitching prospects.
Beyond those headliners, though, the Yankees have other work to do. Torres, the second baseman who turns 27 in December, has several markings of a potential trade candidate. He’s one season from free agency, set to make something in the neighborhood of $15 million for a team that will be asking which luxury-tax level they will be paying. He’s not a strong defender now, making his future as a middle infielder far from certain. And most importantly, the Yankees have a replacement ready for an opportunity in Oswald Peraza, who showed flashes in the 2022 playoffs but was largely crowded out of playing time last season.
The Yankees also have a significant roster imbalance, with a glut of workable catchers and a dearth of major-league outfield depth. How they resolve those quandaries — can they get more athletic and durable? Can they find and develop players who exceed expectations? — could reshape the roster behind the big names and ultimately sway how the talk radio call-in shows feel about the team come November 2024.
"No one's doing their deep dives. They're just throwing ammunition and bulls*** and accusing us of being run analytically. Analytics is an important spoke in our wheel. It should be in everybody's wheel, and it really is an important spoke in every operation that's having success. There's not one team that's not using it; we're no different. But to be said we're guided by analytics as a driver — it's a lie. But that's what people wanna say. I know I can't change that narrative. All I can continue to do is say 'bulls***, not true.'"
That does not mean the callers on those shows will understand what actually swayed their moods or their team’s fortunes.
What a 'deep dive' means for the Yankees going forward
It has been a bit of a curious saga as Yankees team owner Hal Steinbrenner said in August that the club would bring in an external group to take a “deep dive” into the front office’s analytical practices. That was taken as a potential sign of big changes on the horizon, but that hasn’t really been the case. Aaron Boone is returning as manager. The hitting coach job opened by Dillon Lawson’s midseason dismissal did go to longtime MLB instructor James Rowson, rather than inexperienced interim Sean Casey. Bench coach Carlos Mendoza departed for the Mets’ manager gig and has not yet been replaced. The external group, we now know, is Zelus Analytics, a respected group founded by a number of former front-office executives.
The whole news cycle whipped up a familiar sort of misdirected ire that I have diagnosed before. In this case, the furor led to Cashman arguing at least in part against good 2023 baseball sense to placate a bone-headed, vocal minority. As part of these comments, he accentuated that the Yankees have the smallest analytics department in the AL East — which, if true and not just bluster, should probably be a warning sign instead of a point of pride when the two teams with the smallest markets and most data-focused reputations just finished atop the division.
"I get a kick out of how it's decisions about players that are really good Major League Baseball players or potentially helpful Major League Baseball players, and that we're dumb for getting them, and other people, obviously, they're not dumb. Bottom line, it just comes down to winning and losing. And that's what this is all about. We lost way too many games than we should've lost last year.”
This is a dig at the hand-wringing over players who have floundered with the Yankees and gone on to success elsewhere, with free-agent pitcher Sonny Gray, lately of the Minnesota Twins, being the most prominent example and Baltimore Orioles outfielder Aaron Hicks the most recent. Sometimes players change, and the timing doesn’t work in your team’s favor.
Yet it’s worth asking whether the Yankees are working the hardest and smartest to maximize their talent. The differences in results and in allocation of resources between the Bronx and, say, the Los Angeles Dodgers or Houston Astros would suggest they aren’t. There’s a lot that has to go right for a team to play better than .500 baseball in any season, and there's a lot more that has to be strong to compete deep into October — and an even sturdier foundation required to maintain it for as long as Cashman’s Yankees have.
He and his front office deserve almost all of the benefit of the doubt for which he has vocally fought this winter. The doubts are not all well-founded, and they’re certainly not all well-stated, yet they exist for a reason. Right now, the crucial second wave of talent behind Judge and Cole is questionable because of either age and health or youth and inconsistency. That could look like a mirage by the summer, but the Yankees will almost certainly have to do something at least a little different to make it so.