The New York Yankees made the playoffs for the first time since 2012, earning the top Wild Card spot but bowing out to the Houston Astros by the score of 3-0 in the one game playoff. New York won 87 games after posting 85 victories in 2013 and 84 victories in 2014. This truly was the beginning of a new era as legendary shortstop Derek Jeter retired, the last of the “Core Four” to say his goodbyes. This was expected to be a down year for the Yankees in 2015. In fact, according to USA Today’s Power Rankings published before the season, the Yanks were supposed to finish last in the American League East. Given that line of thinking, would their season be considered a success?
What Went Right
The Yankees had no idea what to expect from Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez with the former coming off an ineffective and injury-riddled season and the latter coming off a suspension and fighting age. You can make the argument that the two players should be the co-MVP’s of the club with Rodriguez leading the team in home runs with 33 and Teixeira right behind him at 31. Teixeira earned his third All-Star Game appearance and re-enforced his standing as the best defensive first baseman in the sport. Speaking of All-Stars, Bret Gardner earned his first trip to the Mid-Summer Classic on the strength of his 16 home runs and career-best 66 RBI’s.
Carlos Beltran had his own bounce-back season with 19 home runs and improving his batting average by over 40 points. He was the Yankees’ best player after August 1st, hitting .353 in the month. Didi Gregorius, who got off to a very rough start as Jeter’s replacement got hot in the second half and set personal highs with nine home runs and 56 RBI’s. He was also as good as advertised in the field. Brian McCann had a great season, with 26 home runs and leading all catchers (and the Yanks) in RBI’s with 94. He was also indispensible behind the plate, throwing out 32 percent of would-be basestealers. If the current Yankees would name a captain in the post-Jeter era, McCann would be the guy.
Any talk about the team’s pitching starts with the one-two bullpen punch of free agent-signing Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances. In only his second full season, Betances again had a ridiculous number of strikeouts with 131 in only 84 innings. He was named to his second All-Star team. The 30-year old Miller had one of his most dominant seasons with 100 strikeouts and 36 saves in 60 appearances. He was even better than the Yankees had envisioned. Left-hander Justin Wilson was another excellent addition to the bullpen, appearing in 74 games to the tune of a 3.10 ERA. Nathan Eovaldi, acquired from the Miami Marlins for Martin Prado won 14 games featuring an upper-90’s fastball.
The Yankees’ farm system, so stale for very long is now producing players who play important roles for them. It started last year with Betances and continued in 2015 with Luis Severino. The right-hander, who is only 21, was impressive in 11 starts with a 2.89 ERA and in 62 1/3 innings he allowed 53 hits and 22 walks while striking out 56. First baseman Greg Bird made his Major League debut in August and slugged 11 home runs in 157 at-bats. The 22-year old Bird also posted a fine .343 on-base percentage. Adam Warren, in his third full season, proved to be one of the Yankees’ most valuable pitchers, making 43 appearances with 17 of them starts, compiling a 3.29 ERA.
What Went Wrong
The Yankees, who spent 85 days in first place, wilted over the final two months of the season. They went 29-31 from August 1st on and were severely outplayed by the Toronto Blue Jays, who went on to win the American League East. The Yanks lost 13 of 19 to the Jays including a stretch in August and September when they went 4-9 against them. Toronto looked young and energized while New York looked lethargic. During the last week of the regular season, the Yanks lost six of seven games and then the playoff contest to Houston.
No member of the starting rotation made 30 starts and none of them completed 170 innings. C.C. Sabathia came the closest to both numbers with 29 and 167 1/3 respectively but he was hit hard with a 4.73 ERA. Ironically for Sabathia, he pitched well over his last six outings but had his season ended when he checked into alcohol rehab. Eovaldi, despite his 14 victories, averaged less than six innings a start and had a 4.20 ERA. Masahiro Tanaka was again the team’s ace but for the second time in as many seasons, missed a key portion of the season due to injury. He finished with a rotation-best 3.51 ERA and was tied for second in wins with 12. You never knew what Michael Pineda was going to do. He could be dominant like he was on May 10th when he struck out 16 batters in seven innings or brutal like on June 22nd when he was torched for eight runs on 11 hits in 3 1/3 innings.
Chase Headley, fresh off of re-signing with the Bronx Bombers for an additional four years, had a disappointing season. He hit only 11 home runs and committed a whopping 25 errors. While Stephen Drew did smash 17 homers, he also hovered under .200 for much of the season and was at .179 as late as July 22nd. Players such as Teixeira and Rodriguez, who were so good for most the year, faded as Summer drifted away. Teixeira hit .175 in August while Rodriguez hit under .200 over the final two months.
Injuries once again took a bite out of a Bombers’ squad. Teixeira missed the last six weeks because of a broken shin. Eovaldi was shut down early because of shoulder stiffness. Ivan Nova came back from Tommy John surgery but posted a 5.07 ERA in 17 starts. Pineda and Tanaka once again missed numerous starts because of trips to the disabled list. Jacoby Ellsbury, who had a terrible season missed six weeks because of a leg injury. Even Miller wasn’t spared a trip to the DL as he missed a sure All-Star appearance because of a forearm strain.
For the New York Yankees, the popular theory is their season is a failure if they don’t reach the World Series. It’s time to retire that line of thinking. Baseball is in a much different place than it was when the Yanks were winning four championships in five years. Teams sign their homegrown stars to extensions, thereby taking away their first couple of free agent years. Teams do a better job scouting and developing talent. Parity reigns in the sport as evidenced by the fact that there are two Wild Card teams in addition to the three division winners. The Yankees’ payroll superiority over the rest of baseball is offset by these different factors.
However, take a look at each of the 2015 playoff teams. All of them went through extremely painful rebuilding processes, with the exception of the St. Louis Cardinals. However, even the great Redbirds franchise has had a sub-.500 season as recently as 2007. You have to go back as far as the first George Bush’s term in the White House, 1992 to be exact, to see the last time New York finished under the break-even mark. The Yankees are trying to transition to a younger team while shedding fading veterans from their payroll, all the while remaining competitive on the field.
Despite the fact I felt they would win the American League East, this was not a disappointing season. Look at all of the young players that came through that clubhouse this season. Bird and Severino headed an impressive rookie class that included guys such as Bryan Mitchell and Chasen Shreve. Eovaldi is only 25. More help should be on the way next year in the form of 6-foot-7 outfielder Aaron Judge. Teixeira’s and Beltran’s salaries come off the books after 2016. The Yankees may not have the young studs in the rotation that the New York Mets currently possess but there is fresh talent in the Bronx. 2015 will be looked at as the beginning of a new era and it remains to be seen how successful it will be. It should be considered a bright beginning.