For the first time since 2016, the Yankees offseason started with the conclusion of Game 162, rather than a trip to the postseason. Now, the franchise enters the offseason with plenty of questions to answer. Most importantly, general manager Brian Cashman must figure out a plan to get the team back on track and in contention for 2024.
On paper, the 2023 squad looked like it had the ability to compete for a championship, and some aspects of that were correct. The Yankees bullpen led all of Major League Baseball with a 3.34 ERA. Gerrit Cole did what he was expected to do when the Yankees signed him, leading the league in ERA, WHIP, innings pitched, run value and opponent batting average. Gleyber Torres revived his dying star, posting his best offensive season since 2019 and firmly cementing himself as one of the top offensive second basemen in baseball.
So where did it all go wrong for the Yankees? Look no further than the team’s starting pitching beyond Cole. Nestor Cortés Jr. posted a sub-three ERA in both 2021 and 2022, including an eighth place finish in Cy Young voting. He was expected to have a huge 2023 season, but he pitched to a poor 4.97 ERA across 12 starts. Behind him was the oft-injured Luis Severino, who completely imploded. After 19 starts in 2022, the Dominican starter pitched well enough to convince Cashman to pick up his 2023 option. However, last season was an utter disaster and potentially the swan song on Severino’s Yankees career. After an early IL stint, he returned in late May and posted a 6.65 ERA across 19 appearances, before suffering an oblique strain in early September.
Frankie Montas, who was acquired from the Athletics in 2022, was lost for the season to shoulder surgery in February. Clarke Schmidt, Montas’ replacement, held his own but was still nowhere near what was expected from someone who made the most pitching appearances on the roster. Finally, the Yankees big offseason addition, Carlos Rodón, disappointed and then some. After signing a lucrative contract worth $162 million over six years, the former Giants pitcher started the season on the IL. After his return to the mound, Rodón wasn’t great, posting a 6.85 ERA across 14 starts. For as terrible as his first impression to Yankees fans was, Rodón made the bad even worse. After being removed from a game against the Angels where he allowed six earned runs in 4.1 innings of work, the Yankees starter blew a kiss to a group of fans who heckled him on his way off the field. Of course, he was hit with a lot of public backlash and made a rough season even worse.
The pitching staff was not the only part of the team that disappointed though, as the New York offense struggled entirely. Aaron Judge missed 56 games due to a stint on the injured list, and without his bat in the lineup, the Yankees went 25-31 and averaged 3.7 runs a game in his absence. This is much worse than the 57-49 record and nearly 4.4 runs a game across the 106 games when Judge was in the lineup.
As aforementioned, Torres had a standout season at the plate, but that was the lone bright spot across a rather dull season. For the first two months of the season, Anthony Rizzo was spectacular. Through May, he was slashing .305/.378/.510 with 11 home runs. Then, on May 28, Rizzo collided with Padres slugger Fernando Tatís Jr. on a pickoff play at first base and missed a couple of games. After his return, Rizzo struggled mightily, hitting .172 with only one home run. Eventually, in early August, Rizzo was placed on the IL with a concussion, which most suspected went undiagnosed since his collision with Tatís in May. He did not return to the Yankees lineup at any point after that. Yet, Rizzo’s struggles don’t compare to Giancarlo Stanton’s, whose struggles got even worse from 2022. The former MVP, whom the Yankees acquired in 2018, was expected to slot in and be a mashing partner next to Judge. While he initially played well, injuries have decimated his tenure in the Bronx and he has become a shell of his former self. 2023 saw a new low for Stanton, hitting just .191 with an on-base percentage of .297.
Speaking of batting averages, D.J. LeMahieu continued his steady decline since 2020. LeMahieu, who was known for his ability to make contact and get on base, saw his batting average dip to .243 and his on-base rate to .327. For reference on his fall from grace, LeMahieu’s batting average alone was .327 in 2019, his first season in the Bronx. All of these vaunted sluggers underperforming, plus some key injuries, ultimately led to a disappointing 2023 for the Yankees offense.
So what’s next for the Yankees? First, they have to hope that some players’ struggles were due to injury and that they will return to form. Both Rodón and Cortés Jr. had disappointing seasons mixed with lengthy IL stints, but should be in line for healthy starts to 2024. A return to their old selves would give the Yankees a formidable front of the rotation. On the offensive side, Rizzo will have had an entire offseason to rest and recover if the Yankees can squeeze a fully healthy season out of Stanton for the first time since 2018 and work on his contact skills, there may be a chance he returns to form.
Ultimately, the Yankees will still have plenty of holes to fill. With Montas and Severino slated to hit free agency this winter, two spots remain open in the rotation. The lineup still lacks a quality bat in multiple spots, including the outfield which has been a revolving door for some time now. Jasson Dominguez looked poised to claim the center field position in 2024 after a successful late season performance. Of course, his injury complicates things even more, as the Yankees are going to have to replace his production in center field until he returns midseason.
As usual, the Bronx Bombers are listed as potential suitors for most of the top free agents this winter. They have most closely been linked to Cubs OF/1B Cody Bellinger, as well as Japanese superstar pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto. But, given the team’s current payroll, going out and signing multiple superstars is probably not a route the Yankees would like to take. Instead, they’ll most likely take a path similar to that of the 2017 offseason.
They could make some smaller signings to fill in some gaps, most notably in center field until Dominguez returns, and rely on their farm system to fill in the rest. However, the team will most likely make one major signing to appease the fanbase and get some positive press, similar to how they did so when they brought back Aroldis Chapman before the 2017 season. The Yankees have shown that they trust their development system to churn out effective players, and gave fans a glimpse at the future late last year with the likes of Everson Pereira, Austin Wells and Dominguez, along with Anthony Volpe, who started all year at shortstop.
Within their farm system, the likes of starters Drew Thorpe and Chase Hampton are going to be primed to make the jump to the MLB in 2025, and signing multiple pitchers to long term deals could disrupt that trajectory. For the Yankees, 2024 may be an experiment similar to 2017. Rather than spend lots of money on free agents, it may make more sense for Cashman and Co. to make one major signing to fill what may be their largest hole, a starting pitcher, and rely on their player development to do the rest. At worst, the Yankees can miss the playoffs again, come back to the drawing board in 2025, and fill those holes via trade or free agency. But at best, the Yankees can once again create a team that is a championship contender for a sustained period of time. It worked in 2017. Why couldn’t it work now?