At the close of the 2015 season, I was thinking a lot about the Yankees’ direction. They had just lost a wild card game, after all, and even though they had a pretty decent group that year, there was no guarantee that would continue. In fact, it was a pretty good bet it wouldn’t continue. The core of that team was Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Brett Gardner, and only two even remain on the team two years later.
I wrote in October of that year:
“The Yankees throughout their dynasty years were always among the older teams in the league, and they continued to be successful because they constantly supplanted the very old with the slightly younger free agents to fill in the gaps. There were youngsters among them... but the teams of ten years ago really relied upon the older players. That was fine--then! Back then, players over 30 had a higher level of performance than today, so it was very possible to make this model work. Today, that isn't fully the case. The general sabermetric rule of thumb is that players over 30 lose five runs of value per year, meaning that the Yankees would lose about four or five wins off their true talent without doing a thing. That is precisely the difference between being a wild card team and staying home.”
For many years, the strategy of acquiring players in free agency to replace the natural aging of a team was successful, for two reasons: during the steroid era performance for players over 30 was better, and the Yankees at that time were the only financial game in town. Those two factors, the only freewheeling spender combined with excellent free agent options, gave the Yankees the ability to never rebuild. As long as you have Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Jorge Posada, you can supplement rather easily.
I was incredibly wrong back then. I was generally of the opinion that the rebuild, or “retooling” as I called it, could work, but it wasn’t a sure bet. Maybe a couple of these players become competent, but it’s not like the Yankees have had a great history of producing homegrown players in the post-dynasty era. I’m very glad I was wrong.
In 2017, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino, Didi Gregorius, Clint Frazier, and Greg Bird are all productive ballplayers, and that’s not that normal as far as rebuilds go. Of the top five WAR producers, for pitchers and batters respectively, CC Sabathia is the only player to be acquired via free agency. The other nine were all acquired via trade, draft, or amateur free agency.
The average age of the team is also 28.6 years old for hitters and 27.7 years old for pitchers, an age group that hasn’t been seen since the early 90s, when the team was not good at all. The benefit of this is obvious, based on what I said above. With a much younger team on the right side of 30, the circumstances have drastically changed. No longer does the front office have to worry about the entire core of the team naturally declining a bit, and instead many of the main characters are in the prime of their careers.
So, when the Yankees decide to make a run at free agents, be it Shohei Otani, Yu Darvish, Johnny Cueto, or Masahiro Tanaka (if he opts out), the team isn’t just making ground on the aging curve, they’re actually adding to their existing talent level. Considering their Pythagorean record has them at about a 95-win team, that should make Brian Cashman pleased. This is an incredible team, and it isn’t getting old anytime soon.