One of the most valuable lessons in life is how to learn from your own mistakes. However, it’s usually easier to learn from the mistakes of others. If you pay attention when someone messes up, then you can learn a preventative lesson.
In that spirit, we turn to the New York Yankees. The team is coming off of the best season in recent memory, a season that saw the Bombers finish a game away from the World Series. With a surplus of 25 and under talent, and with Giancarlo Stanton now on the team, fans and beat writers understandably are projecting years of successful seasons, and in some cases, multiple World Series titles.
There are a few snags in this vision, though. There are no guarantees the Yankees will ever be back in the position they were in in 2017, and even seemingly super-projectable teams fail to win season after season. The most recent example of this is the ongoing Pittsburgh Pirates selloff.
In a three-year run from 2013-2015, the Pirates won an average of 94 games a season, including an incredible 98 in 2015. Those teams were chock full of early-to-mid 20s talent like Andrew McCutchen, Gerrit Cole, Starling Marte, Mark Melancon and Pedro Alvarez. So what the heck went wrong with the Pirates that they were never able to get over the hump and win a World Series?
To start, ownership made it very clear they would not spend the necessary money to augment and finalize a championship-level roster. Various Pirates left via free agency and Robert Nutting refused to pursue any of the top free agents that were available during his team’s run. Couple that with an insane amount of bad luck in the Wild Card, where talented Pittsburgh teams ran up against Jake Arrieta and Madison Bumgarner in career years, and it’s easy to see why the Pirates failed to reach the levels they should have based on true talent.
The Yankees would do well to learn from the biggest mistake the Pirates made, failing to augment an already talented roster. Acquiring Stanton goes a long way to preventing this kind of mistake, but doesn’t go far enough. Players will drop off the roster, or never reach their potential, and rosters will require constant turnover. This means that, when All Star or MVP calibre players are available in free agency while still in their 20s, the Yankees need to do everything they can to bring them to the Bronx. The other 29 teams are not staying put, and the Yankees can learn the consequences of inaction from the Pirates.
The second cause of the Pirates’ downfall is pure bad luck, and there’s no real recourse for the Yankees to avoid this. With a talented Boston Red Sox in their division, the Yankees will be in a dogfight for the division title, with the runner-up going to have to settle for a wild card spot. Like the Pirates learned, and the Yankees almost learned this year, a one-game playoff is fraught with risk and random deviations from what’s expected.
So, the first lesson for the Yankees is roster augmentation. Again, though, there are parallel examples to this Yankee team that failed to build anything resembling a dynasty. The Detroit Tigers of the first half of the decade come to mind, as they won an average of 92 games while capturing four straight AL Central titles, avoiding the danger of a wild card playoff. Like the Yankees, this team boasted MVP calibre talent in Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, and an ownership group that was willing to pony up the money required to win.
The Tigers couldn’t get over the hump because they ran up against talented teams in the playoffs. Postseason losses to the Texas Rangers, San Fransisco Giants, and Boston Red Sox prevented talented Detroit sides from ever becoming a “dynasty,” despite all indicators that they were on their way.
The last basement-dweller that can serve as a lesson for Yankee fans and media is the Philadelphia Phillies. The former NL East powerhouse combined the best elements of both the Pirates and Tigers, riding young homegrown talent to two World Series appearances, including a ring, and continually augmenting the roster to win five straight division titles. So dedicated were the Phillies to building a continual winner that they built the best pitching staff of my lifetime, on top of extending position players like Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins.
The strategy paid off for Philadelphia to a certain extent, as they won a World Series while reaching a second. I don’t know if anyone would consider that in the traditional sense of a “dynasty,” but it’s probably the best-case scenario for the Yankees moving forward. The talent pool in baseball is so deep that anticipating a decade of continual success just isn’t realistic.
The trading of McCutchen and Cole, and probable dealing of Josh Harrison in the next few weeks have closed the chapter on a pretty good run of baseball in Pittsburgh. The Pirates join the Tigers and Phillies at the bottom rungs of baseball, incurring the costs associated with multiple seasons of success. As Yankee fans, we’d all do well to keep those costs in mind when discussing the future of our favorite team.