The 2018 season marks the beginning of a new era for the Yankees. The 2015 campaign was the last gasp of a dying era, with the final productive seasons of Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez fueling a playoff appearance. With 2016 came the rebuilding year, and 2017 painted the Yankees as surprise upstarts. Now, in 2018, the Bombers are re-entrenched as favorites, as villains.
They are no longer the Derek Jeter Yankees, or the Rodriguez/Teixiera/Sabathia/Cano Yankees, or even the Joe Girardi Yankees. These are the Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sanchez, Aaron Boone Yankees.
The faces are fresh, but will the standard for success remain the same as ever? It’s been a little while since the Yankees were expected to be great. Not so long ago, though, the expectation was simple: The only acceptable outcome is a World Series Championship. Titles represented the only measure of success, and anything short is a failure.
With the Yankees now powered by Judge, Stanton, and a cavalcade of young, promising talent, will the “World Series or Bust” mantra reign supreme? Will the Yankees again cease to be a normal baseball team, and instead operate in a realm where the only way to avoid ultimate failure is ultimate success?
Whispers of that mentality have surfaced in spring training. Dellin Betances said “If we don’t win (the World Series), it will be a disappointment”. Boone has acknowledged the championship expectations. Even Brian Cashman, in citing other excellent AL teams like the Astros and Red Sox to debunk the idea that a championship must be the Yankees’ Manifest Destiny, subsequently asserted that the goal was to win a ring.
Indeed, the power move of bringing in Stanton, a superstar, a reigning MVP, smacks of the George Steinbrenner era. It was fait accompli that the Yankees would routinely poach the biggest names from other teams to build their roster. Adding Stanton to an already good lineup felt a lot like signing Jason Giambi in 2001, trading for A-Rod in 2003, or signing Sabathia, Teixeira, and AJ Burnett in 2008.
With all that, it’s tempting to fall back on old habits. It’s enticing to use winning the World Series as the only consideration when it comes to the Yankees’ success. Yet doing so would be foolish, and a detriment to the great team the Yankees are set to trot out.
For one, as Cashman hinted at, the Yankees aren’t the only team with a great roster. The Red Sox will challenge in the AL East. Houston is the reigning champion. Cleveland just won 102 games, including a historic 22-game win streak. The National League includes its own superpowers in Washington, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
In a top-heavy league, with a playoff format that reduces to eight teams playing short series to decide the title, a championship cannot be the only standard for success. That’s not even counting the anxiety-laden Wild Card matchups. It’s just too difficult, too random at times. It’s unreasonable.
Moreover, slapping the World Series or Bust mentality on this squad does a disservice. The pursuit of a championship may be what ultimately underpins everything that happens in baseball, every game, every pitch, every transaction, and yet it is still not the be-all-end-all. We play baseball to win, but we also play baseball for the 500-foot dingers, the two-seam fastball that paints the black on the outside corner, the hazy August afternoons where there’s no better place to be than the ballpark. We play baseball because it’s fun.
This Yankees team is fun. It has Judge, Stanton, and Sanchez in a row. It has Didi Gregorius being Didi Gregorius. It has elder statesmen like Sabathia and Brett Gardner, and it has youth. It has prospects to dream on like Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar. They do unspeakable things to baseballs, they throw hard, and they do it with smiles on their faces. This team was a delight to follow in 2017, and it should be so in 2018.
Shoving such a delightful team into the World Series or Bust straitjacket would be suffocating. Sure, this is New York, and with so much talent on hand, the pressure will understandably be high. Yet using rings as the only determinant of success is not only foolhardy, but missing the point, and would result in a waste of the chance to simply revel in following a team as young and exciting as this.
No, success in 2018 shouldn’t be determined by if the Yankees win the last game. If the Yankees move closer to a world in which their status as contenders is taken as given, then 2018 should be considered a success. Think of it as similar to what the Dodgers have built in the National League.
In the 2018 Baseball Prospectus Annual, SB Nation’s own Grant Brisbee penned an essay about said Dodgers. He asked, with the Dodgers’ wherewithal and financial resources, if the team would ever be bad again. Not if the team would be bad this year, or next, or within the next five years. Ever.
That is what the Yankees should be shooting for. It’s impossible to guarantee postseason success in this league. The Dodgers are proof that you can do everything right in team-building and still fall short over and over in October. The Dodgers are also proof that you can assemble a team that makes it fair to ask if that team will literally ever stop winning.
If the Yankees consolidate their surprising gains from last season and move closer to where the question isn’t when they will next be bad, but if they will ever be bad, then this season will be a success. If the Baby Bombers make it clear they will be bashing homers indefinitely, if the pitching staff continues to impress with its collection of hard-throwers, if the farm system keeps pumping out talent when needs arise, this season will be a success.
The Yankees cannot guarantee a championship. If they leave 2018 with their young players continuing to develop and their deep farm still humming, though, they just might be able to guarantee that this window of contention stretches farther than the eye can see. So leave the World Series or Bust standard for success in the past. Instead, enjoy the fact that the Evil Empire is back, and hope that after 2018, it will be even clearer that the Yankees won’t be fading from prominence any time soon. Or ever.