Oops, the Yankees did it again! They’ve left their fans standing at the altar once more, while making another half-hearted pursuit of a big-name free agent. This time it was generational talent Manny Machado, the latest in a long procession of stars that the once hyper-aggressive front office let slip through their fingers with little more than a wink and a nod.
I know, the term “generational talent” has irritated Machado naysayers. Sadly, it may now frustrate those of us who are beginning the inevitable grief-loss process. Come to think of it, my denial started sometime last year. Somehow I knew in my gut that the Yankees were not serious about signing Machado, but I woke up every day hoping to be proven wrong.
Before Machado’s deal with San Diego was announced, I was working on an article that would pinpoint his dollar value based on various projections of future performance. I started my quest with Baseball Reference’s Play Index by searching out players who exploded at a young age and put up similar numbers by the time they turned 26.
As one might imagine, it was a short list. Only four left-side infielders in baseball history compiled more WAR than Machado (33.8) through their age-25 campaigns. Cal Ripken Jr. (34.6 WAR), Eddie Mathews (39.0 WAR), and Arky Vaughan (39.4) are in the Hall of Fame, while Alex Rodriguez (46.4) is not yet eligible for induction.
Although Machado’s early career most closely parallels Ripken, the Iron Man lost a lot of games due to the 1994-95 strike, so I started my comparison with Mathews. Seasoned Yankees fans will remember Cap’n Eddie’s adventures with longtime teammate Hank Aaron, especially when the duo’s Milwaukee Braves battled the Bombers in a pair of thrilling seven-game World Series in 1957 and ‘58. Coincidentally, ‘57 was Mathews’ age-25 season.
Matthews averaged 6.5 WAR per year in six seasons through his age-25 campaign. He then averaged 7.2 WAR per year over the next six seasons, before notching 3.6 WAR per year over the following four seasons. So over that 10-year period, Matthews produced 57.4 WAR total, or 5.7 per year. Machado amassed 5.7 WAR last year in stints with the Orioles and Dodgers.
Intrigued by the parallel, I circled back and took a closer look at Ripken. Keeping in mind that the strike cancelled parts of his age-33 and 34 campaigns, Ripken still amassed 54.2 WAR over a 10-year period beginning with his age-26 season. His career peaked at age 30, when he produced 11.5 WAR and won the MVP Award. Ripken had previously garnered the award with an 8.2 WAR during his age-22 season.
Another Hall of Famer that Machado compares favorably to is George Brett. Fans who remember the late 70s and early 80s will recall what a fierce competitor and truly great all-around player Brett was. In those days, the Yankees’ rivalry with the Royals was just as intense (even more, perhaps) as the one with the Red Sox.
Brett entered the league at age 20, compiled 27.6 WAR through his age-25 season, and then amassed 54.6 WAR over the subsequent 10 years. His career reached its pinnacle at age 27, when he produced 9.4 WAR and won the MVP Award.
Obviously none of us have a crystal ball. We look back at past players’ stats in an effort to predict what similar talents of today might do in the future. It’s complicated and inexact, but it’s all we have.
Barring a tragic injury or completely unexpected loss of baseball skills, Machado is on pace to match (or possibly exceed) those three great Hall of Famers in terms of accomplishments on the baseball diamond. Yankees history could have been greatly enriched by Machado’s game, if only the front office had prioritized putting him in pinstripes. But alas, they were content to let him land in sunny San Diego.
It stings. I don’t know a single fan who is as excited for spring training as they were in years past. And I know a lot of people who are ignoring it altogether. The resentment stems from the way the Yankees front office has conducted itself this winter.
The saga has been chronicled painstakingly here on PSA. The Yankees had been linked to Machado since before last season, and many hoped that the austerity measures implemented to get the team under the luxury tax line in 2018 meant that they planned to spend big on Machado this winter. Unfortunately, as it turns out, the brain trust had nothing more than a tease planned for us.
It also feels like déjà vu. Five years ago, the Yankees lowballed Robinson Cano and happily let him exit for the Emerald City without even putting up a fight. This misfire began a domino effect that led to Brian Roberts and Stephen Drew at second base, and the team is still saddled with the Jacoby Ellsbury problem.
So will Troy Tulowitzki and DJ LeMahieu turn into Roberts-Drew version 2.0? I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but it sure seems like a very real possibility. Tulowitzki wasn’t just injured last year, he didn’t produce before he got hurt. LeMahieu is a fine defender and might be useful as a utility man, but it could be bad if he turns into a lineup regular. That .673 OPS away from Coors Field is a big dark cloud looming.
Meanwhile, Hal Steinbrenner is justifying the Yankees failure to seriously pursue Machado by claiming that the team didn’t need an infielder. This is starting to feel like a Seinfeld episode or a (bad) SNL sketch.
The Yankees would have been a much better team with Machado, now and into the foreseeable future. They missed a golden opportunity to really improve their roster, and I have a feeling it’s going to sting for a long time.