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What made the 2003 Yankees so good?

Few teams could touch the amount of star power that the 2003 Yankees had.

New York Yankees’ pitcher Roger Clemens throws a fake pitch Photo by Linda Cataffo/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

The 2003 Yankees were one of the first Yankees teams I was old enough to remember, and boy, was it a good time to be a Yankees fan. This week, we’re examining the 2003 Yankees, the team we voted the best Yankees team not to win a World Series. The Yankees have had a lot of great teams. So, what makes this one the best runner-up in team history?

Simply put, just look at that roster! Derek Jeter was named captain during this season, and posted one of his best offensive performances despite dealing with a shoulder injury from a collision on Opening Day. Jeter hit .324, his fifth-highest single-season average, and posted a 125 OPS+, also his fifth-best.

Other Yankees posted career offensive years, like Jorge Posada, who had his only 30 home run and 100 RBI season and slashed 281/.405/.518. Jason Giambi hit 41 home runs and more than followed up his excellent Yankees debut. Nick Johnson was the club’s primary DH and had a stellar .422 OBP, and Hideki Matsui debuted in the US with a performance that probably should have won him Rookie of the Year (he finished second behind Angel Berrora).

Oh, and I didn’t even mention Alfonso Soriano’s 38 home runs and 35 steals in his last year as a Yankee, the steady presence of Bernie Williams, or trade deadline acquisition Aaron Boone, who hit the home run that sent the Yankees to the World Series.

Oddly enough though, the ‘03 Yankees’ real strength appeared to be its veteran pitching, at least on paper. The team’s rotation featured Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina and David Wells all on the same team! Even if they were mostly past their prime, we didn’t see it that way at the time. Jeff Weaver was the underperforming fifth starter, but even his struggles couldn’t damper what the others did.

They all started at least 30 games and threw over 200 innings, with Mussina posting the best individual season of the bunch. The quartet went 70-32, and were as fearsome a postseason rotation as ever assembled. Over in the bullpen, Mariano Rivera had one of his greatest seasons (his third-best by ERA and ERA+), including one of his defining moments –pitching three scoreless innings in Game 7 of the ALCS vs. the Red Sox.

Ironically, looking at what made this team so good also opens up the question of what made it crumble. The team lost Clemens, Wells and Pettitte after the season, creating a hole in the rotation that Javier Vazquez, Kevin Brown and Jon Lieber could not fill. The bullpen after Rivera wasn’t as strong as the dynasty teams, with Chris Hammond, Jose Contreras, Jeff Nelson and Antonio Osuna as the setup men. This Yankees team lived and died with its star power, and when it went cold in November, the team couldn’t overcome the upstart Florida Marlins.

The 2003 Yankees read like an All-Star lineup from top to bottom and made every game fun to watch. Their classic star power made them the team to beat all the way through the World Series. Few Yankees team since (maybe 2009 and 2020) boasted more stars at the top of their game than the 2003 Yankees, who came up just a bit short in their pursuit of glory.