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How the 2003 World Series loss foretold a $1 billion reaction

The acquisition of Alex Rodriguez set a precedent for the Yankees’ spending pattern following postseason exits.

Tampa Bay Rays vs. New York Yankees

Welcome to 2003 week, where we’ve been looking back at the best Yankees team to never win a World Series. In this installment, I’ll be examining the nature of the Yankees’ loss, and the ramifications it had on future roster decisions. The Yankees fell to the Marlins for a myriad of reasons, but the two that stick out the most were the inability to score against the Marlins starting pitchers and the lack of timely hitting.

With the exception of Game Two, the Yankees only averaged a single run per game against Marlins starting pitching. At the center of these woes for the Yankees were Brad Penny and Josh Beckett.

Don’t get me wrong, Penny was a perfectly decent starter in the 2003 regular season, with a respectable 4.13 ERA and 3.92 FIP. But he was surely not the world-beater Yankees batters made him out to be, as he held them to three earned runs over 12.1 innings pitched (2.19 ERA).

To be fair, Beckett was fantastic in the 2003 regular season, posting a 3.04 ERA (138 ERA+) and 2.94 FIP. However, the Yankees made him look like 1968 Bob Gibson. Beckett only allowed two earned runs and thirteen baserunners over 16.1 innings pitched, including the memorable five-hit shutout in the deciding Game Six, en route to being named World Series MVP.

The Yankees often found themselves in a hole early, and exacerbated the situation with an absence of clutch hitting. They failed to score with two runners on and one out in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game One down a single run. The most infamous moment came in the top of the eleventh of Game Five, where Aaron Boone and John Flaherty failed to drive in a run with the bases loaded.

What does one do when the bats go to sleep at the worst possible time? You trade for the game’s premier run producer. Alex Rodriguez was the most feared slugger in the AL, and arguably the best all-around player in MLB heading into that offseason. And while the Yankees did have a need a third after Boone tore his ACL, grabbing the reigning MVP was wholly unexpected.

Rodriguez had a prodigious 2003 MVP campaign, blasting 47 home runs and 118 runs batted in, with a 147 OPS+ and 151 wRC+. What better candidate to provide that extra oomph in the playoffs? Such an ignominious defeat at the hands of the upstart Marlins precipitated the drastic decision to add Rodriguez and his astronomical contract, and set a precedent for the future Yankees MO following defeat in the playoffs.

One could argue that the signing of Jason Giambi two years prior was the first instance of this trend. However, Rodriguez was three years younger at the time of his trade, and was signed to an overall contract of more than twice the value of Giambi. He represented a level of investment in another stratosphere.

While the transaction ultimately did not have the intended effect (from the 2004 playoffs up to 2009, Rodriguez went 0-for-29 with runners on base stranding 38 baserunners in the postseason), it nonetheless set the stage for two other similar reactions to postseason exits.

In the 2017 ALCS, the Yankees were outright manhandled by the Astros pitching staff in Houston. While other nefarious factors were also in play, these make no excuse for the Yankees batters’ impotency at Minute Maid Park. New York only scored three runs in those four games, and again turned to the league’s most feared slugger to provide the spark in their lineup.

Giancarlo Stanton clobbered 59 home runs with a 169 OPS+ and 158 wRC+ with the Marlins in 2017, easily winning the National League MVP. In the history of MLB, the reigning MVP has been traded only three times. The Yankees have been the recipient twice.

This felt like a knee-jerk reaction at the time, with the Yankees ostensibly operating under self-imposed austerity measures. Signing the player who had recently signed the richest contract in sports history did not exactly match expectations. However, it certainly lined up with the tactics outlined with the Rodriguez trade.

Fast forward two years and we see the third instance of this reactionary strategy. In the 2019 ALCS, the Yankees’ rotation was outgunned by the Astros staff. In Games Two through Four, Yankees starting pitchers averaged less than four innings per start while giving up seven runs. In this crucial three-game losing streak, Yankees starting pitchers could not limit the damage, and therefore could not protect an already-taxed bullpen.

Enter Gerrit Cole, the bane of Yankees batters. What better way to guarantee your chances the next season than stealing the game’s top ace from your fiercest competitor? The Yankees tore off the pursestrings to sign him in free agency, which truthfully was the least surprising of the three acquisitions described in this piece. Nabbing Cole was much less of a panic buy than Rodriguez or Stanton, but still follows the same basic guidelines that dictate the Yankees response to playoff failure.

Between Alex Rodriguez, Giancarlo Stanton, and Gerrit Cole, the Yankees have spent approximately $1 billion trying to right the wrongs of the previous year’s playoff loss. So far this expenditure has bought them a single World Series win, though there is still plenty of time to add to that total. One thing is clear, Yankees management hates losing in the playoffs and will go to the most extreme lengths to avoid it.