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How the Yankees fell from champions to also-rans

The Yankees tore it down and rebuilt in 2016. Here’s how they got there.

Getty Images/Pinstripe Alley Illustrations

This is a story about a moment in time. The story of the 2016 Yankees, and how a lackluster season on paper profoundly changed the organization. The story of how an uninspiring, inconsistent, middling campaign actually reversed the team’s fortunes, how it took a declining club and sent it hurtling back towards its rightful place as the Evil Empire.

The story doesn’t begin in 2016, however. The Yankees didn’t just appear that year with an uneven roster that was aging in some areas and promising in others, a team with no obvious path to greatness, but without the recourse to bottom out. No, the 2016 team was nearly a decade in the making. They arrived after a series of events that left them with no choice but to retool, in a position where the only option was to find a way to shift the direction of the franchise and forge a new path forward.

The Yankees found that the best way forward was just a quick step back. Right now, we also must step back. Let’s rewind, all the way to:

The 2009 Championship Team

It’s November 4th, 2009. It’s a crisp fall night in the Bronx, and the Yankees hold a 3-2 World Series lead over Philadelphia. The Phillies, the defending champions, are good. Jimmy Rollins will lead off tonight, Chase Utley will bat third, Ryan Howard will clean up. Pedro Martinez, in the twilight of his career, will toe the rubber and try to force Game Seven.

The Yankees are better. Derek Jeter will lead off, Mark Teixiera will bat third, and Alex Rodriguez will clean up. They’ll also start an aging pitcher, and Andy Pettitte, and he’s better too. Once Pettitte steps off the mound for the night, the countdown to Mariano Rivera will begin.

Everyone here knows what happened next. Hideki Matsui will smash a two-run homer in the bottom of the second and the Yankees never looked back, cruising to a 7-3 win and their 27th championship.

Mariano Rivera holds trophy as New York Yankees celebrate on Photo by Corey Sipkin/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

You’d have been forgiven at the time if you thought that was the beginning of a dynasty. The 2009 Yankees weren’t a young team, but they were an excellent team. They were a potent combination of in-prime studs and older superstars who clearly had plenty left in the tank. It didn’t seem to matter much that Jeter, Rodriguez, and Pettitte were older and likely in decline; if you start from a high enough point, you can decline and still be damn good.

From a certain point of view, the Yankees did launch something of a mini dynasty from there. They ran out squads in 2010, 2011, and 2012 that were by most measures just as good as the 2009 title team. The Yankees over that four-year run won the most games in baseball and scored the most runs. CC Sabathia and Teixiera proved excellent free-agent signings and anchored the team; Robinson Cano developed into a world-beater; Jeter and Rodriguez and Pettitte and Rivera continued to age and continued to produce; the farm system, while not robust, produced just enough in the form of Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova, and Brett Gardner to grease the wheels of contention.

That period of dominance, however, didn’t yield any pennants after 2009, and the window suddenly started to close after 2012. In the span of just over a year starting in October 2012, Jeter broke his ankle, Rivera and Pettitte retired, and Cano left via free agency. Key contributors like Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher, Rafael Soriano, and Russell Martin also departed.

Perhaps more than anything, the 2016 Yankees ended up in a position to rebuild because of such natural causes as players aging, retiring, and departing at the end of their contracts. That fate is not guaranteed to all great teams. Look across sports to the last of Michael Jordan’s Bulls teams, the last of the Curry/Durant Warriors, or even the end of the Brady/Belichick Patriots to see examples of championship teams that become undone seemingly long before their true expiration date. The core of the 2009 title aged and frayed naturally, at a pace entirely consistent with typical aging curves. They reached the pinnacle, stayed close to it for a few years, and then fell.

By 2016, the remaining members of the championship team were running on fumes, and the organization had come up with very little in terms of replacements. Sabathia, the workhorse that carried the rotation of those great teams, entered 2016 after a miserable stretch, averaging just 107 innings with an 83 ERA+ in the two years prior. Teixiera had managed a good 2015, but posted an unimpressive 97 OPS+ combined the previous two years, and ended up retiring after a miserable 2016. Similarly, Rodriguez had put forth a miraculously strong 2015, but had been suspended for 2014, and ran out of gas in 2016.

As sad as it was to see the mid-teens Yankees struggling to stay above .500, the descent was natural. The young stars that won the title in 2009 had become older stars. The older stars from yesteryear had retired. The run was over.

The 2013 Spending Spree

Compounding the problem of the Yankees’ aged core was the team’s failure to replace that core. The key effort made to find replacements came in the form of the spending spree after the 2013 season.

Coming off just the second season in 19 years in which they missed the playoffs, the Yankees sought to reopen their window with an injection of free-agent talent. They inked Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year, $153-million contract; Masahiro Tanaka signed a seven-year, $155-million deal of his own; Brian McCann came in at five years, $85 million; Carlos Beltran signed for three years, $45 million.

Flashing cash to supplement a flagging team was the right idea in theory. In practice, the Yankees’ spree wasn’t enough. They targeted some of the wrong players, ignored some of the better ones, and ultimately left the team spending less on a lesser roster.

Per Baseball Prospectus, the Yankees spent $229 million on player payroll in 2013, a league-leading figure. $84 million of it went to the combination of Cano, Pettitte, Rivera, Granderson, Kevin Youkilis, Vernon Wells, and A.J. Burnett, players who came off the Yankees’ books after 2013. This meant that even after their huge free agent plays, the team’s payroll decreased by $30 million.

The team invested in free agents but opted against doing so to the same extent as prior years. That left them with an inadequate roster. Tanaka proved an excellent signing, performing for the Yankees to this day. Ellsbury, McCann, and Beltran provided inconsistent returns, producing above-average value in some years, while coming in around replacement level in others.

New York Yankees Introduce Jacoby Ellsbury Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Yankees could have maintained player payroll at levels consistent with previous years, and in doing so targeted players better worth the investment. We don’t need to entirely re-litigate the team’s decisions not to wholeheartedly pursue Cano, Zack Greinke, or Max Scherzer, or Jon Lester after the 2013 and 2014 seasons. What’s clear is that the team had opportunities to spend more money on better players, and failing to do so likely handicapped the team in the coming years.

This left the 2016 Yankees without the stud core they needed to compete. Jeter and Rivera were long retired, and Sabathia and Teixieira, the faces of the 2009 free-agent class, were in steep decline. Ellbsury and Tanaka, the faces of the most recent spending spree, weren’t enough to prop the team up. Of course, maybe they would have been enough to prop the team up, if the Yankees had been able to produce a core from within.

The Fruitless Farm System

On its face, it’s not shocking the Yankees of five-to-ten years ago didn’t pace the league in terms of prospects. It’s difficult to compile an elite farm system when the rules of the game try to prevent good teams from getting good prospects. Winning games meant worse draft picks, and spending on free agents even meant forfeiting the occasional selection.

Even given all that, the Yankees had chances to develop talent. Hell, scouts’ appraisals of the team’s system were fairly positive back then; in 2012, Baseball Prospectus ranked the Yankees’ system 15th, while Baseball America had them 13th. BP kept the Yankees steady at 14th in 2013. At least per the public experts, the Yankees had prospects on the farm earlier in the decade that could have been contributing by the middle of it.

The problem, obviously, was that those prospects didn’t end up contributing much, whether by way of on-field production, or via trade. The Yankees promoted Luis Severino for a successful rookie run ahead of 2016. Dellin Betances also rose from the farm to become a dominant reliever. Save for Sevy and Betances, the team produced next to nothing internally, leaving the 2016 squad up the river without a paddle.

Top prospect Jesus Montero wowed down the stretch in 2011, but was flipped for Michael Pineda, whose talent and inconsistency drove fans mad in New York. Young pitcher Manny Banuelos flamed out, failing to reach the majors with the Yankees. Tantalizing outfielders Mason Williams and Slade Heathcott fizzled.

Just looking at the Yankees’ drafts from a decade ago is an exercise in futility. Their top picks in 2009 were Heathcott and John Ryan Murphy. In 2010, Cito Culver and Angelo Gumbs. 2011 brought Dante Bichette and Sam Stafford, and Ty Hensley and Austin Anne came in 2012. That’s four years worth of first and second rounders that produced about 1 WAR in the majors for the Yankees.

Most of the prospects that made the majors during that era came out to be fringe contributors that filled out the roster. Austin Romine and Francisco Cervelli proved useful backstop backups. Bryan Mitchell, Hector Noesi, and a few others helped form the Scranton Shuttle. Premier starters, or even average ones, were nowhere to be found.

If the Yankees couldn’t develop impact players within, and couldn’t find enough of them on the free-agent market, then they weren’t going to compete. By 2016, it was clear the team no longer had a core in place that could contend deep into October without every ball bouncing their way. The big signings of previous years, if not failures, were ultimately ineffective. The farm system proved unable to supplement a fading core. The team was, by most measures, mediocre.

The Yankees needed to change. They couldn’t just spend $200 million to guarantee contention. They needed to keep spending money, certainly, but they also had to increase their hit rate when they brought in external talent. They needed to find ways to promote talent within, to develop a pipeline that would feed a successful team in the majors.

It all came to a head in 2016. Brian Cashman and Co. had kept the team respectable enough coming in; the Yankees had won 85, 84, and 87 games in the preceding seasons. But three years of middling baseball in the Bronx had made it clear that this run wasn’t sustainable. The Yankees, the damn New York Yankees, couldn’t be content to run out .500ish squads. The team had to do something, or else be content with continuously trotting out teams that slotted nicely into the “Well, we could snag the second Wild Card if things go right” pack.

Perhaps necessity really is the mother of invention. With the Yankees in need of a course correction, the 2016 team became the impetus for a rapid change. In what seemed like a matter of months, the Yankees imported an influx of new young talent and changed the complexion of the franchise, suddenly laying the foundation for a competitive team. No longer would the Yankees be the juggernaut that limped to 85 wins a year. They would be the financial behemoth that both outspent and outsmarted the rest, with the money to crush all comers on the free-agent market, and the internal pipeline to keep the quality pumping from within.

The Yankees would be rebuilt.

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