The 1970s saw the Yankees bring home one championship in a memorable World Series against the Mets, but ended it falling back toward the bottom of the AL East. The decade was also the beginning of a new era in baseball as free agency began. The Yankees used the new player acquisition method and made a big splashes, bringing in Pete Rose, among others.
As the new decade begins, can the Yankees build back into World Series contention or will the slide even further out of contention?
1980: 77-85, 6th in AL East, 20 GB, Team WAR Leader: SP Dennis Leonard (6.2)
A couple big events happened between the 1979 and 80 seasons. First, manager Joseph Gorski was let go and replaced by Babe Barna. Pete Rose leaves at the expiration of his contract and goes to Cincinnati to play for the Reds. The Yankees do make another free agent splash in his place, signing multi-time All-Star outfielder Ken Singleton on a one-year deal.
He has a good season, but can’t get the Yankees close to the playoffs. In the playoffs, Cincinnati breaks “The Curse of the Bambino” winning their first championship since 1926, having not done it since legendary Red Babe Ruth retired. Meanwhile in the draft, the Expos select an outfield prospect named Paul O’Neill seventh overall.
1981: 91-71, 2nd in AL East, 4 GB, Team WAR Leader: CF Fred Lynn (5.5)
Singleton leaves after just one year, but the Yankees do add another big name when Fred Lynn signs an eight-year deal. The former Brewer is coming off five consecutive All-Star seasons. He immediately leads the Yankees back up the standings, although they still fall a couple games short of the Red Sox.
1982: 72-90, 7th in AL East, 25 GB, Team WAR Leader: CF Fred Lynn (5.6)
Barna’s reign is a short one, as he is let go after just two years, and Richard Niesyto is hired. The Yankees also make another free agent signing, bringing in 1980 Cy Young winner Mike Flanagan on a seven-year deal. He and Lynn are good, but most of the rest of the team is disappointing causing a slide back down he standings.
In June, the Yankees sign six-time All-Star catcher Thurman Munson to a minor league deal. He was called up late in the season and played four games with the team before retiring after the season.
The Reds sweep through the World Series, beating the Red Sox in four.
1983: 99-63, 2nd in AL East, 3 GB, Team WAR Leader: RF Ron Roenicke (6.9)
The free agent deals keep on flowing as Steve Garvey is signed to a two-year deal.
In a brutal bit of bad luck, the Yankees finish with the third-best record in baseball, but the second-best in their division and miss the playoffs. Their 99 wins would have been enough to comfortably win both the AL West and NL East, they just got stuck behind the 102-win Tigers. Despite that, they did improve by 27 wins, a lot of which is due a lot to a breakout season from the 27-year old Roenicke.
Naturally, the White Sox run through the only two teams who had a better record than the Yankees, the Tigers and Giants, en route to a World Series title.
1984: 91-71, 2nd in AL East, 5 GB, Team WAR Leader: RF Fred Lynn (5.7)
After having just two managers from 1963 to 1979, the Yankees are developing quick triger fingers, as Niesyto is let go despite the massive jump in wins. Arturo Osuna is given the manager’s job in his place.
Meanwhile, the Yankees coax Phil Niekro out of retirement three years after he left, and he promptly makes the All-Star Game. Despite that, the Yankees again all short despite a record that would’ve competitive in multiple other divisions.
The Tigers team that beat them out again wouldn’t suffer a similar fate as the year before, and went on to take the title.
1985: 82-80, 4th in AL East, 30 GB, Team WAR Leader: SP John Candelaria (6.2)
Osuna lasts just one season as John Lytle is brought in as the new Yankees’ boss. The Yankees also make maybe their biggest free agent splash yet, signing four-time MVP Mike Schmidt for three years. He can’t help the team back to the playoffs, as they slide down to fourth place. In the draft, they select a young catcher named Joe Girardi in the first round, while an outfielder named Bernie Williams goes to Cleveland.
Meanwhile, the Tigers are a loaded 112-win team, but they can’t find a way to close in the World Series. They blew a lead in game seven to the Reds, with former Yankee Andre Thornton winning World Series MVP.
1986: 98-64, 1st in AL East, Team WAR Leader: SP Jack Morris (6.3)
Lou Whitaker is brought in on a one-year deal. However it was a pitcher acquired via trade that helps take the Yankees to the top of the division again. The Yankees acquired Jack Morris and Steve Buechele in exchange for Vance Law. Both, but especially Morris, have good seasons to help the Yankees overtake the Tigers by one game to win the East.
After beating the White Sox, the Yankees faced off with the Dodgers in the World Series. Despite going up 3-1 in the series, the Yankees couldn’t close the deal and LA eventually won in seven games. It was the first championship for Dodgers’ marquee free agent signings Don Mattingly and Willie Randolph.
With their second round draft pick, the Yankees take an infielder named Luis Sojo.
1987: 106-56. 1st in AL East, Team WAR Leader: SP John Candelaria (5.9)
The Yankees take a giant step forward finishing with the best record in all of baseball. Every member of their rotation has a good season, and Schmidt leads the way on offense with a 142 wRC+.
They swept through the Rangers in the ALCS, but they couldn’t do the same to the Cubs. The pitching staff allows a combined 12 runs in the first two games, both of which end in Yankees’ losses. They never truly bounce back after that and fall in five games.
1988: 92-70, 2nd in AL, 2 GB, Team WAR Leader: CF Brett Butler (7.7)
The Yankees lose two key contributors in free agency as Schmidt decides to head out west and join the Giants, while Morris signs with the Phillies. A trade lands the Yankees another legendary veteran in Carlton Fisk, although he is 40.
The losses hurt the Yankees as they fall back to second place despite an excellent season from Butler. The Braves and their stars Edgar Martinez, Orel Hershiser, and Dwight Gooden take home the World Series crown. After the season, a first baseman named Tino Martinez goes to the Giants in the draft.
1989: 83-79, 3rd in AL East, 16 GB, Team WAR Leader: CF Brett Butler (5.2)
The Yankees bring in close Dave Righetti on a three-year deal, but he can’t help the Yankees return to the postseason. Things are good for the team across town, however, as the Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine, and Bo Jackson led Mets win the title.
Yankees 80s Award Winners
- Jack Morris: Cy Young Award: 1986-87
- Hank Aaron: Hall of Fame Inductee Class of 1980
- Roberto Clemente: Hall of Fame Inductee Class of 1980
- Pete Rose: Hall of Fame Inductee Class of 1987 (Inducted as a Tiger)