The Yankees’ mid-2010s “retool” paid immediate dividends with the rise of the so-called “Baby Bombers.” Defined by MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch, who wrote a book on the very topic, that group included Aaron Judge, Greg Bird, Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andújar, Gary Sánchez, and Luis Severino, a talented core that was supposed to supplant Derek Jeter and the “Core Four” as the iconic long-term Yankees that would lead New York to pennants.
Of course, so far that hasn’t been the case, and injuries and underperformance (or both) by this group have been a key reason why.
First of all, let’s remove Judge from the conversation. Yes, he’s missed considerable time with injuries, and he might never quite reach the peaks of his Rookie of the Year season again, but he’s an obvious star that any team would be happy to build around. He’s the new and deserving face of the franchise.
Injuries have taken a more serious toll on some of the other Bombers, however. Bird was supposed to be the heir-apparent to Mark Teixeira at first base, but foot surgery in 2017 limited him to only 48 games that season. His go-ahead home run off of Cleveland’s Andrew Miller in Game 3 of that season’s ALDS served as a bright spot for his Yankees’ career, as after that, further ailments meant that he only appeared in 92 more games for the team before being designated for assignment. He’s spent this season in Triple-A for the Colorado Rockies.
Miguel Andújar put up a 2.8 WAR season for the Yankees in 2018 to finish second in Rookie of the Year voting, but he saw his 2019 lost due to a shoulder tear. By the time he could return, he was supplanted by the more sure-handed Gio Urshela at third base, and his bat has never come back.
Gleyber Torres was the headline return piece of the Yankees’ trade of Aroldis Chapman to the Chicago Cubs in 2016, but his performance on both offense and defense has absolutely cratered in 2021. He can’t hit for power and he can’t play shortstop, probably necessitating the Yankees spending big on a free agent this winter.
And, of course, Gary Sánchez has been inconsistent when healthy, putting up a 4.3 WAR in 2017 that he hasn’t come close to matching since then. As far as catchers go, he’s still been better than most alternate options in the game, but that earlier form hasn’t truly returned. Although Sánchez’s power is potent, his problems with receiving and swinging and missing haven’t gone away.
On the pitching front, Luis Severino looked like he could be a homegrown ace, but Tommy John surgery plus setbacks in his rehab have kept him away from MLB hitters for most of three seasons. What the team will get from his this season and next is wildly uncertain.
Why have these players not developed as expected? In Bird’s case, injuries simply stole his career away from him. The same could be said for Andújar, or that more playing time has revealed limitations in his game that were always there. Severino still hopefully has a high upside despite his surgeries. And all of the above has to be tempered with the fact that Severino, Torres, and Sánchez have proven that they can produce at an All-Star level, and they could again.
But still, all of the above players sans Judge have combined to give the Yankees 3.0 WAR by FanGraphs this season, with nearly half of that being Gary. In 2018, that figure was about four times higher. That’s the difference between staggering through a Wild Card race and battling with the Rays for first place in the AL East.
One has to consider the Yankees’ player development and coaching as a potential factor in their struggles. Hitting coach Marcus Thames has received a lot of flack this season for the offense’s stunning streakiness. The team’s health and conditioning coach was also fired after 2019, another season where injuries kept piling up. Whatever the reason, the Yankees have to desperately hope that this new core can return to their previous heights, lest they have to start building one from scratch yet again.