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This is a legacy-defining stretch for the Yankees’ core

The Baby Bombers were set up to be the next baseball dynasty. Now, they find themselves at a crossroads.

MLB: Texas Rangers at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

2017 was a transitional year for the Yankees. The beginning of the season saw young up-and-comers Aaron Judge, Gary Sánchez, and Luis Severino reach All-Star status, while the end of the season saw both an inspired 0-2 ALDS comeback against Cleveland and a crushing ALCS defeat at the hands of the Houston Astros. It all culminated in the departure of longtime manager Joe Girardi.

Despite the disappointment of losing Game 7 to the Astros, it was clear that a new era was upon us with Judge, Severino, and Sánchez as the faces of the youth movement. Former playoff hero Aaron Boone was the man chosen to steer the ship with top prospects like Clint Frazier, Gleyber Torres, and Miguel Andújar waiting in the wings. There was a serious energy of optimism surrounding the Yankees for the first time since they were fresh off their 2009 championship, and for good reason: the Bombers were apparently set up to be the next dynasty.

The next two years followed suit. Sure, there were some growing pains and brutal luck with injuries along the way, but the 2018 and 2019 regular seasons were, overall, successful. For a rookie manager and a core of players who were still only a couple years into their Major League careers — buoyed by veterans with championship pedigree like CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, and Aroldis Chapman — records of 100-62 and 103-59 were quite impressive. Although the playoffs were a story of disappointment, it still felt like the Yankees were just one or two pieces away from winning their 28th World Series.

And then 2020 happened. Plenty went wrong for the Yankees last year, but it’s hard to hold them at fault for all of them because of the unprecedented events surrounding the season. COVID-related issues aside, Torres and Sánchez both took massive steps back, Judge and Giancarlo Stanton played in less than fifty percent of the games each, and James Paxton went down with another injury. The roads all led to a heartbreaking Game 5 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALDS.

Despite the defeat, there was a lot to look forward to with this team in 2021. If they could stay healthy, Judge and Stanton were still the most powerful duo in the league. Torres and Sánchez were too talented to not rebound from their poor 2020 showings. DJ LeMahieu, the team’s MVP over the last two years, re-signed with the team. Gio Urshela was poised to build on his surprising-but-strong previous campaigns. Luke Voit looked like a legitimate force at first base. Plus, the Yankees still had new ace Gerrit Cole. Needless to say, they were set up for a true title run in 2021.

Now, 153 games later, this Yankees team is staring down the barrel of perhaps the most impactful stretch of games they’ve ever faced. Despite being considered World Series favourites coming into the season, their record is 86-67, they’re a single game ahead of the Blue Jays for the second Wild Card spot, and they’re a distant third in the division. Although Judge and Stanton have finally stayed healthy while pacing the offense and Cole once again became a Cy Young candidate, a combination of COVID outbreaks, relentless injuries, and drastic underperformances from pretty much every other Yankee hitter hampered the team’s success. In fact, it would probably be easier at this point to list the number of Yankees who haven’t had a disappointing 2021 season.

New York has nine games left in the regular season. For the first time in their careers, this Yankee core — once affectionately referred to as the Baby Bombers — is facing a major crossroads. In both 2017 and 2018, the Yankees handily won the first Wild Card spot. In 2019, the team won 103 games en route to winning the AL East title. And, despite a rocky road to the playoffs in 2020, it was hard to truly hold the team accountable because of the number of factors that were simply out of their control. The future remained bright.

The 2021 season has been a different story. So on top of the Yankees’ underwhelming record, there are a number of internal factors that make the next week and change the biggest stretch yet for this team.

Cole, Stanton, and LeMahieu are all locked up long-term, but Judge still doesn’t have an extension and Sánchez, who only has one year of arbitration left beyond this year, has put his future with the team in jeopardy thanks to his up-and-down play over the last three years. Torres has proven that he can’t be trusted defensively, but his drastic loss of both power and production at the plate have made him more of a liability than a core member of this team. Severino suffered setbacks in injury rehab and could only return in a limited bullpen role.

Beyond the homegrown products, LeMahieu and Urshela’s production both fell off a cliff and it’s unclear what to expect of them in 2022. Voit couldn’t stay healthy at the beginning of the season and then found himself benched (for some reason unknown to me) for most of the stretch run. Aaron Hicks was once again unable to stay on the field (as was Andújar), and Frazier, despite finally earning a spot in the starting lineup after a strong showing in 2020, severely underperformed before his season ended early due to some potentially serious vision issues.

Despite this arduous journey, the Yankees still somehow find themselves in position to make the playoffs. With nine games left in the season — three against the Red Sox, three against the Blue Jays, and three against the Rays — this is the type of run that could come to define the story of this core.

Only time will tell what will happen to this team. If they finish strong and pull it off, get ready for another heart-palpitating Wild Card Game. With Cole on the mound and Judge and Stanton anchoring the lineup, it’s hard to not have faith that they’d advance. If they collapse and miss the playoffs, though, the sound of this team’s championship window slamming shut will be a sobering reminder that this core was never able to live up to its potential. There’s still time for these Baby Bombers to write a new chapter in their story, but if it doesn’t happen now, then the sad ending might be just around the corner.