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Weighing the expectations of the Yankees

What is success for one team may not be the same for another, and success for this Yankees squad may be the hardest to grasp.

MLB: New York Yankees at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Is it a hot take to say that the 2022 season was a smashing success for the Yankees?

Hold the tomatoes, if you’re getting your arm loose. I’m only half-kidding. You can say that with a straight face from the perspective of a Chicago White Sox fan, or a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, or maybe even a Los Angeles Angels fan. Personally, I think it would probably be a valid enough take from any fan. But no matter what I think, it’s true that the Yankees are judged on a different standard. And on their merits, the stress of 2022’s second half and rather unceremonious exit from the postseason might be reasonably judged to have not met that standard.

All this is to say that “success” means something a little bit different for everybody. In theory, the optics of a 99-win season and an ALCS appearance would be more than enough to satisfy the majority of a team’s critics, and at the very least generate some sort of optimism entering the following season. In the industry’s perpetually chilly labor environment, a team that spends $500 million in free agency after such a season should be pretty popular. And yet, just 18 percent of the fans who voted here believe the retention of Aaron Judge and addition of Carlos Rodón adequately compensate for entering the year with Aaron Hicks and Isiah Kiner-Falefa in position to potentially see a healthy chunk of playing time. Still, it makes perfect sense at a high level: if last year wasn’t much of a success, running it back with some extra juice — because most of that $500 million went to retaining a player they already had, after all — doesn’t feel very satisfying.

My colleague Andrés Chávez pretty much nailed it in his explanation of that 18 percent’s opinion:

The Yankees handed over more than $500 million in free agency, yet it feels like they didn’t do enough to be real threats to the Houston Astros and the emerging forces in the junior circuit. They failed to bring in reinforcements for the offense, and there were lots of top names available... Since they are fielding basically the same lineup that had a hard time scoring runs since late July, the Yanks certainly didn’t do quite enough despite the elite pitching additions.

This in mind, I was mildly surprised when I recently went to take another look at the projected standings and remembered that both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus have them as the best team in the American League. Not bad! It made me laugh a little bit. Yet spring training is upon us, and we’re only three days removed from a quasi-spokesman for the team feeling the need to insist that the general manager is good at his job, actually.

Expectations really are something, and expectations for the Yankees are shaped by expectations for other teams, too. The Yankees might be projected as the best team in the league, but the AL East is the only division with at least four teams projected at 80 wins. The Yankees’ median PECOTA projection of 97 wins is objectively stellar, but the margins are still big enough that it won’t take a terribly big underperformance from the Yankees or overperformance from the Rays and Blue Jays to make for a division race a whole lot closer than the last one. They might be the best team in the league on paper, but it’s easy to be uneasy in a division where the preseason clear-best-on-paper could still quite feasibly finish in second or even third place.

Besides, the point of PECOTA or ZiPS isn’t really to forecast the exact number of wins a team it’s going to have. We use it to get an idea of how good a team is relative to other teams. The Yankees might have the top projection in the AL, but the Astros are only a couple games behind them. And expectations aren’t agnostic to history. The general caution for optimism that made me forget the Yankees’ top projection feels reflective of the very reasonable concern that while the addition of a star pitcher is good for buffering the win total, it won’t do enough to give them the advantage in a potential matchup with a Houston team that still looks every bit a powerhouse. And at this point, isn’t that what success is?

Over the last six years, the Yankees have gone to the playoffs with barely 90 wins, and they’ve also gone to the playoffs with more than 100 wins. Each time, the result has been the same. Falling short of the World Series in six straight tries leaves them nearly alone next to the Dodgers, Astros, Red Sox, Guardians, Braves, and Rays, all of whom have had their moments in the sun while contending at a similar level. Success for the Yankees is always gauged differently, but the success of their peers only adds to the urgency of their expectations. Few teams and few fanbases can genuinely say they hold themselves to a “World Series or bust” standard year-in and year-out, but Yankees fans are as justified as ever in keeping the bar high for Brian Cashman and Aaron Boone. One level of success has grown stale — it’s up to them to build a team with the stuff to transcend it. Only time will tell whether they have.