Despite the tragic way their season ended, the 2019 Yankees will always have a place in my heart. Not only was it my first season writing for Pinstripe Alley, the team was simply a blast to watch.
Much like the 2013 squad six years prior, injuries hit early and often, but much like the bunny with the battery in those commercials, the Yankees just kept on ticking. Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, and Aaron Hicks are all on the shelf? Brett Gardner will hit 28 home runs, Cameron Maybin will have a career renaissance, and Mike Tauchman will play so well that fans jokingly call Mike Trout “the other Mike T” for a few weeks in July. The reigning Rookie of the Year runner-up Miguel Andújar will miss the season with a torn labrum? His replacement, Gio Urshela, will not only play better defense, he’ll out-hit him. Greg Bird, Luke Voit, and Edwin Encarnación will all hit the IL? Mike Ford will hit 12 home runs in just 50 games, good for a 137 OPS+.
With the sole exception of Kendrys Morales, every single move the Yankees made in 2019, at least when it came to the lineup, worked out beautifully. The Bronx Bombers rode this #NextManUp mantra to 103 wins, heading into the postseason alongside the 101-win Minnesota Twins and 107-win Houston Astros as one of the American League’s three “super-teams.” The ending may not have been storybook, but that 2019 team was special.
And in the process, it may have ruined the Yankees front office.
Okay, I’m being a bit dramatic here, but let’s think about things for a moment. The lesson that should have been taken away from the 2019 Yankees is the importance of depth. Consistently good teams, like the Astros and Dodgers, regularly have redundancies built into their roster in order to weather major injuries. The Astros, for example, used to use Alex Bregman to fill in at shortstop when Carlos Correa was on the IL, while the Dodgers lineup almost exclusively consists of players capable of playing at least one infield position plus the outfield.
The 2019 Yankees clearly had depth, even if the team didn’t quite realize how much depth it had at the time. And while I’ll forgive the 2020 Yankees for not investing in their depth a bit more — it was perfectly reasonable to assume after their performances in 2019 that between Urshela, Tauchman, Andújar, Ford, and Clint Frazier, the team had a lot of young, cost controlled depth — the 2021, 2022, and 2023 Yankees should have recognized the glaring need for reliable depth and ponied up.
Instead, based on their actions over this time, the front office seems to have overinflated their ability to identify under-the-radar depth pieces. Since 2019, the Yankees have acquired and given (or intended to give) substantial playing time to over-the-hill veterans (Jay Bruce, Marwin Gonzalez, Matt Carpenter), players who flashed early but flamed out (Rougned Odor), and former top prospects who struggled to make the jump to the show (Franchy Cordero, Willie Calhoun). Of these, the only player that made a true and lasting impact was Matt Carpenter, and honestly, because a freak injury cut his season short, it’s impossible to know if he would have kept up his hot hitting in September and October. On the whole, while teams always make these kinds of acquisitions to fill out the spring training and Triple-A rosters, relying on this as your primary depth is not ideal.
The 2023 Yankees, by design, have relied on this type of inconsistent depth. Heading into spring training, the options for the starting left field job were a high-energy utilityman (Oswaldo Cabrera) and an over-the-hill and seemingly discontented veteran unpopular with the fans (Aaron Hicks), with a pair of journeyman vets (Willie Calhoun and Rafael Ortega) and a former top prospect (Estevan Florial) serving as dark horse candidates ... and then on top of that, another infielder (Isiah Kiner-Falefa) emerged as an option after losing the shortstop job. Oh, and that’s discounting the fact that Giancarlo Stanton and Harrison Bader have missed time every year, meaning that it was likely from the jump that the team would need even more of its outfield depth.
And look, I know the Yankees can point to this past winter and say that they did plenty of work, because truthfully, they did — they re-signed Aaron Judge, they reeled in Carlos Rodón, they added Tommy Kahnle to the bullpen — but they clearly didn’t do enough. They failed to address left field, leaving it to a collection of prospects and underperforming vets in the hope that somebody would step forward, become an impact bat, and seize the job. But it’s not working, because truthfully, it rarely works. The 2019 team did so well in large part because a bunch of career years from washed up vets and Quadruple-A players intersected the year of the rabbit ball; of the team’s #NextManUp army, only Gio Urshela has put together something resembling a successful career. And yet, the Yankees front office seems intent on recreating this unicorn of a season.
In the words of Tony Stark, for a team with World Series aspirations, that is, at it always was, “Not a great plan.”