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The Yankees have failed to produce any surprises in 2023

The 2023 Yankees have been lapped by their rivals on the margins.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Philadelphia Phillies Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

Playing in the toughest division in baseball, the Yankees face many a challenge in their pursuit of a postseason spot. Unable to take anything for granted, every team in the AL East is forced to look for advantages anywhere they can find them.

Reaching deadline day with a fifth-place spot, there is one particular aspect in which the 2023 New York Yankees have paled in comparison to the other four AL East clubs. It is the lack of surprise contributors in any shape.

Baseball is a unique sport. No matter how much we assume to know about every team, and every player, on a yearly basis certain individuals come out of nowhere to produce at a level even above their highest expectations. It’s impossible to know exactly who it will be, but it happens every year, to different extents.

Even looking back at the 2022 Yankees, one could easily point to the outstanding, albeit on a limited basis, work, by Matt Carpenter. Heck, Nestor Cortes, even coming off a solid 2021, wasn’t really expected to be as excellent as he was last year. Regardless of how you saw the two of them long-term, the work they did for the 2022 Yankees was real, impactful, and above expectation.

You could say similar things about many recent Yankee teams. The famed “Next Man Up” 2019 Yankees got huge, surprise contributions from Mike Tauchman, Gio Urshela, and several others. The 2021 Yankees saw Cortes’ initial breakout, as well as loads of important and surprising bullpen producers, like Clay Holmes, Wandy Peralta, and Lucas Luetge.

Looking at the 2023 Yankees, there is quite literally no one doing something beyond what could have been realistically expected ahead of the season.

The closest thing this team has to a surprising name is Jake Bauers, delivering a serviceable line on a small sample. His .793 OPS across 148 plate appearances is nice, but hardly something to write home about.

Even Billy McKinney, who’s likewise delivering decent complementary hitting, is simply repeating what he did last season with the Mets, and has excelled in just 34 games, meaning his contributions total up to just 0.5 fWAR.

In a way, this can appear to be a vague criticism. Is it really fair to complain about the lack of something not of us could foresee?

Well, the answer is yes, at least if you look at the teams around the Yankees. Most contenders have an established core and know they’re getting out of those guys. What separates maybe an ok team from a good team, or a good team from a very good team, is on the periphery. It’s the ability of the front office to find a tool, just one tool, and hand that to the coaching staff who in turn is expected to mold that player.

When you branch out, outside the Yankees in the AL East, the list of examples that fit this category is broad enough to make you reconsider giving this club a pass.

While the Yanks can point to two part-time starters as having OK seasons outside of its core, a team like the Rays built the best offense in the AL outside of Texas, on the backs of above-expected production. Luke Raley, who came over basically for free from the Dodgers, has the second-highest OPS+ (145) on the team, and has already been worth 2.7 fWAR. Yandy Diaz isn’t an obscure name by any means, but his new-found pop is shocking. The Rays first baseman slugged .407 across his last two full seasons, and that number is at .503 in 2023, completely taking his game to a whole new level.

The Jays are probably the closest to the Yankees in terms of lack of surprises, but even they can point to Kevin Kiermaier (113 OPS+), on pace for his best offensive season in over five years. Lefty Yusei Kikuchi came into the season off a horrible 2022 with the Jays, and with a 3.79 ERA is on pace for by far a career-best campaign. This, from an arm who had never been an above-average starter in his first four campaigns in the States.

As for the Red Sox, an imposing lefty starter headlines this staff, and no, it is not Chris Sale. No one doubted the talent of James Paxton, but at this point, after multiple lost seasons, the consensus was one of extreme skepticism. Here now, entering August, Paxton has been one of the better starters in the American League, with a 21.3 K-BB%, 1.07 WHIP, and an ERA in the low threes. That’s not even getting into names like Jarren Duran, and Kutter Crawford, both having very positive seasons.

Last, but not least, the Orioles are leading the AL East, and their best hitter has been Ryan O’Hearn. The same bat who couldn’t cut it for the 2023 Kansas City Royals. Not that long ago, Tyler Wells led the AL in WHIP. Even Aaron Hicks, who, despite what he would like to tell you, was given every chance in the world to establish himself with the Yanks, also found a way to be a productive bat in the O’s lineup.

Surprise production can come in different shapes and tiers. It could be an established major leaguer unlocking another gear in his game (Diaz), or it could be a fringe big-league player simply bursting out (O’Hearn). Regardless of which one you’re talking about, the Yankees haven’t had any of those surprise names. It’s that inability to produce on the margins that’s kneecapped this team, and reduced them to relying on one superhuman to prop up the lineup.