Since the days when they were called the New York Highlanders, the Yankees have always had superstars. From Babe Ruth to Lou Gehrig, from Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle, from Reggie Jackson to Don Mattingly, to Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, every era of Yankee baseball has been encompassed by the career of an all-time player.
The idea of a "superstar" is a bit subjective, but even so, it's hard to deny that the Yankees have essentially always had one. If we define a star as someone who recorded over 6 rWAR (a definition over which reasonable people can disagree), then the Yankees have never gone as many as four consecutive seasons without a true star. It took the Tampa Bay franchise a decade to find a six-win player. The Pirates had only three such players during the two decades between Barry Bonds and Andrew McCutchen. Great players don't grow on trees, but the Yankees have made it seem so.
In fact, only once had the Yankees gone as many as three seasons without a six-win player, during the awkward early '90s period during Don Mattingly's decline and before the emergence of Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and Bernie Williams. Only once, that is, before these past three seasons.
The 2014 to 2016 seasons represent just the second time in Yankees' history where the team hasn't fielded a six-win player, with Masahiro Tanaka the only Yankee to come even somewhat close to that standard. Should the Yankees fail to produce a six-win player in 2017, it would be their first four-season stretch without such a player ever.
The six-win standard is rather arbitrary and in itself isn't particularly important, but that the Yankees are in the midst of a historic (for them) drought of star players seems undeniable nonetheless. After literally a century of having one of the best players in the league on hand at nearly all times, the Yankees haven't had an elite player since 2013. Consequently, it is no coincidence that the team has missed the playoffs three times in the past four years.
Several distinct factors likely helped produce this dry spell. For one, the Yankees did not use their financial might to ensure they didn't lose their most recent superstar. The Yankees low-balled Robinson Cano out the door, offering him no more than $175 million before he signed a $240 million deal with Seattle that so far has seemed eminently reasonable. Letting go of homegrown star players like Cano had been unheard of in New York up until recently, as players like Jeter, Williams, Mariano Rivera, and Jorge Posada were kept in pinstripes throughout their careers.
Plus, the Yankees have been more hesitant to acquire superstar players on the free agent and trade markets. Relative frugality doesn't strictly have to be a bad thing, but it has still cost the Yankees a chance at some of the best players to become available, including Max Scherzer or David Price in recent years. Long gone are the times when the Yankees would simply pluck stars like A-Rod, Jason Giambi, or Mike Mussina.
Of course, the Yankees have had less success reeling in stars from external sources in part because finding elite talent on the open market is seemingly a less effective strategy than it used to be. The list of players that have signed lucrative extensions prior to free agency (Clayton Kershaw, Joey Votto, Stephen Strasburg, to name just a few) could stretch on for ages. Even lesser players, like Danny Duffy this week, are getting locked up early, leaving the free agent market with less talent to offer. The Yankees should certainly keep an eye on that star-studded free agent class of 2018, but they would do well to not completely count on it to bring them a superstar.
Where the Yankees can put some hope is in their own farm system. It's debatable whether the Yankees should hold on to all their prospects or try to move some of them for impact talent right now. They seem content rolling with the former strategy, and if crossing their fingers with their prospects is what the Yankees commit to, they can at least rest easy knowing that their top young players do have star potential.
Gary Sanchez already flashed an incredibly high ceiling when he ran a 176 wRC+ after being called up last August. Gleyber Torres was the MVP of the Arizona Fall League and likely will be rocketing towards the top of the soon-to-be-released top-100 lists. Clint Frazier and Jorge Mateo are two more blue chip prospects who could be stars if everything goes right. Blake Rutherford is far from the majors, but had the upside of a top-10 draft pick before slipping to the Yankees at 18th for signability reasons. The Yankees' track record of developing pitchers is sketchy, but pitchers like James Kaprelian and Justus Sheffield have outside shots at becoming front-end starters.
It's anyone's guess as to exactly what the Yankees’ prospects will turn into, and it's very possible they will come to regret not trading some for value up front when they had the chance. Even so, this crop of youngsters represents the Yankees' best chance in awhile to produce a star. They have gone an uncharacteristically long time without such a player, and it has cost them in the standings. With any luck, however, this stretch without a star and without a playoff run will end soon.