I don't consider myself an old person, but I do sometimes forget how long it's been since the Yankees of the late 1990's grabbed the rest of baseball by the throat and slammed it into submission as they snatched up four World Series titles in five years. Those teams were the Mount Olympus of recent pinstriped lore. As is the case with most legends, the story's gotten twisted and contorted over the years, added to and subtracted from for the sake of drama and convenience. It's not so much the what that's been so often embellished, but the how.
The popular narrative these days is that the Yankees, aching from a decade full of fruitless spending in the 80's broke up their overpriced and underachieving veteran club in favor of a new commitment to rebuilding through the farm system. Led by Jeter, Rivera, Posada and Pettitte, the young and hungry Yankees scratched and clawed their way from nothing to reach the sacred ground of all-time greatness. Then, after the bloop heard ‘round the world that ended the run in 2001, big bad George Steinbrenner returned to his meddling, star-chasing ways. Gone were the scrappy homegrown kids. Back were those pricey aging vets. The faucet-like flow of championships stopped.
Many of today's fans feel that if the Yankees do it all again - if they blow up the next few seasons and embark on a full rebuild, stop signing free agents, and focus entirely on building from within, then a new dynasty will surely rise from the ashes. That's not what will happen now though, because that's not how it happened then.
Myth #1: The Yankees "tanked" in the early 90's and it directly led to the late 90's championships.
The Yankees have had four losing seasons in the past 32 years, and they all came in one big disgusting clump between 1989 and 1992. The general consensus is that the down times spawned the great ones that came a few years later in that the team acquired a major portion of its eventual talent through dealing off veteran pieces and through the high draft picks that their poor records yielded. While the Yankees did cut back on spending somewhat during Steinbrenner's two-plus year suspension, which began in 1990, they still maintained the seventh highest payroll in the game in 1991 and the sixth highest in 1992. Other than parting with Rickey Henderson in Dave Winfield - unhappy players in the final years of their contracts - in deals that brought back what amounted to very little, they didn't trade their better players for prospects. Instead, they did their best to add new stars, like Danny Tartabull and Pascual Perez.
The Yankees did obtain a major player as a direct result of their four-year fail, and he's a biggie. Derek Jeter was taken with the sixth overall pick in the 1992 draft, a pick the Yankees would not have had if not for their 71-91 campaign a year prior. Obviously the dynasty wouldn't have existed without Jeter, but the rest of the young talent they grew in the 90's came simply from smart scouting. Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera were signed as amateur free agents. Andy Pettitte was taken in the 22nd round and Jorge Posada in the 24th. With the other high first-rounders they earned in the losing years, the Yankees chose renowned paleontologist Carl Everett (who they left unprotected and lost in the 1993 expansion draft), volcanic flame-out Brien Taylor and a person named Matt Drews, who never did anything above A-ball.
There is no "suck for Luck" in baseball. Even early picks are longshots that require years of seasoning. They're not worth punting seasons for and you don't need them to develop good players.
Myth #2: The Yankees were bad until the "Core Four" arrived.
Let me begin here by stating just how much I despise the term "Core Four." It started circulating during the 2009 championship run, and while it's meant to link that year to the glory of the 90's, it completely ignores the contributions of Bernie Williams, who was neck-and-neck with Jeter for most valuable Yankee from 1996 through 2000. That said, Bernie is the only member of the "Jive Five" who actually knows what it's like to play for a bad team. The rest of the crew broke into the majors in '95 and '96 and joined a club that was already almost there. They weren't so much the "core" as the final pieces of a complex championship puzzle.
From 1993-1995 the Yankees went 247-182, good enough for a winning percentage of .575. They missed out on the wildcard in '93 only because it didn't exist yet, then they had the best record in the American League when the players' strike began in '94 and were an eleventh inning blown lead away from an ALCS berth in '95. Those teams were constructed almost exclusively on veteran free agent and trade acquisitions like Wade Boggs, Jimmy Key, Paul O'Neill and Tartabull. They got almost nothing from homegrown talent apart from Williams and the combined 66 games that Jeter, Pettitte, Posada and Rivera appeared in in '95. The Yankees knew what they had coming up the pipe, but they didn't just sit on their hands and wait for their prospects to arrive. Each year, they went out and made the team better.
Myth #3: The dynasty teams were built primarily through the farm.
When the championships started piling up, the Yankees' young players were a huge part of winning them, but they did not carry the load themselves, especially in the early years. Jeter took off in '98, but in '96, despite winning the AL Rookie of the Year, he was fifth among Yankee position players in fWAR. Pettitte was outstanding in '96 and '97, but had two of his worst seasons in '98 and '99 and came very close to getting traded. Posada wasn't a full-timer until 2000, the last year of the dynastic run. His 140 wRC+ was a major boost to an offense that struggled for much of that season, but he accounted for most of his terrific resume after the rings stopped coming.
I don't mean to discount the importance of the core four to the championship squads - Jeter was Jeter from '98-2000, Rivera was superhuman throughout and Pettitte, even in his off years was a workhorse who had a knack for performance under pressure. The Yankees somehow managed to develop five players with Hallof Fame or near-Hall of Fame credentials in just a few years and that's absolutely insane. But there was a lot else there to help with the heavy lifting, and a lot of that was brought in via the means that fans now like to complain about. How many rings would Jeter and co. have won without the free agent deals that bought Key, David Cone, David Wells and El Duque? Or the prospect and youth-laden trades that nabbed O'Neill, Tino Martinez and Chuck Knoblauch? And if long-term contracts are so detrimental, what about the seven-year deal the Yankees penned to keep Bernie post-'98? Or the ten-year pact it took to erase Jeter's impending free agency in 2001?
Myth #4: The dynasty Yankees held on to their prospects.
It's fun to talk about the almost-deals of the early 90's that didn't happen, when Gene Michael rushed into George Steinbrenner's office and begged him not to trade a future star for insert aging veteran name here. Bernie for Darren Lewis? Rivera for Felix Fermin? Yeah, those wouldn't have looked too good. But the Yankees didn't cling tenaciously to every prospect...just the ones worth clinging to. Between 1990 and 2000, the team dealt away sixteen players who at one point or another placed somewhere on Baseball America's top 100 prospects list.
|Top 100 Prospect(s) Traded||Player(s) Acquired|
|J.T. Snow, Russ Springer||Jim Abbott|
|Marty Janzen||David Cone|
|Sterling Hitchcock, Russ Davis||Tino Martinez, Jeff Nelson|
|Matt Drews||Cecil Fielder|
|Mark Hutton||David Weathers|
|Gerald Williams||Graeme Lloyd|
|Ruben Rivera, Rafael Medina||Hideki Irabu|
|Eric Milton||Chuck Knoblauch|
|Mike Lowell||Ed Yarnall, Mark Johnson|
|Ricky Ledee, Jake Westbrook||David Justice|
|Jackson Melian, Drew Henson||Denny Neagle|
That's more than one top-100 guy per season, and outside of Snow and Lowell, and to a lesser extent Milton and Westbrook, there's nobody on the left side of the chart who ended up having a significant MLB career. You need youth, not just because the players you develop yourself often wind up being some of your best, but also because pre-arbitration and pre-free agent players can plug holes at a much lower cost than what's available on the open market. You also need impeccable self-scouting and a realistic and unbiased picture of what your assets are. It was the latter and not some blanket "keep the kids" policy that lifted the Yankees in the 90's. They managed to ship off just about all their top prospects who ultimately didn't perform and keep most of those who did.
Myth #5: The dynasty Yankees won by playing small ball.
Back in the late 90's, there was always a lot of talk about how Joe Torre, whose prior managerial experience was entirely in the National League, brought a "small ball" approach with him and turned the Yankees into a smarter team that could win without the home run, which had been the organization's trademark since well...forever. There may have been some truth to that in '96, as that team wasn't exactly an offensive powerhouse. The 5.38 runs per game they scored that year were below league average, and they finished 12th in the AL with 162 home runs. They "put the ball in play", ending up third in batting average, thirteenth in strikeouts and first in sacrifice flies.
By 1998 though, the greatest team that most of us have ever seen was right back to its slugging ways, smashing over 200 home runs and slugging .460. They came close to those numbers again in '99 and 2000. The most memorable postseason moments from those years - the Bernie walkoffs vs. Randy Myers and Rod Beck, Jeter's Jeffrey Meier shot and his leadoff blast at Shea, Tino's grand slam - mostly came via the long ball, not through somebody stealing a base or dropping down a bunt. Those teams won because they pitched well enough to keep things close as their hitters worked counts and got on base, forcing their way into the seedy underbellies of opposing bullpens. They were top five in the AL in OBP in each championship year.
A lot has changed in baseball since the 1990's. Free agent classes aren't as stacked as they once were. Revenue sharing and new TV deals have given more teams the opportunity to re-sign their own talent and the players that are available cost more than ever. Steroid and amphetamine testing has made it harder to get major contributions from players in their mid and late thirties, while improved scouting and statistical analysis has toughened the task of overselling prospects in trade talks. The financial advantages the Yankees enjoyed years ago might not be what they were, but they still exist, and it would be silly not to use them. Free agents and trades don't always work out but neither do small market style rebuilds. Most of them end in frustration and another rebuild. That's why that course isn't one the Yankees have ever or will ever consider. As fans that should make us very, very happy.