Going into the waning days of the 1980 presidential race — 41 years ago this month — Ronald Reagan famously asked a question during the final debate about his opponent, the incumbent, that helped sway many fence sitters:
“Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”
Jimmy Carter could not make the case that America was in better shape, sealing his defeat.
Monday marked the fourth anniversary of the Yankees rallying to defeat Cleveland in five games to win a Division Series. They would go on to lose the ALCS in seven games to the Astros; a series we would retroactively look back on differently with revelations about Houston’s illegal sign stealing.
Still, the Yankees seemed poised for a special run. They had rebounded spectacularly from their 2016 trade-deadline deals of Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller that notably brought them Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier — plus they signed Chapman back. There was a young nucleus of Greg Bird, Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez, a young ace in Luis Severino and very little long-term commitment — thus, plenty of money to spend.
In the immediate aftermath, Joe Girardi was not retained and Aaron Boone was hired as manager. Then Shohei Ohtani spurned the Yankees, who pivoted to trade for Giancarlo Stanton. The next four Yankee teams all made the playoffs. But there has been just one division title. The Yankees are 11-11 in the postseason, but 5-11 against the Red Sox, Astros and Rays — who have combined for the last three AL titles and might yet produce the representative this year.
Look at those results. Now look at a roster that — among other things — has questions about the upside of Gerrit Cole post enforcement of sticky stuff and whether DJ LeMahieu’s 2021 downturn can be explained away by a sports hernia, and ask: Are the Yankees better today than they were four years ago?
It is something Hal Steinbrenner should be asking. Because even if he does what is expected and retains GM Brian Cashman and Boone, there must be more than the firing of a coach or two as symbolism or scapegoating. Boone spoke in the aftermath of the Yankees’ wild-card loss last week of teams “closing the gap” on his team. But the fear has to be the better teams widening the gap, too.
It is why a tough, unsparing self-evaluation of why the Yankees have not turned the promise of 2017 into even multiple division winners and a World Series trip is needed. Here are starting places for this assessment:
1. Why are the position players not retaining value?
Bird, Judge, Sanchez, Torres, Frazier and Miguel Andujar all had promising early stints. Only Judge (when healthy) has maintained a high standard, and he will be entering his walk year.
In Sanchez’s early years, the consensus from within — among teammates and officials — was that he would be the best hitter on the team. Note, hitter. Not just power bat. How did he go from that to hitting .201 over the last four years? Torres was an All-Star in his age 21 and 22 seasons. In his age-23 and 24 years the past two seasons, his OPS-plus is 5 percent under the league average. The plummet is so severe that the Yankees have to contemplate if they will even tender contracts to Andujar, Frazier and Sanchez.
2. Why does a team with a consistently large payroll have such deficiencies in areas like defense and baserunning?
Having the Yankees money — even in years in which they have sunk just under the luxury tax — should afford variety. Instead, the Yankees kept doubling down on so many hulking, righty power hitters it left little room on the roster or within the budget for athleticism and diversity.
There was investment in dollars or significant prospects for the switch-hitting Aaron Hicks, an injury-prone player who has stayed injured since receiving his seven-year, $70 million pact, and Joey Gallo, who brought a lefty bat but also a low-average, high-strikeout style that already was bedeviling a 2021 team not adept at sustaining offense without home runs.
In many ways, Luke Voit defines this era for the Yankees. They have been excellent at uncovering undervalued assets elsewhere such as Hicks, Didi Gregorius, Gio Urshela, Chad Green and Clay Holmes. Voit fits into this category. But even while succeeding, Voit exacerbated Yankee issues around right-handedness, poor defense, poor athleticism and dubious ability to stay healthy with his combination of hulking body and ferocious swing. He led the AL in homers in the shortened 2020 campaign. It would have been an ideal time to try to maximize a return.
But I sense the Yankees are always obsessed with the individual deal and not the makeup it will have on the overall fabric of the roster. They might have received less return than desired for Voit, but how they used his salary and roster spot would be part of the return. Instead, he becomes another player the Yankees have to decide whether they tender or not.
3. Why aren’t they getting more homegrown difference makers?
Some of this reflects picking in the latter half of the draft, or having limits on international spending. Still, this is probably the best alignment the Yankees could form from 2021 players whose first pro contract was with them:
Catcher, Kyle Higashioka
First base, Luis Torrens
Second base, Nick Solak
Shortstop, Tyler Wade
Third base, Thairo Estrada
Left field, Ben Gamel
Center field, Brett Gardner
Right field, Judge
They only had five pitchers make more than six starts: Jordan Montgomery, James Kaprielian, Nestor Cortes Jr., Caleb Smith and Taylor Widener.
Judge had the best WAR (Fangraphs) at 5.5. Sanchez at 1.5 was the next-best, followed by Gardner at 1.4. Among pitchers, Montgomery had 3.3 WAR, followed by Gio Gallegos (who was traded for Voit) at 2.2 and then Cortes Jr. at 1.7.