The 2023 Yankees season was disastrous.
That we know partly because their constantly criticized, four-time World Series champion general manager Brian Cashman told us it was a disaster — not in some end-of-season wrap-up, mind you, but with nearly six weeks to go and eternally hopeful manager Aaron Boone still publicly ruminating about playoff possibilities.
Cashman was obviously convinced of this early, and correctly as it turns out. (Sidenote: the average Yankee fans would claim it’s the only time he’s been right since lucking into Gerrit Cole, baseball’s best pitcher, nearly five years ago.)
It’s not only Cashman’s words that confirmed it, of course. All true Yankee followers understood it was a disaster based on the long-held standard of none other than George M. Steinbrenner (they haven’t won the World Series since he passed in 2010, so the M now stands for Much Loved).
Anyway, Steinbrenner set the standard, which is basically this:
1. Any season that results in anything less than a World Series win is a failure, and …
2. Any season that results in anything less than a postseason berth is a disaster.
So now that we are finished with the disaster that was 2023, let’s get on to happier things, which should begin Tuesday. Things are sunnier not only according to the Yankees, but also the Las Vegas oddsmakers who have installed them as the favorite in the perennially stacked AL East (excepting the alleged rival Red Sox, whose owner seems to be soccer-and-golf favoring now).
The experts have anointed MLB’s marquee franchise even though the Yankees finished a full 19 games behind the new kids on the block, the Baltimore Orioles, a former Yankees patsy — remember when Gleyber Torres homered nearly every game against them? And that prediction somehow stands even after the Orioles added former NL Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes (not to mention a new owner who has to be better than the old one).
As far as I can tell, there are two main reasons the Yankees are perceived as quickly transitioning from disaster to potential division winner. The first one is obvious.
Yes, of course, it’s the acquisition — for just about all their rotation depth — of Juan Soto, who is one of the best hitters in the game and gives the Yankees the best batting combo in the American League with Aaron Judge. (Cases could be made for the trios of Shohei Otani, Freddie Freeman and Mookie Betts or Ronald Acuña Jr., Matt Olson and Austin Riley in that other league.)
My own semiofficial ranking has Judge as the top hitter in the game followed by Yordan Alvarez as No. 2 and Soto at No. 3, and even if you don’t like my ranking, there’s no way around the Soto-Judge combo as one of the best in the history of baseball’s franchise of hitting icons, below Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and at least in 1961 Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, but perhaps none other.
Soto was slammed by some for his allegedly “off year” in 2023, but it certainly wasn’t anything like the disaster that was the Yankees’ ’23 season. In his supposedly no-good, very-bad season, Soto posted a .930 OPS, hit 35 home runs, knocked in 109 runs and walked an MLB-best 132 times. He also posted a 158 OPS-plus, or exactly one point higher than the career mark of a player who’s on the way to wrap up Cooperstown while still in his 20s.
The other reason the Yankees will be better — and, really, this is the big one — is that they just don’t have those type of seasons. It’s not their thing. Which is why they can still fairly proclaim their 82-80 year calamitous.
The Yankees haven’t posted a worse season since the year Judge was born. That would be 1992, which is also the year Buck Showalter became a baby-faced rookie manager. So they have to improve, right?
Put aside the obvious feelings of the Bleacher Creatures and their comrades in pinstripes, it’s just not in their DNA during the Cashman era to play the also-ran. Cashman is somewhat (somewhat!) understandably under siege from Yankee fans for a few-year run of missteps — the commissions of Carlos Rodon, Joey Gallo and Frankie Montas, the omissions of Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Luis Castillo, the extension of Aaron Hicks and the expectations of Miguel Andujar and Clint Frazier — but his teams still have reached the playoffs 23 times, more than any other GM in history.
Fair or not, the consensus is that 2023 is an unmentionable, unrepeatable fluke, when debilitating injuries (Anthony Rizzo, Montas, Rodon, Judge, Jose Trevino, Nestor Cortes and a host of relievers) and stunning underperformance (Giancarlo Stanton, DJ LeMahieu and Rodon yet again) conspired to kill a season that originally promised more of the usual, which is an October berth and a chance at World Series title No. 28 (known better to Yankee fans as their first since 2009).
Sure, there are questions. The Soto deal left the Yankees short of rotation depth, putting a premium on renewed health for Cortes, a revival for Rodon and a return to normalcy for Long Island’s own Marcus Stroman, who’s begged to be a Yankee forever.
Start with very likely the game’s best hitter (Judge) and best pitcher (Cole), enough talent to complement them even if they do look a little top-heavy plus early reports of better health/shape than in 2023, here’s the inarguable reality: The Yankees couldn’t possibly do worse.