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The Yankees’ Decade of Almost: $2 Billion Spent, Zero Titles Won
ALCS loss to Astros caps a decade without a pennant for the 27-time world champions
By Brian Costa and Jared Diamond
Oct. 20, 2019 9:52 am ET
In many respects, the New York Yankees just completed an extraordinary decade. Over the past 10 regular seasons, they won 921 games, more than any other team in baseball. They made the playoffs seven times—no other team played into October more often.
The 2010s were a success by every measure—that is, except for the only one their fans actually care about: winning the World Series.
New York’s season-ending defeat to the Houston Astros in the American League Championship Series on Saturday means that for the first time since the 1910s, they have gone a full calendar decade without so much as appearing in the World Series.
They spent more than $2 billion on player salaries, more than any other team in the majors over that span. They employed at least eight current, likely or possible future Hall of Famers. And yet, along the way, the Yankees settled into a strange, new normal. They have become the sort of franchise their fans used to mock: great in every way but the one that counts.
It is tempting to compare them to the 1990s Atlanta Braves, a team best remembered for underachieving in the postseason. But even those Braves—the would-be Team of the ‘90s before the Yankees staked their own claim to that title—appeared in five World Series and won one.
What the Yankees did in the 2010s is without precedent in modern baseball history: In no previous calendar decade since 1900 has the winningest team of the decade by regular-season record failed to win at least one pennant, according to Stats LLC.
Their latest October exit was particularly crushing. After Jose Altuve sent Houston to the World Series with a walk-off, two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 6 on Saturday, the mood in the Yankees’ clubhouse was funereal.
Many players sat in silence, some in tears. Manager Aaron Boone went from player to player, hugging them and whispering words of encouragement in their ears. Slugger Aaron Judge called the season a failure.
“Just like that, with one swing of the bat, it’s all over,” outfielder Brett Gardner said. “It’ll take a while to get over. Some of us may never get over it.”
The cruel irony of the Yankees’ lost decade is that no other franchise has been so openly dismissive of merely reaching the World Series. The Yankees—perhaps their fans have mentioned this—have won 27 championships, more than any other North American professional sports franchise.
Part of their identity is treating anything less with the sort of solemn mea culpas befitting a huge corporate scandal. When they lost the 1981 World Series in six games to the Los Angeles Dodgers, late owner George Steinbrenner famously issued a statement that began: “I want to sincerely apologize to the people of New York.”
In 2011, after they won 97 games and the AL East but lost in the division series, team president Randy Levine used the phrase “bitter disappointment” in describing the season. “We are the Yankees,” he told ESPN. But in the years since, that sort of bluster has given way to a more nuanced view.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal earlier this year, Yankees principal owner Hal Steinbrenner said, “That’s our expectation: to be in the [World] Series every year. That’s the standard we hold ourselves to, because we understand our fans do. But there’s then the logical side, which is: The landscape has changed. The sport has changed. There are a lot of really good teams out there.”
Despite the efforts of Major League Baseball to encourage competitive balance and offset the Yankees’ financial advantages, the landscape at the start of the decade looked awfully familiar. They had just won the 2009 World Series following a $400 million winter spending spree.
But the ensuing years turned into a long sunset for the Yankees’ championship core. Mariano Rivera retired in 2013. Derek Jeter followed in 2014. Alex Rodriguez got suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs and missed all of 2014.
The Yankees refused to adopt the lose-big-now, win-big-later strategy that resulted in titles for the Astros and the Chicago Cubs. They haven’t had a losing season since 1992. Yet despite their unwillingness to tear their roster down, they managed to rebuild. Judge headlined a group of young stars that propelled the Yankees to the ALCS in 2017.
As they approached the end of the decade, the Yankees were well-positioned to begin a new championship era in the Bronx. Their failure to do so can be traced partly to their unwillingness to pay the cost of acquiring one of the dominant starting pitchers they coveted.
Most notable among them were the two aces that helped beat them in the ALCS, Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, who instead were traded to the Astros in 2017 and 2018, respectively. In addition to keeping a tight grip on minor-league prospects, the Yankees haven’t awarded a $100 million-plus contract to a free agent since 2014.
“It’s not like we weren’t out there spending, trying to improve,” Steinbrenner said. “It just wasn’t in the one mega-player some people wanted.”
As the Yankees look to retool their roster for 2020, they figure to do so from a position of strength. Their best young players, most notably Judge and Gleyber Torres, are still under their control, as are their top starting pitchers and relievers. It’s not hard to imagine them back in the postseason again a year from now. But it’s what they do when they get there that defines them. Right now, that’s the problem.
“You’ve got to win in October,” Gardner said. “Obviously we’ve got a long time to think about that before another October rolls around.”
“Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one..." C S Lewis