A lot has been written in the lead up to the 2014 season about how similar this team is to the 2009 Yankee team. That 2009 team rebounded from missing the playoffs in 2008 by spending big bucks in the off-season bringing CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira to the Bronx. Those signings catapulted the Yankees to a World Series win over the Phillies that October. However, a better comparison may be the Yankee team of Derek Jeter’s rookie year, the 1996 Yankees.
Exit of a Legend
In 1995, a Yankee legend retired. Don Mattingly’s career was derailed from its Hall of Fame track due to a chronic back injury, but the beloved Captain was the most popular Yankee of his generation. He won an MVP, a batting title, 6-time All-Star, 9-time Gold Glover, and won three silver sluggers. His time with the Yankees was made up of the longest World Series drought in franchise history and he made the only postseason appearance of his career in 1995. He would be replaced in 1996 by a young first baseman that was brought over in a trade from the same Seattle Mariners’ team that eliminated Mattingly in his only postseason named Tino Martinez.
The current version of the Yankees will also be replacing a legend. Last season, the Sandman exited for the final time. The greatest closer of all-time, Mariano Rivera, retired. Unlike Mattingly, Rivera’s time with Yankees was among the most successful in the storied franchise’s history. He won 5 rings and 7 pennants, and his personal accomplishments include 13 All-Star Games, a World Series MVP, an All-Star Game MVP, a LCS MVP, a 0.70 career postseason ERA and the most career saves in the history of Major League Baseball. The task of filling those impossible shoes falls upon Mariano’s former set-up man, David Robertson.
Big Roster Turnover
After the 1995 season, the Yankees cleaned house replacing nearly the entire roster. Only Wade Boggs, Bernie Williams and Paul O’Neill started Game 5 of 1995 Division Series and Game 6 of the 1996 World Series. GM Bob Watson brought in free agents Kenny Rogers, Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, and Mariano Duncan. He traded for Tino Martinez, Cecil Fielder, Graeme Lloyd, Joe Girardi, Jeff Nelson, Tim Raines, and Charlie Hayes. And the 1996 Rookie of the Year, Derek Jeter, was promoted to the big league team for good. The team that won the 1996 World Series bore little resemblance to the one that was the first ever American League Wild Card the year before.
A similar change has occurred in the Bronx over the last few months. The only position player who started opening day in 2013 and 2014 will be Brett Gardner, and he will be playing a different position, switching from center field in 2013 to left field in 2014. The Yankees added Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Kelly Johnson, Brian Roberts, and Masahiro Tanaka. They will also be getting Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter, and Michael Pineda back from injuries that cost them nearly all of 2013.
Pitching wins championships and both the 1996 team and the 2014 team has it in spades. The 1996 team featured a bonafide ace in David Cone (although he missed all by 11 starts due to injury in 1996), followed by a young Andy Pettitte and veterans Jimmy Key, Dwight Gooden, and Kenny Rogers. The current version features an ace in CC Sabathia followed by the veteran Hiroki Kuroda and then the young guns, Masahiro Tanaka, Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda. Both the 1996 version and the 2014 feature a solid bullpen with the one exception of closer. The 1996 version had a proven veteran closer in John Wettleland, who would win the World Series MVP that year. The 2014 Yankees have David Robertson, a dominant set-up man in the past in his first season pitching the ninth.
Twilights of an All-Time Great
A final similarity between the 1996 and 2014 Yankees is the appearance of all-time great players hanging on for one last shot at a world title. It would have been difficult to surmise the career arc taken by the rookie shortstop on the 1996 Yankees, but nevertheless, there goes Derek Jeter through one last summer on his way to Cooperstown. Nearby Ichiro Suzuki, the greatest Japanese position player ever to play in the majors is gracefully playing out his days in pinstripes, the subject of near daily trade rumors. Both Jeter and Ichiro will be important pieces to any title run the 2014 Yankees make, but both have had their best seasons long ago. In 1996, there was a similar situation with Wade Boggs, who won the batting title five times in the 1980s, being pushed out the door by the younger Charlie Hayes. Boggs would make his final All-Star game in 1996 and finish his career as a member of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays a few years later.
The comparisons and similarities between the 1996 team and the 2014 team run deep and fittingly bookend the career of the Yankee Captain, Derek Jeter. With any luck, they will both end the same way, with a trip through the Canyon of Heroes in the fall.