The Story of the 2016 Yankees was a Tale of Two Seasons
By Cory Claus
A baseball season tells a story. In 2016, the New York Yankees story looked like it would end in tragedy but instead they wrote a happy ending.
It was the worst of times, it was the best of times. It was the age of Rodriguez, it was the age of Sanchez. It was the summer of despair, it was the autumn of hope. The 2016 Yankees took us on an emotional ride with a sanguine start that descended into frustration, and finally rose to greater enthusiasm than we have felt since the early 90’s. In short, it was a dickens of a season.
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Yankees fans were cautiously optimistic coming in to spring training. The team had made the wild card in 2015 and had the potential to be better. The Yankees upgraded at their weakest offensive position, second base, and added the best closer in baseball, Aroldis Chapman.
They added another young player—Aaron Hicks—who seemed ready to develop into a solid everyday outfielder. And all Luis Severino had to do was just keep on keeping on.
We hoped that Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira would be able to come close to their 2015 outputs. Even though they would be a year older and their skills might diminish some, there was little thought that their offensive production would almost evaporate.
We thought Michael Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi would continue to progress. If either one of those could take the next step, the Yankees might have a dominating pitching staff.
The single biggest fear was that Tanaka’s elbow would finally give out. The experts, by which I mean the writers who assume they know what they are talking about and not the doctors who actually examined Tanaka, were sure Tanaka would need surgery. He was never going to be an ace again until he had that surgery.
The Track of a Storm
Hopes were slowly and painfully dashed by July. The Yankees lost a starter before spring training even ended: Bryan Mitchell. Tex and A-Rod found the Fountain of Old Age. Starlin Castro started hot but cooled as he learned what it means to play in NYC. He then spent the middle of season finding his offense: less OBP and more HR’s.
And despite the proclamations that Yankees pitchers were inconsistent, they were actually very consistent: consistently bad. Their ERA’s all seemed to start with a 4 except for Severino’s, who pitched to over a 7.
The young players were not developing and the old players were falling apart. The Yankees could not score or stop other teams from scoring. How many times were we frustrated seeing the bases loaded with Yankees, but none of them crossed home? How often did the Yankees reach the heights of a .500 record only to fall back?
Many a night I vaguely and unhappily wandered after a loss, when drink had brought no transitory gladness to me.
We had reached the bottom, the bottom for Yankees. For most teams, the bottom means several losing seasons, perhaps finishing at the bottom of their divisions; see the Boston Red Sox and NY Mets. For Yankees, the bottom means we are still going to win a lot of games but not make the playoffs, with little hope for the next season.
We wanted the team to get younger. We wanted the worst performers to move aside so we could see what some of the farm hands could do. Pitching was a real concern for both this year and beyond because our best replacement options were injured (Bryan Mitchell, James Kaprelian, Ian Clarkin). And we had a real bad feeling about A-Rod on the 2017 roster.
It was then that the Yankees began to behave in very non-Yankees ways. First, Hal Steinbrenner decided to pay a player not to play and so A-Rod was released. Next, the Yankees did something unseen for many a fortnight: became sellers at the deadline. So it came to be that the best offensive player, Carlos Beltran, and the best pitcher, Aroldis Chapman, were traded. When was the last time the Yankees traded veterans at the deadline instead of adding one?
Finally, Mark Teixeira announced he was going to retire at the end of the year. This, and his pronouncement to Joe Girardi that he would accept any role in his last six weeks, made it easier to try out a rookie at first base.
Yes, we all cheered the moves so that the team could regain its former glory in the years to come. But our hopes for the season were lain to rest.
The thin pitching staff was reduced by the trade of Ivan Nova and the offense seemed likely to get much worse. We braced for a lot of losing and trying to live in an oxymoronic world: Yankees fans who were not supposed to care about winning.
Turns out, we did not have to. Trading their best players and reloading with young talent turned out to be a far, far, better thing then they have ever done before.
Anyone Know a Good History Novel
As if we needed more than the 27 championships to know that the universe favors the Yankees, unexpected and wondrous things began to happen. Gary Sanchez exemplified the youth movement by establishing himself as one of the most exciting and promising young players in baseball.
Even the players who would go on to make only marginal contributions showed extraordinary possibilities. Judge hit two of the longest home runs ever hit at the Stadium. It was not enough to offset his strike outs, but it was enough to keep us tantalized.
The same is true for Tyler Austin. He only hit five home runs and has little more than a future as a role player at best, but the fact that he showed himself strong enough to take all of those balls to the opposite field is cause for consideration.
And not only did the offense take off, but also the pitching improved as well. Tanaka got better as the season went on; ditto for Pineda. The only talk about Tanaka’s elbow was whether it would win him a CY Young. Quality replacement pitchers came up from the farm (via trade), starting with Luis Cessa and Chad Green. We knew for sure the Yanks are favored by fate when Bryan Mitchell came back to pitch this year.
2016 even saw the re-write of a previous chapter. Suddenly, the trade that sent Justin Wilson to the Detroit Tigers for Cessa and Green was reevaluated. When the trade was made in December, the pundits pilloried the decision. Now, they hailed Brian Cashman and this move.
Recalled to Life
But the most surprising aspect of the season, even more than that stormy night that saw A-Rod say goodbye in electric fashion, was that the Yankees started to win. The team became exciting and dynamic. And a new potential superstar arose: Gary somebody.
I just re-watched the late August game when the Yankees had just returned from the west coast. It was the Friday night game against the Orioles. Sanchez got three hits, including a double and a home run. Mark Teixeira rose up to blast a home run. Luis Cessa pitched deep into the game. The Yankees won by a wide margin and the stadium rocked. It was the kind of night we did not see this year until that very night.
It is doubtful that any of the fans really became invested in the Yankees making the postseason. While that would have been nice and more than extraordinary, our hopes were never based on that. Instead, we got a glimpse of the future and the assurance that roster spots will be available in 2017.
Most importantly, we got our hope back. Not just the hope that the Yankees can be competitive next year, but the only hope Yankees fans really care about, that the Yankees might be able to compete for a championship next year.
Would you settle for better than Madame Defarge?
That long, slow change over the season from hope to horror to hope is best exemplified in an exchange I had with a young Yankees fan in late September. I met Keith and his mother at a community event in Chappaqua. Keith is 8 years old and a lifelong Yankees fan; he still remembers that magical 2015 season when the Yankees made the wild card game.
We were speaking about the team when Keith prophesied that Gary Sanchez is going to be better than Babe Ruth. Had I asked Keith in April, it is doubtful he would have known who Sanchez is. I did not temper any of Keith’s youthful enthusiasm with words of caution. But his excited face and optimistic outlook told me everything about the 2016 season.
When the season started, the Yankees were an aging team that used to feature his mom’s favorite player and reigning best living Yankee, Derek Jeter. Now it features a player at the beginning of his career who could be better than Babe Ruth, although it is unlikely (sorry Keith). Keith and all young Yankees fans are more excited now than at any time in the last few years. And the team has been turned over to those young fans as this new group of players start their careers.
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The Golden Thread
The Yankees started with mediocre play and aging stars. By the All-Star game, the team had proved itself irrelevant. The fans became despondent and lost hope.
At the end, however, the Yankees had reinvigorated themselves and featured a young potential superstar. They were in the playoff hunt until the last weekend of the season, which is more than we hoped for in early August. And their farm system was stocked with high draft picks and plenty of potential.
Most importantly, by creating a new young fan base with Keith as the exemplar, the Yankees season became a real success. The plan to win the championship every year seems more realistic over the next few years and that excitement will start in the 2017 spring training.
Next: Five Yankees Most Likely to Be Traded this Winter
Until then, I will take the time to finish the book I am reading, A Tale of Two Cities. I hope it has as happy an ending as the 2016 Yankees season did.