NEW YORK — Inside the New York Yankees’ oval-shaped clubhouse, with its plush blue carpet stamped in the middle with a white interlocking “NY,” Aaron Judge occupies prime real estate. He has two lockers — one for street clothes and game-day gear, and another to his left filled with surplus Jordan cleats, batting gloves the size of oven mitts and cases of Waiākea water bottles. The space also features a view that, for the Yankees’ captain, would seem ideal. Nestled against the back wall, he needs just two steps to slip away through a media-restricted doorway. If he wants to address the entire room, he can simply spin around in his navy leather office chair.
So Judge has had an intimate, behind-the-scenes seat to the most miserable season of baseball in the Bronx since 1992 — the last time the Yankees finished below .500 and, coincidentally, the year that the 31-year-old right fielder was born. At 80-77, their playoff aspirations have been all but kaput since mid-August, and they were officially eliminated from contention on Sunday. They are battling the Red Sox to stay out of last place in the American League East. In short, the Bombers have bombed.
“It’s tough,” Judge said in a quiet moment standing in front of his locker in early September.
Going into spring training, the Yankees were optimistic. They had re-signed Judge after a hectic free agency, giving him a nine-year, $360-million pact. Owner Hal Steinbrenner had also spent big on starting pitcher Carlos Rodón ($162 million, six years) and first baseman Anthony Rizzo ($40 million, two years). They were hopeful top prospects Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza, both shortstops, would bring them some much-needed youth and athleticism.
Seven months later, players, coaches and staffers were still in disbelief over the mess that the season became. Before Opening Day, FanGraphs had given the Yankees an 81.2 percent chance to make the playoffs and put their odds at winning the World Series at 10.2 percent — the highest in the AL. But after July 9, they never again touched a wild-card spot.
At the Aug. 1 trade deadline, the front office didn’t make a single meaningful deal — a tacit acknowledgement that they were resigned to their fate as disappointments. Not long after, Steinbrenner said that the team was considering hiring an “outside company” to evaluate the entire operation, though he singled out the analytics department for scrutiny. (According to a team source, that evaluation is expected to begin the day after the regular season ends.) And by Sept. 1, they signaled they had started to look ahead to 2024 with the promotion of 20-year-old prospect Jasson Domínguez.
It was the culmination of a collapse. The Yankees were too injured. They were too old. They were too unathletic. They couldn’t hit, and they couldn’t adjust their lineup, crossing their fingers that underperforming veterans would turn it around because they didn’t have the depth or the prospects to supplant them. They made their first in-season firing of a coach in general manager Brian Cashman’s 25-year tenure, dumping hitting coach Dillon Lawson, but the offense didn’t improve. Aaron Judge, their best player, made the best defensive play in their season — and suffered their most crushing injury in the process. Domingo Germán threw a perfect game, their first in 24 years, and then a month later showed up to the clubhouse drunk, according to team sources; his violent outburst led to him going on the restricted list to seek treatment for alcohol abuse. They wasted a brilliant, Cy Young-worthy season from ace Gerrit Cole. When the team was nearly 10 games out of first place in late June, Steinbrenner said he was “confused” about why fans were angry, a tone-deaf moment that just made them angrier.
Infielder DJ LeMahieu said he just wanted a “reset” on the whole season. Cole declined comment when asked by The Athletic what he thought had gone so wrong with the Yankees this year.
Judge, however, had an idea.
“I could only look from my perspective as a player,” he said. “I’m not really going to get into the whole organization (or) stuff like that. It ain’t my job. …
“I think what it came down to was just getting hit with a couple of big injuries at the wrong time and not really (being) able to capitalize or have some depth at the time to cover those needs.”
“What could go wrong,” LeMahieu said, “went wrong.”
Cracks in the foundation
Past a couple black leather couches, flat-screen TVs and mini fridges on the other side of the clubhouse sit the lockers that are typically reserved for back-of-the-roster players or recent call-ups. While the Yankees thrive off the star power provided by players in the back of the clubhouse, such as Judge, Rizzo, Giancarlo Stanton, Cole and Rodón, any team hoping to sniff the postseason must be able to tap role players and fill-ins at crucial times over the course of the 162-game regular season.
For the Yankees, there were too many injuries and too much underperformance from key players, and the roster they constructed wasn’t equipped to handle it. Scrap-heap pickups such as Jake Bauers, Franchy Cordero, Billy McKinney and Willie Calhoun ended up with too many at-bats. They couldn’t pick up enough of the slack — and didn’t have track records suggesting they would be capable of it anyway — when disaster struck over and over.
The only time the Yankees were tied for first place in the division was March 30, when they were 1-0 after Opening Day. As the Tampa Bay Rays rushed out to a 13-0 start, the Yankees were 8-5, a litany of spring training injuries taking their toll. Their biggest loss was Rodón, whom they were counting on to be a co-ace with Cole; he wouldn’t make his first start until July 7. They were also without starting pitchers Luis Severino and Frankie Montas, center fielder Harrison Bader and relievers Tommy Kahnle and Lou Trivino. Montas (right shoulder surgery) and Trivino (Tommy John surgery) wouldn’t pitch for the Yankees in 2023. In April, injuries to Stanton and Donaldson further weakened the lineup.
It all led to Cashman addressing reporters in the Yankees’ dugout on May 3, as his team, with its then-$277-million payroll, sitting at 17-15 and in last place.
“Don’t count us out,” Cashman said at the time. “Don’t give up on us. … This is a championship-caliber operation.”
Yet cracks were showing. At that point, the Yankees’ offense was just 23rd in the majors in runs scored and 26th in batting average. The risks they had taken weren’t paying off. Oswaldo Cabrera, given the left field starting job out of camp, was among the worst everyday hitters in the game. Aaron Hicks was failing. There were calls for Volpe to be sent to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in favor of Peraza, the preseason favorite to be the starting shortstop. They were getting no offense out of the catcher position, which had been a problem since Gary Sánchez stopped being an effective hitter in 2021. Starting pitcher Nestor Cortes wasn’t close to repeating his breakout campaign from the year before.
But troubling signs had started to appear at least a season earlier.
In 2022, the Yankees had finished the season tops in the AL in runs scored, but they had done most of their damage early. From Aug. 1 through the rest of the regular season, they went 29-29. They didn’t have a capable regular left fielder. Donaldson, Stanton, Isiah Kiner-Falefa and LeMahieu were major disappointments. They were an offense too reliant on Judge in a historic season in which he hit 62 home runs, an AL single-season record.
In the AL Division Series, they barely scraped past the Cleveland Guardians. And in the Championship Series, they were crushed by the Houston Astros in a four-game sweep, outscored 18-9.
In the offseason, they first re-signed Rizzo, then Judge. Rodón’s pact came shortly after, and once the left-hander had been secured, Steinbrenner, too, seemed to think the roster still needed more.
“All I can tell you is that we’re not done yet,” the billionaire told reporters on Dec. 21.
Yet the Yankees’ only signing post-Rodón was Cordero, a journeyman outfielder with little big-league success. A Yankees instructor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely, said he was surprised the team did not make any additions to the offense last winter and questioned the team’s belief in both Donaldson and Hicks after their failures the previous season.
All those issues remained in 2023 — and they all bit the Yankees. The 37-year-old Donaldson, who Boone repeatedly said he thought would bounce back, played just 33 games and hit only .142. The Yankees dropped him and the underperforming Bader at the Aug. 31 waiver deadline. Stanton missed six weeks and hit just .189. “Terrible,” was how he described his season. LeMahieu hit .220 in 76 games in the first half. Kiner-Falefa had transitioned into a utility role, where his defense was fine but his bat was below league-average (78 OPS+).
Still, in mid-May, the Yankees believed that if they could just get healthy, they might change their fortunes, even as they fell to fourth in the division.
In the span of one week in late May, the Yankees’ season went into a full nosedive.
On May 28, Rizzo was among the best-hitting first basemen in baseball, with 11 homers and a .880 OPS in 53 games. Then, in a home game against the San Diego Padres, catcher Kyle Higashioka threw a back-pick to Rizzo. As he tagged out Fernando Tatis Jr., Tatis smashed into his head and right shoulder with his right thigh. Rizzo went stumbling and fell to the ground. He sat out the next three games.
Then on June 3 — with the Yankees playing the Dodgers in Los Angeles — J.D. Martinez cracked a hard line drive to the right-field wall. Judge crashed through a gate to the visiting bullpen, making the spectacular, game-saving catch, but he hit his right toe on the concrete foundation of the wall. Judge tore a ligament in his toe and missed the next 42 games.
In his absence, the Yankees would go just 19-23. A big reason was that Rizzo wasn’t right. He suffered from occasional fogginess and he was perplexed as to why he wasn’t even close on pitches he’d usually crush, hitting just .172 over his final 46 games before going on the IL for good on Aug. 3.
It turned out that Rizzo had been suffering from post-concussion syndrome. He had passed the initial concussion protocol test the day of his crash with Tatis and never reported symptoms until two months later, when he experienced fogginess during a series in Baltimore the final weekend of July. Rizzo told The Athletic in early August that he believed the Yankees handled his care properly, although external questions still remain on why he continued playing for two months while his play deteriorated.
Judge looked back at his own injury and Rizzo’s as the lowest moments of a season gone awry.
“The position we were in at the time, battling for the division,” Judge said. “Tampa was kind of running away with it. But we knew it was a long season, and when something like that happens — if you get me, (Stanton), (Donaldson) was out for a while. Rodón, one of your big free agent signings, is down for a long time. Then Anthony (Rizzo) gets hit with what he got hit with.”
Confronting a ‘disaster’
Cashman, in a light blue polo shirt and glasses, sat at the table and leaned on his forearms. In front of him were more than a dozen reporters, photographers, TV cameras and Yankees staffers. He was inside the press conference room at Yankee Stadium. It was only Aug. 23, but there he was, essentially reading the last rites to a season he called a “disaster.” The Yankees’ hopes at that point were essentially dead.
“I don’t think there’s anybody on this planet that felt the New York Yankees as constructed, entering spring training or leaving spring training, (weren’t) a playoff-contending team,” he said.
Then who would be judged for it? The first ax fell on hitting coach Lawson, who was dumped the day before the All-Star break. They replaced Lawson with ex-big-leaguer Sean Casey, whose impact on the overall offensive statistics has been minimal at best, despite Boone’s insistence that Casey has made better personal connections with hitters. Casey, whose contract runs through the regular season, hasn’t decided if he wants to return in the role in 2024.
Is Boone’s job safe? Since his first season in 2018, his .586 winning percentage (503-355) is the second-best in the majors among active managers. But Yankees skippers aren’t remembered for their regular-season accomplishments. Boone has twice reached the ALCS, but unlike the two managers before him (Joe Girardi and Joe Torre), he hasn’t won a World Series.
“That’s ultimately not my decision,” Boone said.
Yankees fans seem split on their opinion of Boone. They appreciate his fiery ejections and his place in Yankees lore for hitting the walk-off homer in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. But they deride his unfailing positivity and the sometimes extreme lengths he goes to defend his players. Those players, however, love him. Judge and LeMahieu each have defended Boone in interviews this season. He has one year remaining on his contract, and though he’s drawn heat from fans, few would place the blame of the Yankees’ terrible season entirely on his shoulders. If the Yankees fired the 50-year-old with few other front-facing changes, Boone could be considered a scapegoat, and the ire of fans might be turned more directly toward Cashman.
The Yankees’ GM is in the first year of a four-year contract extension, and considering his track record of 21 playoff appearances in 25 seasons and his close relationship with Steinbrenner, the perception around the team is that Cashman is safe for now. Will the Yankees look to move on from Eric Cressey, their director of player health and performance, after yet another season marred by injuries? Will the decision-making in their baseball operations shift away from assistant GM and analytics guru Mike Fishman, and perhaps toward Cashman assistants Omar Minaya and Brian Sabean, who have decades of combined experience in player scouting and designing front offices?
“I think we’re all going to be evaluated,” Cashman said, “and I’m including myself.”
“You can’t just sit here and say that what we did this year is good enough to go into next year, right?” said Rizzo.
Then what changes would have to be made to the roster in the winter to avoid yet another losing season in 2024?
They need to address both sides of the ball. Through Monday, the offense was 24th in runs scored, 24th in runs per game and second-to-last in batting average. And despite Cole’s brilliance (14-4, 2.75 ERA), the starting pitching staff is 19th in fWAR and has a 4.41 ERA.
They seem to have little choice but to bring back the core of their batting order. Aside from Judge, still one of the game’s most feared hitters, Rizzo still has a year left on his deal, and it’s unclear whether his concussion issues will be behind him by next Opening Day. LeMahieu (free agent in 2026) and Stanton (free agent in 2028) each have full no-trade clauses. They don’t have obvious internal options in left field, center field, third base or catcher. Star prospect Jasson Domínguez suffered a UCL tear just eight games into his MLB career and might not return until June or later. They’re still paying Hicks $20 million over the next two seasons, though approximately $60 million will come off the books with the free agent departures of Donaldson, Kiner-Falefa, Montas, Severino, Wandy Peralta and Bader.
There’s no guarantee that Cortes, who made just 12 starts due to two shoulder injuries, will be healthy next season. Rodón will have to prove he, too, can stay healthy. Domingo Germán seems like a non-tender candidate.
While reflecting on the Yankees’ lack of depth, a team official offered a succinct analysis.
“We just need to get better at finding those kinds of players,” he said, referencing how, in 2022, the team struck gold when it signed Matt Carpenter early in the regular season and he hit .305 in 47 games.
Considering Cashman headed to Japan earlier this month to watch Orix Buffaloes ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who’s expected to be posted this offseason, it seems clear that Steinbrenner is OK with Cashman being the one who tries to untangle the mess on his hands. But what about the people he’s hired? Steinbrenner mentioned the Yankees’ analytics department when he spoke about an outside company examining how baseball operations has been run. That suggests he could be disappointed in the Yankees’ recent questionable roster construction. For example, acquiring Joey Gallo from the Rangers in 2021 ended up being a major mistake. The 2017 trade for Giancarlo Stanton could be another example: he’s fallen off the last two seasons (.201, .728 OPS) and, at age 33, may be a $25 million-a-year weight until his contract expires in 2027. The trades for Donaldson and Montas were failures, too.
The team could also examine their medical practices. Despite overhauling their strength and conditioning department in 2020, installing Eric Cressey as its leader, the Yankees have finished in the top 10 in injured list stints every year since 2017, according to Spotrac.
Cashman can’t go into next season repeating the problems the Yankees had in 2023, which had roots in 2022 and earlier. He has admitted that the roster he shaped wasn’t good enough to withstand the Yankees’ onslaught of injuries.
“We learned that when that storm hit us,” he said, “we didn’t have enough to sustain or maintain, and it (sank) us. But certainly a pretty big storm hit our way.”
That was Judge’s main takeaway, reflecting on the worst season of baseball Yankees fans have seen in more than three decades.
“That stuff, as a player, it adds up.”
(Top image: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photos: Rob Tringali / Getty Images; Tom Pennington / Getty Images; Elsa / Getty Images)