Veteran comebacks not enough in 2015
A-Rod, Teixeira lead offense, but Yankees can't advance past Wild Card Game
NEW YORK -- The Yankees returned to postseason play for the first time in three seasons in 2015, though their experience ended far too quickly for their taste, spanning just nine innings against Dallas Keuchel and the Astros in the franchise's first American League Wild Card Game.
Manager Joe Girardi is just about the most consistently glass-half-full voice you'll find around Yankee Stadium, but because of that bitter conclusion, even he had difficulty viewing the club's 87-victory campaign as an overwhelming success.
"I'm proud of what our guys did and how hard they played," Girardi said. "I thought they gave me everything they had. But there's a lot of disappointment when you lose in the first round and you don't get to where you want.
"That's the hard thing, because it ends so abruptly. You fight like crazy for 162 games and you get into a one-game playoff and both teams expect to win. We pitched pretty well, we don't score any runs; it's frustrating. You consider that, we didn't accomplish what we set out to accomplish."
Making the conclusion even more difficult to swallow was that the Yankees had, at the close of business on July 28, held a seven-game advantage over the Blue Jays in the American League East.
Now it is back to the drawing board, as general manager Brian Cashman and club brass attempt to pivot toward being a younger, more flexible club while still contending for a championship. As we close the book on 2015, here are five of the storylines that stand out.
5. Comebacks and uncertainty
Early in the spring, Cashman did not mince words when he stated that the Yankees did not know what to expect from Alex Rodriguez, entering his age 40 season and coming off a historic season-long suspension. The Yankees were thrilled with what they received: Rodriguez called it a blessing to put the pinstripes back on and acted that way, a model citizen both on and off the field. A move to the full-time designated hitter role seemed to work wonders in keeping him healthy, helping to power a 33-homer season -- his highest total since 2010.
Less surprising was a strong comeback from Mark Teixeira, whose switch-hitting presence in the heart of the lineup warranted inclusion in the MVP discussion, until he sustained a season-ending leg injury in August. Finally healthy after a full winter of rehabilitation from right-wrist surgery, as well as a gluten-free diet, he led the team in home runs (31) at the time of his injury and was named an American League All-Star, joined in Cincinnati by Brett Gardner and Dellin Betances.
From May 1 on, Carlos Beltran led the Yankees in batting average (.295) and doubles (29), posting an .862 OPS, while Brian McCann led all Major League catchers with 26 home runs. His 94 RBIs led the club and were second in the Majors among catchers only to the Giants' Buster Posey (95).
4. From the Captain to Sir Didi
One of the most repeated questions of Spring Training was how Didi Gregorius would handle the challenge of replacing a franchise icon in Derek Jeter at shortstop. The Yankees made it clear that they were not asking Gregorius to replicate Jeter's five-time World Series-champion greatness, but just to do what he was capable of.
After a shaky opening act, Gregorius found his footing and improved his batting average by 25 points in each of the season's first four months, going from hitting .206 in April to .317 in July. Gregorius set career highs in games played (155), runs scored (57), hits (139), doubles (24), home runs (9) and RBIs (56). Thanks to his work with Alan Cockrell, now the Yanks' primary hitting coach, Gregorius even improved against left-handed pitching.
3. Closing time
It didn't seem as though the Yankees could make a wrong call in the closer's role, wielding a left-right combination of Andrew Miller and Betances, but both were untested in those high-pressure situations. The Yankees ultimately chose to place Miller in the ninth inning and were rewarded with a standout campaign that saw him record 36 saves in 38 chances, a 2.04 ERA and 100 strikeouts.
Betances, meanwhile, earned his second consecutive All-Star selection while making a career-high 74 relief appearances, compiling a 1.50 ERA and leading all Major League relievers with 131 strikeouts. He even filled in nicely while Miller served a brief stint on the disabled list, nailing down nine saves of his own.
2. Start me up
The Yankees had to get creative in the starting-pitching department; due to injuries, none of their starting pitchers cracked the 170-inning mark, the first time in a non-strike season that any Yankees club dealt with that issue. Yet the doomsday Masahiro Tanaka scenario never materialized, as he was 12-7 with a 3.51 ERA in 24 starts despite a month-long stint on the disabled list beginning in late April.
Nathan Eovaldi's breakout campaign helped solidify the rotation, as the right-hander finished tied for eighth in the AL with 14 wins and led the AL with an .824 winning percentage. Michael Pineda led the team with 156 strikeouts, 16 of which came on a memorable Mother's Day start vs. Baltimore, and CC Sabathia completed his season with an encouraging 2.17 ERA in his final five starts while experimenting with a knee brace.
1. New blood for the future
Some fresh faces helped the Yankees greatly down the stretch drive, entering the playoff chase and proving they could handle the pressure -- while making the Yankees look smart for declining to include them in trade negotiations. Luis Severino, 21, slotted into the rotation and went 5-3 with a 2.89 ERA in 11 starts, three of which came against the Blue Jays, the eventual division winners.
Greg Bird, 23, assisted in Teixeira's absence, taking over at first base and slugging 11 homers in his first 46 games, leading all Major League rookies with a 14.27 AB/HR ratio. From the time of Bird's debut on Aug. 13 through the end of the season, he led the Yankees in home runs and tied Beltran for the lead in RBIs.
Rob Refsnyder played well when given a brief opportunity in September, Gary Sanchez projects to begin 2016 as the backup catcher, and the Yankees believe there is more talent on the way with outfielder Aaron Judge and infielder Jorge Mateo climbing up the farm chain.