Dissecting An Embarrassing Failure
The New York Yankees, once the class of Major League Baseball, have just suffered yet another postseason defeat coming on the heels of a regular season collapse. At the All-Star break, this is a team that seemed poised for a historic 118-win season. In the end, they did set a record: they became the first team to ever lose 5 consecutive AL Championship series.
A quick review of the season tells us this team was never as good as it played in May and June. It probably wasn’t as bad as it played in August. The reality is this was a bad roster construction, led by a middling manager, who made it to the playoffs on the back of a Herculean effort by Aaron Judge. This was the inevitable result.
To begin to understand what went wrong, we need to travel back to last offseason. Coming off an ignoble defeat in the Wild Card game to the hated Red Sox, the team’s management correctly identified several gaping holes in the team’s roster. Poor defense, especially on the infield, was targeted as an area for improvement. Specifically, the middle of the diamond – catcher, shortstop, and second base all fielded well below league average. Fans also recognized center and left field were not positions of strength.
General manager Brian Cashman spent most of the offseason not doing much more than rappeling off buildings and sleeping on a sidewalk. But in March, he pulled the trigger on a franchise-altering trade. Struggling catcher (and one-time top 5 prospect) Gary Sanchez and popular third baseman Gio Urshela were shipped off to Minnesota for former MVP Josh Donaldson, Gold Glove shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa, and catching prospect Ben Rortvedt.
The thought process behind the trade was obvious to most. Despite the deepest, most free-agency class of shortstops in history, the Yankees didn’t want to spend the money on a long-term commitment to one. First, they had three shortstop prospects in the high minors who all profiled as potential MLB starters in Oswald Peraza, Oswaldo Cabrera, and Anthony Volpe. Second, the team already had huge contracts on the books in Giancarlo Stanton and Gerrit Cole and was trying to extend Judge, which they knew would take another substantial contract.
So instead, we watched Javy Baez sign with the Tigers, the Rangers scoop up a pair in Corey Seager and Marcus Semien, and Francisco Lindor re-sign with the crosstown rival Mets. T o add insult to injury, the Twins took the $59 million they saved by shipping Donaldson to the Yankees and used it to sign Carlos Correa.
It was a risky gamble by the Yankees. In the end, nobody won the trade. Sanchez has continued his decline and is no longer viewed by Minnesota as a catcher. Urshela had a decent season, hitting .285, but his power numbers fell off a cliff. Correa overcame a horrid first half to post a decent slash line – and promptly opted out of his contract.
But on the Yankees’ side, the trade was a disaster. Kiner-Falefa started out as a fan favorite, thanks to his backstory and effervescent personality. But we’re still wondering how he ever won a Gold Glove, as his defensive miscues finally led to him riding the bench more than playing in the playoffs. His bonehead play on a double-play ball in Game 4 of the ALCS was his season in a microcosm. His teammate was charged with an error, but his failure to execute a play taught kids in Little League led to the game-winning runs being scored by Houston.
As for Donaldson, his age showed in very ugly ways. His high point came on Opening Day when his extra-inning hit gave the Yankees a win. But we watched as his bat got slower and slower throughout the season, unable to catch up to fastballs. It turned the former “Bringer of Rain” into a strikeout machine. Defensively, he remains one of the best. But his .172, 16 strikeout performance this postseason is indicative of what can be expected of him going forward, particularly on the heels of a second half that saw him struggle to a .219/.305/.356 slash.
And Rortvedt? He has yet to play an inning for the Yanks. His injuries forced the team to make a sudden trade for an afterthought from Texas named Jose Trevino. All Trevino did was make the All-Star team.
The other area of concern was the pitching staff. It wasn’t a question of talent, but health. Indeed, over the first half of the season, Yankee starting pitchers were leading the league in innings, ERA, and strikeouts, while the bullpen saw the emergence of Clay Holmes and Michael King as lockdown relievers in the late innings. Ah, but that health. Nobody doubted Cole would rebound. But Luis Severino hadn’t pitched more than 12 innings in 3 seasons, Nestor Cortez had never pitched more than 93 innings in any season, and Jordan Montgomery and Jameison Taillon had injury-marred careers. Domingo German hadn’t pitched in nearly two seasons due to a lengthy domestic violence suspension.
In the end, that inning load played a crucial factor as Severino spent another stint on the 60-day IL, and German struggled in his first few starts back. But where the injuries really began to pile up was in the bullpen. As Boone struggled to manage his starters’ innings, the suddenly overtaxed bullpen began dropping like flies. King exited in July with an elbow fracture. Holmes had to be shut down twice and his effectiveness was noticeably less after his surprise trip to the All-Star game. Before the season was over, 32 men would toe the slab for the Yankees.
Things in the ‘pen certainly weren’t helped by the implosion of former closer Aroldis Chapman. Once possessing a 105mph fastball, the relatively pedestrian 97mph heater he featured proved very hittable, and his tendency to suddenly shy away from it led to obscene walk rates. Chapman was clearly a big part of the plan coming into the season, but by June he had played himself into a mop-up role. A couple of bizarre injuries (including one from an infected tattoo) and poor play led to the one-time superstar being left off the postseason roster.
Another failure came as a result of the midseason moves made to try and bolster the team. Nobody can fault GM Cashman for acquiring Andrew Benintendi, and the unfortunate broken finger he suffered can’t be laid at his feet. But trading for a pair of injured players in Frankie Montas (from the A’s) and Harrison Bader (Cardinals) raised quite a few eyebrows. More eyebrows were raised when the team refused to part ways with Volpe or Peraza in exchange for Luis Castillo, or Gleyber Torres for Pablo Lopez – but did trade from an already thinning staff by sending Montgomery for Bader. While Bader’s return for the playoffs was a lone bright spot for the Yankees. his inactivity for most of the second half left them playing the downright horrible Aaron Hicks (.216/.330/.316, 86 OPS+), and eventually, pressing Cabrera into an OF role.
As for the manager, Aaron Boone has three strengths: his ability to handle the rapacious NY media, his ability to communicate with the front office, and the players genuinely like and respect him. But after 5 seasons, it’s extremely obvious he lacks a sense of strategy, for the ebb and flow of a game, and for managing a bullpen.
Perhaps the greatest indictment of the 2022 Yankees is they entered the season with questions at catcher, second base, shortstop, third base, left field, and center field, along with pitching depth and the manager. They ended the season with the only answer seemingly found at catcher and (hopefully) center – and a looming enormous vacancy potential if Aaron Judge signs elsewhere this offseason.
I’ll delve into how I think they can fix these problems at a later date. Stay tuned…
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