Musings on Sports, Politics and Life in general

What’s Wrong With the Yankees?

The first month of the season is over and the New York Yankees, once favorites to win their division, are struggling to stay above .500 and find themselves 9 games out of first place. Their 17-15 record even has them on the outside looking in at a wild card spot.

What went wrong?

Simply put, the Yankees were built around 3 potential future Hall of Famers – Gerrit Cole, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton – without adequate support to survive baseball’s grueling 162-game schedule. The obvious flaws that were revealed in last season’s second half were never properly addressed. Let’s examine them.

Shortstop: Last season, the Yankees traded for Isiah Kiner-Falefa, a player not known for his offense but generally thought to be a good defender. By the midpoint, however, IKF showed that his bat was everything it was billed to be (almost non-existent) but his glovework left a lot to be desired. An upgrade was needed. But he was never considered to be the long-term solution. Instead, the hope was that one of the Yankee prospects would be. That decision meant the Yankees never entertained giving offers to any of the four all-star shortstops that were free agents this past offseason. Phenom Anthony Volpe won the starting shortstop job in Spring Training. So far, his defense has been better than expected. But after a month in the bigs, Volpe is hitting .221 with an OPS+ of 91, which is essentially the same production they received from Kiner-Falefa last year. Volpe might still develop into a shortstop on par with Carlos Correa or Trea Turner, and he has shown flashes. But at the moment, he can’t be called an upgrade.

Clay Holmes

Bullpen: Last season’s closer had one of the most epic flame-outs in MLB history. Ineffective when he did pitch, Aroldis Chapman suffered through some of the most bizarre injuries ever and then threw a petulant temper tantrum that resulted in him not being put on the postseason roster. His understudy, Clay Holmes, was almost unhittable in the first half but reverted to the form he showed in Pittsburgh in the second. The Yankees came into 2023 needing a reliable closer, but rather than try to obtain one, the team opted to roll with much the same crew as in 2022.
Middle relief hasn’t been a problem. Ian Hamilton, Ron Marinaccio, Wandy Peralta, and Michel King have been solid. But Holmes has been a disaster in the closer role. In only 10 innings of work, he has allowed 7 runs on 11 hits and 5 walks. He’s also hit two batters and thrown a pair of wild pitches. That ineffectiveness has led to 3 blown saves. The Yankees will probably continue to roll with Holmes in the closer role. But it’s beginning to look like that three-month stretch last season was an outlier to the reliever’s career 4.15 ERA.

Outfield: At the end of last season, the Yankees had a serviceable center fielder and not much else on the grass. The Yankees took care of one problem by resigning “Arson” Judge, coming off his monstrous MVP campaign. But despite having to resort to playing a rookie utility infielder in left field in the playoffs, the team did nothing to address the position. Granted, the options available weren’t great. Andrew Benintendi was probably the best option, but he chose to sign with the White Sox and avoid the East Coast media. Cody Bellinger might have been worth a flyer, but the Yankees didn’t consider him (hindsight being 20/20. his 7 home runs and 158 OPS+ would look pretty good in pinstripes).
Instead, the Yanks decided to give the job to Aaron Hicks, who had spent the previous three seasons either striking out or on the injured list and playing so poorly on defense the erstwhile center fielder was shifted away from there. Hicks has been even worse than most fans feared, posting a 10 OPS+ and routinely turning fly balls into adventures.

Aaron Hicks

Third base: Incumbent third baseman Josh Donaldson proved last season he is a shell of the former MVP player he once was. While his glovework remained among the best in the game, he could no longer hit a major-league fastball. While DJ Lemahieu proved capable at the hot corner, another season-ending injury forced Donaldson into playing every day and inexplicably, Aaron Boone insisted on hitting him in the middle of the order That gave opposing pitchers an easy landing spot behind Stanton. His inability to hit not only hurt him, but pitchers began pitching around Stanton, contributing to his second-half decline.
For some reason, the Yankee brain trust didn’t try to upgrade the position, opting to give the job to Donaldson. True to form, he played poorly before landing on the IL with yet another leg injury. While LeMahieu has returned to form while playing the position, his injury history means there is nobody who can fill the position when the inevitable happens.

Rotation: The Yankees came into the offseason with a supremely talented but fragile starting rotation. While Cole has proven to be a durable workhorse, the other projected starters were certainly not. Luis Severino has hardly pitched since 2019. Frankie Montas had a bum shoulder, and Nestor Cortes had only one career season throwing more than 150 innings. So Brian Cashman went out and gave $162 million to Carlos Rodon, another supremely talented pitcher with a worrying injury history.
By the time the season rolled around, those injury concerns turned into reality. Montas never even threw a pitch before needing season-ending surgery. Neither Severino nor Rodon has thrown a pitch yet this season. It’s meant pitchers originally ticketed for the minors have had to throw more than half the innings thrown by the Yankee starting pitchers, with a 5.32 ERA. Clarke Schmidt, in particular, has been a nightmare, with a 5.83 ERA and somehow already accumulating -0.6 bWAR.

Depth: It’s true that every team has to weather injuries. But it is also true that the Yankees understood they had more than their share of players with significant injury histories. Judge, Stanton, Rodon, Severino, LeMahieu, and CF Harrison Bader all have spent a lot of time hurt over the past few seasons. Additionally, 1B Anthony Rizzo has played with a twingy back and Cortes is coming off his first season with more than 150 innings. The front office should have spent the winter bolstering the reserves to help the team weather the inevitable injuries.
For some reason, it chose to trade away the best depth pieces the team had last season and not replenish for this one. So we’ve witnessed the Franchy Cordero/Willie Calhoun/Jhony Brito Yankees this April.
Nor is there much help in the upper minors. While fans might clamor for Jasson Dominguez, he’s playing his first season at AA. Estevan Florial has been (thankfully) optioned off the 40-man roster. Everson Pereira is back at AA and only hitting .232. Andres Chapparro is only hitting .231, Elijah Dunham .253. Among the pitchers, one-time phenom Deivi Garcia is learning how to be a reliever and having a rough go of it so far. Likewise Matt Krook,

The Yankees will certainly be a better team if they can get back to full strength. But even then, the problems in the outfield, at third, and in the bullpen mean this year’s squad is not a championship caliber club. Indeed, with 7 games against the first-place Rays over the next 10 days, it’s conceivable the team might well be buried before the calendar turns to June. Could the Yankees be sellers at the trade deadline, similar to the 2016 season? It isn’t unthinkable and that says more about how poorly this roster was constructed than anything else.


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