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…
Out of Left Field…
I haven’t written a baseball post in a while, so I figured it was time to get one out there. Today’s submission is for a trade that would definitely take baseball by surprise, although if you stop to think about it, it shouldn’t.
So far, the media and fans have been concentrating on the top of the free agent market: Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, Patrick Corbin, etc. Or they’re focused on the big-name pitchers that have found themselves on the trade block: Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, James Paxton, and Zack Greinke. It’s understandable. Those are some of the biggest stars in the game and the chance that any of them will change uniforms before Spring Training is bound to get attention.
But the best trades are the ones that make sense for both teams, but still seemingly come from nowhere. Then everyone sits back and says, yeah, why didn’t I think of that. It’s rare that both teams come out of a trade where you’re forced to admit everyone wins. The one I’m about to propose fits that bill.
New York Yankees get Carlos Santana, Philadelphia Phillies get Sonny Gray
Now, here’s why this works out for both teams.
From the Yankees perspective, first base has been a black hole ever since Mark Teixeira retired, and to be honest, Teixeira’s last couple of seasons weren’t why he has an outside shot at the Hall of Fame. Here’s a list of everyone who has started at first over the past two seasons:
- Chris Carter
- Greg Bird
- Chase Headley
- Garrett Cooper
- Austin Romine
- Tyler Austin
- Matt Holliday
- Ji-Man Choi
- Rob Refsnyder
- Gary Sanchez
- Neil Walker
- Luke Voit
- Brandon Drury
As the saying goes, if you have 13 first basemen, you don’t have any first baseman. I know the Yankees are still saying that Voit is getting first crack at cementing himself as the everyday guy, and that they still think Bird has a high ceiling. But when your goal is surpassing the Red Sox, can you really afford to go into the season with a major question mark at one of the premier offensive positions on any team? Especially given the unsettled nature of the middle infield?
Santana is not a guy who is spectacular. He is, however, as steady a player as they come. You know what to expect from him: somewhere in the neighborhood of a .250 average, 25-25 homers, 80 RBI, 100 walks, an OPS+ of around 110, somewhere around 2.5bWAR. Right now, a steady and slightly better than league average switch-hitting bat sounds pretty good. Add in that Santana has postseason experience, and this begins to look even better.
The Phillies rolled the dice by signing Santana to a 3 year, $60 million contract last offseason and came up snake eyes. It’s not a knock on Santana. He did what he always does. But the fanbase was thinking more Joey Votto for that kind of money. To make matters worse, the signing forced up-and-coming slugger Rhys Hoskins to left field, where he proved to be the league’s worst defensive outfielder. It took at-bats away from young outfielders Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr (particularly from Altherr), setting their development back.
Simply unloading the remaining 2 years and $40 million owed Santana makes this a win for the Phils, who’ve made no secret they want out from that contract.
Unloading the contract for the much maligned Yankee starter also shores up a need for the Phillies: a reliable starting pitcher. Yes, Gray stunk when he took the bump at Yankee Stadium. But he still managed a 3.17 ERA away from the Bronx. He still has the tools that made him an All-Star in Oakland, but like many before him (Hello Ed Whitson? Carl Pavano?) he could not get past Yankee Stadium. The change of scenery might be all needs to turn his career back around. If not, then the Phils are only on the hook for one more year.
See? Everyone wins this trade!
Do the Yankees Need Another Infielder?
As a result of the Brian Cashman’s moves in December (trading Starlin Castro for Giancarlo Stanton; trading Chase Headley for Jabari Blash), the Yankees find themselves without a credible veteran presence at second and third base. The current starters would likely come from a trio of rookies: Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andujar and Tyler Wade, along with the possibility of utility player Ronald Torreyes of earning a starting shot in Spring Training. The question is, can a team hoping to reach the World Series in October live to get there while playing multiple rookies?
Last season, the team won 91 games with Castro and Headley playing regularly. In addition to breakout seasons from the two Aarons (Judge and Hicks), it has to be noted that the Yankees received above normal production from both of the since departed infielders. Headley posted a 100 OPS+, an advance over the 94 he had posted over the previous three seasons. Castro provided a 106 OPS+, even more substantially above the 97 aggregate for his previous three years than Headley’s sudden offensive output. Yet, despite those improvements in offense over previous years, both players were essentially league average. Defensive metrics weren’t kind to both players, either: Headley posted a -11 DRS at third, while Castro limped to -8 DRS at second. Really, replacing these two former Yankees with simply league average production, both offensively and defensively, would actually mark an improvement from 2017.
Another factor to consider is the Yankees well and often stated desire to drop below the $197 million salary tax threshold and how any available veterans would fit into that framework. Let’s take a look at some of the names who’ve been rumored to possibly heading to the Yankees.
- Josh Harrison, Pirates: Harrison provides adequate defense at both second and third, along with the ability to play both outfield corners. He also brings better than average contact skills, striking out in only 15% of his plate appearances over the past three seasons. He’s also in the last year of his contract, owed a little under $12 million (including team buyouts of options), which might be doable. But he’s only managed a 95 OPS+ over the last three years, and Pittsburgh will want a decent prospect return for one of their more valuable players.
- Todd Frazier, Free Agent: The Yankees have familiarity with Frazier, having swung a deadline trade for him last year. I think many Yankee fans would love to see Frazier return, as he proved to not only be an excellent defender, but gave the team a much needed lift in both the clubhouse and the lineup. He also brings some defensive versatility, although metrics aren’t kind to his glovework at first base. But Frazier is looking for a multi-year contract, will be entering his age 32 season and while he has averaged a 110 OPS+ and 34 homers over the last three seasons, his production is already declining. It’s hard to see him agreeing to take a pay cut from the $15 million he earned last year on a short term contract, and I doubt the Yankees are looking to make a long term commitment to a player who’s shown declining production.
- Mike Moustakas, Free Agent: By all accounts, Moustakas would bring many of the same team leadership traits as Frazier. He’s also three years younger and profiles as better offensive threat than Frazier, having averaged a 117 OPS+ over the past three years with his production on an upswing. No doubt his lefty power would play well in Yankee Stadium and provide a valuable counterweight to the Yankees predominately right handed line-up. While his defense isn’t quite the caliber of Frazier or Harrison, nor does he provide any defensive versatility, he also isn’t a liability with the glove at third. In short, he would be a massive upgrade over Headley. But he is represented by Scott Boras, the one agent who’s known for extracting maximum contracts for his players. A 6 year, $120 million contract for Moustakas seems reasonable, but such a contract would blow apart the Yankees budget.
- Manny Machado, Orioles: This one strikes me as far-fetched. It’s arguable that he is the best third baseman in the game today. Even if the Yankees could somehow convince the Orioles to trade their best player within the division, there are a couple of additional roadblocks. First, Machado wants to return to shortstop, his original position – but the Yankees already have an all-star caliber shortstop, who also happens to be a team leader, in Didi Gregorius. Second, Machado is in the last year of his contract and is widely expected to receive a contract next year that would dwarf Giancaralo Stanton’s. While I suspect the Yankees could make Machado a very happy third baseman by giving him a 10 year, $400 million contract extension (not unreasonable, no matter how crazy that sounds), that would absolutely blow away any hopes of getting back under the salary cap this year.
- Jed Lowrie, A’s: To me, giving up prospects for Lowrie would be a waste of resources. The veteran is entering his age 34 season, has had trouble staying on the field and only sports a league average bat (102 OPS+). While he is capable of playing third, second or short, the only position he’s played decently over recent seasons is second. The only positive he brings to the conversation is that he’s only owed $8 million on an expiring contract.
- Yangveris Solarte: Solarte broke into the majors with the Yankees in 2014 and became an immediate feel-good story. The he was traded (ironically, for Chase Headley) midseason and since then has been, well, Chase Headley. While Solarte can play third, second or first, his glovework hovers between statuesque and terrible while only wielding a 105 OPS+. The only positive he brings to the equation is he won’t reach free agency until 2020, but that seems like something that would be more useful to a team like the Marlins than the Yankees.
So, back to the Yankees in-house options. Torres is the big name here. He is currently the second-ranked prospect in all of professional baseball and, despite only being 21 years old, seemed ticketed to making his major league debut last year. Nobody has much doubt about his talent level. The questions regard seasoning; he only has 96 AAA at bats and 139 in AA. Not even 300 professional at bats in the two highest major league levels would mean a lot of learning in the major leagues. Not that a player with Torres’ talent level is incapable of making that jump; after all, the Red Sox Rafael Devers played extremely well with similar minor league experience before coming up. A bigger question might be his defense, and again strictly from an experience standpoint. To date, Torres only has 83 professional innings at second base, which would be his presumed position in the Bronx. Again, it’s not a question of talent. But a second baseman who has only turned two double plays in his life poses a lot of questions about how well he can handle the position.
Andujar may be the most intriguing player in the bunch. Originally signed in 2012, he finally started to put it all together in 2016. Last year was something of a breakout year for him. Most scouts aren’t worried about his ability to hit major league pitching (in a one game call-up, he went 3-4 with 4 RBI). Rather, the questions surround the third baseman’s ability to field his position. However, it isn’t a question of physical tools. Andujar has above average arm strength and range. Rather, he has a troubling tendency to make mental errors and rush plays, which have contributed to a subpar .917 career fielding percentage. It should be noted that his defense has been steadily improving over each of the past three seasons.
Wade rode the Scranton Shuttle more than any other Yankees prospect last season, managing to get into 30 games with the big club. He is the most versatile player on this list, able to play 7 positions. While he undeniably flopped in the majors last year, it should also be noted he entered the season as the Yankees #17 prospect and was scheduled to play his first full season in AAA. He brings an interesting mix of offensive skills to the table, with consistent doubles power (that might translate into a few more homers with experience) and blinding speed.
Finally, there’s Torreyes. He’s spent the last two seasons as the Yankees utility player, playing second, third, short and taking a few turns in the outfield. While he’s one of those guys you love to root for (and the shortest man to play baseball not named Altuve), there’s a reason he’s been a utility player and not a starter. While he plays numerous positions passably, he isn’t terrific at any of them. As for his offensive skills, that career 81 OPS+ says about all you need to know.
My guess is that while a veteran infielder certainly makes some sense, it isn’t an area of absolute need for these Yankees. If something falls into their laps, terrific. But I don’t see them jumping into a bidding war for any of the available free agents, and I don’t see them going crazy to make a deal for any of the trade candidates. I suspect the season will open with Andujar at third, Torres at second and Torreyes retaining his utility role, with Wade in Scranton to work on his game. By midseason, should either of the youngsters find themselves floundering, the same resources the Yankees have available now will be available then. And odds are, the same cast of available options will be there, as well.
Play Yankee GM!
The other day, I posted some thoughts on potential Yankees front office changes (and only got half my projections right!). But before the hot stove season can really begin, first you need to clean out the oven. So here we go: which of these players, all free agents or potential trade candidates, do you keep for 2018? And which ones would you say good-bye to? Keep in mind, you need to get the team’s payroll under the luxury tax threshold of $189 million. Ready?
Masahiro Tanaka, Starting pitcher (13-12, 4.79 ERA, 178 1/3 IP)
Verdict: Let Him Walk Away
Tanaka is an unusual case. For starters, he’s not actually a free agent – yet. His contract does allow him to opt out, though, and most everyone expects him to, despite 2017 easily being his worst MLB season. Although he struck out more batters per inning than at any point in his career, he allowed more baserunners and home runs than at any point in his career, too. Then there is the well-known matter of his damaged UCL. It’s held up well over the past 2 1/2 years, but he is only one awkward pitch from needing Tommy John surgery. Tanaka proved during September and the Yankees postseason run that he can still be a dominating pitcher. But should he opt out, that means he’s looking for a raise on the $67 million he would get over the next three seasons. With youngsters Chance Adams, Justus Sheffield, Domingo Acevedo and the like ready, or nearly ready, for their time in pinstripes, the verdict on this is easy.
CC Sabathia, Starting Pitcher (14-5, 3.69 ERA, 148 2/3IP)
Verdict: 1 year, $15 million contract
Since coming to the Yankees in 2009, Sabathia has successfully transformed himself from fireballing lefty to crafty lefty. Injuries and Father Time have taken their toll, but his 9 years in Pinstripes have been memorable. Perhaps more important than his pitching acumen, however, is the respect he garners in the clubhouse and the mentoring role he’s taken on with the younger pitchers. I think CC can match his Yankees career averages in wins (13) and ERA+ (114). Combine the on field production with the off the field intangibles, and resigning him makes sense. Helpful in this case are that CC has said he wants to play one more year, wants to finish his career in the Bronx and isn’t looking for a giant payday, and this makes even more sense.
Michael Pineda, Starting Pitcher (8-4, 4.39 ERA, 96 1/3 IP)
Verdict: Wave Good-bye!
Pineda’s Yankee career can best be described as an enigma wrapped in a riddle. Few pitchers in the last 20 years have matched his stuff, along with his ability to limit walks and strike out opposing hitters, yet get hit as hard and as often as him. When the Yankees acquired him for Jesus Montero (remember him), it looked like a blockbuster trade. Instead, both Seattle and the Yankees got burned by this one. But last season looked like Pineda had finally turned the corner. He was pitching well, and then *BOOM* his elbow gave way. Ordinarily, a pitcher with his type of injury and talent might be offered a two year, “make good” contract. But this Yankees team has enough pitching depth in the minors that blocking any of them for a questionable player is, well, stupid.
Jaime Garcia, Starting/Relief Pitcher (5-10, 4.41 ERA, 157IP overall; 0-3, 4.82 ERA, 37 IP w/ Yankees)
Verdict: Don’t let the door hit you…
The Yankees acquired Garcia primarily because they wanted a pitcher to absorb innings at the back of the rotation. Coming down the stretch last year, surprising rookie Jordan Montgomery was approaching his innings limit and the brass figured Garcia could help out in that department. The epitome of a journeyman (the Yankees were his third team in a week), Garcia failed to live up to even the modest expectations the brass had for him. He averaged less than 5 innings per start and wound up taxing the bullpen; those extra innings pitched by Yankee relievers down the stretch might well have been part of the reason they ran out of gas in the LCS. This one is a no-brainer.
Todd Frazier, 3B/1B, (.213/.344/.428, 27 HR, 76 RBI overall; .222/.365/.423, 11 HR, 32 RBI with Yankees)
Verdict: Parting is such sweet sorrow
Of all the Yankees free agents, this one may be the hardest decision. I think the Toddfather won over Yankee fans with his enthusiasm, solid glove work, clutch hits and leadership. Acquiring him was one of the best deadline moves the Yankees have made in a long time, and it’s doubtful they would have made the playoff run they did without him. The problem is, he plays a position where the Yanks have depth and youngsters who profile as a serious offensive threats in Miguel Andujar and Greg Bird. Further, Frazier’s high strikeout tendencies make him a lousy bench option – and the Yankees already have a player with a similar profile already under contract in Chase Headley. It’s conceivable the Yankees might leave Andujar in the minors for another season, which would open a spot for Frazier. But would he take a one-year deal when he’s already 32? Probably not, especially when next year he would be faced with entering the free agent market with Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado ahead of him.
Matt Holliday, DH/OF, (.231/.316/.432, 19 HR, 64 RBI)
Verdict: Thanks, but good-bye
The 37 year old veteran gave the Yankees a serious boost in the first half of the season, but then age and injuries caught up with him and Holliday was a non-factor in the second half. He’s a had a good career, but Holliday is looking at the end of the road. I can’t see the Yankees retaining his services, not when he can’t play a position in the field anymore and the DH spot will likely be used as partial days off for the other players.
Jacoby Ellsbury, Outfield (.264/.348/.402, 7 HR, 22SB) Signed through 2020; $68 million owed
Verdict: Trade him. Please.
Arguably the worst free agent signing the Yankees have made in the last 20 years, it is time for the Yankees to move Ellsbury. Once, his speed and defense made up for his below average hitting, but 2017 saw his his ability to track down fly balls regress to league average, and teams ran at will on his weak throwing arm. There’s still some speed and on-base ability, tools which might be of interest to some teams who can use him as a DH and occasional center fielder. The contract is onerous, as it gives Ellsbury a guaranteed payday until he’s 38. But the Yankees should willingly eat some it to make room for up-and-coming young outfielders like Aaron Hicks, Clint Frazier and Estevan Florial.
Brett Gardner, Outfield (.264/.350/.423, 21 HR, 63 RBI, 23 SB) Signed through 2018; $13.5 million owed
Verdict: Career Yankee!
Every year, Brett Gardner’s name boils up on the hot stove. And every year, Yankee brass does the smart thing and doesn’t trade him. Yes, Gardy is entering his age 34 season, the same as Jacoby Ellsbury. Yes, he isn’t the flat-out speed demon he was 8 years ago. If Gardner’s entire game was built around speed, that would be problematic. Fortunately for the Yankees, his game is multi-faceted. Beyond that, Gardner’s intangibles – his hustle, leadership and gritty play – are irreplaceable on a team that will feature a lot of youth.
Chase Headley, 3B/1B (.273/.352/.406, 12 HR, 61 RBI) Signed through 2018, $13 million owed
Verdict: One last hurrah
When you look in the dictionary for the definition of “league average,” Chase Headley’s picture pops up. Now entering his age 34 season, Headley is no longer truly a starting corner infielder, but he’s serviceable enough that he can serve as a back-up at either corner. Odds are the Yankees will break camp with Headley starting at 3B, but by midseason he looks to resume the role he filled this past season during the second half as Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres should be in the Bronx by then. Every successful team needs players like Headley: experienced role players who can fill in when needed, don’t grouse about their role and can be an effective bat off the bench. Also in his favor is that his contract is league average, too. He would be a hard player to replace.
Starlin Castro, 2B (.300/.338/.453, 16 HR, 63 RBI) Signed through 2019, $23 million owed
Verdict: Trade bait
Starlin Castro is only entering his age 28 season, is a lifetime .282 hitter and has already accumulated 1,280 career hits. So why dangle him as trade bait? Two words: Gleyber Torres. It’s not that Castro is a bad player, in fact, the Yankees should be able to get a decent return for him. But Torres almost made it to the Bronx lost year. Only a freak injury derailed him. If he doesn’t break camp with the big club, he will certainly be in Pinstripes by June.
Ok, that’s my take. I’d love to see your thoughts in the comments section!
Should The Yankees Retain Girardi & Cashman?
With the end of the 2017 season, Yankees ownership has some decisions to make, perhaps none bigger than what to do about the General Manager and manager. Both Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi’s contracts expire after this year, and the question is should either of them be offered the chance to stay in Pinstripes.
I don’t think anyone can reasonably argue that Yankees ownership would be suicidal to cut Brian Cashman loose. Since the Steinbrenner’s gave him full control over personnel decisions, the Yankees have become a markedly improved team. Shrewd trades and free agent signings have turned around the club in the Bronx. By keeping an eye towards the future as well as the present, Cashman also has the Yankees set up to make a major splash in the international free agent market this offseason and major league free agent market after the upcoming season, while getting the team’s payroll below the dreaded luxury tax threshold.
Several years ago, Cashman made improving the team’s minor league farm system a priority, which he’s done. Most baseball evaluators rank the system as one of the five best in the game, with several placing it in the top three. Even before trading for prospects such as Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier, the system was developing major league caliber talent, with this season’s youngsters of note (Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Luis Severino, Dellin Betances and Aaron Judge) all having been drafted and developed by the Yankees.
A general manager’s job is to put a contending team on the field, while ensuring payroll is kept manageable enough that ownership can be comfortable. Cashman has the team on the right track. Releasing him would be mistake.
Joe Girardi, like Cashman, is also on an expiring contract. Unlike Cashman, Girardi’s case isn’t as cut and dried.
A major league team’s manager can have differing responsibilities, based on the front office’s expectations. Some teams ask the manager to teach a young team to play at a major league. Others ask the manager to maintain clubhouse order and make a team of cast-offs and never-were’s respectable. Still others want their manager to get their team to the playoffs.
For the New York Yankees, the manager always has one job, and one job only: win. And winning means, win the World Series. Anything less is considered a failure.
This is Girardi’s 10th season as Yankee manager. In that time, his teams have been to the World Series once. Over that same period, the Giants have been three times, the Phillies twice, the Rangers twice and the Royals twice. That the team hasn’t been as successful on the field during his ten years isn’t entirely Girardi’s fault, though. But there is a case to be made that this season might qualify as his worst at the helm.
Most baseball fans have probably heard of “WAR,” even if they don’t fully understand it. It represents a player’s value above that of a typical “replacement” level player. (Fangraphs has a detailed and easy to understand explanation here.) A team full of 0 WAR players would be expected to only win 48 games (which would set a record for futility) but the idea is that if you can cobble together a roster worth 52 WAR, you should win 100 games. It can be argued that if a team wins more games than their cumulative WAR, then the manager positively influenced the final record. The same goes for the converse.
Another way of evaluating a manager’s effectiveness is by using a little known statistic called Pythagorean Won/Loss. It measures the numbers of runs a team scored and the number it allowed, and comes up with an expected win total. (When Bill James came up with this, it sparked a firestorm which still rages in sabermetric circles).
In 2017, the Yankees aggregate team WAR was 55.1, which would equate to a 103-59 record.
In 2017, the Yankees Pythagorean W/L record was 100-62.
In 2017, the Yankees actual record was 91-71.
Throughout the previous 9 years of his tenure, Girardi had been worth between 3 and 8 wins to his team; which is to say, the Yankees typically won 3 to 8 games more per year than they statistically should have. In 2016, he was worth around 5 wins to the Yankees. So it’s fair to ask, why did this year’s squad so badly underperform their stats?
I think there are some clues in Girardi’s postseason performance. Everyone is well versed in how badly he botched Game 2 of the division series against the Indians. But there were some decisions in the ALCS, especially regarding his handling of the pitching staff, that are head scratchers. Over the years, Girardi has earned a reputation as a manager who perhaps overly relies on statistical analysis, and not enough on what his eyes see happening on the field. The fans have even coined the nickname “Binder Joe” because of this tendency. And so we had an exhausted Tommy Kahnle trying to get out hitters with his fourth best pitch in Game 7 and a spent David Robertson left in to get pounded in Game 6. We watched a tired Luis Severino lose the strike zone in Game 6. We watched as the Yankees best reliever, Aroldis Chapman, was left in the bullpen in critical junctures of both games – and never get used at all.
It is entirely possible that while he relates to his players on a personal level (the way the team rallied around the manager in the LDS is testament to that), too many of the Yankees players in 2017 were too unfamiliar to their manager for him to properly gauge how best to deploy them during the season. The youth movement underway in the Bronx certainly revealed some of the young talents shortcomings, from Gary Sanchez’s defensive failings, to Betances’ mechanical woes and Judge’s prodigious strike-out totals. Girardi never seemed to be able to address those problems, or even willing to at times.
Those would all be reasons to dismiss Girardi, but I don’t think the Yankees should -or will. Removing Girardi because of one bad year would be shortsighted, I think, especially when over the course of his career he’s proven to be one the 5 best major league managers in the game. I do think, in light of the youth movement underway (I fully expect to see at least another 4 or 5 of the Baby Bombers in Pinstripes next season), Girardi will need to step up his game and leave the binders in his office once the game starts.
Dismissing Girardi also begs the question: who would you replace him with? As I said above, his history says he is one the 5 best managers in the game today. The Yankees are on the cusp of many playoff appearances and potential world championships to come. It’s not the time to gamble on an untested commodity, and I doubt the Yankees will be able to pry Tito Francona or Joe Maddon away from their respective teams.
So, for now, I think the Yankees will stand pat with their managerial personnel. They’ve brought the team this far. MIght as well give them the chance to finish the job.
Can the Yankees Contend?
A month ago, I wrote that the Yankees GM, Brian Cashman, needed to get off his duff and get to work retooling the Yankees roster. While I would like to take credit for the moves he made since, I doubt that had anything to do with it. But, other than a bolt-from-the-blue move (hello, Max Scherzer?) or some work on the roster fringes, Cashman has revamped the Yankees for the 2015 season. Now the question is, can the rebuilt squad contend?
First, a caveat: at this point of the year, a team would have to be facing serious problems to think they couldn’t contend. Between parity and the two wild-cards in each league, even seriously flawed teams have to think they have at least a puncher’s chance at earning a playoff spot. Even with the problems the Yankees face heading into 2015, contention is a definite probability. But then again, on paper the Marlins, Mets and Brewers are all contenders, too. No, these are the Yankees and what I’m talking about is actually being a force to reckoned with come October.
Well, the short answer is: probably not. It isn’t for lack of talent. The “back of the baseball card” theory of talent evaluation would lead you to believe that, if everything breaks right, the Yankees could win 105 games and sweep into the playoffs a prohibitive favorite to win it all. But there are too many questions, too many “ifs” and too many aging players on this roster to truly believe that will happen. Here’s a short list of things that need to break right:
*CC Sabathia‘s knee is fully healed and doesn’t bother him at all. In fact, it turns out the bum knee has been his problem for the past three seasons and he turns in a vintage 20 win, 200+ inning, 200+ strikeout season.
*Masahiro Tanaka‘s right elbow doesn’t reach home plate before one of his splitters some fine June afternoon.
*Ivan Nova comes back from Tommy John surgery with new found command and focus.
*Michael Pineda proves that last season wasn’t just a pine-tar induced haze and becomes the pitcher the Yanks thought they were getting when they sent
the jar of mayo Jesus Montero to Seattle.
*Reports of Nathan Eovaldi developing a killer change up to go along with his 96 mph fastball are true and he realizes the promise that made scouts drool.
*Dellin Betances turns into the kind of closer that makes fans say, “Mariano who?”
*Rob Refsnyder plays an acceptable second base and hits around .290, while fellow rookie Jose Pirela turns into the type of super-sub Yankee fans were expecting to see from Martin Prado.
*Mark Teixeira stays healthy enough to play 140+ games and stops trying to hit every pitch into Hoboken.
*Didi Gregorius hits left handed pitching well enough, and Chase Headley’s back stays strong enough, to keep Brendan Ryan glued to the bench.
*Carlos Beltran plays less like Carlos Danger and more like Carlos Beltran.
*Alex Rodriguez realizes his time has passed and retires. Before Spring Training opens.
And that’s a short list of things that need to happen for the Yankees to be a major force this year. I actually think Pineda will be fine, that Eovaldi will prove to be a steal, that Refsnyder and Gregorius will develop into a very good keystone combination. I doubt any of the rest of the things listed above happen: Tex is a shell of the player the Yanks signed 6 seasons ago, Sabathia seems fated to being a sub-.500, over 5.00 ERA type pitcher these days and even if Nova comes back strong, he’ll remain the enigmatic headcase he’s been for the past 3+ years. Beltran is entering his age 38 season battered from his injury history. And sadly, A-Rod will never walk away from the $60 million still owed him, even if he’s hitting .150 without any homers on the ledger. As for Tanaka, the type of injury he’s nursing should have been addressed with surgery last summer, not the wing-and-a-prayer approach both he and the team are taking.
If things really go bad, the Yankees are looking to get 150 or more innings from an old Chris Capuano, and in all likelihood shuttle guys like Chase Whitley in and out of the rotation during the season. We’ll probably get to see the MLB debuts of stud prospects like Bryan Mitchell and Luis Severino, a year early. Meanwhile, the cache of aging and injury prone players leaves Joe Girardi filling out a line-up card with Ryan, Gregorius, Pirela, Chris Young, Austin Romine and Mason Williams all starting for extended periods. If you want to say “yuck,” feel free. (You’re also excused if you’re unsure who those guys are. Trust me. They’re baseball players.)
That’s the conundrum facing both the Yankees front office and fans this upcoming season. Everything goes great, 95 wins and a division title. Everything goes wrong, 65 wins and the Hal is asking the Astros for directions out of the basement.
Where Art Thou, Brian?
It’s time to take a break from politics for a moment and concentrate on that other topic of extreme national importance: Baseball.
Specifically, the only team that really matters to the sport: the New York Yankees. Because let’s face it, whether you live in Alaska or New York, the Yankees are the team that drives MLB. They’re kind of like Barack Obama. You either love them or hate them, but you can’t ignore them. The last thing MLB needs is for their premier team, the one playing in the $1 billion stadium in the largest media market in the world, is to be irrelevant. Remember how wonderfully well the sport fared the last time the Yankees were irrelevant, about 25 years ago? The team in Montreal folded. The Twins and Marlins almost disappeared. Attendance and fan interest waned across the land.
Well, I hate to break the news to MLB, but the Yankees are fast approaching the point of not mattering again. After two consecutive years of not being contenders (and really, the last time they put a serious contender on the field was in 2010), the only news coming out of the south Bronx is that the Human Steroid is attempting to salvage the $60 million owed on his contract. Baseball doesn’t need any more of Alex Rodriguez‘ shenanigans, not after 2+ years of his mea culpas and Fred Astaire impersonations.
What MLB does need is for the Yankees GM, Brian Cashman, to stop sleeping and actually get to work rebuilding the team. The Yankees entered this offseason needing a shortstop, a second baseman, a right handed outfielder, and at least two starting pitchers. They also had to keep the back end of their brilliant bullpen together.
As of this moment, they need a shortstop, a second baseman, a right handed outfielder, and at least two starting pitchers. They also have to keep the back end of their brilliant bullpen together.
This is a nice way of saying that so far, Brian Cashman has done absolutely nothing to address the many roster holes left from the last 3 seasons of roster disasters. That might not be so bad in what is a declining American League East, except the American League isn’t declining any longer. In case you’ve missed it, Boston has done everything imaginable at this point to improve their club. Toronto has done an equally admirable job of improving. Tampa Bay has done what it needed to address the ennui that inevitably set in after a few overly successful seasons. Baltimore ran away with the division last year and made it to the ALCS.
It’s not that the Yankees need to go crazy on retooling, a la the Red Sox, and throw nearly $200 million at older players. But signing a Jon Lester or Max Scherzer would look pretty nice. It’s not that they need to swing a trade for Josh Donaldson, like Toronto, but a Ben Zobrist would look pretty good in pinstripes. It’s not that they need to to pry Andrew Miller away from Baltimore, but they can’t let David Robertson become a repeat of the Robinson Cano debacle from last year.
The Yankees made splashy, but ineffective moves last offseason. Jacoby Ellsbury is a good player, but wasn’t really needed – after all, Brett Gardner was rounding out into a solid center fielder with the same skill set. Carlos Beltran would have been a terrific signing – a decade ago. Brian McCann was a nice addition, but questions about how well the laid-back Southerner handles New York will continue until he proves he can. Besides, had Cashman not balked at resigning all-star catcher Russell Martin a few seasons ago, McCann wouldn’t be here.
In short, the front office pogues at MLB need to light a fire under Cashman’s butt. I say that, because it’s becoming more evident with each passing season that the Steinbrenner family can talk all they want about how they share their late patriarch’s desire to win, but the only thing they really care about is the money they’re making from their cash cow. But baseball as a whole needs the Yankees to be more than Hal’s personal ATM. As such, they need to tell Cashman to do something, anything. The roster is too bloated with over-the-hill player on bad contracts? Fine. Gut the roster. Pay off the old guys, bring up the kids for a season or two and start over. It might not be a win-now strategy but it would at least lend itself to some excitement in the Bronx.
Or if that isn’t palatable, then return to the “Steinbrenner Way” and aggressively pursue the best available talent. Go crazy, offer Lester and Scherzer $200 million each. Back up a Brinks truck to Nelson Cruz‘ door. Give Asdrubal Cabrera his own lane across the GWB. Heck, give the A’s everyone not named Gary Sanchez in exchange for Jeff Samardzija.
But whatever you do, don’t just stand pat – or even worse, let your own players walk away. This journey into nothingness does absolutely nothing for the Yankees or baseball.
Now, the Hard Part for the Yankees
The 2013 season has ended uncharacteristically early for the Yankees. Since 1995, the team has played October baseball 17 times. The only miss before this season was in 2008.
Well, this year may be the beginning of a new streak, one many fans aren’t familiar with: one where the Yankees are irrelevant to the postseason for a decade or longer. It’s happened twice in my lifetime. There was a 13 year drought from 1965 – 1976 and then a 15 year absence from 1981-1995. But for a fan under 30, odds are they don’t remember those periods of futility. They are as remote to their experience as the days of Honus Wagner and Babe Ruth. To them, I can only say: “Buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
2013 is the season in which age finally caught up to the team. Baseball is a young man’s game, and trying to remain competitive when you’re starting line-up features 6 players over the age of 33 was going to be an adventure. That five of the six suffered serious injury isn’t a huge surprise. That the sixth, RF Ichiro Suzuki, played 148 games this year should be. 2014 will probably be the season when age and the salary cap finally sink the team. Ownership has repeatedly announced they plan to drop payroll below $187 million, a drop of $40 million from this season. Of that, about $93 million is already committed to a handful of players. That leaves precious little to shore up a team that is going to lose some key players, has two key contributors entering free agency and not much in the farm system. Let’s take a look at the internal options for next year – and what can reasonably be expected.
IF: Returning – 1B Mark Teixeira, SS Derek Jeter, SS Eduardo Nunez, UT Jayson Nix, C Chris Stewart, C Francisco Cervelli, C Austin Romine
Free Agents – 1B/3B Kevin Youkilis, 1B/3B Mark Reynolds, 1B Lyle Overbay, 1B Travis Hafner, 2B Robinson Cano
Limbo – 3B Alex Rodriguez
In the minors – 2B/3B David Adams, C JR Murphy, 1B Corban Joseph, C Gary Sanchez, 3B/OF Ronnier Mustelier
When you feature three shortstops on your major league roster, you realistically don’t have any. For a team that featured a future Hall-of-Famer at the position since 1996, it’s a strange place to be. Yet the Yankees would be insane if they think Jeter can be an everyday shortstop at age 40, especially coming off a season in which he never healed from a season ending injury in 2012. Do the Yanks stand pat, praying that the talented, but erratic Nunez can blossom while Jeter plays perhaps 30-40 games in the field? Equally concerning is the situation at third, where the safe bet is that PED King Alex Rodriguez will serve most, if not all, of his record 211 game suspension. He didn’t look like a major league caliber fielder during his abbreviated stint this season and the options behind him aren’t terrific. First appears set with the return of Mark Teixeira, but how effective will the 34 year old be coming off major wrist surgery?
But the biggest question of all is what to do about Cano. The guy is talented, but he’s always lacked the inner drive that transforms talent into greatness (ever watch him run out a ground ball or routine double?). He often looks bored and tends to press when the team needs him most. Still, without him the Yankees could face a total power outage in 2014 and beyond. Reports today have him asking for a 10 year, $310 million contract. Given their financial commitments, there’s no way the Bronx Bombers resign him at anything close to that price. But they really don’t have any options at second base, They could get a decent second sacker in free agency, but there aren’t any of Cano’s caliber, or even any viable long term solutions available.
OF: Returning – CF Brett Gardner, LF Alfonso Soriano, RF Ichiro Suzuki, OF Vernon Wells
Free Agents – OF Curtis Granderson
In the minors – LF Zoilo Almonte, CF Melky Mesa, OF Mason Williams, OF Slade Heathcott, OF/IF Addison Maruszak
The outfield could actually be okay next year, provided Soriano and Ichiro don’t break down. Gardner is never going to be a stud outfielder, but does possess speed and a great glove. Wells is a waste of a roster spot at this point, while Almonte showed signs of being at least a quality fourth outfielder in limited duty.
SP: Returning – LHP CC Sabathia, RHP Ivan Nova, RHP David Phelps
Free Agents/Retired – RHP Phil Hughes, RHP Hiroki Kuroda, LHP Andy Pettitte
In the minors – LHP VIdal Nuno, RHP Michael Pineda, LHP Manny Banuelos, LHP Nik Turley
This could be the worst starting rotation in baseball next season. No, really – I’m not joking. The team is losing three members from this year’s rather mediocre staff (unless GM Brian Cashman has aneurysm and resigns Hughes). That leaves an aging and increasingly ineffective CC Sabathia as the lone proven quantity. Ivan Nova has shown flashes, but not consistency. Phelps will probably develop into a reliable back-of-the-rotation pitcher. Adam Warren probably earned a shot at a starting spot with his strong effort out of the bullpen. Barring a free agent signing, that means the Yanks will hope that Pineda, Nuno or Banuelos can come back from injury plagued seasons and turn their talent into major league performance.
RP: Returning – RHP David Robertson, RHP Preston Claiborne, RHP Shawn Kelly, LHP Boone Logan, RHP Adam Warren, LHP David Huff
Free Agents/Retiring – RHP Mariano Rivera, RHP Joba Chamberlain
In the minors – LHP Cesar Cabral, RHP Dellin Betances, RHP Brett Marshall
This was the strongest unit for the Yanks in 2013 and looks to be again in 2014. Of course, replacing Mariano Rivera is impossible, but David Robertson should be more than adequate as the closer. The setup corps will suffer from the promotion of Robertson and the likely move of Warren to the rotation, but adding Cabral (who has looked good as a LOOGY) and Betances should be adequate. Chamberlain is addition through subtraction at this point.
The New Yankees: Just like the 1965 Yankees
Ok, so it’s the weekend. Time to take a break from the serious stuff. Time to kick back, relax, drink a cold adult beverage and do something just for fun.
For me, that’s always meant baseball. These days, decrepit knees and faltering eyesight have ended what was once an almost promising career in an over-35 league. (We won’t talk about my misadventures on the field before I turned 35, either). Suffice it to say while my play has never reminded anyone of a major leaguer, I always enjoyed the game. These days, part of my summer routine is to put my feet up and watch my favorite team: the New York Yankees.
I’ve been a fan since the original bad old days, when Ron Blomberg and Fred Stanley were mainstays. I cheered when the team was great, suffered again when they got really bad and jumped for joy when they returned to the pinnacle. These days, turning on a Yankees game is almost a rite of self-immolation. Has the circle turned yet again?
In a word, yes. Last year’s team won their division. This year’s squad will be lucky to finish with an even record. What happened? Sadly, nothing a seasoned fan hasn’t seen coming for a couple of years now. Age, injuries and a depleted farm system have resulted in the current roster of cast-offs, has-beens and never-weres.
Age: Baseball is a young man’s game. Players once were considered on the downside of his career by the time they turned 32. Then, steroids and amphetamines kept guys in their late 30’s playing better than their younger counterparts. Baseball has done a good job on getting the drugs out of the game and once again, players in their mid-30’s are not producing like they did 3 or 4 seasons prior. On the other hand, a rule of thumb is that (except for the occasional phenom) young players need 2 or 3 seasons to become solid contributors.
This is troubling for the Yankees. They field the majors oldest team, with an average age of 32. On most nights, they put 4 players on the field over 35. Three of the starting pitchers are 34 or older and the closer is 43. Toss in that three rookies are playing regularly, while another 4 are pitching regularly, and age is a big problem for the team.
Injuries: The Yankees have an all-star team on the disabled list. It includes players who have transcended the sport to become cultural icons in Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, the starting first baseman, starting center fielder and starting catcher, and the starting DH who was also supposed to be the primary backup at first and third base. It’s forced journeymen to play first base, shortstop, third base, catcher, DH and two outfield positions. The result is about what you would expect: going into play last night, the Yankees were next to last in the league in batting average and slugging percentage, last in total hits and doubles and in the bottom third in runs scored. The trends haven’t been positive, either: the team was second in runs scored in April, but dead last in June.
Farm System: The last time the Yankee farm system produced a solid position player was Robinson Cano, in 2005. That’s eight seasons since any Yankee farm hand has proven to be even a league average player. Necessity has forced the Yankees to play one rookie at third base, another about 30% of the time at catcher and they recently called up another to play left field. The combined batting average of those three is .211. Sadly, there isn’t a player in AAA or even AA that looks like a sure-fire major leaguer, either. There are hopes for three AA outfielders and a catcher in A ball, but those players are at least a year (and probably two) before being able to help the major league roster.
At least the pitching has fared better. The Yankees have had a pretty good crop of decent pitchers come up through the system, including mainstays Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Ivan Nova, David Robertson, Adam Warren, David Phelps and Preston Claiborne.
So how does all of this translate into the future? Not very well. Jeter is trying to come back from breaking the same ankle twice at age 39. He is a certain Hall-of-Famer once he retires, but few men have played shortstop at his age. Whether Jeter can remains to be seen; at this point he still hasn’t demonstrated the ability to even get through one game physically. Rodriguez, at 38, is trying to come back from a twice-repaired hip – the type of injury that ends most careers. Mark Teixeira and Kevin Youkilis’s seasons are officially over. Of all the injured starters, only Curtis Granderson has a reasonable shot at coming back at anywhere close to the type of player he was before breaking his wrist. Now toss in the fact that the Yankees management has committed to shed about $50 million in payroll next season, nearly 20% of the team’s current budget. It means the Yankees will likely be finding bargain basement players to man the left side of the infield, catcher, an outfield spot and three of the starting pitchers. Teixeira will be back, but nobody is expecting him to be anything like the player he was five seasons ago. It’s likely that Granderson will be let go in free agency – and there is uncertainty if Cano comes back. Everyone thinks he will be, but his current asking price is actually too rich for this version of Yankee brass.
No, this is looking like the start of another run of futility in the South Bronx. The only question is, how long will this one last?