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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.

What? Me Worried?

Our beloved Yankees are 8-3 and regardless of today’s outcome, have won their first four series of the year. So why be worried, right?
The last time the Pinstripers won their first four series was 1926. Guys named Ruth and Gehrig anchored that roster and the pitching staff was led by 23 game winner Herb Pennock. They won the AL pennant by 3 games. They were the precursor to the team that many think was the greatest team ever assembled, the 1927 Yankees.
They also lost the World Series that year, 4-3 to the Cardinals.
As anyone who has watched baseball knows, April greatness does not necessarily translate to October success. Last season, the Yankees went into May in 4th place in the division and Toronto and Baltimore were battling for top dog. Toronto wound up in fourth and the Orioles last, with neither even in the conversation by the end of July. Two seasons before, the Mets came out of April looking like the kings of the road, with a ML best 17-6 record. We all know how that season ended – with one of the most infamous collapses in baseball history. I point out these example only to illustrate the point that God has a strnage sense of humor – and he loves to use baseball teams as his punch-line.
Great opening months are, of course, better than lousy opening months. Except for good teams, sometimes going through an early baptism of fire can forge the toughness needed in the postseason. Consider the 1998 Yankees, probably the best team of the divisional era. Few remember how that season started – with the Yankees at one point 1-4 and not looking anything like a playoff team. There came a closed door meeting and what was actually said in the clubhouse remains a mystery – nobody will actually say – but the result was the Yanks winning 14 of the next 15. As they say, the rest is history. Or take the 1978 Yankees – the team that couldn’t get out of their own way. Everything finally came to a head one infamous day in Boston, when on national TV, Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson decided to let a season and a half’s tension explode in the dugout. But afterwards, the newly cohesive Yanks made up a 14 1/2 game deficit, forced the Bucky Dent one-game playoff, smoked the Royals in the playoffs and won the World Series.
So, while the Yanks should certainly enjoy their opening two weeks, the fact is that several of the questions about this team coming into this season haven’t really been answered yet:
1. Can Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner hit lefties? Call it mixed reviews so far. After two weeks, Gardner finds hinself in a platoon with Marcus Thames and only hitting .230. As the saying goes, you can’t steal first base. If he doesn’t start to hit, can the Yanks live with a Randy Winn/Thames platoon? As for Granderson, he’s currently killing right-handers to the tune of .357 and holding his own against lefties at .267. Although he hasn’t displayed much pop against lefties, if he can keep his average against them around .260 and continue to play an above average CF, there probably isn’t much concern there.
2. Can Javier Vazquez vanquish the 2004 demons? So far, the answer is “NO.” His first start was atrocious and his second not much better. The one thing about Vazquez that concerned many observers, myself included, isn’t Vazquez’ physical talent – it’s his mental make-up. This is, after all, a pitcher who has managed to crack in every pressure situation he’s ever been presented with. For the Yanks sake, he better get his head on straight – or else the answer to the number 4 spot in the rotation could end up being…Uh Oh Mitre.
3. Who is the 8th inning guy? Two weeks in, and still no answer. Joe Girardi seems to be leaning towards Chan Ho(me Run) Park, but the Pepto Bismol Kid has yielded three homers in 6 innings. and in one two inning stint should have given up three more (thank a stiff wind blowing in for saving him there). Joba Chamberlain has only had one great outing, although he has been effective in two others. David Robertson, who seemed to have the early lead for the job, has demostrated a penchant for striking guys out but also giving up flurries of base hits.Stay tuned on this one.
4. Can Robbie Cano handle the 5 spot in the order? This one gets a “YES.” Through 11 games, Cano is hitting .356 and has an OPS of 1.083. Those are Albert Pujols type numbers.
5. When will the ageless wonders (Jeter, Mariano and Posada) begin to show their age? We won’t get an answer to this one until, well, they start playing like guys who are closer to 40 than 30. But so far, Jeter and Posada are hitting over .300 and showing some serious pop in their bats, and Mo just keeps on being Mo. Let’s hope this remains a question in 2011, too.
In short, enjoy the season as it’s unfolded so far. But keep in mind that it’s long season – we’re barely 5% of the way in. The battles haven’t really begun and nobody knows what will wind up being this team’s iron forge. But I’d prefer it come early. 1926 was a very good year, but it ended on a pretty sour note – with Babe Ruth standing on second base after being caught stealing and the Cardinals celebrating a World Series championship.

Bums in the Bronx

Over the past couple of days, I’ve been involved a Twitter war. (Imagine that – Twitter has even encompassed warfare!) The topic: is it OK to boo players on a team you root for?

There are people who believe you should root for players who wear your team’s colors, regardless of their performance. As a fan of the New York Yankees for over 40 years, I find that idea to be incredibly naive. After all, Yankee Stadium is home to the “Bronx Cheer.” For generations, fans have filed through the turnstiles at the House That Ruth Built (and now, that George Built) and cheered our heroes and LOUDLY booed the players who didn’t measure up. The idea of “earning your stripes” originated in the Bronx. It means that a player needs to perform well if he wants to be accepted by the fans. And if he fails, well…his days at Yankee Stadium will be pure hell on earth.

The cause for the twit-war lately has been two recent additions to the Yankee’s pitching staff, Chan-Ho Park and Javier Vazquez. Park is brand-new to Yankee’s fans, but this is the second go-around for Vazquez (his first didn’t end well). Both have, over the past two days, been booed lustily as they exited the game.

The new breed of fan, who doesn’t believe in booing poor performances, is having a hard time reconciling this. In Parks’s case, he made a bad first impression – giving up the winning runs in the first game of the year and pitching poorly in two appearances against the hated Red Sox to begin the season. When he gave up a long home run to Kendry Morales during yesterday’s home opener, he lost whatever support the fans were willing to give him. After all, the hallmark of Yankees Pride throughout the years has been not cracking under pressure and rising to the challenge instead. There’s also CHP’s history to consider. Brian Cashman signed Park based on a half-season of relief work for the Phillies last year. Prior to that, his career wound through stops in LA, Texas, San Diego and Queens. His one year with the Mets? He started on the DL, came on to pitch in one game, giving up 7 runs over 4 innings. Then he disappeared onto the DL for the rest of the year. His prior AL numbers aren’t particularly eye-popping, either. A 5.89ERA, 23-24 record and 1.6 WHIP all point to a guy who’s been hit hard whenever he’s stepped away from the NL. Which is exactly what we’ve seen so far in his Yankee appearances – and thus, the booing.

Javy Vazquez is morphing into the second coming of Eddie Whitson. For those of you unfamiliar with the saga of Eddie Whitson, he came to the Yankees in the mid-80’s, fresh off a spectacular campaign with the Padres. Possessing a lighting fastball, big curve and devastating slider, Whitson was supposed to be the ace that would anchor the Yankees staff for pennant runs to come. Unfortunately for him and Yankees fans, it turned out he couldn’t handle pressure. The booing got so bad that Billy Martin, the manager at the time, didn’t dare pitch him at Yankee Stadium. Eventually, the Yankees traded him back to the Padres for the immortal Tim Stoddard. (Stoddard, by the way, was loudly cheered just for not being Ed Whitson).

Vazquez also possesses a hard fastball and slider, along with a good change-up. He also strikes out lots of hitters. Unfortunately for him, he tends to crack under pressure. In his last Bronx adventure in 2004, he was summoned out of the bullpen in game 7 of the LCS – and gave up the grand slam to Johnny Damon that ended the Curse of the Bambino. That came ¬†after a second-half in which he was largely ineffective. Since then, the company line has been that he was pitching with a sore shoulder. Maybe. Or maybe, despite having “plus” stuff Javy just doesn’t have the heart needed to be a prime-time player.

Yankee fans are quickly deciding the latter. In two starts this year, Vazquez has displayed the electric stuff – he has 9 strikeouts in 11 innings – but we’ve also seen him wilt with men on base. He’s only allowed baserunners in 4 of his 11 innings – but those four innings have yielded 12 runs. In other words, when he gets into trouble, Vazquez tends to implode. Contrast that to a fan favorite, Andy Pettite. Pettite always has runners on base – but he makes the big pitch when he needs to and escapes trouble. Andy has HEART. Javy has jelly-legs. It’s also not the first time Vazquez has heard this, by the way. Ozzie Guillen, for whom he pitched in Chicago, got rid of him because he didn’t trust him during the White Sox pennant drive.

It’s the difference between being a Yankee, and simply being a good player who will never earn the right to call themselves a Yankee.

Joba, the new Goose

For the better part of two seasons, debate has raged about Joba Chamberlain. Should he be a reliever or starter? The debate has concentrated on two trains of thought:

1. As a starter, Joba can develop into a prototypical top of the rotation stud. He has a plus fastball, slider and curve. He just needs time to get stretched out and become dominant.

2. Out of the pen, Joba just rares backs and makes ML hitters look foolish.

Well, we’ve been waiting for two years while lesser names like Clayton Kershaw and Cole Hamels have blossomed. And its beginning to look as though, party line not withstanding, Brian Cashman and Co are now leaning towards putting Joba into the 8th inning role.

The thing is, there’s precedence for this debate – one the Yankees only need to dust off their copy of Baseball Almanac to find.

Back in the mid-1970’s, the White Sox had a young right hander with a plus fastball, slider and curve. But he never found success as a starter. He was, at best, inconsistent. But coming out of the bullpen, he became the original Mr. Nasty. He let loose with a 95+ fastball, spitting fire and daring hitters to swing. For him, it was all about attitude and not having to think on the mound. His demeanor was, you know what I’m going to throw. Everyone here knows what I’m going to throw. I double-dare you to try and hit it.
Joba has the same attitude when coming out of the pen. And likewise, he tends to overthink and overanalyze when starting. For both, the mental side of the game had the potential to prematurely end promising careers.

That guy in the mid-70’s? He went on to post 300+ career saves and a plaque in Cooperstown. His name? Goose Gossage.