I thought this season would be different. I really did. Then again, I have thought the last three seasons would be different, and they haven’t been. Once again, these Yankees weren’t good enough to win in the postseason, and I’m not sure they will ever be ready to.
Most people think I’m negative or pessimistic when it comes to the Yankees. I try to tell those people I’m a realist. I’m optimistic when I need to be and pessmistic when I need to be. I write and speak facts about the Yankees and give my opinion on those facts. Most Yankees fans don’t want to read or listen to facts about their favorite team if they don’t toe the party line that the front office and manager have created. To believe every decision Brian Cashman and his team make is the right one and to think every move Aaron Boone makes is the best one, and to trust that neither can do no wrong takes a special kind of idiot. The Yankees have won one championship in the last 20 seasons and haven’t even appeared in the World Series in a decade.
When Cashman finally decided to pull the plug on Sonny Gray as a Yankee because Cashman’s pitching department couldn’t tap into the pitcher who David Ortiz referred to in 2015 as “the toughest guy I’ve faced in the last few seasons,” Cashman said the following: “I don’t feel like we can go through the same exercise and expect different results.”
Rather than try to continue what Cashman thought was attempting to jam a square peg into a round hole, Cashman decided to move Gray, who has pitched a 3.07 ERA with 277 strikeouts in 231 1/3 innings since being traded. Cashman traded a former (and now current) front-end starter for a single prospect in Shed Long. He then flipped Long to the Marieners for Josh Stowers. Stowers struck out 123 times in 105 games in Single-A for the Yankees.
The point isn’t that Cashman wrongfully gave up on a guy who still clearly had No. 1 stuff (and got absolutely nothing in return) because his pitching department wasn’t good enough to figure him out, the point is that Cashman got rid of Gray because he didn’t think it would work. A point he has yet to admit with the current Yankees roster he has constructed.
Each time Cashman has had a chance to put the Yankees over the top in the last four seasons, he has failed to do so and ownership has failed to allow him to do so. The Yankees could have had Justin Verlander at the August 2017 deadline, but they didn’t want to take on his salary. So he went to the Astros and single-handedly swung the ALCS with wins in Games 2 and 6.
The 2017 Yankees came within one win of the World Series after not trading for Verlander, and then they decided to cut payroll by $50 million for 2018. The Red Sox and Dodgers greatly outspent them that season, and guess which two teams met in the 2018 World Series?
Cashman tried to bolster the team’s staff for 2019 by trading top pitching prospect Justus Sheffield for the oft-injured James Paxton, who had never thrown more than 160 1/3 innings in a season in his career, a career which had been and still is one long injured-list stint with some innings in between rather than the other way around. In two seasons with the Yankees, Paxton was bad then hurt then good then hurt then bad then hurt again. The 24-year-old, left-handed Sheffield didn’t miss a start for the 2020 Mariners, pitched to a 3.58 ERA and allowed only two home runs in 55 1/3 innings. The Yankees could have used that arm this past week.
For 2020, the Yankees finally had starting pitching depth. Cashman and the Yankees created a rotation of Gerrit Cole, Luis Severino, Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka and J.A. Happ with Jordan Montgomery as insurance. But that was in February and before Severino needed Tommy John surgery and before Paxton underwent back surgery. The Yankees’ inability to properly diagnose Severino’s elbow injury from the previous October and Paxton’s back injury from the previous September had altered their 2020 plans. The Yankees had four months from the time the 2020 season was shut down until it finally started to add to their rotation, and they didn’t. When Tommy Kahnle went down in the first weekend of the shortened season, the Yankees decided not to add to their bullpen. The trade deadline came and went and the Yankees willingly decided to take their chances with a makeshift rotation, the kind of makeshift rotation they always seem have to by the time October rolls around, and three trustworthy bullpen arms.
In February, the Yankees had the best rotation, lineup and bullpen in baseball. But as injuries piled up for the second straight season despite Cashman and the front office’s investigation into the flaws of their training and medical staff from the previous year when they set the all-time record for most players placed on the injured list in a single season, the Yankees didn’t make a single move. Well, they made one move. They gave Deivi Garcia a chance to crack the rotation, and when he proved capable of doing so at age 21, they decided to use him as a one-inning opener in the postseason, giving the majority of the ALDS Game 2 innings to J.A. Happ who spent the 2020 season underperforming like he had in 2019 and openly complaining about his 2021 option through the media. The Yankees need starting pitching for 2021. When Severino returns, he will have made three regular-season and two postseason starts since October 2018. Paxton, Tanaka and Happ are all free agents.
Right now, the Yankees’ 2020 rotation is Cole, Montgomery, Garcia and Clarke Schmidt. Montgomery was used in this ALDS because the Yankees ran out of options. Garcia has made six career starts and was inexplicably not used as a starter this postseason. Schmidt has made one career start. I guess the other rotation spot would go to noted scumbag Domingo German, who it’s now impossible to root for, the same way it’s impossible to feel anything other than awful to need to also root for noted scumbag Aroldis Chapman to close out games for the Yankees. Unfortuantely for Hal Steinbrenner, I haven’t forgotten that either is a scumbag, the way he hoped Yankees fans would when he allowed the Yankees to trade for Chapman and then gave him a five-year deal and said, “Look, he admitted he messed up. He paid the penalty. Sooner or later, we forget, right?” I haven’t forgotten, and I certaintly didn’t forget when for the second straight season the highest-paid reliever of all time gave up a home run to end the Yankees’ season.
There’s a good chance a year from now I will be writing similar words after the Yankees’ lineup beats up on back-end starters and atrocious bullpens all regular season long only to perform its annual disappearing act against front-end starters and elite relievers come October. The Yankees built a lineup full of right-handed power hitters who are exceptionally prone to the strikeout. They have no left-handed balance, making it extremely easy for a team like the Rays to trot out right-handed relievers of varying ability to shut them down. The only true contact hitter and unshiftable presence in the Yankees’ lineup is DJ LeMahieu, and he’s now a free agent, and who knows what the Yankees will do when it comes to their league-leading payroll after the pandemic-shortened season. The Hal Steinbrenner Yankees have tried to save a penny any chance they have had, and lost 2020 revenue from the pandemic and 2021 season revenue which is impossible to project is the perfect excuse for ownership to stand pat again and pretend they’re suddenly poor.
Cashman has done a lot of great things as Yankees general manager. The Yankees have won four championships in his 23 seasons with the job title. He got ownership to buy in to a rebuild at the 2016 deadline and 14 months later the Yankees were in the ALCS. He has done amazing things recently via trade like turning Chasen Shreve and Giovanny Gallegos into Luke Voit and John Ryan Murphy into Aaron Hicks. He was able to acquire Giancarlo Stanton for Starlin Castro and got the Marlins to take on part of Stanton’s contract to boot. He purchased Gio Urshela’s contract from the Blue Jays for nothing and he signed international free agents in Tanaka, Luis Severino and Gary Sanchez. Cashman isn’t the problem, and isn’t even a problem. Yes, he had to ulitimately sign off on the foolish Game 2 pitching strategy, created by someone he hired and employs, but even so, Cashman has done far more good than bad as Yankees general manger, especially of late. With the exception of one thing.
I often think about how much better my life would be if Tim Wakefield had struck out Boone. I definitely wouldn’t be sitting here right now waiting for a tweet to show up on my Twitter feed reading, “Source: Yankees not expected to offer Aaron Boone a new contract.” Without that home run and that moment, there’s no way the Yankees name some random third baseman they traded for at the 2003 trade deadline as their manager after moving on from Joe Girardi. There’s no way they hand over the keys to a team in a championship window to someone with no coaching experience, let alone managerial experience.
I don’t know how Cashman or the front office could have watched these seven Yankees postseason games and still believe Boone is the right man to continue to manage this team. Whether or not Boone creates the lineup or fills out the lineup card or determines scheduled days off for players in the regular season doesn’t matter. Neither does his ability to communicate with the players or the media. The goal is to win baseball games and that’s done on the field, not from playing cards on the plane on a West Coast trip or being candid with reporters before each game. Boone’s in-game management is ultimately what matters and what wins games, and in turn championships, and he’s horrible at it.
Boone was extremely bad in the 2018 regular season, his first as a manager at any level of baseball. That season was made worse when his ALDS Game 3 starter didn’t know what time the game started, and when his ALDS Game 3 bullpen management altered the series. After defending his unfathomable decision to let Luis Severino pitch a third inning in that Game 3 and allow him to load the bases with no outs before going to the bullpen and then going to Lance Lynn rather than any one of the four strikeout specialists the Yankees had in their bullpen, Boone followed it up with a Game 4 for the ages. He let CC Sabathia face the entire Red Sox’ lineup a second time because he claimed he liked the matchup of Sabathia against the Red Sox’ No. 9 hitter Jackie Bradley. That’s right, Boone let Sabathia face the first eight Red Sox hitters in their lineup to get to a favorable matchup with the 9-hitter, a hitter so bad he’s only in the majors because of his glove, and a hitter so bad anyone in the Yankees’ bullpen could get out and likely a few position players could get out as well. The Yankees’ season ended without Rookie of the Year runner-up Miguel Andujar having a chance to swing the bat in the Yankees’ final game.
Boone was able to navigate the Yankees to 103 wins in 2019 despite leading the league in injuries. He was given the credit for the Yankees’ replacement players’ success rather than the actual players themselves. (Oddly enough, when those same players didn’t perform in 2020, Boone didn’t get any of the blame for replacement players playing like replacement players.) Boone opened the 2019 postseason with Brett Gardner as his No. 3 hitter. Yes, that happened. Eventually, Boone realized Gleyber Torres should bat third and the Yankees’ young star single-handedly beat the Astros in the first game of the ALCS. But as the ALCS went on, Boone let J.A. Happ, a starter by trade in his career, lose Game 2 on a walk-off home run, and then decided the Yankees would be better suited to have Gardner back in the 3-hole, while Torres continued to be the only hitter other than DJ LeMahieu to hit in the series. The Yankees’ offense was so putrid in the 2019 ALCS that it didn’t allow Boone to really get his hands on any of the games the way he would have liked.
Boone’s in-game managing flaws reared their ugly head once again in this postseason. He single-handedly tried to lose Game 2 to the Indians and force a winner-take-all Game 3, and then against Tampa, his bullpen and pinch-hitting moves were comically bad. Boone knows the substantial amount of priase Kevin Cash gets for the job he does with a household-name less roster and a team with a total payroll equaling the salaries of the Yankees’ two top starting pitchers, and he desperately craves that praise and admiration. It’s why he tries to get his hands on any game as early as he can as often as he can. It’s why he does first-guessed, nonsensical things like pitching Jonathan Loaisiga in high-leverage situations, using Adam Ottavino with a one-run deficit, but Chad Green with a three-run deficit, or using Mike Ford as a pinch hitter with the season on the line instead of Clint Frazier or Sanchez and then citing an ability to get on base for using Ford even though Ford posted a .226. on-base percentage this season and wasn’t good enough to be a Yankee in September. Boone has spoken about how the Yankees as an organization don’t believe in “hot” or “being hot” or “hot streaks” and then he and the organization decide to start Gardner over Frazier when the postseason begins. And then after starting Frazier against Tyler Glasnow in Game 2 of the ALDS because of Frazier’s ability to catch up to Glasnow’s triple-digit velocity, it’s Gardner who starts against Glasnow in Game 5 despite being unable to catch up to that kind of heat, because Gardner had a good Game 4 against lesser pitching. Boone’s entire job as manager is to put his players in the best possible position to succeed and he rarely accomplishes that.
After the Game 5 loss, the Yankees tried to say all the right things as the Rays were busy celebrating on the Petco Park field using Frank Sinatra and “New York, New York” as their victory song, serving as the second team in three seasons to beat the Yankees and then use the Yankee Stadium victory anthem to rub their face in it, a right they earned by winning.
“(Aaron Boone) told us he was proud of us for continuing to battle down to the last out, and to continue to keep working,” Aaron Judge said. “There’s a lot of work that still needs to be done with this team, with each individual. Just continue to work and don’t forget that feeling.”
Boone is proud of his team for their third straight early postseason exit and second ALDS exit with him at the helm. Boone being proud of this group perfectly sums up his friend-first, manager-second, relaxed Southern California personality that has made the Yankees feel comfortable with losing since he took over. Go back and look up the postgame comments following any Yankees loss in an important game from this season or any of the two prior and you will find a quote (I have written about most of them) in which a Yankees player or pitcher talks about how they will just have come back and be better tomorrow. These Yankees believe there is always a tomorrow because their manager preaches about “tomorrow” to the media and all too often manages as if there’s always a tomorrow.
There shouldn’t be “a lot of work that still needs to done” when a team is in a championship window. You get inside a championship window by not having a lot of work to do. You’re in a championship window because you’re ready to win a championship. The Blue Jays? They have a lot of work to do. The White Sox? Same. The Yankees with their highest payroll in baseball? There shouldn’t be any work left to be done.
“In what’s been a real year of peaks and valleys for us on the field,” Boone said, “I feel like in a lot of ways we’re playing our best baseball right now,” Boone said after the season-ending loss.”
It’s ironic that on a night the Yankees’ season ended, Boone thought his team played their best baseball. Yes, he thinks their best baseball is losing three out of the last four games of the ALDS, the same way the Yankees lost four of the last five games of the 2019 ALCS, and the same way they lost the last two games of the 2018 ALDS by getting run out of their own building in embarrassing fashion. Boone thinks the Yankees’ best baseball is being eliminated in the ALDS. He’s not wrong, as a five-game series loss to the Rays is as good as it gets for the 2020 Yankees, who went 4-11 against the Rays, who were the much better and more complete team all season.
Yes, the Yankees lost to a really good team, and one that can win the organization’s first championship. But the Yankees could have won the series. After taking a 1-0 series lead, they had the advantage, and after winning Game 4, they had the advantage. They wasted both advantages.
“We lost to a really good team,” Boone said. “We’re going to get there. I know it. And it’s going to make it all the sweeter.”
The last three postseason debacles won’t make winning a championship anymore sweeter if these Yankees ever do win a championship. It will only make it more frustrating that they wasted so many opportunities along the way. Boone can’t speak to what it takes to win in October because he doesn’t know what it takes to win in October because he has never won in October. Not as a player and certainly not as a manger. The only 2020 Yankee to have ever won anything was Gardner and he hasn’t won anything in a long time.
I’m not sure if these Yankees will ever get past their postseason problems. I’m not sure if they will ever not hold their annual offensive October disappearing act or if they will ever have enough starting pitching to navigate the month-long tournament.
It would be a lot sweeter if Boone weren’t the manager for 2021 and beyond because then at least the front office will finally have done something Boone never has as Yankees manager: put the team in the best possible position to succeed.
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