I need to know who owns the Yankees’ lineup card, the scheduled days off calendar and the bullpen decisions. Like Reggie Dunlop badgering Joe McGrath to find out who owns the Chiefs in Slap Shot in order to save the franchise, I’m trying to save the Yankees’ season, the first season in their current window of opportunity to win a championship.
It was bad enough Brett Gardner was batting leadoff every game for nearly the first month of the season, while DJ LeMahieu was clearly the right choice at the top of the order. It got worse when Gardner batted third and then fourth in consecutive games in Tampa in the middle of May with first place on the line. On Wednesday night, Gardner was in the lineup, batting ahead of Gio Urshela, who has been one of the Yankees’ Top 3 or 4 hitters this season. The injuries to Aaron Hicks, Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge have forced Gardner into the lineup more than the Yankees planned on him being as a 35-year-old coming off the worst season of his career. I get that he has to be in the lineup with Stanton and Judge still out, but he doesn’t have to bat in the lineup where he has been or continues to be. I understand it’s unfair to overly criticize Gardner since he didn’t offer himself a one-year, $7.5 million contract the second free agency started, and he isn’t the one filling out the lineup card. But I need to know who is.
The problem with the Yankees lineup doesn’t end there, it only gets more puzzling and frustrating. The Blue Jays didn’t want Kendrys Morales and the A’s didn’t want him either, so the Yankees took a flyer on him with their team decimated by injuries, searching for any sort of left-handed power they could. After his mammoth home run in his second game as a Yankee, which almost reached the upper deck at Yankee Stadium, it seemed like maybe the Yankees were hitting on yet another veteran player on his way out of the league, who was getting a second life after putting on the pinstripes. However, that was the last and only extra-base hit Morales has produced as a Yankee, batting .167/.322/.229 in 59 plate appearances. As a bat-only player, his bat is now gone, though that hasn’t stopped the “manager” of the Yankees from batting him no lower than sixth in any of his starts, and as high as fourth, which he batted on May 22 and 23 and again on Wednesday night in Toronto.
The lineup issue hasn’t been just about Gardner and Morales and it hasn’t only been a thing of late. It’s been a thing all season and it was a thing last season too, especially when Gleyber Torres continued to bat ninth, even batting behind Masahiro Tanaka in interleague play, while carrying the Yankees offensively for weeks at a time. If you’re reading this and you’re a left-handed hitter, if you were to play for the Yankees tonight, you would most likely bat third, fourth or fifth. Your actual talent and abilities don’t matter, just what hand you bat with. The Yankees desperately believe in dividing up the right-handed hitters in their lineup and will put weaker bats at the top and middle of the lineup in order to do so. It’s why Gardner and Morales have batted high in the order in important games and series, and why Mike Tauchman did as well earlier in the season. It’s why Aaron Hicks was immediately inserted into the 2-, 3- and 4-holes upon his return, even though he lacked a significant amount of rehab games and was seeing major league pitching in the middle of the season. It’s why the Yankees will force Didi Gregorius back into the lineup in the same way, likely pushing down Luke Voit and Gary Sanchez in the process.
On Tuesday night, Hicks was given the night off. This after the Yankees had a scheduled day off on Monday and were rained out last Thursday. Between Hicks’s return on May 15 and last night was a period of 22 days. In that time he started 15 games, which means in the last three weeks plus one day, he had an entire week off. Not to mention he had all of March and April and half of May off as well after his unfortunate and odd back injury. Hicks looked lost at the plate in his first 15 games back, batting .204/.302/.259, but that didn’t stop the owner of the lineup card from batting him leadoff (one games), second (four games), third (seven games) and fourth (three games) only. On Tuesday night, Hicks finally looked like the player deserving of a seven-year, $70 million extension, finally looking comfortable at the plate as he went 2-for-4 with a double, home run and walk. He was rewarded by not being in the lineup the next night. He wasn’t even given a full night off as he was brought in as a defensive replacement in the eighth inning, even though there’s no defense for the home runs Zack Britton and Luis Cessa gave up to lose the game. So Hicks was able to play on Wednesday, just not the first seven-plus innings and just not enough to have an impact on the game.
So who owns the Yankees’ lineup card? Aaron Boone has sternly said in the past, the lineup card is his, and you can sort of sense it in his voice that it’s really the only thing he has control over. If I were him, it’s the only thing I would admit to being responsible for. If I were him and I had control over the bullpen and made the decisions he has as Yankees manager, I would pretend I was being told which relievers to bring in as well. But it’s hard to know if Boone really, truly owns the lineup card. If he does own it then there’s a huge problem and he needs to have the responsibility taken away. I have joked in the past that since Brian Cashman is so good at trades and so bad at free agency, the Yankees should have Cashman conduct the trades and have a second general manager handle free agency, the way some NFL teams have a kicker for kickoffs and another for field goals. I think the Yankees need to follow this setup for their manager as well. Boone can be the clubhouse manager since he was hired for his personality and ability to communicate with the players. He can be the one who jokes in the room and keeps things loose with his impressions of the team’s roster. He can go out drinking with the guys after games, set up dinner plans on road trips and lead the card games on the team plane. Then, the Yankees can hire an actual game manager in the dugout because after 227 major league games and another two months of spring training games, it’s clear Boone can’t handle in-game strategy and management. Both the lineup card and the bullpen decisions on Wednesday led to a second straight loss to the Blue Jays who had lost six in a row and nine of their last 10 coming into this series.
If it’s the front office who owns the lineup card, we have a much bigger problem. The Yankees are driven by analytics and if it’s the analytics department recommending Gardner batting first or third or ahead of Urshela or playing against a left-handed starter while Clint Frazier sits on the bench, or thinking Morales should continue to take up a 25-man roster spot and bat fourth when he plays or continue to return players just off the injured list into the top of the order as if they just didn’t miss significant time, then the Yankees need new analytics guys. Any person, stat or formula suggesting the way the Yankees have constructed their lineup outside of the games in which the lineup was nearly all Replacement Yankees can’t be trusted. The Yankees can’t have someone who thinks these lineup choices put the team in the best position to succeed also determining which players the Yankees should target through free agency. Maybe that’s why the Yankees passed on Patrick Corbin for J.A. Happ and why Dallas Keuchel continues to be a free agent, while Yankees starters have accumulated 20 quality starts in 60 games. Maybe it was the stat guys telling Boone to never bat Judge, Sanchez and Stanton back-to-back-to-back outside of Opening Day in Toronto last season. Maybe it was the analytics team who told Boone to go to A.J. Cole in big spots as often as Boone did last season or to let Luis Severino load the bases with no outs in the fourth inning of Game 3 of the ALDS when he had nothing left and then to bring in Lance Lynn in relief of Severino or to allow CC Sabathia to go through the entire Red Sox’ lineup a second time in Game 4 because Boone liked the matchup of Sabathia and the 9-hitter or to continue to bring Jonathan Holder into winnable games, only to have him lose those games.
There’s the idea the lineup and its order doesn’t matter and if a guy bats fifth or eighth isn’t as significant as it’s made out to be. If that’s true then why not have Austin Romine lead off when he plays and why not bat Kendrys Morales second when he plays? Bat Judge ninth upon his return and put Stanton one spot ahead of him at eighth. The Yankees would never do that because the lineup and the order the hitters are placed does matter. But to them, it only matters for some spots in the order and for some players on the team.
The unnecessary days off, like Hicks received on Wednesday night, and like Sanchez continues to receive each week, have an enormous impact on the lineup, and unfortunately are never going away. The Yankees believe they have some sort of special calendar or science to navigate through the regular season by giving players extra rest, and that it will help maintain performance throughout the season and prevent injuries. The Yankees haven’t won the division in what will be seven years this season. Since their last division title, they were destroyed by injuries in 2013, poorly built in 2014, blew a seven-game lead in two weeks in the second half of 2015, traded away all of their assets in 2016, had a surprising run to the ALCS before being unable to hit breaking balls in 2017 and played just-above-.500 baseball for most of the second half and nearly blew their first wild-card lead before being embarrassed in the ALDS in 2018. In which of those seasons did the Yankees manage to either sustain their level of performance for the entire season or avoid injuries? At some point this season, Didi Gregorius, Aaron Hicks, Giancarlo Stanton, Miguel Andujar, Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge and Clint Frazier have all been on the injured list and Andujar was lost for the season. That’s not including the non-regular position players who have also gone on the injured list along with 60 percent of the team’s rotation and their best reliever. Injuries can’t be prevented or avoided. The Yankees haven’t proven they can’t sustain performance through an entire season with extra days off and if they think they can prevent injuries after what’s gone on this season, well then that’s a bigger joke than Luis Cessa continuing to be a Yankee because he’s out of options and the Yankees are scared he will magically figure it out with another organization.
As for the bullpen management, there seems to be no logic or reasoning behind most of the in-game decisions. Holder continues to pitch in any and all situations, whether the game is tied, the Yankees are losing or barely holding on to a lead. He comes in in the fifth inning, the eighth inning, extra innings and every inning in between. He seems to be immune to days off, while Adam Ottavino, Tommy Kahnle, Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman have to have days off between outings, and he seems to be the only non-closer who Boone asks to get three outs instead of two. Let me put it simply: Holder isn’t good. That doesn’t mean he can’t have a place on the team, he just shouldn’t be pitching in high-leverage situations ever. If the Yankees are up big or down big early, put him in. If the Yankees have a minimal chance of a comeback, put him in. If the Yankees are up five runs in the ninth, sure put him in and try to end the game, just don’t be surprised if Chapman is forced to warm up and eventually come into the game. The same goes for Chad Green, who after a couple good outings has the Yankees treating him like it’s 2017, and April and May, which included him being so bad he was sent down, never happened. The same also goes for Cessa, who has no role on the team. He isn’t good enough to start, he’s not overpowering or trustworthy enough to be a back-end reliever and now he’s proven he’s not really a long-man either. It’s time to give another team a chance to figure out what Cessa’s “role” is. If the Yankees try to pass him through waivers and he gets claimed, so be it. Maybe another AL team will pick him up and the Yankees can get some of the runs back against him in a future matchup to make up for all the runs he has given up as a Yankee.
The Yankees are always worried about tomorrow with their bullpen, playing for a situation that may come up the following day, but most likely won’t. They threw away the series finale in Kansas City and were perfectly fine with letting Nestor Cortes lose that game, the same way they were fine if Cortes lost the series finale to the Rays a week earlier. When Cortes continued to put up zeros in Kansas City, they went to Holder, who quickly lost the game, erasing the improbable three-run ninth inning the Yankees put together to send the games to extras. They did this because they were worried about overusing the elite relievers and not having them available the following day. How many times over the years have we seen Chapman or Dellin Betances forced into games they have no business pitching in because they need the work after a week-long layoff due to lopsided scores? Put the team in the best position to succeed in the current situation and win the game at hand. Worry about tomorrow when you get there.
To some, this is me complaining about a team that’s 38-22, in first place and holding a one-game lead over the Rays and a seven-game lead over the Red Sox in the loss column. That’s not the case. This is me worried about the team not consistently being put in the best position to succeed and win the most games possible to avoid a fourth wild-card game in five years. In 2015, we saw what could happen in a one-game playoff if you’re matched up against the wrong starting pitcher. In 2017, we saw what happens when you are forced to overwork your bullpen to get to the ALDS and then they’re ineffective when needed in the best-of-5 and best-of-7 format. In 2018, we saw what happens when you have to to use your best starter in the wild-card game and he’s forced to make that additional start in the postseason and then isn’t available until the third game of the ALDS.
It’s hard enough to win the crapshoot that is the baseball postseason when your team is at full strength, completely healthy and your rotation is perfectly lined up. It’s nearly impossible to win when you’re forced to play one game to remain in the postseason and advance, burn your best starter in that game, use your elite relievers, have a day off and then go on the road for the first two games of a best-of-5 series against a well-rested team at home with their ace going. The difference between the Yankees winning the AL East and advancing to the division series without having to get through another stressful one-game playoff and going to that one-game playoff could very well come down to one game this season. The Yankees don’t seem worried about this scenario, but I am.
Either the Yankees have a manager in so far over his head or they have an analytics team which needs to be reevaluated. Either way, it’s a problem. Yankees fans deserve to know who is really managing the team.
My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is available!