Yankees’ 2022 Season Set Up as Prodigious Parlay

Yankees need to hit on an abundance of items to contend this season

The Yankees’ 2022 season is one enormous gamble. It didn’t have to be this way. The Yankees could have put together as sure of a thing possible from an on-paper roster standpoint. They could have used their financial might and the fact they generate more revenue than any of the other 29 teams in the majors and play in the biggest market in the country to their advantage. They could have finally put together the best possible roster to end their going-on-13-year championship drought. If it didn’t work out on the field, at least they would have done everything in their power to attempt to win.

Instead, the Yankees purposely created one prodigious parlay for the 2022 season. Rather than spend the way their revenue streams allow and needing only health to be on their side to be the favorite to win the American League pennant, overall health is now just one of a lengthy list of things the Yankees need to hit on to win with the roster they have constructed.

At the Yankees’ 2021 end-of-the-season press conference on Oct. 19, Brian Cashman openly admitted the 2021 team was “unwatchable.” The Yankees had been the odds-on favorite to win the AL, and they instead finished fifth in the AL and third in their own division. In lieu of making wholesale changes to a declining roster and culture that had only gone backward in each season since 2017, Cashman’s first move for 2022 was to extend Aaron Boone. Boone had been handed the keys to a team that came within one win of the World Series, and crashed it before leaving the driveway. Under him, the Yankees suffered the worst home postseason loss in franchise history while falling to the Red Sox in four games in the 2018; lost four of the final five games of the 2019 ALCS; were embarrassed by the 28th-highest payroll Rays in the 2020 ALDS and were eliminated by the Red Sox for a second time in his tenure in the 2021 wild-card game before’s the game’s second commercial break. Cashman and the Yankees hired the inexperienced, in-over-his-head Boone, watched him fail miserably for four years and then decided to double down on their disastrous hire by giving him a new three-year deal with a fourth-year option. Boone, who never won anything as a player, has now done the same as manager. His Yankees have produced one division title and an 11-11 postseason record with no World Series appearances in four seasons.

When the Boone extension was announced, I desperately tried to talk myself into Boone with better players in 2022. If the Yankees could go out and dominate the free-agent market or make a blockbuster trade then maybe the team could outperform their own manager. At least that’s what I told myself. A complete roster and improved rotation would prevent Boone’s frequent illogical lineups and horrifying bullpen decisions. His in-game decisions wouldn’t have as much of an impact on the team’s success, and the Yankees could win in spite of his presence. I thought this was a real possibility because of Cashman’s comments at that press conference.

“I’m going to be looking to upgrade,” Cashman said that day. “There are some areas of weakness that have popped up in a lot of categories.

“Here’s the biggest key. Go to the marketplace, whether it’s the free-agent marketplace, or go to the trade market and see how we can solve that with what’s available in the marketplace. And obviously there will be some legitimate choices to reconfigure in certain categories.”

Cashman’s admission of needing to upgrade the roster either through the “free-agent marketplace” or the “trade market” had me thinking about some combination of Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, Freddie Freeman, Max Scherzer and Matt Olson in pinstripes. The 2021 season had been a colossal failure, Cashman had recognized and admitted it, and he was going to make sure it didn’t happen again. He said as much. Or so I thought.

Not a single one of those five names is now a Yankee. The Yankees sat out on the pre-lockout signing frenzy and remained on the sidelines for the post-lockout signings. They chose not to participate in the A’s firesale, which has included losing their manager (who I would have loved to be the Yankees’ manager) to the Padres, trading Olson to the Braves, Chris Bassitt to the Mets, Matt Chapman to the Blue Jays, and most recently Sean Manaea to the Padres. All four of those players (and the manager) would have improved the Yankees.

With a boat that has been taking on water since the 2017 ALCS, rather than get a new boat, the Yankees decided to once again patch the latest holes, hoping it can get them to where they want to go. It’s a strategy that hasn’t worked over the last four offseasons, but they used it for a fifth straight offseason. Four-plus years ago the Yankees had a young, inexpensive core on the rise. Now what’s left of that core is older, expensive, oft-injured and mostly in decline, and they have never gotten as close to winning it all as they were when they went to Houston needing to win one of two games.

Cashman admitted the Yankees would need to find a shortstop, so they chose the 20-year-old unproven Anthony Volpe and the 21-year-old unproven Oswald Peraza over the 27-year-old proven Seager and the 27-year-old proven Correa. Over the last four offseasons, Hal Steinbrenner has proven he would rather produce his own Seager or Correa or Manny Machado or Bryce Harper than pay the actual Seager, Correa, Machado or Harper. And that’s nice in theory, but those four are superstars and there’s a very slim chance either Volpe or Peraza turn into any of them. The Yankees passed on Machado because they had Gleyber Torres. They passed on Harper because they would eventually have to pay Aaron Judge (who they still haven’t paid), Giancarlo Stanton (who they don’t let play the outfield), Aaron Hicks (who has barely played baseball over the last four years) and Clint Frazier (who the Yankees released for nothing in return this offseason). I pray multiple times each day that both Volpe and Peraza into Seager or Correa. I also know how math and statistics work and understand how low the odds are of even one of them becoming an above-average, everyday major leaguer, let alone a star or superstar.

Volpe will turn 21 this month and has never played above High-A. Peraza is 21 and has played 87 games above High-A. When Seager was 21, he was batting third in the postseason for the Dodgers. When Correa was 21, he was batting third and winning Rookie of the Year for the Astros and eliminating the Yankees from the postseason. When Machado was 21, he was in his third year in the majors, had hit 51 doubles in a season and had an All-Star Game and Gold Glove to his name. When Harper was 21, he had played three seasons and 357 games, hit 65 home runs and been a two-time All-Star and Rookie of the Year.

In choosing Volpe and Peraza over Seager and Correa, Cashman traded with the Twins to acquire the light-hitting, all-glove Isiah Kiner-Falefa. The Rangers had traded Kiner-Falefa to the Twins after the lockout because before the lockout they had signed Seager to a $325 million deal. The Rangers, yes, the 106-loss, last-place Rangers didn’t want to build around Kiner-Falefa, so they signed Seager. They also didn’t want the inexpensive defense-first Kiner-Falefa playing second for them, so they also signed Marcus Semien for $175 million. The Rangers chose to give Seager and Semien a combined half-billion dollars rather than roster and play Kiner-Falefa.

These are the same Rangers who happily paid Rougned Odor to not play baseball for them in 2021 despite owing him $27 million and knowing they would be a last-place team. And these are the same Yankees who happily traded (yes, traded an actual person) for Odor in the first week of the 2021 season and then rostered and played him for the entire season, even giving him two at-bats in the one-game playoff against the Red Sox.

In the trade for Kiner-Falefa, the Yankees also acquired 36-year-old former superstar Josh Donaldson and the $48 million owed to him, along with 23-year-old catcher Ben Rortvedt who is all defense and no bat (and I mean no bat). In exchange for the three players, the Yankees gave up Gary Sanchez and Gio Urshela.

Rather than keep Sanchez and have a left side of the infield of Seager and Urshela or Correa and Urshela, they chose to move on from the second-best power-hitting catcher in baseball and create a left side of Kiner-Falefa and Donaldson, and in turn have arguably the worst catching tandem in the majors. At best, the trade was an even swap of productivity. At worst, it prevented the Yankees from signing an in-their-prime shortstop and forced them to take on $48 million for a player who has missed 32 percent of the last four seasons. The Yankees have shied away from paying in-their-prime stars because they didn’t want to pay for their late-‘30s seasons. But here they are paying for Donaldson’s late-‘30s seasons without also getting his prime seasons. The Blue Jays got those prime years from Donaldson and they used them to beat up on the Yankees.

The Yankees’ need for a shortstop came from the team giving up on Torres at the position after completely misevaluating him as a shortstop over 2020 and 2021. I keep reading and hearing about how the Yankees can methodically find at-bats for DJ LeMahieu. I have a solution: make LeMahieu an everyday player.

It’s inexplicable that Torres could play over LeMahieu. This isn’t the beginning of 2019 when Torres was coming off an unbelievable rookie season and LeMahieu was signed as a super utility player and wasn’t in the 2019 Opening Day lineup. This is the beginning of 2022, and Torres has been barely a playable option since the start of the shortened 2020 season.

Yes, LeMahieu is coming off a disastrous 2021 season in which he hit .268/.349/.362 with 10 home runs and 24 doubles. He also played through a hernia that required surgery and forced him to miss the one-game playoff and would have kept him out of the rest of the postseason if the Yankees’ postseason had lasted longer than nine innings. For as bad as LeMahieu was last year, Torres was worse: .259/.331/.366 with nine home runs and 22 RBIs. And Torres has no injury excuse or offseason surgery to fall back on. He just sucked and has sucked since he showed up to Spring Training 2.0 out of shape in July 2020, sending his career into a tailspin.

The Yankees are in this position because they watched Torres play shortstop like an overweight slob seven beers deep each night for two months in 2020 (the overweight part was true) and chalked it up to a shortened season and small sample size. Believing Torres was still the shortstop of the future despite never showing he was capable of being that, the Yankees gave LeMahieu a six-year, $90 million contract after 2020 to be their second baseman of the future. Then after 143 games in 2021, the Yankees decided enough was enough after Torres’ fielding single-handedly carried the Yankees to the most humiliating loss of the season on Sunday Night Baseball against the Mets. With 19 games left in the season and on the outside looking in on the postseason, the Yankees finally moved Gio Urshela to short, a move they claimed all season they would never make.

Now because the Yankees still trusted Torres after 2020 and paid LeMahieu, only to give up on Torres the following season, the Yankees have to choose between LeMahieu or Torres, and it seems like the Yankees are choosing Torres, who was last good two-and-a-half years ago, over the better, more reliable LeMahieu, who still has five years left on his current contract and is owed $75 million. The Yankees are picking Torres over LeMahieu after already picking Boone over Sanchez and Volpe and Peraza over Seager and Correa. They also picked a reunion with Anthony Rizzo over Freeman and Olson.

Rizzo is a good player. He’s also coming off the worst season of his career since his rookie year nine years ago. The general perception is that his two months as a Yankee were great, when in reality, they weren’t. Rizzo homered in his first two games with the Yankees in Miami and then homered twice over the next six weeks. 

In the outfield, knowing Hicks can’t stay healthy (he’s missed 62 percent of the last three seasons), and knowing that in the last 28 months he’s had his elbow and wrist surgically repaired, and knowing that he’s now 32 years old, the Yankees created center-field depth by … doing nothing. That’s right, the Yankees are counting on Hicks to play a full season for the first time in his 10-year major-league career. They are also counting on “full” seasons from Judge and Stanton for the second straight year. (Judge played 148 games in 2021 and Stanton 139.) But if any of them should get hurt, the Yankees did give a major-league deal to Tim Locastro, who is coming off a torn ACL suffered eight-and-a-half months ago.

The Yankees went in the 2021 season with a rotation of Gerrit Cole and Jordan Montgomery and reclamation projects in Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon and Scumbag Domingo German. In early February 2021, Cashman said he believed in that rotation “in theory.” Kluber had spent the previous two years not pitching for health reasons and made only 16 starts as a Yankee, averaging five innings per start. Taillon made the most starts (29) he had made in three years, but still injured his ankle and needed offseason surgery. German was awful and then got injured. The patchwork Opening Day rotation Cashman built was mostly bad and mostly injured and in the 13th game of the season, the Yankees didn’t have a starter to face the Rays and instead used Nick Nelson as an opener. Eleven pitches into that eventual loss, the Yankees trailed 2-0 with a runner on second and still no outs. If you think a game on April 16 is meaningless, the Yankees didn’t clinch a postseason berth until the final pitch of their regular season in Game 162, and because of losses like that April 16 one had to play the one-game playoff at Fenway Park.

If not for the breakout season from Nestor Cortes, the Yankees’ rotation would have been in shambles. Cortes entered 2021 having pitched to a career 6.72 ERA and 6.69 FIP. He pitched in 22 games for the 2021, starting 14, with a 2.90 ERA and 1.075 WHIP. The Yankees are going into 2022 thinking the 93 innings innings from Cortes in 2021 are the real Cortes and not everything in his career prior to 2021.

They have Cole and Montgomery they can count on for health and production. Between those two in the rotation plans is Luis Severino, who has pitched 23 2/3 innings since the end of 2018 and last started a game in the 2019 ALCS. After Severino, there’s Taillon, coming off ankle surgery, and Cortes, coming off his one good season in the majors.

It would be unrealistic to think the Yankees could navigate an entire season with five starters (then again, unrealistic thinking is their thing), so they will undoubtedly need to rely on starting pitching depth to get them through 2021. Last season, including openers, they used 15 “starting” pitchers, including the legendary Andrew Heaney and Asher Wojciechowski. The Yankees’ current starting pitching depth consists of Clarke Schmidt, Luis Gil and Deivi Garcia.

The oft-injured Schmidt who was the Yankees’ first-round pick in 2017 is now 26 years old and has thrown 12 2/3 career major-league innings. In those 12 2/3 innings, he has allowed 13 earned runs and 31 baserunners.

Gil made six starts for the 2021 Yankees and was impressive at times. He also walked 5.8 batters per nine innings, which is even higher than his 5.3 walks per nine in his minor-league career.

Garcia showed flashes of brilliance with the Yankees in 2020. They also chose to use him as an opener instead of a starter in the pivotal Game 2 of the 2020 ALDS, and he spent nearly all of 2021 in Triple-A, pitching to a 6.85 ERA and putting 177 baserunners on in 90 2/3 innings.

The Yankees added to their starting pitching depth this offseason by signing … no one. OK, I shouldn’t say no one. They did sign Shelby Miller to a minor-league contract last week. Since 2016, Miller has made 36 starts and 61 appearances, pitching to a 7.04 ERA, 5.38 FIP and 1.773 WHIP. I have recorded a video to play in my absence in the event he ever throws a pitch for the New York Yankees. It starts with “If you’re watching this video then you already know I’m no longer a baseball fan …”

The bullpen will be good because the Yankees’ bullpen is always good. The problem is how Boone uses his bullpen and how early into the season he will burn out his elite options. Everyone remembers Chad Green giving up go-ahead home runs in seemingly every appearance in the second half of last season. No one remembers Boone using Green for multiple innings on April 1, April 3, April 7, April 11, and April 18. Through 15 games, Boone used Green for more than an inning five times!

So the bullpen can be counted on for 2022 (as long as Boone doesn’t destroy it. Cole can be counted on (well, except against the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Rays). Montgomery can be counted on to give you a good No. 3-type season. After that? The Yankees will get to where they think they can go if …

Judge stays healthy, which he has done once (2021) since 2017 …

Stanton stays healthy, which he has done once (2021) since 2018 …

Joey Gallo hits closer to his .821 career OPS and not the .707 OPS he posted in 58 games as a Yankee last season …

Hicks somehow stays healthy (this is the least likely thing to happen of all the things listed here) …

LeMahieu rebounds from his awful 2021 and hernia surgery …

Torres rebounds from his last 676 plate appearances …

Rizzo slows his obvious decline …

Donaldson stays healthy all year, which he has done one-and-a-half times since 2016 …

Kiner-Falefa isn’t an automatic out at the plate …

Higashioka, Rortvedt and Jose Trevino aren’t the worst offensive catching tandem in the majors …

Severino stays healthy for the first time since 2018 …

Taillon avoids yet another injury …

Cortes proves 2021 wasn’t an anomaly and that that’s who he truly is …

Some combination of Schmidt, Gil and Garcia provide adequate production when called upon …

The Yankees don’t need to hit on all of those things to win the division, the pennant and a championship, which is what ownership, the front office, the manager and now also Donaldson have all said is possible with this roster. But they do need to hit on a lot of those things to do so. It didn’t have to be this way. The Yankees’ 2022 season didn’t have to be one longshot parlay. Unfortunately, it is.

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