Yankees Thoughts: Aaron Boone Believes He Has Championship Team

The manager gave his season-opening press conference on the state of the team

Spring training is here. On Wednesday, the Yankees began their 2021 season with pitchers and catchers reporting to Tampa.

The start of spring training also means the annual start-of-spring-training press conference for Aaron Boone. The Yankees manager spoke at length about the state of the team, and the longer Boone is asked to speak in any setting, the more wild his answers get. So for this week’s Yankees Thoughts, rather than the normal 10 thoughts format, I’m going to go break down 10 quotes from Boone’s press conference.

Here are 10 thoughts on the Yankees (kind of).

1. On if the 2021 Yankees are equipped to chase a world championship.
“Talk is always cheap, obviously, at this point, but I really like the winter that we’ve had with some of the additions that we made that I think are going to be impactful to go along with the makeup of this team that is already of championship caliber. And certainly, that’s what we’re here to try and do and try to accomplish.”

Talk has always been cheap for Boone, not just at this point, but at any point. It was cheap the last three Octobers when he had to give an end-of-the-season press conference before the end of the baseball season and tried to say the Yankees were just as good as all the teams still playing and the eventual champions. This will be the fourth time Boone manages a team expected to win the American League, and if they win the AL, it will be the first time he has done so.

2. On the depth of the pitching staff.
“I think depth is obviously going to be important and we feel like we have 10, 11, 12 pitchers that aren’t just capable of going out there, but are capable of going out there and thriving.”

The Yankees have a lot of pitchers that are capable of “thriving” in theory. But the baseball season doesn’t work in theory. In theory, the Yankees had a 2020 rotation of Gerrit Cole, Luis Severino, James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka and J.A. Happ with Jordan Montgomery as insurance. By the time October came, the Yankees’ rotation was Cole and Tanaka, and they pitched both Happ and Montgomery in October as last resorts.

In theory, the Yankees currently have a lot of big-name pitchers with immense talent. If the Yankees were to get all of them to stay healthy and pitch at the peak of their abilities then there will be a parade in lower Manhattan this fall. But if you think the entire Yankees’ pitching staff is going to go an entire season without an injury or without at least one of their starters underperforming then you probably also think Judge and Hicks will both play at least 150 games in 2021.

3. On if the 2021 roster is better constructed than previous seasons.
“As I look at our pitching staff and what I believe is the potential of that staff, I feel like it’s in a lot of ways as good as it’s been certainly since I’ve been here.”

This is going to be Boone’s fourth season with the Yankees. I would put the rosters he had in this order:

2018
2019
2020
2021

I put them in that order because the Yankees have gotten a year older, progressively worse and less productive each year.

The 2018 Yankees were coming off a season in which they blew two chances to win the AL over the Astros in Houston. Aaron Judge was coming off a Rookie of the Year season and what should have been an MVP season, Gary Sanchez was the best hitting catcher on the planet, and Gleyber Torres was about to debut. On top of that, they essentially turned Chase Headley, Jacoby Ellsbury and Starlin Castro into reigning NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton and Torres.

The 2019 Yankees had signed DJ LeMahieu, traded for James Paxton and had a bullpen featuring Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Zack Britton, Adam Ottavino, Tommy Kahnle and Chad Green.

The 2020 Yankees, on paper, were stacked in February and had arguably the best rotation, lineup and bullpen in baseball. Then injuries struck like they had in 2019, and by the time the season actually started the team wasn’t what it was planned to be, and by October, they were fortunate to have even made the postseason.

The 2021 Yankees are like one massive parlay that needs to hit to win. There are so many unknowns and question marks regarding injuries and performance that it’s impossible to say how the team will do.

4. On who the fifth starter will be to open the season.
“I see a lot of competition there, frankly. German, Deivi, Schmidt, Jhoulys Chacin, who we’ve brought in, all of these guys we feel like are certainly capable of stepping into that role, but we’ll see how the next five, six weeks unfold.”

Jhoulys Chacin threw five innings last year. Five not great innings in which he put nine runners on base and allowed four earned runs. The year before that he pitched to a 6.01 ERA and 5.88 FIP over 25 games and 24 stars for the Brewers and Red Sox, so at some time this season, we will be three years removed from the last time Chacin was any good. German is a scumbag who should no longer be part of the Yankees the way Chapman never should have been. That leaves Deivi Garcia and Clarke Schmidt. I don’t see how the job isn’t Garcia’s, spring training stats or not.

5. On using Kyle Higashioka with Gerrit Cole like he did in 2020.
“I don’t have a plan of pairing those two to start.”

I highly doubt this and I look forward to revisiting this quote on Opening Day on April 1. If there’s a place where I can wager right now on if Kyle Higashioka will start at catcher on Opening Day on April 1 to catch Gerrit Cole, I’m putting everything on it. If Boone was so adamant of having Higashioka catch Cole last season, why would that change this season? It wouldn’t.

6. On James Paxton no longer being a Yankee.
“I love Pax. He pitched so many big games for us in 2019 and I know how much he put into it.”

Boone’s memory isn’t the best. Paxton pitched in big games for the Yankees, he didn’t “pitch big games” for the Yankees. There’s an enormous difference.

Paxton made three postseason starts for the Yankees: Game 1 of the 2019 ALDS, Game 2 of the 2019 ALCS and Game 5 of the 2019 ALCS. Here is his line for each game:

ALDS Game 1: 4.2 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 8 K, 2 HR
ALCS Game 2: 2.1 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 3 K
ALCS Game 5: 6 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 4 BB, 9 K

He pitched well in one of the games (ALCS Game 5). The Yankees covered up his poor ALDS performance by scoring 10 runs, and he put six runners on base in Game 2 of the ALCS before being taken out in the third inning of an eventual extra-inning loss. Paxton’s time with the Yankees was “blah” and mediocre at best.

7. On the players who struggled in 2020.
“When you’ve been close like many of our players have been now for several years, those are tough, tough blows. The ending is really, really cruel. Whether it’s me, whether it’s the players, when you don’t do everything maybe possible that you could have done … those things always kind of haunt you and eat at you, especially when you are one of those teams expecting to win it.”

The only player who has been close on the Yankees to winning the World Series the last several years is Geritt Cole, who sat in the bullpen and watched his Astros blow Game 7 of the 2019 World Series. The only other Yankee who has been close is Corey Kluber, who started Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, and he hasn’t even really been a Yankee yet. Other than that, the Yankees haven’t been close to winning the World Series, unless you consider losing Games 6 and 7 of the ALCS as somehow being close to winning the World Series.

8. On if he feels the 2020 Yankees were really that close to getting to the World Series.
“Yeah, I do feel like it’s that close, and I felt that way in ’18 and I felt that way in ’19, and last year, we’re late in the game against the team that goes on to the World Series again. So we have to find a way to get over that last hump and beat that team that’s going on to the World Series. But I also think it’s important we realize how close we are and how razor thin the margin is when you get into the postseason. It’s the bounce of the ball, it’s one play, it’s one pitch, and we feel like we’re certainly very close to that.”

Boone mentioned the bounce of the ball or one play or one pitch, but he didn’t say “or one game when you come up with the most idiotic pitching plan in franchise history to force J.A. Happ into a playoff game.”

I will give Boone 2019 for it being OK for him to feel like it was close, but that’s it. The margin for the Yankees to get to the World Series wasn’t razor thin in 2018 or 2020.

In 2018, the Yankees lost in four games to the Red Sox in the ALDS. They lost both Games 3 and 4 at home and were outscored 20-4. It’s hard to agree with him that the Yankees were close to getting past the Red Sox when they finished eight games behind them in the regular season and then were run out of their own stadium against them in the postseason. Had the Yankees beaten the Red Sox, they still would have had to then beat the Astros, a team that eliminated the Yankees in both 2017 and 2019. It’s not like if the Yankees beat the Red Sox, they’re in the World Series because the Red Sox beat the Astros, the way Boone likes to think it works.

The same goes for 2020. The Yankees went to a Game 5 in the ALDS against the Rays, losing on yet another home run against Chapman. But that game could have gone 37 innings and the Yankees weren’t going to score another run. They had used up all of their elite relievers (all three of them) and the Rays could have kept trotting out unhittable options for days. Had the Yankees beaten the Rays, they again would have had to beat the Astros to advance to the World Series, something they have never been able to do. If you lose in the division series to the team that eventually represents the AL in the World Series, it doesn’t meant that you would have represented the AL in the World Series if you had won your division series. I’m not sure why Boone thinks that’s the case.

9. On if he sees Clint Frazier as the starting left fielder at this point.
“I do. Clint has obviously come a long way in every aspect of his game and certainly earned his place last year when obviously nothing was given to him. He had to earn everything really the last couple of years … Last year really proved he was ready to grab an everyday role on this team.”

The last time the Yankees played, Clint Frazier wasn’t the team’s starting left fielder. Despite posting a .905 OPS, single-handedly carrying the offense when Judge and Stanton once again missed extended time and when Sanchez and Torres couldn’t hit, and improving his defense to the point he was named a Gold Glove finalist, Frazier rode the bench for both games against Cleveland and the last three games of the ALDS against Tampa Bay. Of the Yankees seven playoff games, Frazier started two of them as Boone started and played Brett Gardner over him. So Frazier “proved he was ready to grab an everyday role with the team” so well last year that he wasn’t an everyday palyer in the postseason.

The last time the Yankees played Frazier wasn’t the team’s starting left fielder, so how did he suddenly earn the job now? Were there real, meaningful games over the last four months no one is aware of? And what happens when Gardner inevitably re-signs with the Yankees? Does Gardner continue to start in left field forever no matter how badly his skills erode and decline? How can someone go from not being the starting left fielder and not playing in October to earning the job by mid-February?

Boone’s right in that last yer Frazier proved he was ready to grab an everyday role on this team. And then in the biggest games of the season, Boone didn’t play him. With the season on the line in Game 5 against the Rays, Boone chose to use Mike Ford to pinch hit for Kyle Higashioka over Frazier. The same Mike Ford who was sent to the alternate site ate the beginning of September for lack of performance. Ford wasn’t good enough to be a Yankee in September, but he was good enough to get pinch hit twice in the ALDS in October.

10. On the 2021 Yankees being a championship team.
“I understand how hard it is, certainly, to get to the top of that mountain. We haven’t gotten there yet, but I also know how when I look at ultimately the last several world champions, how close we are though. So I think it’s important to understand where we need to continue to get better to put ourselves in the best possible position to kick the door in and ultimately get there. Understanding that there’s things that happen in the playoffs that sometimes it is about the ball bouncing the right away, it is about being hot or getting that big hit or whatever it may be at a different time. But I also think  it’s important that we take a step back too and take the emotion out of it and realize the roster and the group of players and the core group of players that we have here are certainly I believe on the short team list of teams really capable of winning a championship.”

This is the quote of all Aaron Boone quotes maybe ever. Well, this and the time he lied to everyone and said Aaron Judge was taken out of a game in 2020 as a precaution and then Judge went on to miss half the season. There is so much here and it’s all so unbelievable.

Boone knows how hard it is to lose in the postseason because that’s all he’s ever done. He has never been to the top of the mountain as a player or manager and in the four seasons he has been part of the Yankees (one as a player and three as a manager), his teams have lost in the ALCS, ALDS, ALCS again and ALDS again. How can you know what it takes to get to the top of the mountain and win the last game of the Major League Baseball season when you have never done it?

The Yankees weren’t all that close the last few years, as I wrote earlier. The Dodgers had a much balanced lineup and a rotation featuring Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw. The Nationals had Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. The Red Sox embarrassed the Yankees in both the regular season and postseason. The Yankees weren’t better than any of the previous three champions since Boone has been manager.

Boone mentions all of the things a team needs to go right to win the postseason, but he failed to mention not sabotaging your own team’s chances by trying to pull a starting pitching magic trick against the Rays in a pivotal Game 2. He also brings up the idea of  “getting hot” which he and the Yankees have previously said they don’t believe in. It’s why they give players a day off a day after hitting multiple home runs in a game. But maybe he and the Yankees are changing their minds when it comes to a player being “hot” since it’s why he played Gardner over Frazier in the playoffs, and it’s now why he thinks a team can win in the postseason.

The core group of Yankees players have never won anything, and they all have gotten older, worse and injured since they came within one win of the World Series the season before Boone arrived. Judge hasn’t played a full season since 2017. Sanchez is closer to being an ex-Yankee than he is being the player he was even two years ago. Severino has made five starts since the end of 2018. Torres was so bad in 2020 that many wanted him to no longer be the starting shortstop. That’s the “core” I think of when I think of these Yankees.

I want to like Boone. I really do. But it’s going to take him changing a lot as a manager in 2021 for that to happen. It’s going to take him doing everything he can possibly do in October to possibly win, something he admitted to having not done last season. Brian Cashman has said he wants Boone to be the Yankees’ manager for 10 years the way Joe Torre and Joe Girardi were. For that to happen, he’s going to have to start doing a much better job than he has in his first three seasons.



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