Yankees Thoughts: Modern-Day Mantle-Maris

After series wins over the Padres and Angels, the Yankees finished their nine-game West Coast road trip with a sweep of the Giants.

Here are 10 thoughts on the Yankees.

1. I find it hard to believe Aaron Judge was ever close to signing with the Giants. I think he and his agent played the Yankees perfectly from Opening Day 2022 when he turned down a fair contract extension right through the moment Hal Steinbrenner called Judge in a panic and gave him a ninth year on his contract offer. When you look at the state of the Giants, their anemic offense and puzzling roster, there’s just no way Judge was going really going to give up everything he had and had built with the Yankees to play for at best, the third-best team in the NL West for the rest of his career.

Judge gave his hometown a look at what could have been (but likely never was actually going to be) as he spent the weekend destroying the team he grew up rooting for: 6-for-10, three home runs, six RBIs, three walks and a .600/.692/1.500 slash line.

“I grew up a Giants fan and loved coming to games out here,” Judge said. “It’s pretty cool, being on the opposite side of the field.”

2. Judge wasn’t the only Yankee to have a big weekend. Juan Soto went 6-for-12, with a triple, two home runs, four RBIs and a .500/.462/1.1.67 slash line. No hit was bigger than Soto’s two-run, go-ahead home run in the ninth inning off Camilo Doval on Sunday.

“I can go back over the years, how many times we probably lost that game, facing the closer up two runs and go 1-2-3,” Judge said. “This team is different.”

This team is different because of the Soto-Judge, 2-3 combination. Judge (1.075) and Soto (1.031) have the two highest OPS in the majors. The Yankees have the ability to make the modern day Maris-Mantle combination a thing for a long time. If they don’t, and if Soto isn’t a Yankee in 2025, I will be forced to walk away from the Yankees and baseball. If the team that generates more revenue than any other team doesn’t agree to pay Soto whatever number he is looking for there will be point in rooting for or caring about said team.

3. “That’s what he does. We’ve seen it all year long,” Judge said of Soto. “He comes up in big moments. Against one of the best closers in the game, throwing up to 102 miles an hour … That was impressive.”

Everything about the 2024 Yankees that is different than the 2023 Yankees and other iterations of the roster during the Aaron Boone era is because of Soto. The wins, the big moments, the offensive outbursts can all be traced back to Soto’s presence. But nothing Soto has done has been more important than his penchant to play every day.

Last season, Soto played in all 162 games for the Padres, a feat that seemed impossible for any Yankee to accomplish because of the oft-injured issues of the roster and because the team’s manager and front office would see to it that no one played every game of an entire season. This season has been different. I no longer check on the lineup a few hours before the game under the assumption at least one everyday player won’t be playing. The Yankees have played 61 games and Aaron Judge, Juan Soto and Gleyber Torres (unfortunately) have played in all of them. Anthony Volpe has missed one due to illness. Alex Verdugo missed three on paternity leave. Anthony Rizzo has had (only) two games off (unfortunately). Even Giancarlo Stanton has only had eight days off. It’s refreshing, and it has a lot to do with Soto.

4. “We’re having a great time,” Soto said. “We have great moments. We’re just having fun, that’s all I can tell you.”

They’re having fun, I’m having fun, all Yankees fans are having fun. But again, this fun better not end at the end of 2024.

5. “I know we’ve got something special in that room,” Boone said. “Where that takes us? We’ll see.”

Soto, Judge and the rotation can take the Yankees where they want to go, where they haven’t been in going on 15 years. But in order to do so, the Yankees are either going to need to outhit their own manager’s stupidity (like they did on Sunday), have their manager finally understand simple logic (unlikely) or get significant bullpen upgrades (very possible). The Yankees nearly dropped the series finale to the Giants because of the bullpen Brian Cashman built and because of the way Boone deploys it.

After overcoming a two-run deficit thanks to another road stinker from Nestor Cortes (4.1 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 0 BB, 7 K, 2 HR), Boone decided to use Dennis Santana for a second inning of work in a 3-3 game in the sixth. It’s problematic that Santana was a Yankee to begin with this season, considering he has a career 5.15 ERA in 173 innings, but it’s even more problematic he’s still a Yankee with a 5.01 ERA this season. He can’t strike anyone out (just 15 strikeouts in 23 1/3 innings), and yet, he’s frequently placed in situations where a strikeout is greatly needed. He was miraculously able to get the last two outs of the fifth unscathed, but why Boone went back to him for the sixth, I have no idea.

Santana allowed back-to-back singles to open the sixth before getting a pair of outs on a pop-up and flyball. But then he hit the light-hitting, 9-hitter to load the bases with two outs. That brought up Heliot Ramos, who is pretty much the only player in the Giants lineup capable of anything. Sure enough, Ramos smoked a two-run single to left field to give the Giants their second two-run lead of the game.

6. Michael Tonkin isn’t good, but Tonkin boasts a 4.24 ERA in 250 1/3 career innings and has a 3.00 ERA in 24 innings this season (and a 1.20 ERA in 15 innings for the Yankees). Tonkin can’t be trusted, and he’s treated as such, only pitching in games the Yankees are losing or winning by five-plus runs. Meanwhile, Santana, with a much worse career and in the middle of a much worse season is treated like a middle relief weapon, when he’s only a weapon for the opponent.

Neither Santana nor Tonkin can be trusted. But the same goes for Caleb Ferguson and Victor Gonzalez, or Nick Burdi before he got hurt yet again. The bullpen is a huge problem because there are very few capable arms in it. The more incapable arms, the more there is a chance for Boone to screw it all up. Even if you’re the 25th or 26th man on the roster, if you’re on the roster, he will use you and use you at an inopportune time.

7. What made Boone’s decision to go to Santana even more questionable is that the bullpen was extremely well rested and there is a day off on Monday. He could have gone with his elite relievers to go for the sweep and an enjoyable cross-country flight home to end the road trip, and he chose not to. Luckily for him, his offense outhit his decisions to save the day. With this bullpen and the amount of close games the Yankees play, the offense is going to have to outhit Boone a lot to get to where they want to be. And in October, when every decision is the season-defining, they are going to have to outhit him against the front-end starting pitching and elite relievers every game. They haven’t been able to do that in the five postseasons they have appeared in with him as manager, but unless he changes his thought process, they will have to outhit him to end the championship drought.

8. Cortes stunk on Sunday, but Marcus Stroman was really good on Friday (7.1 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 2 K) and Cody Poteet was solid once again on Saturday (5 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 6 K, 1 HR).

“I’m not looking too far ahead,” Poteet said. “I’m just taking it a day at a time, trying to get better each day and enjoying being around so many great players.”

Poteet’s line in two Yankees starts: 11 IP, 9 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 10 K, 2 HR. He throws strikes and doesn’t nibble. He’s everything you want from a fifth starter, and exactly what the Yankees need for the time being.

9. For the time being the right side of the infield in Torres and Rizzo will continue to get every chance to turn their seasons around. They are extremely fortunate the best two hitters in baseball are on their team and the team is winning or they would be the focal point of the team. Instead, they are being allowed to figure out their issues, both offensively and defensively in the bottom third of the lineup.

I think it would take the two of them continuing at their current underperforming paces for the Yankees to find other options come the end of July. Even then, I could see the Yankees playing them every day through the rest of the season no matter how bleak their production is. For Torres, he’s playing himself out of a big free-agent contract at the end of this season, and for Rizzo, he’s playing himself out of the majors when his contract ends at the end of this season.

10. There’s nothing like going 7-2 on a nine-game West Coast road trip over 10 days, completing a ninth-inning comeback for the most memorable win of the season and then boarding a cross-country flight, getting the day off on Monday. The Yankees don’t play on the West Coast again until September 17, and they don’t have a game scheduled to start later than 8:10 p.m. between now and then. I’m happy that normal, East Coast start times are back.