Yankees Thoughts: Opening Series Could Have and Should Have Been More

Yankees begin 2022 season with series win over Red Sox

It feels good to have Yankees baseball back for nearly every day of the next six (and hopefully seven) months. It feels even better that the team got off to a good start and took two out of three against the Red Sox. However, it should feel even better than it does.

Here are 10 thoughts on the Yankees.

1. Overall, it was a good weekend for the Yankees. But it could have and should have been better. (Kind of like their offseason.) The Yankees could have crushed the Red Sox with a win on Sunday night, sending the Red Sox to an 0-3 start and needing to only go 7-6 to win the season series, which is more important than ever since tiebreaker games no longer exist and the difference between going to the postseason or not could easily come down to head-to-head record. (Last season, it was the difference between the Yankees playing the one-game playoff at home or on the road.) Instead, the Yankees gave away Sunday night’s game. They had 16 baserunners in the game and left 13 on. Sure, they were unlucky at times with expected batting averages of .630, .990, .450 and .560 on balls that were outs, but they also left the bases loaded in the first and third, couldn’t score with second and third and one out in the fifth, hit into two inning-ending double plays and got the leadoff man on in five innings and only scored him once.

Yes, I went into the weekend wanting a series win, since that’s all anyone can ever want as a baseball fan. But the Yankees left a win on the table and a sweep on the table, and it’s something they did far too often last season.

2. For as frustrating as Sunday night was, the weekend as a whole was a positive, considering the Yankees recorded 87 outs and their starters only produced 31 of those outs (36 percent). Over an entire season, that’s a recipe for disaster, but in early April and coming off a shortened spring training, it’s acceptable.

I went into Opening Day with the same kind of bad feeling I went into the wild-card game with because it was Gerrit Cole against Nathan Eovaldi and because Cole can’t seem to pitch well against the Red Sox (or the Blue Jays or Rays for that matter) and because Eovaldi has dominated the Yankees ever since leaving New York as a complete bust. Two batters and six pitches into the game, the Red Sox led 2-0 and my bad feeling had come to fruition. After 10 pitches, Cole still didn’t have an out, and the Yankees were conducting their first mound visit of the season after three batters. After four batters, the Red Sox had a 3-0 lead in what ended up being a 27-pitch first for the Yankees’ “ace.”

3. After the game, Cole didn’t use the “sick my stomach” line he used after getting lit up and thoroughly embarrassed in the last game the 2021 Yankees played, but I was sick to mine. Cole had been awful again against the Red Sox (4 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 1 HR), and this wasn’t a ‘Hey, it’s the first game of the season and the first of 33 starts for him’ performance, this was the latest example in a trend of his inability to beat the Yankees’ direct competition for the AL East.

Cole might not have been pitching with a hamstring injury like he was in October, but he did have to deal with the extenuating circumstance of having his start delayed by four minutes because of the Opening Day ceremonies.

“The festivities got a little away from schedule,” Cole said as an excuse for his first-inning meltdown.

It’s not quite the cringe-worthy, humiliating kind-of line Brian Cashman gave us all a few weeks ago when he essentially said the Yankees won the 2017 World Series, but it’s embarrassing for someone of Cole’s stature to act like a four-minute delay was the reason he walked Kike Hernandez on four pitches and then gave up three straight hard-hit balls with exit velocities of 101.4, 111.8 and 91.9 mph.

4. Thankfully, Cole’s disturbing first inning didn’t sink the Yankees’ day. Anthony Rizzo launched an important two-run home run in the bottom of the first to get the Yankees on the board in their eventual comeback, walk-off win. The next day he hit another two-run home run in another Yankees’ comeback win, and on Sunday night, it was his two-run single that tied the game in the fourth. Rizzo finished the series 3-for-10 with two home runs, 6 RBIs and three walks. He was easily the Yankees’ best position player over the weekend.

When the Yankees re-signed Rizzo, I wrote Anthony Rizzo Is Not Freddie Freeman. And it’s true, he’s not. I wanted Freeman because he’s the better player and because Rizzo was coming off the worst season of his career since his rookie season nine years ago, and players in their 30s don’t usually turn their performance trajectory around once it starts to head south. (At least not since the ’90s and early 2000s when there was a way to do so.

5. Giancarlo Stanton was the other position player star of the weekend, homering on both Friday and Saturday and becoming the first Yankee to homer in six straight games against the Red Sox. He has been a different player since the start of last season, and that’s because he has been a healthy player since the start of last season. In 2018, he played the majority of the season through a hamstring injury, in 2019, he barely played, and in 2020, it was more of the same from 2019. But since last year, the Stanton I thought the Yankees were trading for back before 2018 has been available and locked in. (Except for that swing on a pitch from Hansel Robles on Opening Day that bounced before the plate.)

6. For as good as Rizzo and Stanton were in the first three games of the season, the Yankees’ bullpen was the collective MVP of the series. Here’s their line: 18.2 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 9 BB, 19 K, 1 HR, 0.96 ERA, 0.803 WHIP. That’s simply ridiculous. That kind of line against the Red Sox’ offense shouldn’t be possible. It’s possible because this is the best Yankees’ bullpen ever.

I’m not just saying that because they pitched six hitless innings on Saturday and allowed one hit in 5 2/3 innings on Sunday. I say it because every option out of the pen is trustworthy. The Yankees don’t have to exhaust Chad Green and Jonathan Loaisiga because they have Clay Holmes and Miguel Castro and Lucas Luetge. They don’t have to always turn to those four because they have Michael King and Wandy Peralta. They have their top pitching prospecting in Clarke Schmidt out there (who was impressive on Sunday), I think everyone liked what they saw out of Ron Marinaccio’s horizontal break on his slider and we’re still waiting for JP Sears to make his debut. There’s no Nick Nelson or Brooks Kriske. Albert Abreu is gone. Brody Koerner and Justin Wilson aren’t coming into games. The Yankees’ bullpen is the deepest its ever been with reliable arms.

7. Rizzo and Stanton were great, the bullpen was outstanding and even Aaron Boone did his job well. Yes, that’s a real sentence I just wrote. Opening Day was the best managerial job he has ever done in a single game between his lineup decisions (playing DJ LeMahieu over Gleyber Torres and batting LeMahieu fifth), the order of his bullpen choices and his call to pinch hit Torres for Kyle Higashioka in the 10th. Don’t get me wrong, all of these decisions were simple and logical, but nothing comes easy to Boone, so when he does so many things right in a single day, it’s remarkable and worth praising. Boone had many chances to screw up Friday’s game and he never did.

On Saturday, he had another good game. Yes, two consecutive games of competent managing from a major-league manager. It’s been a long time since Yankees fans have experienced that. But on Sunday, Boone showed he hasn’t completely evolved into making the logical decision every time.

On Sunday, Boone sat LeMahieu. He sat his Gold Glove-winning second baseman, who hit a game-tying, eighth-inning home run on Friday, so that he could play both Torre and Aaron Hicks. A flat-out irresponsible choice for the third game of the season against a division opponent.

Prior to Opening Day, Boone spoke at length about how hard the decision was to play LeMahieu over Torres, as if he were choosing between two equal players and not the Yankees’ 2019-2020 MVP and a player who has ruined what was once a promising career. He said Torres “understood” the decision, which I’m glad an incapable defender with a .703 OPS over his last 676 plate appearances can “understand” why he’s not in the lineup. But two days later, Torres was in over LeMahieu.

8. This is going to be a constant problem this season. The Yankees’ obsession with load management and unnecessary rest (a strategy that has produced zero World Series appearances in 12-going-on-13 years) coupled with them having too many players for not enough lineup spots is going to be a daily theme. It’s not that they have too many “good” players for not enough lineup spots, they just have too many players they feel are worthy of everyday at-bats. No one more than Hicks.

The Hicks’ contract extension was a foolish mistake the day it was offered, and has grown into a regrettable decision, as Hicks entered 2021 having played in 62 percent of the Yankees’ games since the start of 2019. It’s not the money that’s the problem in ways that seven-year deals for players into their late-30s is normally a problem, since it was $70 million over seven years (and because I don’t care about the money since it’s not my money), but it is the money that’s the problem because it’s not enough money. It’s not enough money in that the Yankees don’t have to justify playing Hicks every day for a return on their investment, so Hicks can just linger on the roster for THREE MORE YEARS AFTER THIS SEASON and cause lineup chaos.

The crowded lineup is an issue because the Yankees have made it an issue. Rather than commit to playing Stanton in the outfield regularly and making Hicks the fourth outfielder, they go out of their way to clog up the DH spot with Stanton, forcing Hicks into the outfield and then forcing an infielder to the bench, and it seems like the Yankees are now going to rest an infielder everyday because of this. Hicks as a two-days-a-week player is fine with me. Hicks every day and forcing a better bat to the bench is not fine.

9. You can bet the house a regular (probably Josh Donaldson) will be on the bench in Monday’s series opener against Blue Jays and at some point in the series you will likely see Stanton (who mostly only bats) or Aaron Judge on the bench because it’s too many baseball games in a row for the Yankees’ best two hitters.

Judge needs to play. He needs to play because he’s the Yankees’ best player and the lineup’s most important hitter. And now he needs to play because he has to accumulate enough stats to try to top the $30.5 average annual salary he turned down prior to Opening Day.

I don’t know if Judge thinks he’s younger than he is, thinks he’s less injury prone than he is or think he’s the best player in baseball, but the offer the Yankees extended to him was more than fair. When reports came out he rejected an extension, I assumed he turned down like six years and $150 million. But seven years at $30.5 million per season? It’s likely he regrets that. For him to say he’s “disappointed” is off-putting. He’s disappointed he’s inaccurately valuing his own worth and turned down nearly a quarter of a billion dollars?

When Bryce Harper hit free agency, he was 26 years old, a .279/.388/.512 hitter who had won Rookie of the Year, and MVP, a Silver Slugger and was a six-time All-Star. He had only missed 17 percent of the games in his career to that point. He received 13 years and $330 million.

When Mookie Betts got traded by the Red Sox and extended by the Dodgers, he was 27 years old, a .301/.374/.519 hitter who had won an MVP, four Gold Gloves, three Silver Sluggers and was a four-time All-Star. He had only missed eight percent of the games in his career to that point. he received 12 year and $365 million.

Judge is going to be 30 in two weeks. When his new contract begins, he will a few weeks shy of 31. He entered this season as a .276/.386/.554 hitter who won Rookie of the Year and two Silver Sluggers and was a three-time All-Star. He has missed 24 percent of the games in his career from his major-league debut through the end of 2021.

If it’s true that Judge is seeking a nine- or 10-year-deal worth more annually than Mike Trout then good luck to him. Judge spent a good amount of his 20s on the injured list and we are expected to believe he will be healthier with age. Is he a fine wine? No, he’s the biggest everyday player in major-league history for which there’s no comparison as to how he will age, and he wants more annual money than arguably the best player in the history of the sport. I like 30-year-old Judge hitting second (or third like he did on Sunday) in the Yankees’s lineup. I will probably like 31-year-old Judge through 34-year-old Judge doing the same. But 39-year-old Judge and 40-year-old Judge making somewhere around $37 million per year and likely playing sparingly? No thanks.

10. I’m happy with the weekend, but I could be happier. I’m more content than anything since it was another missed opportunity from a franchise that has missed every opportunity in the front office and on the field in recent seasons.

There’s no off day on Monday, and there’s no break in the opponent either as the Yankees host the Blue Jays for the next four days. The Blue Jays entered the weekend as the odds-on favorite to win the American League, mostly because of their deep and vaunted lineup, and then they went out and scored 20 runs over the weekend. The good news is they gave up 23 runs. I don’t think the gap between the Blue Jays and Yankees is large, and there might not be a gap at all. We’ll start to find out on Monday night.

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